In 2011, an emotional Melissa Leo accepted the award for best supporting actress at the Oscars. “I’m just shaking in my boots here,” she exclaimed from the stage, adding that other past winners had made accepting the award “look so [damn] easy.”
Over the course of her nearly 40-year career, Melissa, 61, has made inhabiting the worlds of a diverse bunch of characters in film and television look easy, too. “I love the women I’ve played,” she tells Closer. “I love the hateful women, the mean women, the delightful women, the ugly women, the pretty women. All of them have made me a better, stronger, more capable, more interesting human being.”
In her latest film, Ida Red, which is in theaters now, Melissa plays the title character, the head of a Midwestern crime syndicate. “She is respected by all. That was the great joy of playing Ida, receiving that kind of respect from white males,” Melissa shares. “In my riper age, I am treated with less respect, so that’s one of the things that really delighted me about her.”
Most actors assume that winning an Oscar will help their career, but Melissa, who earned hers in 2010’s The Fighter, found it didn’t open up as many doors as she’d hoped. “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! Wait, where’s the work?’ I began to have expectations, and I had to get over that,” she says.
Today, the size of the role is not as important as the quality of the project, which has allowed Melissa to work constantly. In addition to Ida Red, she has three more films slated for release in 2022 and has several projects in pre- or post-production.
“I’m not a John Wayne type of actor who shows up to do the same kind of work every time,” Melissa explains. “I am always trying to reinvent and find characters I have not yet played. Over the final chapter of my career, I want to tells stories about women that are believable and show women in all kinds of ways in a broader and broader light.”