Academy Award Winner Melissa Leo: “I’m not acting for the recognition or for what you think about it”

28 November, 2019

I have never imagined I’ll meet an Oscar-winning actress at such a young age. The news that I will be part of Alina’s Grigore second feature film, in which the main character will be played by talented Melissa Leo, came as a huge surprise.
I felt excitement, but I couldn’t really realize what it meant; I knew almost nothing about Melissa Leo. I started searching on Google for information about her, I think I watched all the videos I found online and probably read all of her interviews.

I discovered a really interesting,  emotional human being, but the biggest discoverement came when I actually met her – about three weeks ago she finally arrived to Bucharest for a whole week and I had plenty of time to spend with her and Alina.

Melissa Leo never forgot where she came from. She has a soul so kind, fragile and empathetic that it makes you think about who you are and what you want to become. Through her eyes, her gestures, the way she acts, both in real life and in film or on stage, she expresses so sincerely everything she feels and thinks. An actress who loves her job more than anything and owes to it all, who’s goal is to make women more understandable, through the characters she plays, no matter what type of human beings those characters are.

The idea of an interview came while I was getting to know her and her life story better. I read somewhere she’s not fond of giving interviews but it was a pitty not to try. She said yes without even thinking twice. She even let me ask all the questions I wanted and decide later what was going to be in the final version of it. The interview you’re about to read went through many drafts, but I would read this final version over and over again. Because of her truthful and deep answers; and I hope you will too discover a small part of Melissa Leo by reading it. A mother, an actress and a woman with so much wisdom and talent to offer.

Young Melissa Leo
Young Melissa Leo

Have you always wanted to be an actress?

Ever since I can remember, ever since I was little and playing pretend. It was hard sometimes to have people believe the pretending as much as I found it – I found it really comfortable. When I was around 3-4 years old, my mommy took me to Peter Schuman and his Bread & Puppet Theatre, where there was a workshop to build the puppets and this wonderful experience to pretend with them. I remember we got out from our house one night and went to do the pretending, the show – with people sat to watch that believed our pretending! That to me was so thrilling. It was not until many years later that I realized this is the answer. This was the beginning.

When you get to act it’s not about the product in the end, it’s not about the ticket sales, it’s the process, the rehearsals, the performing of the play or shooting of the scenes – the pretending, when you get to pretend to be someone else.

I do believe as well this is the most exciting part, you get to be someone else each time.

Not each time, but someone else over and over again, and from my career so far, someone else different, each time. I don’t think playing the same character over and over again would be that interesting to me, but playing different characters and playing people different from myself.

What do you think it takes to be a good actor?

In my opinion, and I mean no offense to anyone who has a desire to act, it’s no different than a great vocalist – you know what I’ve learned watching the Freddie Mercury movie? Because he had too many teeth, he had a different vocal quality. That man was born to make music with his throat. I think I was born an actor. We are all born with a talent and the sweetest part of life comes to us when we allow ourselves to recognize what is that talent. Sometimes our mind, or friends, or parents tell us something, but it’s inside of us where this talent lies, only we can really know.

Does that mean it’s all about talent?

Talent is a word that I would shy away from – you know, on Hollywood’s set they say “here comes the talent”, and when I heard the AD (n. assistant’s director) calling me that, I say “do not use that word”.

If I’m coming to a set that has no talent on it until I arrive, why would I go on that set? I want a talented DP (n. director of photography), or a talented dolly grip. Talent is not the ability to act, talent can be many things, so talent is not the word I would use.

Would you say being a female actor makes it more difficult in the industry?

I think being a female actor makes it more difficult in exactly the ways that any female on the planet finds the difficulty of our gender. There’s a huge misunderstanding about who we are and how we operate, a lot because of the way women are depicted in film and television. But we live in a world today where we must remember the world is not easy for men either – do they take care of the babies or kill the bear? They are in a state of great revolutionary change as well.  I think today it’s quite difficult to be a human.

Has acting helped you find humor in life?

Acting helped me understand life, and sometimes life can be quite funny. I understand the value of humor and I do believe laughter is a good medicine. I also believe if you make yourself to make your face go up, it can change how you feel – I know this because in a way, it is an acting technique. Acting made me more sensitive, to the environment, to the sorrows of the world and sensitive to the humor, so perhaps I have increased my humor but I have never thought of that until you asked (laughs).

I’m sure acting did change you along the way.

Oh yes, absolutely! In ways I don’t know if I can even describe. Each experience that I had as a working actor and all the characters that I played – my women they give me things, some strengths, some curiosities. I’ve never learned much in school but I’ve learned in my life a lot from acting. And from my son.

Would you say winning an Academy Award was the most important part of your career so far?

Absolutely not. It’s not what it seems from the outside. I don’t have any complaints about it, it’s totally a blessing but the blessing is not lost on me. It raises the expectations and makes it harder –  people go “come on, show us how good you are, Miss Academy Award Winner”.

They think I’m an Academy Award winner, I don’t wake up in the morning and think of myself as an Academy Award winner. I’m the same girl who grew up on the 10th street in New York City – grown and changed by my life, like everybody. It’s an experience along the road but not by any means the most important part.

Melissa Leo, 2011
Melissa Leo – Best Supporting Actress, 2011 // Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Pictures

There’s a lot of uncertainty regarding your Oscar campaign – most people still think you’ve funded and organized it.

