A year has passed since scrappy actress Melissa Leo won a best-supporting Academy Award alongside Christian Bale for "The Fighter." That 2011 Oscar race crystalized the moment when the journeyman actress went from dark-horse nominee ("Frozen River") to front-runner. And while it's been only a few years since the general public asked "Melissa Leo, who?" the slim redhead still found herself in the awkward situation at the Berlinale this week of standing at the Berlin Grand Hyatt front desk beside a stranger who asked the receptionist, "Are there any movie stars staying here?"
In a word: Yes!
Leo is, in many ways, a stealth star, but now, dammit, that Oscar shelved in her modest upstate New York home has her back. As if her courageous body of work in HBO's ongoing New Orleans saga "Treme" and the groundbreaking "Homicide: Life on the Streets" and "21 Grams" and, of course, "The Fighter," didn't make that truth clear enough.
We sat side by side in the lobby of the Berlinale Palast on Marlene Dietrich Platz discussing Leo's world premiere, "Francine," a harshly beautiful character study about a damaged ex-con coping with parole -- and catching up on the year when the term "Oscar-winner" became fused to her simple, direct "Melissa Leo."
Thelma Adams: So tell me, Melissa, what has been the biggest change since last February when you won the Academy Award for "The Fighter?"
Melissa Leo: The biggest change is deep inside my heart, Thelma. The respect, admiration, and inclusion of my fellow thespians and other industry members envelop me as much as family. I'm feeling connected. My work is my religion, and to be honored by the academy is like, well, being honored by the pope.
TA: There's a sense of grace?
ML: Yes. I feel touched by grace. Workwise, at this moment, I have nothing to report. It's been a bumpy year. This is my road and it's always been bumpy, although I'm calm and overjoyed looking at my future. I've got a day job -- HBO's "Treme" -- that's an enormous relief financially to have that employment on that very fine show. When I got an Oscar, I got a little wiggly, but there were no changes on the set.
TA: No big trailer? No blue M&M's?
ML: On location, actors, TV actors, have a really sh--ty deal. That's the sh-t-storm I want to create. For 25 years, the on-location contracts have remained the same in terms of care -- and the salaries have lowered.
TA: C'mon -- I bet the people around you think winning an Oscar is a "made it, Ma" moment. The rest is cake. Aren't the offers pouring in?
ML: Part of the slow movement from one February to the next has been that people asked, "So do you have a zillion scripts?" and I began to expect them. But by April, it wasn't looking so good. It took all these months to see it for what it is, to get other people's voices out of my head and live my life. For 30 years, it's been about the work. That is my life: the experience of going from one woman to another woman, whether as part of an ensemble or as the lead.
TA: I know that for me, it was exhilarating to see you play Ray Eddy in "Frozen River" and drive that very dark and original independent film all the way to from the Sundance Film Festival to the Kodak Theatre.
ML: The nomination for Ray Eddy for lead actress -- I liked the way it sounded and what it feels like. Now, in these next 30 years, I'll have opportunities to lead, and support, and if I remember to breathe, I'll get those opportunities.
TA: Your drama at the Berlin Film Festival, "Francine," is a daring opportunity.
ML: As with Ray Eddy, "Francine" tells a story that's interesting and unique. She has the specificity that makes the film very universal. We shot "Francine" in the giddy-up-go to the Oscars. "Francine" was shooting in the Hudson Valley, so I was home for the summer.
TA: So it was your 2010 summer job, once your performance as the matriarch Alice Ward for "The Fighter" was in the can but before it premiered at the AFI Festival that fall. As sweet as "The Fighter" was, after your best-actress nomination for "Frozen River," weren't you itching to play a lead role again?
ML: With Ray Eddy, I was carrying the ball. It was more fun. I love acting. What I do is called playing, like a child. I get to go to work and play. It's not about the most and more. As the character that the story is about, you are more integrally bound to the magic of storytelling.
TA: And how does that differ when you are playing a supporting role, as you did in "The Fighter?"
ML: As a supporting player, the fun is aiding and abetting the lead. It's fun. Don't get me wrong. I'm just not "The Fighter." I probably could have played them both -- Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward -- just don't tell Mark [Wahlberg].
TA: I'll try not to.
ML: I also take my work very seriously, and there is greater responsibility in playing the lead. I am old and wise, and I enjoy rising to that responsibility.
TA: You certainly rose to that responsibility playing an ex-con animal lover with people issues in "Francine." To say you're stripped bare is not an understatement …
ML: It was oddly self-conscious to watch "Francine" last night and take in how I handled that responsibility. The work was difficult and hard, but what it has wrought is a very beautiful movie -- not me, not them [filmmakers Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy], but that fiery combination.
TA: Who is this peculiar, lonely woman that you inhabit on screen?
ML: She might in some degree live in all of us in the way that people incarcerate themselves and live by only the rules they understand.
TA: At one point, Francine works at a big-box pet store, at another she's a veterinary assistant. She connects with animals in a way she doesn't with humans. What about all those cats and dogs and hamsters Francine collects? The audience audibly gasped to see how she lives covered in pets and pee like one of those cat-and-dog ladies ripped from the headlines.
ML: The animals were awesome. A lady and her kids in the Hudson Valley rescue beasts, and they come from her home where they live together -- tidily, nonetheless, and loved. Extraordinary care was taken with the animals while portraying some of the most in-your-face acting.
TA: Like the euthanasia scene. The woman beside me grabbed my arm during that part.
ML: The dog that dies is only pretending the truth like the rest of us.
TA: He's no Uggie doing clever tricks in "The Artist," that's for sure, but there are parallels to that Oscar front-runner. "The Hollywood Reporter's" David Rooney praised your film as "a legitimate discovery."[http://tinyurl.com/7b7nq6c] And then concluded: "The stealth impact of 'Francine' is tremendous given its simplicity and strangeness. The same goes for Leo's performance, an exceptional demonstration of power in silence."
Your character has so little dialogue, Melissa, the drama approaches a contemporary silent movie.
ML: If I'd have known, I'd have had a funnier walk [laughs], with a cane, like Charlie Chaplin.
Leo will be at Grand Central Terminal in New York City on Wednesday, February 22, for the AMPAS official ribbon cutting ceremony for "Meet the Oscars." Both the best-actor and best-actress statuettes will be on display at the exhibit for three days, through Friday, when they will be shipped to Hollywood for the Oscars.