Between the red hair and heartbreaking stare, you know you’ve seen Melissa Leo before, but you’re not quite sure where. Mabe her performance in 21 Grams? (Called “as good as it gets” by Manohla Dargis.) Was that her on Homicide? (“One of the most compellingly unglamorous characterizations in the history of American network TV,” claimed Nerve.) Did she play that internet murderer on Law & Order? Or was she the lady with a killer dog? (Both. She’s an L&O “repeat offender.”) A chameleon directors crave and moviestars fear, Leo is an actor’s actor. Massive talent, little fame.
“In the very beginning of my career, a good friend said to me, â€˜You know you’re playing a lot of victims, you should watch that,'” Leo recalls. “As soon as I got that thought in my head, I began to play these other types.” For now, she’s Ray, a tough loving, blue-collar mom who smuggles illegal immigrants over the Canadian border after her gambler husband leaves her in the film, Frozen River. The movie won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and, according to Roger Ebert, its star gives an Oscar- worthy turn. Oh, yes, there is buzz.
Not that awards are Leo’s goal. “I have been an actor for almost 30 years; I have raised my son, bought a home, all on the back of acting. I don’t do it to make an enormous living or to be a celebrity. I do it because I love acting.”
In fact, she loves it enough to wait four years to do a low-budget indie with a complete unknown at the helm. All because she’s drawn to talent: “She [Frozen River writer/director Courtney Hunt] wrote such an incredible script!” That willingness to take a chance on people applies to film students too even ones in high school. “I work with students for two reasons,” Leo explains; “It gives me a chance to act and to be there with talented kids as they start out—show them the way it’s done best.”
Soon she’ll be showing everyone. With 10 upcoming films including Everybody’s Fine with Robert De Niro and Welcome to Rileys with James Gandolfini—her IMDB page is packed. Leo, 48, is poised to become a rare thing in Hollywood these days: a leading lady with who actually paid her dues.
On top of everything else, the New York-raised actress welcomes a critical, discerning audience—one full of Jews, for instance. “It’s not like playing to a bunch of pearl-wearing goyim,” she declares. “There is an honesty and a truth I find in Jews that is of great value to me.” To illustrate the point, she flexes some theatrical muscle and does a spot-on Brooklyn bubbe: “Her, I don’t like. Her, I like.”
Melissa Leo, we definitely like.
Frozen River is Courtney Hunt’s first feature directorial effort. Do you think there is anything a first-time director can bring to a movie that a seasoned pro can’t?
Filmmaking is a very young art. We can give it a hundred years, if we’re going to be generous. Its boundaries are constantly being expanded. I can’t tell you the sets I’ve been on with a first-time director and an experienced DP and the experienced DP’s saying, “you got to put the camera HERE,” and the filmmaker’s going, “yeah, but my shot is HERE. Can you just set the camera HERE and let’s see if it can work, please?” And then it becomes this brilliant notion. When you think outside the box because you’ve never done it before, of course, you’ll bring something somebody with experience can’t. Oddly, the director is the person on the set who needs to know the least about how to make a movie. What the director must have is a vision for their film.
Courtney wrote the script for Frozen River based on her earlier short film that you were also in. How do you think that affected the process?
Courtney is an enigma to me. I don’t know how she wrote such an incredible script and directed it so well. In my experience, writers and directors are very different people. There are all sorts of reasons why people do one-man band things and it expands the art without question, but the very sweetest of it all is when all of us are doing our own individual jobs toward the one single purpose: to make this story come to life.
Say you’re in Anytown, USA and you meet the fresh-faced teen. They tell you that they want to move to L.A. to pursue a career as an actor. Is your instinct to encourage or dissuade them?
I was in one of my many hometowns just this afternoon and a little girl who was probably only ten came up and said, “I’m an actress,” and I know she’s an actress. I don’t know how I know that. I thought about it afterward. She lives in a tiny little town and works with a community theater. My gut just tells me that this kid is talented.
Do you ever have a person identify themselves as an actor and you can tell that they’re not?
Absolutely! More often than not. Way more often than not.