Melissa Leo: "I'm no feminist"

The Oscar-winner tells Salon about date-raping Louis C.K., playing messed-up moms and society's fear of redheads

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 16, 2012 7:58PM (EDT)

Melissa Leo      (AP/Victoria Will)
Melissa Leo (AP/Victoria Will)

Melissa Leo says she doesn’t want to be known as a feminist or a pioneer, but it’s difficult to know what other words to use. While many actresses who play leading roles in their 20s and early 30s find that the parts disappear as they draw near to middle age, Leo’s career has gone in precisely the opposite direction. In 1993, Leo was a little-known 33-year-old whose principal career accomplishment was a Daytime Emmy nomination for her role on “All My Children.” Then she was cast as Detective Sgt. Kay Howard on the breakthrough cop series “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” and everything changed.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Kay was probably the butchest female character ever seen on TV to that point, and thereafter Leo – a Manhattan native whose father was an editor at Grove Press – followed an unprecedented star trajectory, playing a series of strong, independent, unconventional women. She moved into independent film in her 40s, at an age when many actresses feel themselves driven out of the movies, getting her first Academy Award nomination in 2008, for a memorable performance as a struggling single mom in “Frozen River.” She took home the supporting-actress Oscar two years later, for her hilarious, terrifying and riveting turn as Mark Wahlberg’s immensely flawed but loving mother in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter.” (And later had to apologize for her off-the-cuff acceptance speech: “When I watched Kate [Winslet] two years ago, it looked so fucking easy!”)

I spoke to Leo a few days ago about her new role in “Why Stop Now,” an agreeable, loose-limbed indie comedy built around the extraordinary mother-son rapport between Leo and Jesse Eisenberg. The latter plays Eli, a piano prodigy who needs to check Penny (Leo), his drug-addict mom, into a rehab facility, audition for a spot in a top-level Boston conservatory, pick up his little sister from school and go after the girl of his dreams amid a Revolutionary War reenactment, all on the same day. (Tracy Morgan and Isiah Whitlock Jr. chip in with funny, stereotype-defying roles as an inept and ultimately sympathetic pair of criminals.)

What I loved about Leo’s work with Eisenberg is that they resist the easy clichés of the situation. There’s very little bitterness between Eli and Penny: They’re both aware that she’s been a mediocre parent and a miserable role model, but their affection for each other is obvious, and they’re determined to get through the day’s misadventures as a team. (Among other things, Penny has to go score drugs and get high – even though she doesn’t want to – or she won’t qualify for a spot in rehab.) Of course we also discussed some of Leo’s other career highlights, including her much-discussed recent guest appearance on “Louie” as a bossy, sexy, manipulative blind date who offers Louis C.K.’s character oral sex and then insists – no, insists! – on reciprocation.

Melissa, you seem to have such fun playing messed-up moms! Where does that come from?

Well, I'm a female, and so when I play a parent I'm pretty sure it's going to be the mom. [Laughter.] I did play a dad once! Someone who had gender-altering surgery, in a TV show. That was so much fun to explore. But that's a lighthearted way of answering it. Whether my character is a mom or not, I'm not ever going to be someone who's just dreadful or just wonderful, unless the script really, really calls for that. I'm playing a human being, and we all have so many sides. I might have an empathy for the great art of mothering, that understands we can be imperfect and yet be doing our best as a mother. And I'm not afraid to show that, I guess.

In “Why Stop Now,” I had the enormous pleasure, and great assistance in portraying the role, of having Jesse Eisenberg play my son. From the moment we met -- and we met at certain events a year or so ago [i.e., the Oscars and related festivities] -- even though Jesse and I were there in a pretty prestigious category, it was two actors meeting and speculating quietly. Where do we find our mother and son? And it just came so immediately to both of us.

I always linger in the relationships that I have with actors, especially actors playing my children, and with Jesse it was just like falling off a log. So that thing, about the love and connectedness to the child, was very immediate and right there. So then the complications were things that would be reached for and played for. The more you have that's actually there -- a terrific relationship with somebody you have good feelings about in the story -- that's immensely helpful.

Well, what I loved about this character is that she’s a pretty bad mom, I guess, but she’s not deluded about it. She would never claim to have done a great job with Eli in the past, and we like her and even admire her for trying to do the best she can with the present, with where they are now.

