Melissa Leo is perhaps most widely known for playing Det. Kay Howard on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street. But in recent years, she has been the not-so-secret weapon of many top-drawer indie filmmakers. Her films include 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and Stephanie Daley, as well as three with Henry Jaglom (Always, Venice/Venice and Hollywood Dreams). Along with co-star Misty Upham, Leo teamed with director Courtney Hunt on both the short film Frozen River and its recent adaptation into the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning feature of the same name. The dynamic duo chatted with me about Frozen River and other sundry topics at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel.
Groucho: So having worked on the short film together, was any of that footage incorporated into the feature...was it a literal expansion or did you start from scratch on the film?
Courtney Hunt: Started from scratch. There’s a scene—the scene that is the short does occur in the feature, but it was rewritten and slight changes were made.
Groucho: Mmm hmm. What sort of changes were made from that original conception?
Courtney Hunt: Well, without being a spoiler here—
Courtney Hunt: The scene that involves the Pakistani woman and the bag and the baby had a different take. Ray’s point of view about going back to get that bag was different. It was slightly more...yeah, she was more reticent about doing that. And, in the feature, the way the whole thing built...that decision is made pretty quickly by both of them. Just a slight difference. And also, the footage would have never matched anyway.
Melissa Leo: Completely different car. that never enters into your mind, right? You’re just looking to be completely honest.
Melissa Leo: Yeah. I’m just looking to be completely honest. And my great, great blessing, and why I think why the audience likes Ray, is because of Courtney’s direction of me. She kept me down out of the trees. She kept my feet on the ground. And she knew, if I did not, that Ray needed to be likeable.
ML: And that is very much her hand as a director on my performance—that I think that occurs.
G: What is the working relationship? How would you characterize that between you? What would she do to help you get there?
ML: At the end of your [time], you’ll know.
G: Yeah. Right.
CH: You know, I didn’t try so much specifically to make Ray likeable. I just—I never thought—in editing I sweated that. But it’s always my preference to have a movie where I don’t know everything and adore the character from scene one, frame one.
CH: I like movies like Central Station where you kind of think, "Who is this woman?" and "What is she doing?" You know, and it’s almost even shocking you don’t like her necessarily at first. I think that that’s a nice journey for the audience to go on, to then find their way into someone’s life through the course of 97 minutes or whatever it is. And by the end, maybe they don’t like her, but might not like her and love her at the same time. So I was cool with that happening—although less cool in editing. In editing, I was like "Oh my God, they’re gonna hate her."
G: I think you get sympathy for her right from that first shot that just kind of lets you take in where she’s at.
CH: Exactly. Well that’s true, and I think that first shot really does kind of ask a question of the audience. And the question is "What happened to her? What in the world is going on is going on here?" So there is that moment. But then she’s back up and at him again. And I just hoped that people would stick with it for that first ten minutes, because I think that once the kids leave, and she’s alone, then she opens right up and we see right inside her. And that was what I worried about, you know. And that’s what I directed Melissa to do. And those scenes were tender and very special to just—you know, you don’t have to like her, but you got to know her. You’ve got to see who she is. And then decide.
ML: There’s a private life of Ray’s—
ML: That you get to see. And also a more public face that you also get to see.
G: Right. Yeah, she has to be so—kind of fearsome: strong for her kids and then, in private, it all kind of washes back over her how much it costs her to do that, I guess.
G: What kind of work did you and Charlie McDermott and maybe even James Reilly do to conjure this missing husband and father—kind of figure out what his role in the family was and what kind of a man he was?
ML: I’m not sure we really did all that much work on that. I know for myself I had my own sort of answers to those questions of who he might be. We actually took a family photograph. It was, in the script, sort of featured at one point. And you have to look very carefully above the television set and you can see the image of the father in the family photograph we took. So we did all have some notion of what he looked like, 'cause he was our gaffer.
