Prisoners and Acting: An Interview with Melissa Leo

MovieMaker spoke to Melissa Leo, one of 2013’s hardest-working actresses (she turned in performances in six of the year’s releases, including Oblivion and Prisoners), earlier this month at the blustery Whistler Film Festival.

Melissa Leo is currently in Vancouver working on a new FOX TV series, Wayward Pines, but she managed to make a brief escape for some adventures atop a white mountain, taking in some skiing and simultaneously supporting her film, Prisoners, which was playing at the Whistler Film Festival.

Prisoners, which also stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal has received plenty of critical acclaim, but it’s a film that Leo nearly passed on due to its heavy subject matter. Leo was not shy about admitting that she had some concerns about the “wisdom” of making a thriller about child abduction. She wasn’t going to be easily swayed by the project, but one man changed her mind and gained her trust. That man was the film’s director, Denis Villeneuve, whose previous film, Oscar-nominated Incendies had left Leo impressed. Understanding the actress’s concerns, Villeneuve managed to reassure her that he would address the subject with great sensitivity.

Trust, is no small thing between a director and an actor. For Leo, that trust means hearing the truth. “I just want a straight-up truth,” she said, “I don’t need a lot of compliments on what’s working, I probably know that it’s working.” Not unlike a professional athlete, Leo wants a director in her corner who she can trust to tell her when something isn’t working: “If you need to do it faster, louder, funnier, or try it like you’re really mad at him – anything.” Sometimes, she admitted, “it’s the wrong direction, but it shakes something else loose.” The worst thing, according to Leo, are directors who hide behind monitors and don’t say anything at all. “That’s death,” she said, “That’s just death!” After all, for Leo, an actor by definition is someone who is told what to do. “I’m told where to stand, what to wear, what to say – how to say it.” Her goal is to find a way to add a lively vitality to this formula.

There has to be a sense that the actor is never alone in the ring, that the director has her back. “I should not be outside myself watching myself when I work,” said Leo, “That’s where that bridge of trust with the director comes into play. The director needs to be watching what I’m doing and he needs to come over and know not only what to say to me, but how to say it.”

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Considering she has been acting for three decades, it was surprising to hear Leo admit that she is not a big movie watcher – yet, unlike many actors, she always views her own work. “I think an actor is a fool not to watch their own work,” she remarked, adding that her being an “egomaniac” might have something to do with it. “Everybody else is going to see it. If you can’t separate yourself and learn from what either worked or didn’t work you probably shouldn’t be acting in the first place,” she said. “It’s a tool to learn.” When she watches her own work, Leo does it as a professional, learning from what the editor and director has chosen to do with her performance. She’s an objective audience.

Known for her chameleonic ability to become extremely diverse characters, in Prisoners Leo takes on the role of Holly Jones, a lonely stepmother 15-20 years older than Leo herself, which required some significant physical, and emotional transformation. True to form, she disappeared into her role. Leo was quick to defend her character when dubbed “not very nice” by a reporter. “That is not a judgment I’m going to make. Dark? Yes. Not very nice? If that’s what you think.” Leo refuses to pass judgement on a character she plays (“Unless she’s a character who judges herself.”) Instead, what Leo looks for is a way to decode the human being: “I need to understand why she does what she does, and if that’s in the script that’s a blessing.” In Prisoners, there’s a very clear description near the end of who Holly is and why she is that way. “It’s right there on the page, so you don’t have to make it up.”

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Her core acting philosophy, Leo said, is based upon Stanislavski: “That for me is what acting is about. I will innately come aligned with every woman I play. I cannot make myself disappear.” During production, Leo’s every waking moment is occupied thinking about who that character is and what drives her, “from the moment I hear I’m going to play her, to the moment she tethers into history as I walk away from playing her.” Still, the actress who has brought to life so many bitterly complex, morally challenging creatures finds that leaving any of her characters behind is always “kind of bittersweet.” MM

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