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Melissa Leo Q&A by Jay Blotcher

For numerous residents of Ulster County, this year’s Academy Awards telecast was personal; after all, a neighbor was in the running. Stone Ridge resident Melissa Leo, who you’re just as likely to see in the local library as on the screen, was nominated for the statuette for Actress in a Leading Role. A first-time nominee, Leo is no overnight sensation; she has three decades of work under her belt, ranging from stints on the daytime drama All My Children and Miami Vice to a number of cops and robbers shows. While most filmgoers were stunned by the intensity of her role in Frozen River, Leo had been turning out performances of this caliber for some time. But as Ray Eddy, a single mother dangling with bruised dignity at the end of her rope, Leo won attention for a characteristic tough-tender role of unsettling depth and complexity. While the golden man went to Kate Winslet for her role of a former Nazi guard in The Reader, Leo’s nomination proved that honest, understated acting sometimes registers with Hollywood power brokers. It certainly did for the indie film community, who awarded her Best Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards that very same week.

In a telephone interview in late January, soon after Oscar nominations were announced, Leo—alternately tough-talking and spiritually attuned—spoke from Los Angeles about being on top of the world for the Oscar ride. While giddy about the handfuls of stardust being thrown her way, Leo makes clear that the hoopla won’t blind her sense of proportion when it’s time to go back to work tomorrow.


The buzz for Frozen River and for your performance happened so early, so quickly. Did Sony Pictures Classics launch an energetic “For your Consideration” campaign?

I would say that the day Michael [Barker] and Tom [Bernard, co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics] picked up the film, they picked it up with the intention of making a vie for the Academy Award—that that was something that was mentioned, dream-like as it sounded. [laughs] And they do such a beautiful, decent job with an independent film, of slowly rolling it out to the country and in fact around the globe now. But the journalists, the critics, the people who have written about me for 25 years, wondering why they don’t see more of me, are what pushed [the film] over the edge. It’s a really good movie, we got the best distributors for it; and you-all made it happen.

Now, you’ve been in powerful indie films before: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 21 Grams, The Ballad of Little Jo. All with powerful characters. Why did Ray Eddy touch people more than these other characters?

Look, you have to back up and differentiate something, okay? There is a lot of film that is rightfully called independent film in the world today. But a truly, fiercely, independent film, made with duct tape and wire hangers, is not what Three Burials, 21 Grams or even Suzy Amis’ film were. Okay? This was a labor of love. A tiny, itty-bitty little project that had no hope in hell of ever even being seen. The actual answer to your actual question is: I carry the film. And that’s what you journalists said: “Give her a chance. We want to see more of her.”

When the Oscar nominations were announced, was there a promise you made to yourself about how you were going to deal with the next few weeks leading up to the ceremony?

[Laughs] I wish I’d had the wherewithal to take a moment and say, Okay, this is what I’ll do with the next few weeks. [laughs] It is a whirlwind, really and truly a fantasyland that could not have been imagined. I am enjoying it enormously. It is complex and weird and wonderful.

Was there any experience during The Screen Actors Guild awards [where Leo was also nominated] that stood out for you? Something that told you, Okay, this is what I have to look forward to, when it comes to the Oscars ceremony?

It’s been a year of great rehearsals for that momentous evening at the end of next month. I began in February (2008), shortly after the great hoopla [at] Sundance, to accept both the Best Actress and the Maverick Award from a tiny little festival in Calabasas, California called The MethodFest. I have gone to San Sebastian [Spain] and won the Best Actress at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain. To Marrakech and won the best actress award. Not even knowing there was a category for it, in Marrakech, Morocco. The SAG Awards were such a wonderful party to attend, with the great outcome through the evening. And I was practicing. [laughs] On the other hand, too, but before the nomination had come, we had prepared a month ago with a dressmaker in Brentwood, you know, [who] began to build this dress that I wore on the SAG. And it’s been an incredible experience into a land I had not, as an actress, yet traveled.

Obviously, your capital has risen. You’re out in LA, I’m going to presume, taking meetings. How do you feel being viewed differently as an actress, about people viewing you with new eyes?

