Melissa Leo beat out Julia Roberts to get her very first role in a four-episode stint on All My Children, but Leo's career headed off on a much lower-profile trajectory than Roberts' in the two decades that followed. Her ability to slip into roles has made her a consummate character actor, but it's also kept her from getting the recognition she deserves. Most people, if they know her at all, remember Leo as tough-as-nails detective Kay Howard on NBC's groundbreaking Homicide: Life On The Street. For five seasons, Leo embodied the show's unglamorous, workaday aesthetic, and it eventually cost her the job, when the network brought more conventional TV actresses on board. In the years since, Leo has bounced around in various character roles, including major supporting parts in two Guillermo Arriaga-scripted movies: 21 Grams and The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada. Now, Leo is finally front-and-center in Courtney Hunt's Sundance-winning drama Frozen River. Leo stars as Ray Eddy, a single mother of two boys who gets involved with a young Native American woman (Misty Upham) smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States. Leo recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the world's cutest director, playing a cop who doesn't sleep around, and annoying Oliver Stone by disappearing into roles.
The A.V. Club: You were also in the short film that was expanded into Frozen River. Is that something you normally do?
Melissa Leo: I do. I have been known for almost 30 years to sort of do whatever comes my way. I think it's lovely that people think I have more work at my beck and call than that, but it's always been touch-and-go after each job finishes. And I love working. You know, now that my son is a young man of 21, I don't have that distraction any longer. I'm even more passionate in these last couple of years, and I think it will go on more and more from here. I just like to be working. So if some students want me to do a student short with them, I'll talk to them and see if I think the kids have something going on. I'm very, very serious about what I do. I think there are a lot of people out there sort of thinking it's anybody's game. You know, "You pick up a camera and you make a movie." My experiences over the years have taught me there's a lot more than that to making a film—there's also getting the film seen, and all kinds of complex realities. I like to be along with the students and give them my two cents about the best way to go about it, in my opinion.
AVC: So in situations where they're inexperienced, you do a lot more than acting?
ML: In a certain way. I think I understand the line between my job and the director's. I have no interest in directing. Not my movie, not your movie, nobody's movie. So I can make suggestions to a director that aren't about direction, but more about practicality. And yeah, oftentimes I'm doing more than just acting. And then there are other times—when you walk on Jon Avnet's set and work opposite Al Pacino, all you gotta do is act.
AVC: How did you get together with Courtney Hunt?
ML: I was at a screening in Chatham, New York. It was a sneak preview screening of 21 Grams that James Schamus set up in his hometown. We had gone to a little after-party after that screening, and Courtney Hunt came up to me. I think she had a little bag with the script in it, that's what I remember, like a little miniature shopping bag. "Will you read my short?" [Laughs.] And I don't know if you've met Courtney, but she's got big blue eyes, and bouncy blond hair, and she's not very tall. She's a cute little thing, basically. Brilliant, cute little thing. [Laughs.] And I took the short home and read it and called her up and said, "When do we start?" We shot the short, she edited it, she showed it to me, and she said, "Wanna make a feature?" And that was the first I'd heard of the feature.
AVC: The film is so particular in dealing with Canada-U.S. border smuggling, and with reservation law. Is that something you investigated, or was that Hunt's job?
ML: Had she not been so thorough in her research, I might have needed to find out more about it. But Courtney was relentless, arduous, in her collecting of information. She was very up-close and personal with the tribal element in that part of New York. Her husband actually comes from that area up there, although he did not grow up in that kind of way. But she'd spent time up there researching the lay of the land and the ways of the people. No, there was no further research for me to do on it.
AVC: Did you talk to anyone who had been involved in this kind of smuggling operation?
