Mama's Gun: Melissa Leo Works Hard for the Money

PopMatters talks to Melissa Leo about her Academy Award nominated work in Frozen River and one of our top performance picks this time around, as well as her appearance in HBO's Treme.

Oscar Nomination and HBO

You were nominated as Best Actress at the Academy Awards for Frozen River and won the Independent Spirit Award, what was that whole campaigning process like? It looks like it can get really tough...

It's quite well-perceived. I think a lot of people are so caught up in the excitement of the awards that the perception that its an actual campaign is now sort of not so noticed. I had learned with 21 Grams, and was invited, along with Sony, to hire a publicist to see about mounting a campaign for that one that didn't get all that far -- except my name on a few nominations lists. So, I was quite prepared and happy that Sony thought the film was good enough to run with the other very fine films of that year for Academy consideration.

It is, its a lot of hard work. I love hard work. If you ask me about the shooting Frozen River I will tell you fairy stories about how delightful it was, because it was to me, but the hard work of presenting oneself... I am an actor who has not been asked to present myself that often in my career... To get lost in the character and to not be recognized from one character to the other is my joy and my pleasure (laughing). To be asked to walk as myself in front of people, with quite a costume on (laughing) was complicated, but the fun and the honor are so not lost on me. So, I had as good a time with [the campaign] as I possibly could and just had a pretty good time with it. But its a bizarre and strange world (laughing)

I'm sure it was probably also rewarding to have Courtney Hunt going to all of these events with you as well, being honored for her writing, which is excellent...

[I was] So proud, throughout all of it. All of the recognition that the film got throughout the world, awards were given to myself and the film and I'm just so proud. Now, a couple of years later, people ask about it and say 'oh, I'm sorry to be asking about this again' but I will talk about that movie for the rest of my life! It was an extraordinary event in film history, not only in my own history, an extraordinary event! The strength of the film and the filmmaker and her script is the ground on which that house was built.

One of the recurring themes of this series' interviews has been age in relation to gender. What kinds of discrimination do you think still exist for seasoned female actors in the business? Have you observed any changes, positive or negative during your acting career?

I really choose to opt to not be a member of the club that complains. And the fact of the matter is that there have been extraordinary roles written for women of all ages, since the beginning of time. There was a period in society's history where they didn't let women on the stage, but that's changed and now we can play those roles written for men, originally. So, I shy away from things that have a big content of older men getting hooked up happily with a younger woman. I think there have been enough of those stories told and I don't want to participate in that. I find in my 50th year -- I'm 49 and will be 50 in September -- I'm working more than I ever have, and with more varied roles than I, with a very varied career, have ever seen. I think it comes and it goes. I think there's times where there's collective thought that occurs even in the great big show biz industry. The kind of ebbs and flows of characters we see from both men and women and the kinds of stories we see being told. I encourage actors of all genders to just keep on acting and by doing so, you make the roles available.

I interviewed Pam Grier for this series as well and in her book she talks about using the Stanislavsky Method quite extensively, and as I understand it, this is also one of the ways you work?

I was trained at SUNY Purchase by Joan Potter in Method acting, which is the American name for what was brought over from Russia. I don't know where I stand in the world acting blah blah blah today but my opinion on it is that Method acting shows up in many different forms in the world today. If an actor has technique that is incorporated into the work they do, in other words if an actor understands the work, they are then a Method actor. They are using a “method.” Whether it is the “method” that was developed by Uta Hagen or it was the “method” that was developed by Lee Strasberg at the Actor's Studio. All of those arguments about it, its time to put those arguments about “naming” acting down and begin to recognize that there really are two kinds of actors, and one is not necessarily better than the other. Maybe [one is] better suited to different projects but there are actors who just kind of show up and learn the lines and are directed, and there are actors who show up with a certain amount of work that they have done, are prepared to do, and continue to do while the film is being made. That's a Method actor in my opinion.

What can you tell me about your involvement with HBO's Treme, set in Louisiana?

I was first interested in it because it was my old friend David Simon, the originator of the original idea for the Homicide: Life on the Street television show. He called up and I had been thinking for several months that I would be very interested in getting on some kind of national television. I don't know that I named any specific corporations to be involved with, but I very much wanted to get back, regularly, on television. Although there's a lot of people within the press and the industry who know who I am and what I do, there's not a sort of general public knowledge of me if you get, you know, anymore than a few feet away from me (laughing). So, television is a powerful, powerful tool and I wanted very much the opportunity to use that tool to get better recognition. I never could have dreamt up such a great, effing job! Oh my God! Never, ever.

The company I work for is an incredible and curious storytelling company and they are coupled with HBO, who is doing something unique and unusual in television with the medium of film. Putting the cost of it up on the screen, as we say. The cost-cutting measures that HBO is known for are, in my opinion, are smart cost-cutting measures. Its a joy to work for that corporations thus far, its just been great. To be doing all of that and getting all that pleasure and satisfaction from my work and to be doing it all in the state of Louisiana, which is so down-trodden and in such a bad state of affairs, to be doing something that is actually speaking about the heart of the issues down there... Its not bashing people over the head with it, in fact [its] entertaining people with the joys and pains of Louisiana. I hope the joy in my voice can give expression to answer your question. I cannot find the words...what a great effing job.

That sounds amazing! I don't have cable, but I look forward to marathoning it one day soon!

That's another great thing about HBO. It costs a lot of money to get into your home and I understand that. I don't encourage people, especially in these times of not having any money, to go out and order HBO. I'm sorry, guys! I'm sorry! (laughing) I really don't. Because HBO does this incredibly wonderful thing these days, where we have aired on a Sunday night and throughout the week the show is available at your request, for free, on HBO. So, you go and you find a bar one afternoon when you have an hour off from work and you ask them to put on Treme on the HBO channel!

Well, that sounds like a plan!

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Melissa Leo can next be seen on the big screen opposite some heavy-hitting co-stars: James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart in the Sundance hit Welcome to the Rileys, Hilary Swank in Conviction, and Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams in David O'Russell's The Fighter, all due this fall. After that, she will appear in a supporting role in writer-director Todd Haynes' hotly-anticipated mini-series re-imagining of the classic Joan Crawford star vehicle Mildred Pierce, which is being produced by Christine Vachon for HBO. Co-stars include Guy Pearce, Kate Winslet, Mare Winningham, and Evan Rachel Wood; with cinematography by one of the true modern greats, Edward Lachman (Haynes' Far from Heaven and Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion). Matt Mazur can soon be seen spending a lot more time in bars watching HBO.

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