Melissa Leo is one of those fortunate people who love their work. From the day she received her first professional break with a role on All My Children, through her prime-time stardom playing Sgt. Kay Howard on Homicide: Life on the Street, to her Oscar win for her role in 2010’s The Fighter and beyond, she’s always thrilled to do her job.
“Whether it’s on a television set or a movie set — or, I pray one day again, in a theater — it’s a chance to act,” Melissa, 61, explains to Closer. “Acting alone in the shower is not acting. Acting happens when it’s observed. An actor needs a group of people to say we want you.”
In her latest role, Melissa plays the title character in the crime drama Ida Red, currently available by streaming and on-demand. “I’m always looking for a role I’ve never played before,” she explains. [Ida] is the highest of the high in the crime family and respected by all. In my riper age, I am treated with less respect, so that’s one of the things that really delighted me about her.”
How did your childhood in New York and Vermont prepare you to be an actor?
“I wouldn’t be an actor without the childhood I had. It wasn’t an easy childhood, we never had much. After my parents separated, we had even less. My mother moved me out of New York City up to the country. I know the urban core of my being, but I also know the country. I can start a fire, a wood stove, and camp in the woods. It makes for a broader range of characters that are closer to me.”
Was there ever a doubt you’d be an actor?
“No, never a doubt. When I was 15 and living in London with my mother, I went to a theater school. There was a realization: ‘Oh, this is what I’ll do.’ What I didn’t know at 15 is how you get work. Many years later, I am still trying to figure that out!”
Is there anything you know now that you wished you knew then?
“No, I wouldn’t have it be any other way. There’s a seat in which you know something, and that’s a nice seat to be in, but the even nicer seat is the seat of not knowing because then anything can happen.”
In 1984, you were hired to play Linda Warner on All My Children — your first big role. What was that like?
“I just loved going to work every day! I had a ball getting up at five in the morning and going down to 67th Street, where the old studio was, and seeing how the soaps are made. We shot as if we were shooting live, which was really thrilling.”
You’ve played so many great roles since then. Do you have a favorite?
“Oh, I can’t do that. If I mentioned one, I’d leave out 20. I love my women. I love the hateful women, the mean women, the delightful women, the ugly women, the pretty women — I love all the women I’ve played. All of them have made Melissa a better, stronger, more capable, more interesting human being.”
Is there a former costar who you felt you learned the most from?
“Oh, so many! But since you brought up the soap opera — on the first day of taping, Peter Bergman pulled out a script and put it under the couch cushion he was seated on. As a young actress, who had just left acting school, I had learned very thoroughly that you have to learn your dialogue. But you really don’t have to do that for film or television, that’s only in theater. That was one of my first and earliest lessons.”
That was a good lesson!
“I’ve found for all the years that I have been working, the people with the most experience on the set will always answer questions. We’re always learning new things. And we’re learning from the youngsters coming in. We’re learning from the people who work with sound or light. The arts are about growth, not about being sedentary. That’s what it’s all about.”
In 2010, you won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for The Fighter. How did it change your life?
“Winning an Oscar changed my life, but I can’t say it changed it for the better. Post-Academy Award, I was like, ‘Oh, this is so great! So the work is just going to come in now, all these leading roles!’ I began to have expectations, and I had to get over that. I’m trying to now really look forward and make conscious choices about the work that I do, and not do work that will be harmful to me or others.”
What are you proudest of in your life?
Did he follow you and his father, the late actor John Heard, into entertainment?
“No! He’s a fine artist.”
What is the best thing your son has taught you?
“When I won my Academy Award, my son looked at me and said, ‘Oh, mama, you knew all along.’ He knew I was an actor, but I was no movie star. I realized when he said it that I always did know. I always knew I was an actor, and although you’re not supposed to say it, I’m a good actor.”
Not everyone is so fortunate to have such a strong feeling about what they were meant to do.
“Yes, this is my calling. Life, politics, COVID opinions, I don’t know anything about them. But I went into this with an innate understanding and after 30 years of being blessed with work, I know even more about it. Acting is the one thing I have strong opinions about.”
What kind of roles get you excited?
“I’m always trying to reinvent and find characters I have not yet played. Ida Red is an action-adventure picture, which is not really my cup of tea when I am watching for pleasure. But the reason I am there is that this is a woman I have not yet played.”
What do you think of the depictions of women in film and television?
“I think we are all acutely aware that the portrait of women in film and television coming out of the United States for probably all of my career has been appalling and unhealthy. So I am seeking in the final chapter of my career, over the next 10 to 20 years, to try to tell stories about women that are believable and show us in a broader light.”
—Reporting by Katie Bruno
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