Having experienced something of a mid-career breakout with her Oscar-winning supporting role in “The Fighter,” Melissa Leo‘s name has fast become something of a hallmark of quality. Recently she has lent her talents for startlingly authentic portrayals to the likes of “Treme,” “Mildred Pierce” and Kevin Smith‘s “Red State,” but in the Berlin Film Festival favorite “Francine” (our review is here) she lands a rare leading role in a feature, albeit a small, narrowly focused one.
With even those critics who didn’t wholly embrace the film unanimously praising her outstanding central performance, we got to sit down with Leo in Berlin to talk about the project, her approach to acting and her upcoming slate.
How easy do you find it to talk about acting?
It’s the only thing I know how to talk about. I’m not very bright, I don’t read the newspaper so it is my favorite topic of conversation, I’m embarrassed to say.
It seems like what you do is so intuitive that it might be hard to verbalize.
There’s times when you ask a certain something about acting and I might realize that I’m in sacred territory. There are things about acting that are better not spoken of except among [other actors] without a doubt. But I do understand what my job is and I really love my job. I especially love my job because I cannot do it alone. It must be realized through a collaboration. My understanding of film as the single collaborative art is just interesting to me.
Speaking of collaboration, you are often part of larger acting ensembles. Here you are front and center. Was that daunting?
It wasn’t daunting at all. It’s far more daunting to go show up on Rob Zemeckis‘ set and shoot two days with Denzel Washington, in which you have all of the dialogue, that’s a daunting thing to walk into, because they’re a machine that’s up and running. The joy of playing the lead is that you get to play more. So you can go that much deeper, you have that much more understanding and ways of communicating in the complex and often frantic reality of shooting a movie.
Was there a single thing, a foible or a setting or that gave you the way in and made you realize that you could totally inhabit this character?
I didn’t know that much about her [before] I inserted myself into the project. I saw it listed through the Hudson Valley Film Commission — the runner of which is a friend of mine — and a month at home in the summertime with a lead, it sounded jolly to me.
But more seriously it was fascinating, this idea, because I was definitely on the road to something with “The Fighter” at that point. It had been made, it was put together, there was all kinds of scuttlebutt going on about it. But this story, with little dialogue, told in pictures… and I know how gloriously amazing the Hudson Valley is, how rich. And so I got in touch with them and asked if they had found a lead yet…Had they been shooting someplace else, no, I probably wouldn’t have even heard about the film.
[The directors] weren’t even looking to cast an actor, to my understanding. Like the rest of the characters in the film, they were looking for a non-professional actor or a non-actor to play the role of Francine. That was their idea with their budget.
And they got an Oscar winner instead.
Yeah, and you could not have done the film without — no matter how talented — an actress that had not had a lot of experience. You could not have made the movie, it would not have been what it was.
So you found the role called on your experience as an actor?
Because of their body of [documentary] experience, which is shooting subjects and not actors, shooting the truth, where we pretend the truth, there was a large gap between our styles. I learned from them…It is the best example to date of the collaboration that filmmaking can be.
The film exists in a particular moment. There’s something very beautiful and austere about that, but did you develop a back story for your character?
[Directors] Brian [M. Cassidy] and Melanie [Shatzky] refused to give concrete responses on almost any level which, seeing the film last night, I understand better… There were times where I would say “No, we need to do it like this,” and we would. And they would say “we need to do it like this” and we’d do it their way. There was this back and forth constantly of who she was and how she would handle things…
You already mentioned “Flight,” which is a Robert Zemeckis movie — can you tell us about your character and how the experience has been?
Well to get the call that Zemeckis wanted me to do this scene for him was a great triumph. He’s such an experienced filmmaker, the kind I really plan to work more often with. Opposite Denzel — dreamy! Zemeckis meets me and he says, “Now listen, he’s a method actor, don’t expect him to be warm and fuzzy.” I said, “Don’t worry that works fine with me.”
So it wasn’t intimidating?
No, not to me. I work with De Niro or Pacino or opposite Tommy Lee Jones, and my game rises. It’s very hard to work with non-actors and I’ve done a lot of it. [It’s] much more pleasurable to work with actors. So I end the movie for him, I wrap it up for him, and that’s what he asked me to come and do. It was my honor to go and do it and I hope to God I delivered for him.
What about your rumored involvement with Kevin Smith’s hockey comedy?
Kevin Smith’s been claiming my name ever since the day I met him, I have no idea, he doesn’t call me and I don’t read his blogs. Love him to death, but as far as I know I have no commitments with Kevin. Love him to death and he can certainly call my people or me. One is never in control of the Internet. There’s all kinds of lies about me on IMDB.
At this point we are joined by “Francine” directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatsky.
Can you tell me about how your initial conception of the project evolved once Melissa signed on?
Brian: Simply put, Melissa brought a living, breathing Francine. That to us was an idea on a page, some images in our head, a story, some scene descriptions written out in kind of a literary way, maybe too literary. The translation to cinema is a very different thing. Sometimes you can be very seductive with language that you then need to find the cinematic equivalent. So there was some of that but Melissa as Francine brought the center and the heart and soul of the film.
Melanie: It was only ten pages long, how we wrote it, so we just had scene descriptions, the goal of the scene, this is what’s going to happen, but there was no dialogue. So there was a lot of room for creativity on the part of Melissa and whoever’s involved to shape what would happen in the scenes and what was happening from moment to moment… Giving Melissa that freedom for her creative acting, and then Brian’s beautiful camera working together, there are a lot of moments that are really magical that we never could have scripted. It never would have come to mind at all.
Melissa: This happens all the time. John Goodman down on “Treme” in New Orleans, he’d put these one-liners in after every scene he ever shot — that was some of the best writing on “Treme” ever and they’re damn good writers. He just gets in the character so whatever comes out of his mouth is appropriate then somehow to the character.
Here there was an oddly sparse amount of information yet very, very specific at the same time. It wasn’t that it was unclear going into it, it was what drew me in. The notion of not talking. Tilda Swinton said something about being interested in exploring the inability to speak, which is a fascinating thing for an actor. I think in a way that too was what pulled me into “Francine.” One of the things in that first blurb was “not very much dialogue, story told in pictures.”
Brian: It’s a very mysterious thing from our background as photographers that we bring. I think some of it is isolating moments and some of it is at times disconnecting them from the cause and effect of how they got there.
How do you achieve that balance between careful, composed photography and not losing the realism and spontaneity?
Melanie: We wanted it to be beautiful without it being aestheticized. So there’s a sense, coming from our documentary background, of capturing the essence of something. We were very intent on everything being hand-held so everything felt natural, so at no point is anything too, too composed. When it’s too too composed you aestheticize that thing, it loses its naturalism and that magic is somehow broken.
Brian: I think very simply it’s about being interested. Being interested in what it is you’re seeing and what it is you’re telling. If you’re disinterested you start thinking about different kinds of [shots]…I think in “Francine” what I’m very proud of is there’s a tenderness at the core of it, and a deep interest in what we’re seeing that allows it to walk that very fine line between the beautiful and the ugly.
Melissa: What you’re asking them is very hard for them to see for themselves, but they are without judgment. I’d like to think I live without judgment, but these two people [really] live without judgment. So it’s not “oh, poor Francine” it’s just Francine. Just that reality. Is she beautiful? Sometimes more beautiful than I’ve ever been on camera. Is she raw and ugly? Well that first opening shot…but it starts there. It needs to start there. You need to experience that incarceration with her. And the nakedness.