ML: When we shot the feature, we had several wonderful Mohawk natives come down from Canada, from a reservation up there. And Misty Upham, who plays Lila, she herself is a Blackfoot Indian from the Northwest, and she talked to one of the guys who was a smuggler. I was not aware of that. The closest I came was in the short when we actually shot in Massena, on the St. Lawrence, where this takes place. And we could see, looking up the river, a steady flow of traffic across the river. Even semis. So I saw it going on even though I never spoke to anybody. And quite frankly, when we were up there doing this short, I was disinclined to be too inquisitive about it. Didn't think that was the respectful way. It was enough that we were there using the land. And then when we shot in Plattsburgh, it's quite a distance from where it actually takes place, and we used the lake rather than the river as the water. So it's not something that goes on there, where we shot.
AVC: Were you comfortable with this role just from the read?
ML: The script was pretty thorough. I think that finding the look for her, with Courtney's guidance and the wardrobe's guidance, was one of the ways into her. But first and foremost, Courtney's script was just so well-defined, who and what my character was. Oleg Tabakov, a Russian director and actor and acting teacher, told us once, "Character is what's on the page—the character as written, and then there's the actor. And they meet this way." [Dances her hands together until they meet, palm to palm.] And that's the character. So something from the script, and something from my own life, and observation, experience, all of that.
AVC: What, for this role, comes from yourself?
ML: A very fine example of exactly what I'm talking about is, there's a moment in the film, a small moment, when Ray has to give her sons lunch money because they're off to school. I remember growing up in Vermont, and I was on a meal plan myself up there, and with my meal-plan ticket and $.50, I could get my lunch. But I had to have that $.50. So Ray goes digging in the couch at one point looking for coins, and a friend of my mom's who's known me since I was born said, "Oh my God, Melissa knew how to play that part!" I didn't make that up. That was in Courtney's script: "Go digging in the couch to look for the change." So she had that idea, that I might have had to scrape for a quarter or two along the way. And those two things together are what make it. If I had information that I could bring to the film, or if I could imagine myself in a situation I may have been in, I would bring that to the table.
AVC: What was it like working with the boys in this movie? When actors are that young, are there things you have to do to help bring the performances along?
ML: Charlie [McDermott, who plays the older son] needed no help whatsoever. Charlie had enough experience that he was capable and confident. In fact, Charlie did a magical thing, which was to turn in a performance very different from what Courtney had imagined, and a far more accurate depiction of a 15-year-old trying to be the man of the house. So Charlie simply came, stood, and delivered. Charlie brought to us his little cousin [James Reilly], who plays the younger brother, who has never acted, who is not particularly interested in acting, and who was only there because his big cousin Charlie was there. [Laughs.] He was darling and sweet. Courtney was very sensitive about him being on the set, and curbed the language on the set when he was present. There are scenes where Charlie, Courtney, and myself are all off-camera guiding him in one direction or another, or scenes where the camera will be at my back and I'm saying to the boy [Mom voice.] "Now say blah blah blah," and the boy says "Blah blah blah." [Laughs.] So he was a handful, but he comes across so beautifully in the film that it sort of teaches you that you really can make a performance finer if you spend a little time on it.
AVC: This is one in a long line of blue-collar women you've played. How do you account for that? Is there something in your background or screen image that naturally leads you to these roles?
ML: I guess there must be. I don't know. Somebody on the outside might be able to tell better than me. I have often been known to say, "I could sooner play a black man then a grown-up lady." You know, just like one of those ladies in an office, somebody's wife or something. That feels like the most distant character in many ways. And why bother? There are plenty of girls who, that's what they do.
AVC: What were the conditions of shooting this film like? Did the extreme cold add to the usual difficulties of making an independent film?
ML: I'm a little bit of a glutton for punishment, especially when it comes to work. I don't mind a bit of suffering. I think it's in suffering that we realize our best selves. I had a wonderful time. I had an opportunity in front of me that nobody but Courtney Hunt thus far has been willing to chance me on. And I was not going to get sick, I was not going to be chilled, and I was going to be in my best condition to turn this performance in. No partying. I'm not much of a partier anyway—it's very tempting and the crew was so fun, but no. I would go right back and wash the mascara off of my eyes, go to bed, and get ready for the next day. I just took it very seriously. I was never, ever uncomfortable shooting. I took care of that. There was no trailer. My agents at one point were saying [Adopts nasal male voice.] "Well, they're not getting you a trailer, so I don't think you should do the job," and I said, "I'm doing the job! I'll never see the inside of the trailer. Never mind." And we would have holding areas in the nearest location, and sometimes we would get so far asunder that the holding area for Misty and I would be the car, the mighty [Dodge] Spirit. We could have the heat on there and we would ration turning the heat on so we wouldn't get too warm, 'cause you don't want that either. I lived with a ski instructor for 10 years, and I learned a lot about being outside all day. I taught a lot to the crew about changing your socks midway through the day, because even if they didn't get wet, you sweat in there. Dry socks, warm feet, very important. It was hard, though. There were people who suffered.