ML: And I think beyond that there was not a lot of that—there was no time for that kind of work. Charlie came in and he had his take on that role, and he took it and ran. And James took a little more work one way and another—he had never actually worked before. And there’s some delightful memories of, you know, sort of Courtney on one side of the camera pushing him into the frame and me on the other side of the camera pulling him out of the frame. His takes of the back of my head when I’m actually telling him "Okay, now say bla, bla, bla." So he says, "Well, bla bla bla." All kinds of little tricks we had to do to get—
G: Well, how old is he? Five, I guess?
CH: Five-ish. And he was Charlie McDermott’s cousin.
CH: So there was a rapport between the two of them that really helped. Like when they’re play-acting and fighting and boing, boing—making all those funny sounds. They did that through the whole shoot. We just turned the camera on at one point and was like "Let’s pick up some of that." Because that was just their rapport.
G: There’s a key scene where Ray has to lie to the trooper. And she does that with pretty good skill given the intensity of that moment. Do you think that’s something that she does out of sheer instinct in that moment, like a cornered animal? Or is that years of practice lying?
ML: I think living with a gambling addict, she’s really—whether she had this skill before she was married to him all those years ago or not, she certainly developed it over the years and, in fact, we’ve taught her son to be a pretty handy liar too.
ML: And who tells the truth to the police? C'mon.
CH: I do.
CH: I do.
G: Always. Always. One of the production challenges, other than, of course, shooting so quickly over the course of a month would be shooting in the cold, I know. When you’re focusing on the work, I imagine that you just largely block that out. But did it take its toll over a long term?
ML: Not on myself. I had an enormous task in front of me, something that I knew was incredibly important to me in a "whole life" kind of way. I was not going to be sick or snuffily or anything. I grew up for some time in Vermont. I lived for ten years with a ski instructor. I know how to dress for the cold. I know you need to change your socks in the middle of the day if they get sweaty inside your boots. I had the car to be held in, and we turned the heat on even for Misty and I from time to time. The crew most certainly suffered. And Courtney along with them. But I was not going to allow that to happen for this character.
CH: And I think, rather than wearing us down, there was the initial shock of it. And the first three days where I was like "Hmm, are they going to stay?"
G: You’re figuring out how to cope.
CH: I was not sure that everyone was going to stay up there. Because it really hit you. We were outside—most of the movie is outside. So it is all exterior and, much of it, night. Exterior, night—in the dead of winter. And so, I think that—I was worried that the crew would just bolt. And after the first three days, you know, people got pretty smart about how to stay warm and how to keep their energy up. I was just worried that the cold would drain their energy really quickly. And that we would lose time—and, of course, every day was packed, right? But what happened instead was they rose to the occasion. They were incredibly game about it—although they whined almost incessantly about the food. But they were all vegetarians—
ML: The lunchtime line.
CH: Vegans, and they hated beans, and oh my God. But other than that, and fair enough on their part, there was no complaining about the cold and people really bonded. It made us even really closer in a certain way. Not to idealize it, 'cause it was really hard. And there’s parts of my body I still don’t have complete feeling back in yet. And then there was a feeling of "We did it." Which was really intense.
G: Well I imagine it’s also a testament to the investment that everybody’s putting into the material and really feeling like "We’re doing something important here."
CH: Exactly. And also, you know, we’re shooting in this like little trailer. The family that lived in the trailer is actually in the later scene at Guy Versailles' when Ray shows up to give him the money. That’s them. They actually lived in that trailer.
ML: And they were as young as they look.
CH: They are that young and they are that poor.
ML: And she is that pregnant.
CH: And so there was a certain sense of "Ooh, there’s something bigger going on here than just my feet are a little bit cold." You know, it was important and it was a good story and people had grown up with single moms, they’d grown up in trailers—people related to it. So they—I’m talking about the crew now. And that kept them there.
G: Yeah. Let me take you back all the way to the origin here. What was the inspiration for the story?
