Melissa Leo: “I Was Told I Was Too Old and Not Big Box Office!”


Just as she threw herself into playing feisty mama Alice Ward in The Fighter, Melissa Leo dove headfirst into Francine, about an introverted ex-con taking awkward steps toward human connections while bonding most comfortably with needy animals. Leo does large and small with equal passion, never stinting on full-scale commitment. In the carefully crafted mood piece (coming to VOD and DVD in the coming weeks), it’s all in the expressions, the atmosphere, and what’s between the lines; you’re purposely not given too much exposition. “In the end, it’s Francine’s experience,” Leo told me in an interview. “You don’t get to know her, but you get to live her experience with her, and that’s a different use of film, isn’t it?”

One gripping scene has Francine—who has found a job at a veterinary clinic—holding a dog and kissing it tenderly as it’s being euthanized via injection. But Leo told me the mercy killing wasn’t as real as it looked; in fact, the dog was there to get his teeth cleaned! “If you look closely on a large screen,” she said, “you’ll see the dog is breathing long beyond his ‘death.’ That is the best example of what acting is for me. I believe the dog is dying, so you believe it. It’s my belief that makes you transcend disbelief. That is acting. And the dog is very, very good as well,” she added, laughing. And he now has a sparkling set of choppers and no trace of receding gums.

Another memorable scene has the shattered Francine gently placing a bunch of dead animals into an incinerator. Was it weird to touch the corpses? “As weird as it was for Francine,” Leo replied, plainly, “I have little memory of it.”

Francine does manage some interactions with people, including a romantic liaison with a woman, but it’s doubtful she’d see herself as bisexual. “It’s something she doesn’t know or understand,” explained Leo. “I don’t think she is sexual. I think she’s human. I don’t think she sees any sexuality or pleasure in any of those things.”

As for her own motivations, Leo wanted to do the film because of its use of the visual medium, its dramatic silences, and the chance to be part of an interesting character study. “I’m so blown away by how simply beautiful the film is,” she concluded, grateful that anyone’s seeing it.

Naturally, I wanted more of a portrait of Melissa Leo herself, and fortunately, she talks way more than Francine. This is the woman who bravely deglammed herself on Homicide: Life on the Street and was ultimately let go, dropped into a career dry spell that coincided with serious relationship problems. But eventually, movie roles started coming, culminating with her name permanently changing to “Oscar winner Melissa Leo” last year for The Fighter.

“It’s an incredible, unspeakable honor,” she told me, “and it’s something I can be lighthearted and gay about, but my deepest truth is very serious and life altering. Not in the external ways you might think—I’m not one of the big Hollywood people; I’ve got to get my box office numbers up to be in that club—but the correct path will change for me the rest of my life.”

“What?” I squawked. “You’re not in the top ranks?” “You wouldn’t be saying that if you were my accountant,” she deadpanned. “I shouldn’t talk to the press about this, but I’m utterly fascinated by that reality. Yes, I’ll be a supporting player in The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, in which Mila Kunis, who was up for the same prize as I, will be the star. I bet she got a bigger trailer than me!” She pauses. “And that’s OK. I’m happy being me. She is going to be a-dorable.” (For the record, Kunis was nominated for a Golden Globe that year, but not the Oscar. Leo swept everything and definitely deserves bigger trailers.)

But back to the big night. “I’d heard the wonderful things people say,” related Leo, “the assurances that surely I’d take home a golden man. By walking a middle path, I didn’t know who’d win. That night, for the first time, I thought, ‘If I do win, Kirk Douglas will hand me my Oscar!’ So that got my heart racing. I was really glad he did his little vaudeville bit with the envelope because that calmed my heart, and it gave me a chance to look around the room, blow a kiss to Amy Adams, and feel somewhat prepared as I stepped onstage—and then I got surprised because I wasn’t prepared at all!” The upshot—letting out Oscar’s first f-bomb—was as instantly legendary as the overcompensating streaker in 1974.

I told Leo I couldn’t f-ing understand the self-righteous fuss that was made over her glamorous “For Your Consideration” ad campaign. It turns out that the whole thing was, again, a matter of not getting the proverbial trailer she deserves. She’d wrongly assumed her awards hoopla would land her a glossy magazine cover. “But after pulling teeth,” revealed Leo, “I was told, ‘Too old, not enough box office,’ so I wasn’t gonna get a cover!” So she bought ads! The result, she said, was no more Melissa Leo than Alice Ward was, “but then again, I’m there with all of them.” Fully committed.

Does she only play characters she can love? Said the Oscar winner: “I use the example of watching my good friend Josh Brolin walk into George W. and not either cast aspersions or be some great hero, but to be inside him. Everybody has two sides to them. We are all good and bad. I don’t pass judgment—that’s for the audience.”

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