Exactly. One of Penny's strengths is the way that she does recognize that she's a less than perfect person. A much greater danger is somebody who thinks they're ideal and is quietly beating their children in the closet. Although I don't draw a lot of parallels between my life and my characters, my own experience being the parent of another human being -- that responsibility to and for and of him, when I was a young woman! In my early 20s! [Leo’s son with actor John Heard, her former boyfriend, was born in 1987.] It grew me up and made me a better person. It's something I brought with me also to Alice Ward in "The Fighter." You can't bear offspring and not have passion for them. Or at least that's my experience.

I can definitely see some similarities between Penny and Alice, even if their life histories are pretty different. They’re from the same region of the country, about the same class background. They’ve ruled the roost and made all kinds of mistakes, and when we meet them they’re dealing with the consequences of those mistakes.

Both "The Fighter" and "Why Stop Now" were fairly male-generated films, conceived by men and directed by men. I do find, time and time again, that there's much more willingness on the male side to have her be a bad, bad mother. I feel very driven to the point of view that there is no such animal. [Laughter.] The mistakes might get bigger and bigger and bigger -- I've played some appalling moms. Stephanie Daley's mother [from the 2006 “Stephanie Daley”], who doesn't even know her child is pregnant in her own home, you know? But it wasn't because she's a bad human being. It has to do with the parent's upbringing: What did they know and what did they bring to it? Although very little of this is told in "Why Stop Now," I have a fairly clear idea of what Penny's story was, and why the little girl [Eli’s younger sister] would matter so much, both to Jesse's character and to mine. A lot of it has to do with knowing she kind of messed up with her older child.

That struck me as so real. Penny and Eli are holding their relationship together for the sake of the younger kid, because they see a chance for her to be less screwed up than they are. So many families work that way.

It's a great way of telling story in film, where the actor has filled out the history of the character -- not according to their own history, because they think that's so interesting, but according to the history of the story being told. How do you make that make sense? Then, without ever speaking the story, both of the actors know the history of the relationship. It doesn't always work out that there's a shared history, but in this case Jesse and I knocked out a lot of it together: What it was like when his dad was still around, what the second dad was like. And then you get this story that is terribly specific in the actor's mind, and, oddly, that makes it become much more universal.

I’ve heard that about Jesse before – he’s the kind of actor who likes to do that kind of detailed background character work.

Oh yes! Jesse is that kind of actor, and you make a big smile to come to my face. I could have acted with Jesse every day for the rest of my life! He's so thorough and he cares about it and it matters to him. He's a really, really good actor who is not ashamed of the work that goes into doing it. He feels funny talking about it, you know – it’s about just diving in and doing it.

Your career over the last 20 years has been so fascinating. We’re used to hearing women in the business complain about the shortage of roles for actresses over 40, and with considerable justification. You have defied that stereotype and then some. It's like, there are no other roles for women over 40, because Melissa Leo gets all the good ones!

Yeah, I was thinking about this the other day. The mind is a powerful thing! It's not so much that I can bend spoons with my mind. But I do notice there's something to that, just willing it into fruition. What I'm saying is that I have refused to fall into that basket. I'm a very lucky girl who gets to act for a living! So why sit around griping and grousing about what's not there. I mean, the unfair treatment of women and black people and Indians and other groups, that’s real. Mistreatment of other people because "I'm better than you are” is such a sad part of the world. But if I get too caught up in that I'm going to shut doors and not open them.

We’ve talked about the fact that your characters are often very flawed, but they also come off as strong, independent and even ferocious woman. Your whole career, at least since “Homicide,” has been about pushing beyond the borders of traditional femininity. Did that come from your upbringing and education? Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

Well, I don't think of myself as a feminist at all. As soon as we start labeling and categorizing ourselves and others, that's going to shut down the world. I would never say that. Like, I just did that episode with Louis C.K.

Yes! Believe me, I was going to get to that!

If I wonder: “Is this appropriate or inappropriate? Is this what a woman would do? Or what a man would do? Nobody should ever do that to anybody!” I didn't think about any of those questions. I thought, oh Jesus, I hope I can make this funny! I really hope Louis helps me! You know? Because it's a joke, and to be funny was A-1 on that job. He's a funny man, he wrote that because he thinks it's funny! So, yeah, I have to go at things without judgment, and that is part of my upbringing, and who I am and the time I was brought up in the world.

You know, when I got started on television in the ‘80s, you would go to the costume department, and if you were a female they put you into a skirt. And you had a pocketbook, usually a shoulder bag. Whether you had a reason to be carrying that shoulder bag throughout every fucking scene you were in didn't really matter! You were a woman; you carried a shoulder bag. I'm a woman who has rarely carried a shoulder bag! I'll carry an army bag, I'll carry a duffel bag. I'll carry six or seven bags! But I'm not a pocketbook girl. I never really -- what do women even do with pocketbooks?

