Melissa Leo's masterclass in method acting: "There's not one way"

Salon talks to the Academy Award-winning actress about "Unlovable," method acting and the new New York

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published November 14, 2018 5:00PM (EST)

Melissa Leo (Matt Smith)
Melissa Leo (Matt Smith)

Melissa Leo has starred in many acclaimed films, including "The Fighter," for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress; "Frozen River," which netted her an Oscar nod; as well as "The Equalizer" films, "Flight" and "Prisoners." Leo’s range is wide and brilliant; she portrays people from all walks of life, which has ultimately prepped her for a role unlike any she’s ever played in her new film “Unlovable.” In "Unlovable," out now, Leo plays Maddie, a recovering sex and love addict who is a reluctant sponsor to Joy (Charlene DeGuzman), a quirky artist who struggles with sex addiction and is constantly looking for love everywhere except inside of herself.

Leo recently sat down with me to talk “Unlovable,” method acting and the new New York.

Tell us about Maddie.

Well, I could tell you about Maddie, but really, the film is about Joy, who is the young woman who actually wrote the script, played by the woman who wrote the script, who is also a self-confessed recovering love and sex addict. And she had first gone online and some way, I'll say a blog, but I don't know if that's what she was doing, something online that she got an enormous amount of followers by her honesty about her difficulty.

Then she wrote a script and Mark Duplass got a hold of it. And my very dear friend and wonderful working comrade, Suzy Yoonessi was chosen as the director to direct the film. And so she had invited me into the story. And Maddie is someone that Joy meets along the way in a 12-step program. And, you know, one would think that I think the perception from the outside is that, well at some point you recover and now you're all better. And that's not really what the experience of the recovering addict of anything is, that the addiction still plagues and it's a matter of relearning your life choices.

And that's basically, although I made it sound quite dull, and it's not dull, that's basically what you see. You see Charlene's character, Joy, spiraling out of control. You think it's the worst at the beginning, but it gets worse yet. The filmmaker does not show you these awful encounters she's having, but you definitely get the flavor of it without exploiting anyone. And so it's more palpable, in a way. And then finally, Char's character, Joy, decides enough is enough, and she seeks some help and finds me, who is quite reluctant to help her because of a past history that you eventually find out in the film.

We're taught that dealing with addiction is a destination, but it is more like a journey. You know? You have these strides where we will see Joy making progress and then she will hit a wall. And I think even those elements will help people who suffer from addiction. All of us have our things that we try to work on.

This is why it's such a great marriage with the screenwriter and the director, really a really good union. Suzi Yoonessi has a particular delightful, light, girlish I could even say, aesthetic. And at the same time, she's probably one of the deepest, brightest people I've ever met. And so that combination of both her sort of lighthearted, little cute hearts and things kind of way about her, also this depth of seriousness which she does her work, she's really a well chosen to be the person to . . . because the film couldn't be . . . it's not as important a film as it turns out if you're going to show all the sex and be tawdry about it. I think everyone can get a pretty good idea of what this young woman has been up to without having seen it.

I like that it was really colorful. I guess Joy is really colorful as a person. And as a character —

And then so much of the film is this arduous, slow march toward recovery and the propensity that we all have to sort of backslide on our own selves and do things that aren't making us happy, aren't keeping us healthy, and still [have] a compunction to do that. And as you're talking about it, it really can be not only a sort of teaching tool about love and sex addiction, but also about any kind of addictive behaviors.

Yeah. I was thinking about your perspective. Viewing [your role] on a page [of the script], and the film is so Joy focused. So, what we learn about Maddie, we learn in subtle ways. Like her mom's drinking problem, her dad not being there, but it's not in your face like Joy's story. As an actress, when you're looking at that on a page, how do you prep for a role like that? 

Well, it's a very poignant question for this particular film. I'm very, very proud to be a part of the film. I'm not as proud as I'd like to be of my own performance in it. And a part of that is because there were hints about Maddie's history, the relationship with her brother. There was definitely some kind of problem there. What was the problem exactly? Well, while we were shooting the film, I was just completing a long first season of a television show. And so I eagerly agreed to work again with Suzi Yoonessi. And then got to really break down the script and go, "Oh, gosh, there's so many questions that are unanswered."