I’m delighted by it. I’m very happy. I don’t come to understand myself through others, but from my own understanding of myself. And I’ve spent a lot of time researching my belly button; my career has allowed that. [laughs] And so, let people think what they will: good, bad, indifferent, delightful.

Is there a sense that this Oscar nomination will bring you more say in the roles that you choose? Will meatier roles be handed to you?

Well, it will be what it comes to. There has been a lot of response to me for many, many years. Oh — wonderful audition, and they give another girl the part. And when I call up the agent and the managers, quite upset, with, why didn’t they give me the goddamn part, [they tell me], well, the name and the recognition and the one thing and the other. And as everyone has pointed out to me on the phone over this last week, my name now will include this “Academy Award nominee” and that, I hope, will get me more work and give me more choice. I hope that that continues; it’s the most delightful thing of all. It’s beyond the parties and the fancy gowns and I’m having fun with it. [It’s] the hope for the work to come in these next few years.

In the past you said that some roles have not been won because of the Kay Howard effect; you were so closely identified with your Homicide: Life on the Streets character. Do you feel you have finally outdistanced that?

Oh, I outdistanced Kay a long time ago, bless her heart. [laughs] She’s very fondly remembered by me and many, many others. I think that 21 Grams edged me into another [class] and Three Burials reminded people of who, in fact, I am: That I do more film as an actor. I’ve been doing it and I’ll continue doing it.

Did the role of Ray Eddy in Frozen River draw something out of you that you were never able to connect with before, or that you had, but were never able to share with an audience before?

Every character I have ever played has given me a gift like that. That’s why I lead such an amazing, happy life. It’s all about personal growth and about growth of the art of acting and growth of understanding the collaboration that film is. There are always things that I learn from my women.

You have the eyes and ears of a new set of Hollywood people. What roles and film genres would you like to tackle now?

Oddly enough, over the last couple of years—not knowing I’d have a pipe to put them in—I have dreamt of a couple of ideas, of a couple of scripts. One is a completed script in which I would play Bette Davis, I’m hoping to find a director for and a Joan Crawford for. There was a woman [Audrey Munson] who was a Beaux Arts sculpture model and I would really like to realize her life story on film. One of the treats in all of this—one of the many treats—was the insistence of Clint Eastwood to come up to me on the red carpet and introduce himself. And everyone is going, “Oh, you and Clint!” And I know he’s not going to act anymore, but maybe?

Tell me more about the Bette Davis project.

It’s about Bette and Joan when they were shooting Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? A beautifully written script that I’ve actually had in my hand for the last two years.

Over the next year, you have seven films coming out, including Welcome to the Rileys with James Gandolfini and Kristin Stewart. Are there any projects you’re particularly excited about?

I’m probably excited about all of it. I’m such an old mush-heart. You might see on that list Dear Lemon Lina, which is a tiny little part I have in my darling Suzie Yoonessi’s film. That was an Ulster County collaboration that came about through Nina Shengold and Suzie’s Columbia short five years ago…and now her first feature, and coming along a tiny role for me. I just looped on what is presently called Don McKay, and I’m really delighted with what I saw up on the lousy little looping stage screen. And Veronika Decides to Die is in there. I can’t wait to see how Emily Young has put her film together.

And we have Greta.

And there’s Greta. Oh my God! What an honor! What a blast that was to shoot. Again, a very small part for me, but I can’t wait to see Ellen Burstyn. And Hilary Duff acting her heart out across from Ellen, observing everything that brilliant woman has to give. It was a hoot to be with them; can’t wait to see it.

Have you always had such a robust work ethic?

I would say for the most part. What I’ve learned over the years is to have it be complimented in that way as a robust work ethic rather than being an interfering bitch. [laughs]

To what extent do you feel that living in Ulster County informs your work as an actress, and as a person?

I was born in New York State, down on the island of Manhattan, and I have lived most of my life in New York State. And when my son was small, having been born in New York City, I felt I needed to get him out of the city, and [into the] woods, like I had known as a teenager in Vermont. I brought him up to Ulster County. Ulster County is my home; it is my well to which I go back to fill. My great-grandparents also lived in Ulster County in the ‘40s during the war, I found out, after I had moved up there. And I realized indeed, as it felt, I had come home.

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