AVC: Do you consider yourself a Method actor? How far do you usually go to prepare for a role?
ML: I definitely consider myself a Method actor, because of my training. I might dispute what people consider a Method actor to be. I think that it's not unlike independent film, which was once one thing and is now actually several different things. We need more than one title, perhaps. Method acting, over the years, has been all sorts of things. I think the root of the acting I do comes from [Constantin] Stanislavski and that handful of Americans who went over and sat at his feet many years ago. And then they all came back and had great schisms among themselves because of what they interpreted it to be. For my money, a Method actor is an actor who has a technique. That has a method. And not one method, but whatever might be required. So a Method actor is always learning. Always thinking, "Oh geez, I don't know how to get there. I need a new tool." I was in a film called Black Irish. I could have come in with an Irish accent. But the Method actor in me wanted a dialect coach so it was an accurate Irish accent. So knowing what your choices and tools are. Sometimes there's no work necessary. You go sit opposite Benicio Del Toro [in 21 Grams] and see if you can't act good. [Laughs.]
AVC: How close a collaboration do you prefer with a director on set? Are there times when you want them to back off and let you do what you do?
ML: I would like to be more engaged in the process then I have been, for the most part, so far. I like the collaboration that Frozen River was. Courtney never ran a script by me to see what I thought for notes, but I felt very much as we worked toward shooting it, and as we shot, and even now as we're out selling the film, that we're working together. I am working with Courtney, not for Courtney. And to get to a place where there's more feelings of working with people in that way is of great interest to me. But I'm very old-school. I like a director to direct me. I like to be the actor. I'm not particularly fond of the hybrid writer-director, or actor-director. You know, there are things that work. On Three Burials [Of Melquiades Estrada], [Tommy Lee Jones] was acting and directing, and he did a damn fine job. [Laughs.] Courtney [Hunt] wrote and directed this film, and it worked out. I just don't think it's the most delicious kind of filmmaking if one is picking and choosing. Writers, directors, actors are all such very different people. I think it's unusual that two of those people are in one human.
AVC: You mentioned Three Burials and 21 Grams, which were both based on Guillermo Arriaga scripts. How did that happen?
ML: Completely. Totally. Entirely. If Guillermo had gone to Mr. Jones and said, "I think Melissa would be perfect for this," I never would have been anywhere near it. Mr. Jones likes to make his own decisions. 21 Grams was a complete and utter fluke. I had auditioned on it early on, there was some interest, and they actually ended up casting the very, very fine actress Katrin Cartlidge, who died. And when she died, they were maybe a month and a half or two months away from shooting. They had a very hard time settling on what they would do with that. So the part was open again, and they asked me to come and tape in New York again. And I said, "No, I won't tape. Not now. I've gone on tape twice for this. I'll fly myself to California if you'll see me in a room." And I flew myself out there and met Alejandro [González Iñárritu] and Benicio, and read with Benicio one evening, and got the role that way.
Three Burials came along, and after 21 Grams, I had begun to spend some time out on the West Coast again. I had been out there early in my career, but hadn't for years, because I was raising my son. I happened to be in L.A., staying with some friends and looking for work. Jeanne McCarthy, the casting director, is someone I knew back in New York when she was an actor. She used to take care of my son sometimes when I would go on auditions when he was a baby. And so I'm on the phone with my then-manager, and he mentions to Jeanne, "Oh, Melissa's out in L.A." And Jeanne goes, "Oh, she is? Oh! She should be seen on this film!" And two days later, I was flown to Texas to meet Mr. Jones on it. I could have flown from New York to Texas, but if I was in New York, Jeanne wouldn't have thought of me for it.