I think in the larger picture, it helps tell the story because it focuses the story so much more on the main character, Joy. But I think that the idea was that Maddie had come through some hard times of her own and that those, in fact, are the only people who can help people who are having a hard time, is people who have known a hard time themselves.                                   

So, that piece of it is definitely there. And it is my job, as an actor, to fill in those blanks.


I felt satisfied. I didn't leave the film wondering, "What was this issue?" Or, "What's that issue?" That's why I was kind of wondering, you know, if I was to have to take a project like that on, like what would I focus on contributing so that viewers can feel satisfied.

I had to ask a lot of questions. And as you ask me the question, I now remember also that there's a moment in which Maddie sort of shares her history in the 12-step group. And what was written on the page, I found very hard to get out of my mouth. Now, remember, that it's Charlene that wrote this script and she's, well, about half my age. So how does a woman so young write a . . . and I did actually, not so much sharing from my own life, but sharing from an idea I had about who Maddie was, with this wonderful brother of John Hawks. And put together a monologue that I felt would help tell that story.

And yeah, an answer to your question, I think that there's a certain amount of experience I have as an actor to understand . . . sometimes an actor can come with an idea that's like, "Oh, and I could wear a funny hat and that would . . ." — that wouldn't help the story at all, that would make you like a person in a funny hat. But that doesn't help tell the story. So as an actor, I'm always looking for what is both on the page and not yet on the page that's going to help the filmmaker tell the story we're telling.

Do you have more fun working on some films than other films? Or is it always like, you get into a character and it's that character and then it's on to the next?

The character that I'm playing is going to inform what my experience is a lot. Because I do go pretty deeply into who that character is. I will often find myself talking with a filmmaker and saying, "You know, I can have this nice, calm conversation with you right now, but when we're shooting this scene, I'm not gonna be able to talk to you in this way. I'm gonna be far more demanding or more reticent." Or whatever it is the character that's been given to me to play.

I had played a character in a film we shot in India. And it was just so much dark, evilness about her and I kept on begging the filmmaker, "Can't we make her a little less dark and evil? Can't she just be more interesting than that?" "Oh yeah, that'll be a great idea." And we got there and then he wanted this dark, angry . . .  and I am settling in for a shot that's been changed four or five times. And then I'm like . . . say something to the director and he's like, "Oh, so much negativity." And I'm like, well that's what you want . . . there'd be a better way to do it, but you told me you don't want to do that.

But, of course, with your resume, you get a chance to change some things.

Some. It depends on who you're working with. It depends on who you're working with and how receptive.

For example, Antoine Fuqua, he wanted me to get involved in "The Equalizer Two," in the fight that the character's involved in. And, you know, the fight team, they were top notch and perfectly happy to work it out with the stunt double, and one thing and another. But I know Fuqua a little better than that and I know that he and the writer of the "Equalizer" series wanted me to get involved. And so there am I, who's done a very limited amount of fight work in my career, telling these directors, "No, it's gotta be like that and we gotta do it this way."

And then there's other people that want, David Simon, for example. He wants you to say the words that are on the page — not any other words, just the words that are on the page. So it depends on who you're working with.

Yeah, I guess I get that with Simon, because [Treme] was such a unique place where its own language and accent. And he's always addicted to making sure people stay on track with that. But I think you have an amazing range. And I say this because I've already appreciated your work before this assignment. But also, because when I watch "Flight" and when I watched "Equalizer," and when I watched "The Fighter," I see three different people. What is your process like when you go on to create these? Because you didn't have to create "The Fighter," of course, you had a person to draw from? 

And that was amazing, that's an unparalleled experience. To actually sit in a room and breathe the air with the person you're gonna be.

Is that easier for you?

