RT Interview: Oscar Nominee Melissa Leo

The star of Frozen River talks about finding the perfect role.

by | February 13, 2009 | Comments


Melissa Leo

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.

[rtimage]MapID=1194872&MapTypeID=2&photo=1&legacy=1[/rtimage]

Rotten Tomatoes: Frozen River is a pretty grim film, but times are pretty grim right now. Do you think, given the current economic climate, there are going to be more personal or intimate stories like this film?

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!

You live in upstate New York, right?

ML: I live in what New York City people would call upstate New York. And I lived in Southeastern Vermont growing up.

Did this film feel true to you, given that you’ve lived in places that share similarities with the setting of Frozen River?

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

One of the issues that Frozen River raises is the nature of illegal immigration, which continues to be hotly debated in this country.

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.

What about this character appealed to you when you first saw the script?

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.

[rtimage]MapID=1194872&MapTypeID=2&photo=5&legacy=1[/rtimage]

It’s a real character, too. You see that she has her faults, but she’s trying to do the right thing under hard circumstances.

ML: Yes. A very well-rounded, complete character who’s not all good or all bad, but very human.

Do you think it’s difficult to find characters like that in contemporary movies or television?

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.

What are your favorite movies?

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!

[rtimage]MapID=1194872&MapTypeID=2&photo=12&legacy=1[/rtimage]

What’s next for you?

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.

When you take a role, do you ever think, “This might get me some recognition, awards-wise?”

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.

What do you think of your chances on Oscar night?

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.