AVC: So that's how these things happen sometimes?
ML: That's the story of my career. A nickname I have for myself is "Last-Minute Leo." Because if you're screwed at the last minute, and you don't know what to do, and you're totally lost, I'll be there. I'll show up.
AVC: Do people think of you in emergencies, or are you fairly aggressive about getting these roles?
ML: It's just something that's happened again and again throughout the years. This question that you asked before, about playing the normal, blue-collar lady… I think they don't know what to think of me. I think my characters are so believable as they are, and I used to be too young to be a character actress, so they didn't really know what I was. Now I notice it becomes more and more popular to call actors who play characters "character actors." But I've always been somebody who is much more invested in who I am playing than how they look.
AVC: For me, the term "character actor" has always had positive connotations, because it suggests an actor's talent for slipping into roles. Are you comfortable with that term?
ML: I'm perfectly comfortable with the term. First and foremost, perhaps even over story, what matters to me is the character that I'm playing. Who are they? What do their hands look like? What kind of shoes do they wear? What kind of underwear do they wear? How do they talk? Why are they doing this?
AVC: Another reason you've gotten that "character actor" designation is that you don't oversell anything. People don't look at your performances and say, "Oh my gosh, there's Melissa Leo acting up a storm!"
ML: I get lost. Oliver Stone said to me in an audition once, with a disgusted look on his face, "Oh, you're one of those actors that disappears into the role." It's what I do. It's my pleasure to do it in that way. I don't know if I could do it any differently from that.
AVC: Your role that people remember most fondly is Kay Howard on Homicide.
ML: Definitely. Those first couple of seasons, people didn't know what to make of it. Except for critics, critics totally got it: "Oh, thank God, at long last!" [Laughs.]
AVC: There was no detective like Kay Howard on TV before you played her. Did you feel like you were breaking the mold?
ML: It sounds a little awkward for me to be the one to say it, but perhaps no one else could make the observation but me: absolutely. There had never been Kay Howard on TV before she was on TV, and you see her all over the place now. Aspects of Kay Howard. Her hair, her pants, her suits, all of it. As a matter of fact, there are several movie-star actors who are doing television shows now. And those characters—and the actors and the producers are aware of this—are going after something that got my ass fired.
AVC: Characters like C.C.H. Pounder's on The Shield, and Sonja Sohn's on The Wire, those are Kay Howard types.
ML: A lot of the girls that came into Homicide after I did, or as I was going, have commented to me that they wanted to get on that show because they saw what I was doing. And they wanted to get out of their skirts and high heels and tight sweaters and go be a person. It's not that I don't like wearing dresses, because geez, I'm a girl, and I love to put a dress on from time to time. But I went to [the producers] when we first started, and I told them that I had been costumed for television for 10 to 15 years, and if you're a girl, you're in a dress or a skirt. It's a no-brainer. I said, "Okay, you take me into court, I'll put a skirt on, but you can't show up to work in a homicide unit in skirts and heels. You've gotta have trousers on." When I was doing the first episodes of Homicide, there were maybe half a dozen females that ever made homicide detective, in the entire country. Baltimore had never seen one. She also changed that. There's a lot of female homicide detectives now. Post-Kay Howard.
AVC: The work of people like Homicide creators and writers Paul Attanasio and David Simon and Tom Fontana is very detail-oriented. What did they require of you to get that part right, and what did you require of yourself?