CH: Well, coming out of film school I realized that there was a lot of criticism of women’s films for being too talky, too chatty, not enough action. Nothing happens. And I had that same gripe, in a certain way. And so I was looking for a story—'cause I didn’t really believe it was the truth. But it’s true that many movies appeared that way. And so I was looking for a story where women were really doing something—like physically movin'. In a car, in motion. And this I learned about because my husband comes from [northern] New York...right up at the border. And I learned that there was smuggling that went on there and that women were sometimes involved, and Mohawk women sometimes. And they did it by driving across the mile-wide frozen St. Lawrence River—which is really daunting. And so then I started to research and meet—actually, I just started to meet people and talk to people about, you know, learning about who did this and why they did it. And over the course of a long time, the story—I put the story in a drawer at one point. It was about cigarette smuggling. And then after 9/11, I looked at it again and thought—because it had actually shifted and there was a lot more illegal immigrant smuggling going on there, estimated at that time at about a hundred a week. A hundred people a week. And that’s just a government estimate. I don’t even know. But you definitely know that it goes on there. And I wanted to look at it again. At first, after 9/11, I thought, "Oh God, no one’s ever gonna want to talk about this again." I mean, I was really afraid of the story. And then it was "No, no, no. This is the conversation we’re having as a nation right now is who’s coming in and do we want them? That’s the conversation we’re having. And this is just part of that."
G: Yeah. And it’s a very lively issue for Ray as well. Obviously she has a real question in her mind about whether or not it’s permissible for her to do that.
ML: I don’t think—I mean, a question in mind—I don’t think it’s something she would have thought about.
ML: She has no time to think about what the neighbors are doing, never mind people coming from other countries that want to—but then she finds herself smack dab up against it, and she hesitates at every moment to go along with this venture. She’s sort of duped into the first trip. But necessity will get us to do a lot of things we couldn’t imagine ourselves doing. And I really love that part of her, that she wasn’t sort of, you know, liberal-minded and that she had her bigotry and her nasty comments that she makes along the way.
CH: It’s really just narrow-mindedness.
ML: Narrow-mindedness, exactly.
CH: Which is typically American.
ML: Which is so typical, and it was such a great pleasure to play that, to portray that, 'cause of a great feeling that it is far more important to show people who they perhaps really are than some ideal of what they might/should be. Because it is when we see ourselves reflected back, it’s the ancient healing art that what I do in fact is. We then learn about ourselves. And we can grow and perhaps become better people.
G: Yeah. That’s an interesting element, too, of the role, because you can be consciously aware of it but you sort of have to put it away. Because you can’t really play narrow mindedness—
ML: Oh yeah.
G: It emerges. From your point of view, it’s all about what she is focusing on, not what she’s ignorant of, right?
G: Yeah. I also have to ask you about Homicide: Life on the Street. I’m a big fan of that series. I just wanted to ask about what it was like playing a character over a long term there, and did you ever feel the need to advocate for her with the writers, or were there areas that you wished had been explored more with her?
ML: (Smiling.) Yes, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
ML: It’s very well spotted on your part. I loved being Kay Howard. I love when people will come up to me in the oddest of places, especially when the police come up to me and thank me for the portrayal of that homicide detective. The great frustration of having played Kay Howard was that they did not give me enough to do. And it’s sort of just that mentality that she’s the girl. I told them very early on, when Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana invited all the actors to sort of give their two cents about who they thought the characters were and where they thought they could go, I requested two things that they did respect that never quite knew what to do with then—not so much Tom and Barry, but the networks, certainly. That she not show up to work in skirts and tight sweaters. That she was working with people that she wanted to have include her as a peer. There is no dress regulation, or was at that time no dress regulation for a female detective in the homicide police rules and regulations. So ostensibly she could have worn anything, which—what those guys really want to wear is jeans. And they can’t. They have to wear trousers and a jacket. And that’s what it says for the guys. So Kay, wanting to fit in, wore trousers and a jacket for the most part. She liked to don a tie from time to time too, because that was tidy. And I did not want them to begin to track her love life. And her sex life. But I wanted them to portray her as a detective. And the disappointments—she was the best detective—that year, anyway. A hundred percent closure. You can’t get better than that. And they would not take that story and go with it.
ML: They would not investigate what a female homicide detective might be able to bring to the table that the guys might be missing.
