Last Year’s Best Supporting Actress Winner Melissa Leo is Still Fighting
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
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.