So thinking outside of that box does relate to my background, and then to say, wait a second, how about we show a woman wearing trousers! When I was playing Kay Howard on "Homicide," well, it was interesting: There's no dress code for female detectives in the Baltimore rulebook! Because they didn't anticipate when they were writing the rulebook that they would ever have female detectives! At that time, in the homicide unit of Baltimore P.D., a jacket and tie was required for men. No jeans. It was very gender-specific. Kay Howard could have worn jeans and a T-shirt to work, but she wanted to be part of the whole, part of the unit. She decided, "Well, I'll dress as close to them as I can." So as not to make it even more complicated than it already was for her.

I've had countless conversations with costumers and hair departments, in the '90s, in the aughts, and into the '10s, where I tell them, "You're kind of building a mom from 1953." I wasn't even born in 1953! I'll get into all these conversations about trying to think in a more modern way about what a mom is today, what a female is today.

I will confess here that one reason that I’ve always followed your career is that I happen to be married to a ferocious redhead, who does not often wear skirts and has probably never carried a pocketbook.

Oh, I hope you know she is not only ferocious! But we frighten people, that's for sure. We don't even know, generally speaking, how much we frighten people. I have only learned how much a redhead frightens people because I have played brunettes and blondes.

It's that different?

It's as different as the day is long! Man, woman and child; never mind race, never mind gender. All my life, walking down the street, whether people know who I am or not, I see people glancing at me and averting their eyes. And then, coming out of a hotel as a brunette, I couldn't believe it! This was years and years ago in Rhode Island, for a movie that never really got released, and everyone would meet me in the eye and nod good morning! I'd never experienced anything like it! Then I dyed my hair blonde for Jake Scott in "Welcome to the Rileys," and people come right up close -- generally they find some way to touch you -- and say, "Hey! How you doing today?"

Did you get catcalled more as a blonde?

The whole response is exactly what those stereotypes suggest. The brunette is gonna be sweet and attainable, and probably the girl you want to marry. The blonde you want to date, or do something else with right now, in the back corner, if she's got time. And the redhead is to be frightened of! She will steal your husband, she's got a hot temper, all of that.

Well, isn’t it a great truth about human life that we make so many snap judgments about people that we're not even remotely aware of?

Exactly. And as an actor it helps me to know these things.

How much has the hair influenced the way you’ve been cast? Probably a lot.

Hugely. I knew years ago that my hair preceded me. I had never told anybody that I wouldn't cut it or dye it. I had actually begged directors to let me dye it, and instead I had William Hurt and Stockard Channing and other fine actors dye their hair to match mine. That was to play a Basque girl in Southern California in the '40s [in the 1988 film “A Time of Destiny”], and a Basque girl should have dark hair. But Greg Nava, the director, loved my hair, and he said, "No, we'll bring in Stockard and Bill to meet you."

I wanted to circle back around to your guest-starring role in "Louie," which became a huge Internet phenomenon literally overnight. It took Fox weeks to get all those unlicensed clips taken down off people's blogs. That kind of viral celebrity really isn't possible when you do a movie.

If I'd gotten as much recognition for half the roles I've played as I got for that, I would be the biggest star in the United States right now. [Laughter.]

I know you said you didn’t think about the button-pushing stuff in that episode, the stuff about gender roles and sexual consent and so on. Maybe you can’t afford to. But it’s too simple to say that Louis was just trying to be funny, isn’t it? There’s more going on there than that.

The thing is, it's not going to aid and abet my work to sit in judgment of it, or to try to figure out why he's doing this. To sign on for a job is to sign on for what the job is. First of all, I had met Louis himself, but I had never seen the show, I didn't know about this miraculous thing that he has done, any of it.

What happened was, I was at the Emmys with my son, and he said, "Oh, there's Louis C.K. I want to meet him!" I don't think my boy's ever said that. He's 25 years old and has been around all sorts of people! So I went over and introduced myself to Louis C.K., and then I got more aware of who he was and what he had done. He offered me this role, and I asked to see some of his shows. So, yeah, I got what he was doing, and if he thought I could be her and do that with him -- yeah, I'm willing to give it a try! But it's not my job to sit in judgment. That’s not going to help me do the work.

“Why Stop Now” opens this week in limited theatrical release, and is also available nationwide on-demand from many cable and satellite providers.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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