Melissa Leo Talks Flight, in theaters Friday, November 2nd
Oscars have been won with less screen time, but don't bring up the subject to Melissa Leo, who shares a short, but very intense and important scene with Denzel Washington in Flight. The actress worked on the Robert Zemeckis directed drama for one day, and would rather not dwell on any award aspirations for her work. Despite her first Oscar win, she claims to be a blue collar actress. Someone who sees the craft as a job, not a cause for celebrity.
We recently caught up with Melissa Leo to talk about this and more on the eve of Flight's release. It's Robert Zemeckis' first live action movie in more than a decade, and it proves that the director is still at the top of his game when it comes to dealing with real flesh and blood people on tangible movie sets.
We discussed this, as well as Melissa Leo's much smaller, but no less important film Francine, which is in select theaters now. Though, despite all of the things she's done in recent years, it's her one episode appearance on Louie that has garnered her the most recognition. That is, if people recognize her from that small role at all.
Here is our conversation.
I'm sure that people constantly bring up Louie. I have a friend who is a big fan of yours, and we watched your episode knowing you would be on it. When it was over, my friend turns to me and says, "Where was Melissa Leo?" She didn't recognize you. So much so, she refused to believe it was you even after she looked it up and saw your name in the credits. As an actor, do you take that as a compliment?
Melissa Leo: (Laughs) Oh my God. Absolutely. 100%. One of my favorite stories is when my father didn't recognize me, when I was on Homicide: Life on the Street playing the sister. To disappear myself is the most important thing of all. That is so funny. I didn't realize I'd disappeared myself so thoroughly in that episode. It's funny, because I get more people asking me about that. I cracked up when you brought it up first thing, because I have more interest generated in that one single half hour episode than anything I have ever done in my life.
You really knocked it out of the park with that one. Now, in terms of John Goodman being in Flight alongside you, is that just a serendipitous coincidence, or was that a plan put in place after you guys were so great together on Treme?
Melissa Leo: I think this might be, what I like to call, God. Because ever since Creighton died, John Goodman and I were in Kevin Smith's movie. We are in this one. I don't know... But I just love it. He is one of the most lovely, lovable human beings. I can pretend I was married to him. I don't know what that is, but it delights me when I see his name on the cast list. It's so funny, because it has happened quite a lot in the last few years.
That's funny that you bring up Red State. There's another movie where I don't think Melissa Leo when I think of that specific character.
Melissa Leo: I'm glad too hear that!
What is one word that describes why you took on Flight?
Melissa Leo: Because I felt very honored by Mr. Robert Zemeckis, that he would ask me to do this role. Though it is a small role, it has to work so that the movie works. You know what I mean? To entrust that to me seemed fairly obvious, why he was doing this. He knew I could bring him something that would be, maybe a little bit deeper than hearing it in fourth person. I don't know. I just felt very honored when he asked, after I had read the script. He was asking a lot of me.
Over the years, we've seen Oscar nominations for way smaller roles. So I can't image the screen time was even a deterrent considering how important the character is to the overall story arc here.
Melissa Leo: Oh, god, no...I would be a little embarrassed if that happened. I don't know. Supporting actors are the support. You can't make a building without support. You can't buy dinner without support.
As Carl Weathers says, you can't make a stew...
Melissa Leo: Yeah. I never considered winning anything. Did I consider being in a film that would receive worldwide distribution? That might have crossed my mind.
Having said that, does this afford you an opportunity to get the word out about Francine?
Melissa Leo: You know, it is funny. Francine is going out into the world at the same time. We'll have a screening out here in Los Angeles soon. But I don't think that Flight has anything to do with what Francine is doing. Back at this year's Berlin Film Festival, my jaw dropped at how well received we were there. And SXSW. And every place that Francine began its screenings, many months ago now. I did it because it was in the Hudson Valley, in my own backyard. It sounded like a fascinating portrait of a woman, with very little dialogue, telling this story on film, in pictures. What a brilliant idea. I inserted myself into that project because it sounded neat-o. It was very hard shooting it. It was full of fire and tension like a forge. When I first saw that film, I couldn't believe what a beautiful little film it is. I think what Francine is doing, it is doing it on its own.