ML: Because we do think in different ways. And that’s okay. So not going to bed with people, they sort of put her on a back shelf and brought in some girls that would wear tight sweaters and go to bed with people and—I wouldn’t change a second of it for anything. But I saw a lot of potential there that never got realized.
G: Yeah. That’s the frustration of network television.
G: But you did get the one interesting opportunity to play her sister as well.
ML: Ohh, ho ho. I had to sell my second-born for that one!
ML: Yeah. The script came out and, when you’re shooting episodic, you’re in the middle of shooting an episode and you get the next week’s episode. That’s how much prep time we have for those sorts of things. So we’re shooting an episode and the next episode comes in, and I didn’t know that Howard had a sister. There had been a story early on where it was clear she had a brother, but typical of television, they just sort of—whatever they need to write for this week. It doesn’t matter what happened last week or next week. So I was shocked to find she had a sister, and I was terrified because of exactly what I was talking about it, that she would, you know—it would get some "enter your own word there" to play her sister. And I just—my character means more to me than me myself. And, um, terrified of what they would do. So I went, quite simply, and asked if they would let me do it. And they said, "Absolutely not. We don’t want to do Gidget here." So I said, "No, I really need to play this part." And they said, "No, I don’t think so." I said, "Okay, how about if I audition for the part." And they said, "Yeah, right." And I said, "Give me a minute." And I went and talked to hair and makeup, and it took more than a minute. Actually, the hairdresser Ardis Cohen spent a great deal of time with me in a wig shop trying to find the right wig for her—simply for the audition. And they made me up, and the costume department got me some clothing to put on, and the makeup artist put some makeup on my face and, by that time, Kay was wearing nothing on her face whatsoever--except my eyebrows. And I auditioned. And after that they thought, "Well, we, uh, um—okay!" Guys I had been working with on the crew for, you know, however many years—three years, by that point; they were my good pals—even at that audition, as I walked onto the set with the wig and the makeup and the clothing, they looked at me in a way they never had.
ML: And more than, in fact. And after that audition, they gave me—I do not have a credit for that role.
ML: They made me take a pseudonym.
ML: And I took my mother’s name and her sister’s name and paid homage to them. And the role seems to have been played by Margaret May.
G: Right. Yeah. That’s a heroic story for an actor, I have to say.
ML: Yeah. Thank you very much.
CH: You never told me that. Great.
ML: Oh, there’s lots of those.
G: (Chuckles.) Courtney, you’ve had some very interesting training as a filmmaker and, as a writer. What were some of the most indelible lessons you took from Romulus Linney’s writing class?
CH: Okay. This is my favorite thing to talk about.
G: Oh, good. Okay.
CH: You know, he’s very unassuming. And he would not put up with—it was important in film school, which gets kind of loose, that people not, like, eat in class. He wouldn’t put up with that stuff.
CH: Which was a huge relief to me because I was such a goody-goody. I would show up with my pages as he assigned them, and if somebody was chewing gum or eating, he’d throw them out of the class, which I loved. But more importantly, he had a way of running the class so that your classmates, and whatever style they were writing in, was none of your business, and they stayed out of your business about what you were doing. And the way he did it was you’d come with your pages. You’d read what you wrote for class. You’d go around the table just like this. And we were allowed to write down questions we had about what we were hearing. But no comments, no opinions welcome. Just questions: "I don’t really understand why that character said that. Why didn’t he, you know, jump off the bridge?" And that’s all we were allowed to say. And then the person who had read was to write down these questions as they came. And then the person had to say, "Thank you very much" to those who had listened and given their time and their energy. And then Romulus instructed us to leave the class, take the piece of paper and throw it in the trash. Because everything you needed to know, you’d heard in those questions. So it totally took judgment out of the workshop, which is really, I think, the downfall of film school, in many ways, is to get from people (in a whiny voice) "Well, I don’t really like this and I didn’t like—I love that." So what? Did you get the message across or not? And the writer only knows. So he had come up with this, and, I don’t know how he did it, but it’s so great—
ML: That’s the way they do it at the Actor’s Studio.