Tag Cloud

Turner Classic Movies Red Carpet DC Universe ID women saw TruTV Crunchyroll obituary Elton John Paramount Network war Disney scene in color spy thriller PBS Hollywood Foreign Press Association boxing lord of the rings tv talk Baby Yoda movies Marvel telelvision international criterion space Nominations name the review Superheroe BBC America satire book 93rd Oscars 79th Golden Globes Awards blaxploitation 73rd Emmy Awards Arrowverse king kong monster movies target scene in color TCA Winter 2020 Disney Channel Nat Geo Biopics DC streaming service Reality Competition SXSW Premiere Dates Columbia Pictures Mudbound series Universal revenge anthology political drama TIFF art house travel YouTube a nightmare on elm street 007 Paramount Pictures South by Southwest Film Festival cancelled hispanic heritage month Netflix FOX Fargo biography hollywood nature technology TV fast and furious Funimation science fiction 71st Emmy Awards CBS All Access zero dark thirty FXX Toys The CW Photos Adult Swim Syfy TCA Awards TV movies Rocketman asian-american Sundance Now Quiz Mary poppins Martial Arts Wes Anderson independent Black Mirror IFC Song of Ice and Fire biopic sitcom Trailer Election mission: impossible SundanceTV First Reviews crossover zombies royal family scene in color series comics witnail USA Network crime drama popular Pop TV basketball BET Awards historical drama 2021 mcc BBC One period drama ABC Signature psycho target zombie new star wars movies renewed TV shows San Diego Comic-Con award winner NBA TV Land marvel comics Marathons BET sports cars Disney streaming service Black History Month Grammys versus Christmas jurassic park TV renewals rt archives Mary Poppins Returns finale james bond prank robots Classic Film Endgame vs. worst Pixar critics slasher Captain marvel dexter Nickelodeon cartoon Britbox medical drama Reality E! batman breaking bad news films Sundance Ovation AMC screen actors guild Academy Awards screenings quibi BAFTA Pirates A24 Amazon pirates of the caribbean unscripted teaser Indigenous japanese Peacock dc police drama adenture Universal Pictures stoner spanish Spring TV mob stop motion Film Festival Lucasfilm Esquire supernatural Oscars CMT romantic comedy Best and Worst casting halloween Hallmark comic classics Holidays VOD archives Ellie Kemper kaiju television Amazon Prime Video strong female leads richard e. Grant Marvel Television elevated horror die hard talk show Writers Guild of America scary hidden camera MSNBC Sundance TV Video Games Masterpiece Women's History Month HBO Go Pet Sematary Travel Channel Music Showtime Lifetime Christmas movies Polls and Games FX Schedule Holiday Dark Horse Comics crime thriller OneApp cults Best Actor 2017 Chernobyl football Best Actress Television Academy kids comiccon binge scorecard Horror Certified Fresh Apple TV+ Amazon Studios Emmys The Arrangement Marvel Studios New York Comic Con GoT halloween tv RT History GIFs Trophy Talk RT21 TCA 2017 obi wan animated dreamworks Cosplay book adaptation Comedy Central japan Musical Fall TV Thanksgiving X-Men comic book movie Tokyo Olympics deadpool crime Tomatazos serial killer Tags: Comedy Shudder reboot live event HBO Max Sneak Peek foreign facebook high school psychological thriller cooking Broadway spinoff Sci-Fi Year in Review Winter TV TV One ITV VICE social media Fantasy Paramount nfl APB Winners Creative Arts Emmys aliens documentaries 4/20 spider-verse trophy Teen PaleyFest based on movie docudrama Walt Disney Pictures 45 action-comedy Country golden globes Geeked Week Star Wars Celebration Crackle cancelled TV shows dogs franchise Opinion Mystery aapi 94th Oscars toronto LGBT Warner Bros. Sony Pictures comic book movies parents Countdown genre Podcast AMC Plus DirecTV venice black live action DC Comics hist YouTube Premium Focus Features sequel Shondaland anime streamig The Walt Disney Company mockumentary summer preview australia Disney+ Disney Plus Comics on TV National Geographic 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Hallmark Christmas movies godzilla justice league latino Calendar spain streaming critic resources Rom-Com green book Exclusive Video Apple indie cats Tumblr politics A&E rotten know your critic docuseries dramedy Western scene in color film series Valentine's Day Avengers Netflix Christmas movies twilight Pride Month TBS laika dark Oscar Super Bowl thriller ABC Family rt labs critics edition game of thrones king arthur all-time marvel cinematic universe The Witch Turner suspense Infographic adaptation diversity Paramount Plus Mindy Kaling The Academy comedies WarnerMedia what to watch Family video Food Network Spectrum Originals new york E3 Lionsgate Star Trek best 24 frames Best Picture heist movie vampires remakes Emmy Nominations legend Hear Us Out Heroines superman cancelled television 2016 Comic-Con@Home 2021 Box Office festivals Best Director YA reviews leaderboard Pop 72 Emmy Awards new zealand ghosts werewolf Set visit blockbuster Alien USA Epix Neflix Awards south america golden globe awards SDCC ViacomCBS Pacific Islander Apple TV Plus DGA emmy awards WGN HBO GLAAD President LGBTQ 1990s Cartoon Network 99% Rock Image Comics worst movies sag awards free movies History 2019 TLC interviews streaming movies french superhero summer TV preview Anna Paquin CBS Interview black comedy YouTube Red boxoffice adventure Logo Character Guide feel good chucky Rocky sopranos Bravo singing competition Instagram Live comic books canceled Drama Comic Book discovery TCM jamie lee curtis wonder woman Spike NBC MTV romance stand-up comedy spanish language doctor who 20th Century Fox harry potter 2015 broadcast Native fresh Kids & Family NYCC Sony christmas movies Binge Guide indiana jones Superheroes American Society of Cinematographers natural history cancelled TV series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina true crime children's TV HFPA Lifetime Tubi ESPN See It Skip It Freeform Prime Video First Look documentary Action movie Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Vudu trailers BBC Film olympics 21st Century Fox cops Mary Tyler Moore ratings game show Legendary IFC Films Fox Searchlight ABC Cannes TCA TNT transformers posters Disney Plus FX on Hulu Hulu Watching Series Ghostbusters 2018 disaster Star Wars canceled TV shows rt labs Comedy festival video on demand debate blockbusters gangster composers rom-coms SXSW 2022 miniseries dceu universal monsters sequels Brie Larson directors The Purge CNN 90s razzies scary movies Amazon Prime Animation young adult summer TV Tarantino IMDb TV hispanic mutant italian Awards Tour Summer PlayStation child's play spider-man kong OWN Acorn TV nbcuniversal Fox News theme song Stephen King concert cinemax Musicals MGM CW Seed Trivia slashers The Walking Dead joker rotten movies we love Starz VH1 MCU Extras Discovery Channel 2020 dragons El Rey Television Critics Association toy story