‘Prisoners’: Melissa Leo on her dramatic transformation

With her stringy gray wig, elastic-waisted jeans, frumpy sweater and thick glasses, Melissa Leo is barely recognizable as the middle-aged loner Holly Jones in the recent kidnapping drama “Prisoners.” She disappears so fully into the role that it’s almost hard to imagine she nearly passed on the film.

Speaking at the Envelope Screening Series, Leo discussed why she hesitated to take on the role, what finally convinced her and how she approached her character.

Leo said her first reaction to the “Prisoners” screenplay was: “Well, it’s a fascinating and well-written script, but no thank you.” Pressed further, she watched director Denis Villeneuve’s film “Incendies,” was impressed, and then agreed to meet with him.

Villeneuve, Leo said, “understood that I was fearful. ... I was hesitant -- do we need to make a movie about children being abducted at all? And he saw that point, and he didn’t veer from that point and try and convince me somehow. I felt from him he saw something much deeper. And now I’ve seen the film, and it’s a film about so much more than simply the abduction of them. It’s about human behavior in extreme conditions.”


VIDEO: ‘Prisoners’ cast and crew discuss film

Leo also spoke about inhabiting the role of Holly. “I like a character who’s a ways away from me,” she said. “I like to reach and find her and bring her to me. I know somewhere I always come along; that’s the innate difficulty for an actor. In the end, you are always yourself in all the roles. But with Holly, I felt so compelled to disguise myself as her.”

While she did disguise herself, Leo said she wasn’t necessarily trying to distance herself from an evil character.

“What she does is undoubtedly evil,” Leo said, “but I think that it’s really amazing that by the end of the story you have in fact heard all of Holly’s story and you cannot just say, ‘Oh she’s evil.’ That in fact she too had reasons. So I think it’s more to do with incredibly difficult circumstances and who she was in her foundation to begin with.”

For more from the cast and crew of “Prisoners,” watch the video above and check back for more highlights.


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