CH: It’s the way to do it. And he just did it so brilliantly. And so, I took his class twice. I said, "Will you take repeaters?"
CH: And he said, "Oh, sure." It’s not like he’s friendly or anything. He just does the job right.
G: Yeah. Well, I also can’t imagine what it must be like to take a directing class from Paul Schrader, so you’d have to tell me that as well.
CH: Oh, that was really interesting—because he was working on Affliction then. They were trying to get funding. And he would come in and kind of look us over. He was brutally honest. He was like "Oh, the writing’s gotten better here. And one or two of you might even make it." That was his opener. And I was raising my hand and going "Me. Me." But anyway, he didn’t pay any attention to any of us. And he’d give us assignments to go find locations. You know, for like the Gaudi movie that I don’t think ever happened. But we’d go out and we’d like scout locations. And then he gave us a scene from Affliction and said, "Okay, go and direct it. Make a crew out of yourselves—you know, pick a director, pick a DP." So he was wonderful—but very honest about the business. He was the only one in film school who said, "Okay. Here’s what it’s like out there. Just so you know. And I’m me. And you guys are just you. And this is how hard it is for me." And it was just like "Oh, okay. Now we know where we are." You know, because in film school you can get into this kind of ozone that is not reality—and about "Oh, it’s all going to be great." And there’s a business out there that’s not talked about.
G: Yeah. I wish we had more time but I want to ask you, Melissa, before we’re out of it, about doing Neil LaBute’s The Distance From Here on Broadway.
ML: Oh, did you see it?
G: I didn’t, unfortunately.
CH: I did.
ML: Aww, that’s right, you did.
G: But I just was curious—that was probably your only Broadway experience, right?
ML: It’s Off-Broadway theatre, The Duke. I have never done Broadway theatre. It’s considered an Off-Broadway house.
CH: But you did a bunch of Off-Broadway.
ML: I’ve done a lot of Off-Broadway.
G: You’ve done a lot of Off-Broadway, yeah.
ML: But I’ve never done Broadway. It mostly has to do with size of house. That’s what they’re talking about.
ML: So The Duke is a very small theatre—very unsuited to dramatic theatre actually. It was built as a dance venue. So it’s got a little itty bitty backstage and stuff. But that was the worst of it. Very interesting. Get Michael Grief, the love fest—love everybody and humanity, Man of the Year—to direct Neil LaBute—
G: (Chuckles.) Yeah.
ML: The people hater. He doesn’t hate women. He hates people. All of them.
ML: Some of the best dialogue I have ever had the pleasure to memorize and speak. He is a modern-day Shakespeare. The language, although it seems naturalistic, is not. It’s poetic. Astonishing stuff to play. Really hard play to watch. But we had a ball. And it was kind of shocking to us because up in the rehearsal hall, it was a love fest. Michael Grief is one of the most loving directors you will ever find. And the cast was broad and various and sundry with ability and talent, and worked with each of us in a loving, gentle, kind way. So we didn’t see the negative aspects of these horrendous people we were playing. We were good people. We were good people doing our best. I remember as the audiences began to come and watch this baby be thrown into the frozen ice and drowned. It was some pretty hard stuff to watch.
G: Yeah. You did The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada for Tommy Lee Jones. What is he like to work with both as a director and as an actor?
ML: Well, as an actor, first of all, there was just, you know, me and Pete. But what was really odd about that is that you can’t even count time. It wasn’t a half a second, it wasn’t a blink of an eye, it was without any time at all: this very gruff director would be soft and gentle Pete. Very gruff and a really fine director. That man did not—his name is not on the movie. He conceived the idea with Arriaga. Arriaga wrote the script in Spanish; Tommy Lee Jones translated it. He hand-picked every single actor in it. Julio Cedillo who plays Melquiades Estrada worked his ranch for three months before—rode him like he would the lowest lackey. He was an awesome director to work for. Awesome.
G: All right. I think that’s my cue to wrap it up. It’s been great talking to both of you. I could have talked for twice that time with you guys.
ML: Thank you.
G: Thanks a lot.