It's not easier, it's just totally different. This thing I'm talking about, about how do you find what's in between the words, how do you fill that out to make a whole person. Playing Alice Ward, I just had so much information. We were shooting in the town that all that occurred in, in Lowell, Massachusetts, with her family and herself all around us all the time. Extraordinary, extraordinary experience. That, then and the other things, both in "Flight" and in "Equalizer," I'm there with a very different character I'm being asked to play in "Flight" and in "Equalizer," opposite the same actor. And there's an actor who just shows up as the character. And to be the "Flight" lady person —

Seems like it's more pressure. It's more pressure when you have to look at the person in the eye and you know you can't let them down and you got this whole—

Every actor should be so lucky as to work opposite Denzel Washington. He just gives you the truth right away, you know? So that all helps. If you have other people there that are willing to believe the game. And in "Fighter" and Lowell, I'd come out with my hair all done up and my costume on.

I saw you and then I saw a number of other actors talk about the term "method actor," how people get it wrong. Could you just give us like a class on what that is and explain it to us so we'll know?

Super briefly in my understanding, 'cause I am not a highly educated person, I just sort of pick things up. And if my gut grabs onto it, then I get something. But by my understanding, there was a group of people who were called The Group, that was the theater that they had been involved in. And they, as a group, traveled to Russia, unprecedented, and studied with the great acting teacher Stanislavsky. I wasn't there, but I have a pretty good guess that as soon as that small group of Americans got on the flight back home, from Russia, they began to argue, "That's not what he said," "No, he said that but what he meant was." Now, remember, they're listening to something that's being translated from Russian, so there's a lot of room for interpretation. So after that famous visit to Stanislavsky, the group fell apart and developed all these different forms of acting. Each one saying, "This is it," "NO, this is it."

And you know what it is when you get anything that's being too didactic, and saying only this and never that, it's a problem. So for me, method acting is that one would have a method. Sometimes you need to use tools as an actor, sometimes you just learn the words and you're opposite Denzel Washington and it feels real and it is real and you just do it. And sometimes you're opposite a street-casting hire that is there and you have to work double extra hard to sort of do the scene for them and for you. In my experience of working, I've been so lucky to have so many levels of working, so many different kinds of people to work with that I have come to believe that method acting is having those tools, having some kind of a method. A method that may not be the same in every job for every character, but one can always learn about acting.

When the director yells "cut," do you just go home and being back to yourself, or do you carry a piece of that character?

I think that that's a part of what it is. It's the thing that makes the method acting in this country and, "Oh, she's a method actor." That there's some notion that when I'm in that character, suddenly I'm blind, deaf, and dumb, you did come for a visit, I'm almost done, but not yet. I know, blah, blah, blah, blah, you heard it all before.

I mean, even as a writer, I read tons of books and articles and I take a piece of those with me as I continue my journey as well. So, I don't see why anyone would look at it differently.

Right. And the day comes when you're like, "Oh, my gosh, you've gotta do this kind of interview with somebody and now you have to come up with a new tool." And that is really exciting as an actor, when you get challenged to up your game even more.

So, you grew up in New York and you acted in your early career, you spent some time acting here. What do you think of the changes? Are you into this new New York?


Do you have nostalgia?

I don't know. Maybe it's just generational. It'll eventually sort of go. But I grew up in a New York that was such a true melting pot. By 1960, when I was born, and it didn't feel like there were all these lines between white people and black people. And we were just people downtown. There might've been downtown people and uptown people. But in the theater even, you know, interracial casting, everybody was doing that without making a lot of fuss about it. And then, 15 years, 20 years into my career, you began to see every character that wasn't white, labeled with some authenticity that then made you go, "Oh, so all the other characters have to be white?" And it just feels like the world's getting more and more divided.

And it's not the New York that I grew up in. It's very, very hard to find home.

Any hope in getting that New York back?

I don't think, as a species, we go back. Unfortunately, I just don't ... and maybe fortunately on other hand, but I don't think that once we have technology, we can't take away technology now. I would love that, if we could just go back to simpler times. But that just isn't how people work.


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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