Location: Stone Ridge, NY
Marital Status: Single
“I’m way over 40 now,” says Melissa, 50, a 2011 Best Supporting Actress nominee for The Fighter. “There is a feeling that it’s over for actresses when you hit that number. But my career just began to blossom.” This is due, in part, to the fact that Melissa has never relied on pretty-young-thing roles. Having grown up on the Lower East Side on New York in a tough, working-class family, she’s always been comfortable playing the tough girl, the cop, the stern prosecutor.
She attributes her success to a relentless work ethic—even when there was very little work to be had. “I just kept going and doing the right thing,” she says. “I did a student film. Anything to be working. Work generates more work. Activity generates activity.”
In 2010, the work paid off when Melissa landed several meaty and complex roles in critically-acclaimed films: a policewoman who frames an innocent man in Conviction; a put-upon wife whose husband, played by James Gandolfini, visits a young stripper in Welcome to the Rileys, and a street-tough mother who favors her older, drug addicted son in The Fighter.
In Hollywood, Melissa Leo, 50, is finally a contender.
You’ve gone from unknown to working actress to sensation. Can you talk about what’s kept you in this business, despite all the challenges?
I’ve been acting for 30 years. It’s the only thing I wanted to do as a little girl. As a child, I found other people who liked to pretend and an audience of anyone who was around me. I marveled that I could make others believe things. When I was alone, I’d sit in my room and pretend with my dolls. At a very early age, I went through a door that said ‘acting.’ Eventually, I came to New York City and started working. Bill Murray convinced me that I should keep acting.
I left college because I wasn’t going to graduate. I took honors in acting, but couldn’t pass the academic courses. So, there I was, waiting tables in New York City, trying to survive and thinking about packing it all up when I met Bill Murray. He watched me audition and said, ‘You know, you got something there. You want to do this, so stop talking about it. Just do it!’ That day, I walked out of the restaurant for the last time and made a commitment to myself. I said, ‘I will be an actress.’ It’s a commitment I haven’t broken.’”
Who else do you credit for keeping your head in the game?
I had a lot of family and friends who fed me and housed me during the tougher years. They were just there to make sure I could live my dream. I also have a son who is now 23-years-old. I raised him on the back of acting. But I didn’t do it alone. You’re lucky in life if you have others who also believe in your dream. It’s okay to lean on them and make them a part of it.
After all of this struggle, what was it like to hear that you were nominated for an Oscar? What was it like to hear you won the Golden Globe and SAG awards for “The Fighter?”
It’s such an amazing honor to be in the place I am now. A thrill. The Oscar—It’s so big. I’m full of excitement. I’m still not over the shock.
Speaking of The Fighter, you had some trepidation about playing the mother of Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg. Why?
I didn’t think I could play Mark and Christian’s mother. I’m not really old enough. Plus, it was a complicated role and I wasn’t sure if I could actually do it. So, there was that moment of self-doubt that all of us have before tackling something big. Then I had a meeting with David O. Russell [The Fighter’s director] to discuss the possibility of being Alice. He convinced me that he had total faith in me. He said, ‘You can play this role.’ Suddenly, we were working together. He also gave me the opportunity to meet the real Alice, which was key.
You didn’t meet her under the best circumstances.
She was in the hospital with pneumonia. The timing wasn’t good, but she very kindly allowed me into her hospital room to meet her, against her better judgement. She wanted to look well, but she was sick. Immediately, I took her hand. We sat quietly and sized each other up. I saw a very strong woman and that was very valuable to me. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I could do the role. I still hadn’t crossed that bridge. But I sat with the real Alice and she was very kind.
What did you think of the real Alice Ward?
She was so much like my mother’s mother. There is a type of woman who just pushes on. Alice survived this masculine boxing world. When she was younger, a woman could only accomplish in the shadows. All of a woman’s accomplishments, including mothering, were unsung. Alice had nine children and managed the fighting careers of her son. Amazing. My great admiration for Alice helped me decide to do this movie.
Did you seek her approval?
I was seeking her approval. I felt like I won it. She explained to me how she spent a lifetime being misunderstood and hoped that this movie fairly represented her. Once I committed, it was like I jumped off a cliff.
Your success was a long time in the making. Any advice for women trying to still make it after a certain age?
You just can’t give up. Even in the leaner years, I was still an actress. That’s what I did for a living. I also took any chance to work because work leads to work. You need to pursue your dream and not just think about it. Soon, others will take notice. In my case, people began to realize that all these different women were actually played by one woman. Me. Meanwhile, my mindset was clear. I thought, ‘What do you got for me next?
Tell us a little bit about your role in March’s HBO mini series Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce.
Oh my God, what a delightful thing to do this project. It’s not like the original movie. You need to go back and find the book Mildred Pierce if you want to know what our film is like. I can tell you that Kate Winslet is so super and better than I could have ever dreamed. She’s so serious about the work and a delightful woman. We were rolling on the floors laughing between takes.
You have a 23-year-old son with your ex-boyfriend, actor John Heard. How has motherhood impacted your life and career?
Motherhood has worked out swimmingly. My son can take care of himself now, so I’m like, ‘Honey, Mom is off to work.’”