I did not fund or do my own Oscar campaign. It wasn’t an Oscar campaign – if we are talking about the full page ad I took in the trades and that wasn’t an Oscar campaign but an ad for an actor looking for an elusive kind of image and therefore work.

I have spent my whole life not as the most attractive girl in the room but neither as the most unattractive, I’m a little bit of both. I see women on the cover of magazines, women I don’t recognize, don’t know what their names are but I’m being told this is the actress playing in something. It’s not something I’ve dreamt for all my life but I thought “wow, that could be so good for my career, if I wasn’t seen just as Alice Ward, but as an elegant woman” – why can’t I play a queen or a princess? The thought came up to me with the idea to alter the path of my career. I started asking again and again – “can I get a picture on Elle or Vogue or Vanity Fair?” it could be so good for future jobs, but the answer was always no. And I wanted to know why and when the answer finally came it was “too old” and “not enough box office”.

I know how old I am and what my box office is, but I also know what I have accomplished in my career. I know what a certain number of actors and people think of me.

I realized then I had a friend who could find out how much it costs to buy a page in one of these glossy magazines. It was nothing that I could not do for once in my life, so two magazines gave me a deal, they were interested in helping me do this, even though it was a bit wrong of them because they knew it’s improper – I didn’t. So I hired my own photographer and did my own photoshoot. I had a clear idea about what I wanted but by the time we all gathered to do it, I got busy with other things so I asked someone to hire the photographer and we didn’t get along. There was also an enormous snowfall that day and everything was going wrong.

Melissa Leo
The photos chosen for the glossy magazine // Melissa Leo’s photoshoot

What I wanted it to be was like a perfume ad – where you pass by it and you go “wait a second, what is that”; and very small, on the side, I wanted to introduce who I am and say “Consider this” – not like a consider campaign, for the Oscars, but the opposite: consider this, Melissa Leo like a princess.  I know now they didn’t understand what I was trying to do.

What I did was not anything to do with the Oscars, except that I was taking advantage of a moment in my life.

Does the media’s critics or reviews influence you in any way?

I don’t look at much of it, If I see something in general is because someone said something to me. In the theatre we don’t read the reviews, it can completely ruin the rest of the show – you have to play with knowing everybody thinks you’re being an idiot up there or whatever that review says about you. And this helped me making it a habit, not reading the reviews. And I’m not acting for the recognition or for what you think about it.

What is it like to get older in a career where you’re always in front of the camera?

I have to thank my mother because as I was growing up, she did not let me to be vain and have an ego larger than my heart. So my career has never been based on my appearance, I was never the most beautiful girl in the room, rather another average girl, my face is not my fortune. Sometimes I do look in the mirror or on the camera and think to myself “good God, is that how I look like now?!” – and it’s shocking to me because my internal picture of myself remains probably at twelve years old (laughs); I know it affects my career, I never got the chance to be Juliet, you know .. but it’s the course of nature.

Why do you think every filmmaker dreams of Hollywood?

I wish that not every filmmaker would dream of Hollywood and I don’t think it is entirely true – some years ago they came with this term “independent film” and now they make films like “The Fighter” which is called an independent film, however it is not an independent film. It is a very studio supported film. I never aspired to California, so I don’t really understand it. New York actors and NY work is very different than West Coast California. I can’t encourage people more to do things outside the United States, especially in Eastern Europe, especially here – there’s so much potential here, so much to grow and build on.

I believe the only films that have ever worked in the history of films – and I don’t mean budget, or movie stars, but worked like a classic strong film, are the films that no one ever seen before, you cannot repeat something and still make that happen. So I think there’s much more potential to make a film in a country like Romania, than to go to Hollywood and have to make Marvel because otherwise, you’re not in the business. You can make a movie that can make a difference for the world, and for the people.

So you prefer doing indie movies more?

I don’t know. Sometimes it would be great to do some big films, but they don’t seem to want me much, they use me for one little part now and then and I’m happy with that. I do the work that comes to me and I look for work that has meaning. I hope in this third part of my life to do things that I can leave behind, something for younger women, such as yourself.

You’re in Romania with a purpose. Can you tell me more about what brought you here?

Alina Grigore is why I’m here this time. Exactly as for Frozen River, a young woman asks if she can send me some work to consider, so I say yes – to Courtney Hunt and to Alina Grigore; so she sends me some work a year later and she comes to New York, sits down, talks to me and invites me to Romania to do this work. And she explains her method of working, with the actors and the DP that has to know the actors, working on the script together, see if there’s any piece of the character I don’t like or doesn’t feel right.

So I came for a few days to rehearse and work very seriously on the script with everybody else, cracking it open and understanding it. I haven’t done that since the last time I did a play which is sadly, many years ago.

Is there anything else in your career you wish to accomplish?

I never really worked towards accomplishments, but it does feel now like the time gets shorter. I hope to make wise choices in the work I agree to do, and I hope to get back to where I was as an actor when I first began and just work on my work. Simply be an actor that does the work that interests me, that helps the world in some way or another – if it’s a comedy and makes people laugh, or a serious portrait of a serious subject that helps people learn. I just hope to keep working.

This interview was given exclusively to Films in Frame, November 2019.




Film producer and founder of ADFR, she dreamed since she was little of having a magazine one day. Alongside her job as editor-in-chief, she writes the interview of the month. She loves animals, jazz music and films festivals.