ML: It was all quite confused, as real life tends to be. Again, at the 11th hour, [Homicide co-star] Clark Johnson and I were both at the production office. Clark laid down a tape, I laid down a tape, and he and I walked up to the corner and said "Good luck!" A couple of weeks later, we ran into each other in Baltimore. The script I was given for that audition was an 11th-hour script, where the part was still written for a guy. The original script just had seven male detectives. At the very last minute, they decided to cast one female detective. And I went in and simply read the part. I didn't try to make her a boy or a girl, I tried to make her a police. And that landed the role for me. Then we went in the first couple of weeks—there was really never a pilot shot, we just went right to shooting. Between Fontana and [Barry] Levinson, I guess the network didn't need a pilot. And we went right down to start shooting. Each of us as partners were called to Tom and Barry to talk about what input we would like to put into our character. So in some ways, in that meeting, I established who Kay would be with trousers, and I didn't want her to be going to bed with people. "Can't we see me just doing police work? Can I not go to bed with anybody?" And that all sort of backed me into a corner as far as they were concerned. What could they do with me? I wasn't wearing skirts, and I wasn't going to bed with the guys. So they seemed to say, "We'll just give her two lines in this episode." [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you start getting marginalized right away, then?
ML: No, not right away. Within the first season, though, they had written an astonishing episode [the Emmy-winner "Three Men And Adena"] that took place in "the box" for all 47 minutes, with the exception of two minutes at the head, two minutes at the tail. So basically 44 minutes of television, with three people in a room. Kyle Secor, Andre Braugher, and this man that was playing the perp. And I remember when the script came out, people were saying, "You can't do that on television. You have to go to different locations, you have to, have to, have to…" and a totally groundbreaking thing happened. Andre knocked it out of the ballpark. My thought about that is, it's not that Andre was the finest actor in the bunch. We were all fine actors. But NBC got wind of that, and they took Andre as their lead detective. That's what they like to do in television. I don't think it was Tom or Barry's idea to go with the show with one lead. I think they were more interested in the ensemble. But the network is boss.
AVC: How much did the show's struggles in the ratings affect the mood on the set? Did that impress on you at all, the fact that it wasn't a ratings bonanza?
ML: No. I mean, maybe Andre was more aware of that, and got hip to the sort of game-playing thing that needed to happen to take on the establishment. I just sort of did what I always do, which is kind of blindly go to work and be righteous where my character was concerned. I never walked into a day of work with a notion in my mind of what the result would be.
AVC: Do you have a fondness for your time on that show? Or do the bad feelings about your departure still linger?
ML: I have a great fondness for my time on that show. It was quite difficult doing it—television being what it is, and the ne'er-do-well boys we had in the cast. I won't mention any names. [Laughs.] They required us to stay in town. And my own life sort of solidified that, because my son was small then, and in school. And at first, I traveled a lot, getting back to see him in upstate New York, and then realized that really the best thing for us would be to enroll him in school in Baltimore. So I was really in Baltimore. And my son and his playmates and their parents were lovely, but that wasn't why I was there. It was frustrating and difficult. I really felt there was a lot of room for some very interesting storylines that never got pursued. Kay had 100 percent closure. By the numbers game, she was the best detective in house. It was never addressed. And then the fact that I was a girl with 100 percent closure… Well, you could get something going on. I kept seeing notions for storylines that just were not what the show was interested in doing. But still, I remember it extremely fondly. And the reality of it was that it was a hard job to do.
AVC: These issues with your character: Did they come from the network or the writers?
ML: That's hard to know. By the third year, certainly the fourth year, it was quite clear that Andre was the lead of the show, so the shows would be written around him. And anything else was sort of various and sundry. And it sort of trickled downhill from there. And then as the years went on, they would sort of bring on a new face, and the network kept on trying some way to make it bigger than big, rather than good. Which was Tom and Barry's premise, which was "Keep on putting it out there good, and they'll get in eventually." The network needs to make it formulaic, and they need those tight sweaters on those girls. And if somebody had come to me at some point and said "Melissa, would you stuff your bra and put a tight sweater on and do Kay?" I would have said, "Oh, sure!" But nobody ever came to me and said that. So… [Laughs.]
AVC: What's next for you?
ML: I'm looking for work. I'm going to go do this publicity junket, and I have several things coming out, mostly very small parts in very large films like Veronica Decides To Die. But absolutely nothing on the slate beyond August 1st.
AVC: Would you consider returning to television to do a recurring role if the part was right?
ML: Ab-so-lutely. Anybody hiring? [Laughs.]