I've seen it, and think it's a great movie. In terms of Flight, I just meant that you doing daylong press gives you more of an opportunity to talk about it, and get it out there...
Melissa Leo: Well, that is very true. You snuck that in, didn't you?
I've read up on your one scene with Denzel. You shot that over the course of one day, and it was a long day. Did you ever fear that you would have to come back and do it all over again for any reason, having felt that you both nailed it so strongly on that first run?
Melissa Leo: I think there has only been one time in my entire career that I've ever gone back to shoot a scene. And it was a scene that, when we were shooting it, we knew that it wasn't working. We knew there was a disagreement between the actor and director. So, we went back. That is the only time that has ever happened, so no, I never thought about having to go back and redo this. I also did not do any ADR or looping on it. So when I saw it at the closing night of the AFI Film Festival, it was the first time I had ever seen a frame of that scene. But if something had of gone wrong, and I had to go back? I would have been happy to rejoin them, I think. Once you've learned it, you throw the dialogue out. But, once you've learned dialogue, its always sort of there, too. I remember going to see something twenty years after I had done it, and I was like, "Oh my god, I remember all of my lines!"
Now, is that luck or skill that you've never had to go back except that one time? Because reshoots happen all the time. It's not an uncommon thing.
Melissa Leo: Right, that's the end of filmmaking I have been involved in. Maybe if I was in these many month long shoots, and I'd worked with Quentin Tarantino (laughs)...It's the nature of the work that I have done. By and large, reshoots can't be afforded. We did do some reshoots on a film called A Time of Destiny. It wasn't really reshooting. It was after shooting, where we all gathered and went back to do some further scenes.
Do you have one word that describes your character in Flight?
Melissa Leo: Its sort of two words, but you can string it together and pretend its one word: Truth Seeker.
What about Denzel's character, Whip?
Melissa Leo: Sad man. What is this, a therapeutic test?
No, people like one word answers, I guess cause they are easy to read on the iPhone while you are doing your business...Any business...And they only give me 10 minutes with you, so what a way to stretch out the space...
Melissa Leo: (Laughs)
Now, you have a lot of films coming out in the very near future...
Melissa Leo: Yeah, but it's mostly the same thing. One day here, two days there. A couple of days with Tom Cruise, and a few days with Aaron Eckhart and Gerard Butler. A wonderful week and a half in Romania with Shia LaBeouf, a couple of days with Mark Ruffalo. The travel is more than the work. But I have had a lot of fun. I'm actually looking forward to going down and spending some time with Toni Bernette for another half a season.
Are you looking to break some sort of record where you are in more movies opposite more leading men than we have ever seen before?
Melissa Leo: Through all of this lovely interviewing, and nice things people say, and the rest of it, I have learned that I am an actor. That is my profession. That is my job. That is how I make a living. So I am just out there making a living. That might sound funny coming out of an Oscar winner. But that is what I have been busy doing.
Last question. Every one has made a big deal about this being Robert Zemeckis' first live action movie in over a decade. Why do you think it's important for the director to return to live-action filmmaking?
Melissa Leo: Well, I didn't get to do any motion capture, but that is okay. This is such an astonishing movie. Once you get past the beautifully drawn portrait of this horrendous airplane 'almost' accident...I guess its an accident, but it could be worse...When you get into the film...The accident is over in the first twenty minutes, and this film is this intimate portrait of a very troubled, little does he know it, man. The clarity with which Robert Zemeckis is interested in telling a story, and the preparedness with which he comes to work, allowing me this one day part...People came on the weekend to show me props, and costumes, and hairdos, and things...Robert Zemeckis himself came on his day off. I spent time with him in Atlanta. We discovered what he was looking for, and how I could help him best. I got clear answers. It was so delightful working with him. Clearly, to me, the man is a filmmaker. That can have a broad product from it. If you are really, truly a filmmaker, and you get what the art of film is...That gives you a lot of room to play on the playground.