Melissa Leo's latest independent film dares the audience to look away because it is so unflinching and gloss free. "A small gem of bleak, neorealist portraiture," wrote New York Times film critic Stephen Holden today. "Melissa Leo plays a granite-faced, taciturn woman who connects more easily with animals than with people." The very first scene of "Francine" shows the 51-year-old Leo taking a shower in a way that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky shot the micro-budgeted indie in upstate New York -- Leo has a house in Ulster County -- in the summer of 2010 before the actress earned her Oscar for "The Fighter."
She plays the title character: an anti-social New York animal lover who gets out of prison for an unspecified crime and discovers that living free and earning a living has challenges that may be beyond her ability to cope. At the Berlin International Film Festival, where I first saw "Francine" last January, the buzz was about the scenes where Francine lives in an increasingly filthy crash pad surrounded by a growing number of cats and dogs. Her situation inspired a gag reflex in some audience members, and deep empathy and awe in others. The movie opens theatrically in limited release and contains an unforgettable performance from an uncompromising actress, a raw, honest, and disturbing portrait of a woman living precariously on the edge of society.
Melissa Leo: 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.
Thelma Adams: So, it was your summer job. After your best-actress nomination for playing Ray Eddy in "Frozen River," you were 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 and Micky. Just don't tell Mark [Wahlberg]. I also take my work very seriously, and there is greater responsibility. I am old and wise, and I enjoy rising to that responsibility.
TA: Which is something that you did as an animal lover with people issues just out of prison in "Francine." To say you're stripped bare is not an understatement …
ML: It was oddly self-conscious to watch "Francine" while at Berlin with an audience 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 [the filmmakers], that fiery combination.
TA: Who is Francine?
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: What about all those cats and dogs and gerbils Francine collects? The audience audibly gasped to see how she lives covered in pets.
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. The dog that dies is only pretending the truth like the rest of us.
TA: So, tell me, Melissa, what has been the biggest change in your career since you won the Academy Award for "The Fighter"?
ML: The biggest change is deep inside my heart, Thelma. The respect, admiration, and inclusion of my fellow thespians and other industry members envelops me as much as family. I'm feeling connected. My work is my religion, and to be honored by the Academy is like being honored by the pope.
TA: "Francine" is a daring opportunity, not the first thing that came along after your Oscar and, certainly, not a big paycheck for you. It's not quite like Mickey Rourke going from "The Wrestler" to playing the villain in "Iron Man 2."
ML: As with Ray Eddy in "Frozen River," "Francine" tells a story that's interesting and unique. She has the specificity that makes the film very universal.
TA: David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter reviewed the film and wrote: "'Francine' is a legitimate discovery." He 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." In my opinion, the performance has so little dialog, it's almost a contemporary silent movie.
ML: If I'd have known that, I'd have had a funnier walk, with a cane, like Charlie Chaplin.