Veteran character actress Melissa Leo may not be a household name, but with more than 70 film and television roles to her credit, she’s built an impressive resume of supporting roles. With Frozen River, Leo has hit the big time, snagging a Best Acress Oscar nomination for her lead performance.
In Frozen River (out this week on DVD), Leo plays Ray, a financially insecure woman that finds herself in dire straits after her gambling-addicted husband has run off with a substantial amount of the family’s capital. With two boys to feed, things look bad for Ray, until she finds herself a lucrative (if illicit) gig: transporting illegal workers into the U.S. through Native American land with the help of the equally desperate Lila (Misty Upham) — who has a troubled family life of her own.
Though Frozen River may not sound like a blissful night of escapist cinema, keen observations about the lives of its blue collar characters are especially timely in this new era of economic crisis (writer/director Courtney Hunt is herself up for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay). And at the center of Frozen River is Leo, whose performance as a woman on the brink was too powerful for the Academy to ignore. We spoke with Leo about her experiences on Frozen River, her search for good roles, and her chances on Oscar night.
Melissa Leo: First of all, I want to make sure that we make very clear that Frozen River is anything but a grim film. It’s got some grim subject matter, and people living below the poverty line isn’t exactly fodder for happy stuff. But it is not a grim film. I think it is a truthful and a blatantly honest film, and do I think people want truth in their films? Yes. Absolutely. I think they’ve always wanted it. I think when they fired me from Homicide years ago because I was too real, that the people missed me!
ML: I live in what New York City people would call upstate New York. And I lived in Southeastern Vermont growing up.
ML: Yes, very, very much so. And I think having gone to school with many kids who grew up in a trailer, and visiting them there in the cold winter afternoons, and keeping our parkas on while we played inside… There was definitely a lot of information that came from that came with me and my life in Ulster County, which is a very diverse — economically speaking — area. Also, I lived many years ago out in Oklahoma, and for some of that time I lived on reservation land in some Caucasian people’s house that they rented from the rez. I saw, side by side, Indians and whites.
Next: Leo talks about inhabiting a character and her chances on Oscar night
ML: [Writer/ director] Courtney [Hunt] has to tell you what the film is attempting to say. That’s not my job. My job is to be the character that she drew, and by her directing me, to tell the tale she cares to tell. It’s a very important thing in moviemaking that I not come in and tell the filmmaker how to make the movie, or what the message should be. I only gather the message after I’ve seen the movie put together, because Ray’s not about messages, she’s about feedin’ the kids! On the immigration issue, what it makes me think about is that I am the ancestor of immigrants to this country. I suspect I am on the phone with the ancestor of an immigrant to this country. And when you really get thinking about it, in ol’ foot-travel days long, long ago, the Indians traveled into this country, from what I understand! So we all came to America [mimics West Side Story inflection]. My line of immigrants and borders personally is probably closer to Lila than Ray.
ML: The role, the role, the role. I saw that it was a gripping story, I saw that it had adventure in it, I saw that it had a very interesting relationship between two women in it. But what I saw was a female character on the page standing on her own two feet. Even when I played a sergeant on television [on Homicide], I ended up being scripted as somebody else’s partner. It happens all the time — somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife. Ray had children, and she had a husband who wasn’t there, but it’s her story. That was what made me call Courtney up. I wanted to play that character in that story.
ML: Yes. A very well-rounded, complete character who’s not all good or all bad, but very human.
ML: I think that for women, it’s difficult to find it. I think that sometimes us female actors have to not tell the director what movie to make, but point out where they’re not letting the women be present in an equal way to the men in the story. I hate going, “Oh, there are no good women’s roles.” C’mon, man, from the beginning of time… have you seen any good Greek plays? So it’s not about the women’s roles, it’s more about the role of women.
ML: This is a harder question for me than you might imagine. I’m not much of a movie watcher. What comes to my mind is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I think it’s a beautiful tale of hopefulness. I watched it when I was doing some work on a role that I never actually played of a transgendered [person], a man who becomes a woman over the course of the film and tries to keep intact his family his relationship with his wife as he becomes a woman. I was quite intrigued with the whole transgendered world. For me, Hedwig is a film that embodies the hope of humanity. Its message about love, and the reason we seek one another is so beautiful. I think that transgendered people have in them this necessity to be who they are, not who one might think they are. I think that’s the key to the world’s happiness. I don’t watch much, because when I watch [movies], they really get me!
ML: I’m talking with many people about many ideas right now. I’m really hoping that the energy behind all this would help me realize a beautiful script I have in which I get to play Bette Davis, I hope, I hope, I hope. We’re talking with Showtime about a women’s prison show. So a lot of talk right now, and a lot in the can from last year and the year prior that will be coming out.
ML: Of the 70 film and TV things I’ve done, I’ve said after everything I’ve done, “Oh, this will get me another job.” That’s about as far as I’d go, because that was the world that I knew.
ML: Oh, I wouldn’t put any money on me, for God’s sake. That would be a silly waste of time and energy. I think it’s an incredible array of ladies there, and I go on the 22nd without any expectation of bringing hardware home. I’m delighted to be invited, and I can’t wait to applaud when one of those other four go up and I get to hear their pretty speech!
I have a lot of gratitude. I have a lot of emails telling me how deserved it is that I don’t feel I need to shun and say, “oh, no no.” I can feel comfortable and welcomed by the Academy and its members. It is quite awesome in that it doesn’t feel like more that I can swallow, but [it’s] a very lovely helping.
Read more on Frozen River here.