LOS ANGELES — Melissa Leo is conflicted. Her latest film, “The Fighter,” in which she costars opposite Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in a performance that’s destined to earn her a second Oscar nomination, has her all knotted up with different emotions.
At once, the 50-year-old actress, who plays mother, manager and protector Alice Ward, is extremely proud of the movie. “In my scope of films, ‘The Fighter’ is, without a doubt, the greatest film I’ve ever been in.” Yet, when asked if the tough love that director David O. Russell meted out on the set led to a performance she’s happy with, the actress pauses, and diplomatically responds, “I’m going to give you a ‘no comment’ on that.”
Leo, who’s dining on a very un-actressy breakfast of poached eggs, bacon and potatoes at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, won’t elaborate on her answer, but she does say that Russell’s unorthodox way of asking for something — and occasionally yelling at actors while they are in the middle of a scene — is not all that beneficial.
“In my humble opinion, I think it happens more often than it needs to with David,” Leo says. “There are all kinds of ways (to direct). Getting angry that somebody is not doing what you want is not helpful.”
Regardless of the complexity of her relationship with Russell — whom she calls brilliant — Leo has delivered a layered, riveting performance as the overbearing matriarch who turns her sons’ boxing prowess into the family’s meal ticket. Leo’s auburn-hued bohemian self disappeared completely in “The Fighter,” hidden within a fabulous frosted ‘80s hairdo, fake teeth and some epic cropped jackets and tight jeans. Also gone is Leo’s objectivity toward the real-life woman, who often put the needs of one son, the crack-addled boxing has-been Dicky Eklund (Bale), ahead of the other, younger boxing upstart, Micky Ward (Wahlberg), with one last chance at glory.
“Do you know who arranged the fight for Sugar Ray Leonard and her son (Eklund)?” asks Leo, her voice starting to rise. “It was Alice. Yes, deeply, hugely amazing. You’ve got to be a little pushy if you’re a dude in the fight game. God forgive her. She made a life for them all.”
Leo has made her own life in the fickle world that is Hollywood. A working actress since the mid-‘80s, when she costarred on “All My Children,” she spent many years in television, working most prominently as a regular in David Simon’s “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The film community began noticing Leo after her performance in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s ensemble drama “21 Grams.” But she hit the big time with her Oscar nomination for 2009’s “Frozen River.” “By the time I shot ‘Frozen River,’ there was some forward momentum in this ol’ career already,” Leo says. “‘21 Grams’ made an enormous difference, and people had started to hire me.”
Nowadays, Leo grapples with a new challenge: turning work down. After “Frozen River,” this thoughtful, reflective actress worked at a rapid clip, shooting five movies on top of each other, including Jake Scott’s “Welcome to the Rileys” and Tony Goldwyn’s Oscar bait “Conviction,” in addition to signing on to Simon’s HBO series “Treme,” which is now shooting its second season in New Orleans. “I didn’t choose any of these projects that came along,” Leo says. “Now I’m finding it might be a good idea, even if it’s not up against another project, to refuse, graciously.”
But turning down acting jobs seems to go against Leo’s exuberant personality. Clearly, she had a challenging time with Russell on set, but she says she would be willing to work with the sometimes difficult auteur again. “In my best world, yes we would, and yes, he and I could grow in that experience.”
Leo, wearing simple pants and a beige sweater with a camisole peeking out underneath, is the kind of person who uses the word “yummy” to describe Drew Barrymore, an actress she’s never met but admires greatly. She speaks of the giant crush she would have had on Dicky Eklund “if it wasn’t incestuous,” and she calls her costar Brian Geraghty (“The Hurt Locker”) of her upcoming film “Seven Days in Utopia” “delumptious.”
Although Leo goes deep into her roles (she created an entire back story on Alice down to a signature style of underwear), she is not a cinephile. She recently embarrassed herself in front of Tim Robbins when she asked the actor-director, who was in New Orleans to helm a “Treme” episode, if he’d ever directed before.
She does make a point of watching her own work, though, and not in a “big-headed, diva actress way” but rather to gain some insight. “I used to do this big bug-eye thing when a scene really meant something. I’ve learned, I hope, to take that out of my work. An actor who feels insecure, or uncomfortable, about watching themselves is missing out on a wealth of information.”
One thing she has stopped worrying about is whether she’ll get another job. She used to give herself an “out date” when she’d pursue something else if she didn’t get work by a deadline she’d set. The date never came. “Within five years, it was a silly game to play. I was going to work. Whether I was going to get paid was another question. But I didn’t seem to mind that.”
And what would Leo have done had that out date been realized?
“Well, I always wanted to try heroin,” she says with a smile. “Honestly, I wasn’t much good at anything else.”