Melissa Leo talks about grit and glamour

"I choose to play my women in a whole and complete way,” says Oscar winner Melissa Leo, who can be seen in the indie "Francine."
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
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Oscar winner Melissa Leo plays the title role in “Francine,” a new independent film about an ex-convict who can only deeply relate to animals. She also costars as a civil rights lawyer in “Treme,” HBO’s series about post-Katrina New Orleans, now in its third season. Leo, who earned an Oscar in 2011 for her performance in “The Fighter,” talks about the surprising postscript to winning the entertainment industry’s top award.

What attracted you to “Francine”?

Here’s an actor’s answer for you: really the notion to carry the film, to be the subject of the film, the lead. And the notion of working without a lot of dialogue, of being somebody who’s existing within their own reality, was fascinating to me as an actor.


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Melissa Leo: In the Sunday Conversation with Melissa Leo in the Oct. 28 Calendar section, the actress referred to Bill Murray as having directed the film “A Razor’s Edge.” The title of the 1984 film was “The Razor’s Edge,” and though Murray starred in the movie, it was directed by John Byrum. —

How many films have you made in which you’ve been the lead character?

I think truly the leading character in a film, maybe half a dozen over the years.

Even after an Oscar?

I would say quite pointedly after an Oscar. I don’t think I’ve played a single lead since I won an Oscar, nor have I been offered one.

How do you interpret that?

That the world is a great big place, and not everybody knows who Melissa Leo is. And people who put a lot of money into film are not yet interested in risking their money on me.


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Some actresses take on an occasional role playing a struggling blue-collar woman who doesn’t wear makeup so that they’ll be taken seriously as an actor, and then they go back to their glamorous world. But you seem to gravitate to these roles, not just in “Francine” but also in “The Fighter” and “Frozen River.” Your “Treme” character is a lawyer, but she’s also comfortable in those gritty circles.

The gritty roles are not something I choose. It’s more to do with what gets offered to me. For me, acting is not really about glamour. It’s about portraying humans, characters, and so my first investment is in that character. And if we’re talking about not glamour but beauty, I think in films like “Frozen River,” although you see me in pretty hard shape, I think there are frames in that film where I have never been so beautiful in my life. I think it’s misguided of humankind that glamour, coupled with the portrayal of human beings, has become so synonymous. It’s dangerous to all of us. And I choose to play my women in a whole and complete way.

As wonderful an attorney as Toni Bernette is, she’s a god-awful mother. She wasn’t a terrific wife. So the dark and the light in human beings is of much more interest to me than that I look spectacular. I can say that I’ve had a great deal of fun getting glamorous to go to openings and red carpets and things like that, and examining that side of my character.

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You must have felt there was a need to be seen that way because you had glamour shots taken of you for the Hollywood trade ads you bought before you won your Oscar.


That was me saying, not only in terms of the Oscar, but to the town in general that Melissa Leo can do that. And here I am in Bob Zemeckis’ “Flight,” playing a very put-together lady. Maybe to some small degree, it might have worked. It was me saying to the industry, perhaps I can do this as well. And I’m certainly willing to. I have a reputation that my first question to an agent when he tells me about a job offer is, “Does she live in a trailer?” I don’t look for that. That finds me.

How do you feel about plastic surgery? Do you think it would expand or limit your options?

I choose not to do that because I have a great fear that it would limit my options enormously. And I think that surgery is a pretty serious undertaking, so there’s the notion of any voluntary non-emergency surgery is, well, let’s not get into that.

Let’s go back to Toni Bernette. Did you do research to play her?

Well, not meaning to, I suppose I did. It’s pretty much public knowledge that I went through a long and arduous court battle [with an ex-boyfriend, actor John Heard] over the custody of my son [also named John Heard]. I learned a lot about attorneys then. And I have a very close friend who’s an attorney. I studied her for many, many years. I’ve been asking her funny questions such as, do they teach you in law school to have a nervous energy outlet? Because I noticed that almost every attorney has a rubber band or a paper clip that they twirl, particularly trial lawyers. And in court they have a nervous habit, so Toni Bernette has glasses she needs to wear more and more often, and you’ll see them very often in her hand because that is the object she does that with.

I looked you up on IMDB and you have 12 projects listed between now and 2014. How many of those are actually three-dimensional?


There are a couple of films that are beautiful scripts that I do hope to be involved in when they do get financing, and there are films such as “Flight” that I had one or two days’ work on, some as many as 10 days. A lot of it is being on “Treme” these last few years and fitting work in between the season there and during the season if at all possible. And dropping in and working with astonishing people — Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough in “Oblivion” and Sam Rockwell in “A Single Shot” and Shia LaBeouf in “The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman.”

In your Golden Globe news conference for “The Fighter,” you mentioned Bill Murray having an influence on you early on. What was that about?

When Mr. Murray directed “A Razor’s Edge” a long, long time ago, I was working as a waitress in a cafe across the street from the stage door of Radio City Music Hall. And I left what became my very good friend manning the shop while I ran up to do the audition, hopefully quickly.

We probably waited a couple of hours, and finally Bill and his buddies came in from the golf course and were ready to hold the auditions. He said, “Who was here first?” And I raised my hand, went in and Mr. Murray said, “You’re much too young to do this part.” I guess he could see my face drop, and he said, “Well, just read anyway.” As I read, if memory serves, in fact with him, the energy shifted in the room. He heard a truth in my reading, and he said, “You’ve got something there,” nodding his head and smiling. “If you want to do this, you should just go do it.” I left and mulled that over and got back to the shift. My friend was livid. The boss said, “You can’t just disappear like that. If you do that again, there’s the door.” I said, “I see the door. Bye-bye.” And I walked out, and I have never since that day done anything for employment except be an actor.


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