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The Fretts on Film Interview: Melissa Leo on “Flight,” “Francine” and Life After Oscar

October 27, 2012

Melissa Leo is in Flight—in more ways than one. The dizzyingly versatile character actress plays a federal investigator probing Denzel Washington’s miraculous crash-landing in Robert Zemeckis’ new drama. Ever since taking home a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 2010’s The Fighter, she’s been busy on TV (Treme, Louie) as well as at the movies (check out her shattering performance as an ex-con in Francine, available on VOD later this week). We talked about all this and more…

What made you want to be a part of Flight?
Mostly just that I was asked by Mr. Zemeckis, and the fact that I could work with Mr. Washington–I just don’t think I could turn that down! Of course, people advised me to read the script first! So I did, and I could tell that what Mr. Zemeckis was asking me to do was to bring his picture home for him–it was quite an honor to be asked, really.

It is a very important role, but it’s relatively small and it does come late in the film. Did that give you any pause to sign on?

No, I don’t think so. I feel a little funny about it, that people have known I’m in it, and they go and, ‘Oh! Are you in it?’ (laughing). It takes a long time for me to show up, but I think in the end they payoff is fine and dandy. I wouldn’t trade that day with them in Atlanta for anything.

So how would you describe Robert Zemeckis’ style as a director on the set? What’s he like with actors?
He’s wonderful! Wonderful with actors! There are a lot of directors who don’t really understand actors, they’re wonderful directors in different ways, but Bob’s a beautiful director. And a a beautiful technical director–like everything was set up. He had talked to all his departments, he knew what he wanted his shots to be, he knew what the blocking was. I would go do some more of that in a second.

What about Denzel? It’s such a sensitive scene and he’s so vulnerable. How did it feel to be acting opposite him in that?
It felt like I was Ellen Block and he was Whip Whitaker. There we were, in it. And you know how shooting goes–we don’t just run through it once or twice. It’s again and again and again and again all day long. The camera was set up 80% of the time in both directions, and it can really shift and deepen a scene when both people know they’re being shot at the same time. And I have a feeling that anytime, anywhere, I show up and work with Mr. Washington, he’s going to be 100% in it 100% of the time. It was beautiful working with him.

I was just talking to John Goodman, and I told him I was hoping that you guys would have a scene together and have a little Treme reunion, but I guess that was not meant to be.
No, we keep on getting set up in films together, but we don’t really get to work together, but I I just love my marriage to John Goodman.

I know. I miss him so much on the show.
Oh, you don’t know the half of it.

You and David Morse are great together, but come on–John Goodman…
India Ennenga and I have almost brought ourselves to tears a couple of times in the last couple of years on the show talking about Daddy (laughing).

I also recently saw you in Francine. What was that like, playing such an unstable person?
It is a polar opposite of Flight. So interesting that they both start with F and both happen to come out around the same time. Flight was all about that language I had to learn, one of the premises of Francine was that there wouldn’t be a lot of dialogue and would that be all right with me? I was like, ‘It’s a visual medium—let’s tell this story in pictures.’ And it was a hard movie to shoot because of the depth of Francine’s pain, but when an actor allows that into our soul—allow Francine’s soul to inhabit mine—you hope that the directors will then take my soul and take care of it while we work. They’re young documentarian filmmakers, and so it was less of a pleasurable experience and more like going into a forge, and out of that forge, a beautiful film was brought. It’s kind of incredible.

Absolutely. It seems like you’re getting a lot of diverse opportunities to do a lot of kinds of work, and you’ve always done that. But do you think winning the Oscar has given you more of a license to do all kinds of different work?
I’m so delighted that it hasn’t pigeon-holed me in some ways as a Boston mother for the rest of my life. Absolutely. And my career has been built on playing all different kinds of women, and I’m totally delighted that it seems to be continuing in that way of playing even more various kinds of women. The biggest pleasure I’ve gotten in these couple of years is the caliber of people I’m getting an opportunity to work with.

I thought you were hilarious on Louie. That was completely unexpected.
It was a little unexpected for me too (laughing).

It must have been fun!
It was a riot. Again, in ways totally unexpected. I was terrified walking into that role—just terrified. Not only the sexual content, but the humor of it because that’s not my… so I just thought, I’ll do whatever Louie says! (laughing).

And you’re in two movies with Robin Williams, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn and The Butler?
Yes, it was a delight to go out and about shooting in New York with Phil Alden Robinson and Robin. We were down in New Orleans on a Monday shooting The Butler, flew back up to New York and Tuesday there we were as husband and wife in Brooklyn. And I think it added a depth to our portrayals in both films.

They sound very different, though—you play the Eisenhowers in The Butler?
Yeah, totally. One of the scenes that we shot after we did The Butler together, it was a dance scene—Robin’s dancing and I’m trying to follow—and I said to him as the wife of the angriest man in Brooklyn, ‘Oh honey, remember that time when we went to the fancy dress ball as Ike and Mamie?’ And he laughed. So yeah, it’s kind of a way to fold it in and know each other better and be comfortable with each other. It was a great opportunity to see how Robin works and try to be able to assist him and be there for him. He is such a serious actor. The research he did for those few scenes in The Butler is phenomenal. There’s nothing about Eisenhower he doesn’t know.

So do you ever take a break? You’re making a movie with Tom Cruise, too….  I’m striking while the iron is hot, and a lot of it is one or two days of work and then the travel probably takes up the most of the time. It’s been really a pleasure working with Tom and I’ve worked with Aaron Eckhart, Gerard Butler and Sam Rockwell in a film, Single Shot. So I’ll do the traveling if I get to play with such wonderful people.

What’s your favorite Melissa Leo role? Anyone else remember her from Homicide: Life on the Street? Post a comment!

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