Name: Melissa Leo
DOB: 14 September 1960
Place of birth: Manhattan, New York, United States
Ms. Leo, what does it mean to disappear into a role?
You are taking a character that somebody else has drawn, and the things of oneself that are close to the character, you allow to shine, and the rest you replace with this character… The way you dress, the way you talk, the way you walk. It’s the marriage of the character and the actor playing them. I will always be there at the core, I might shift aspects of Melissa's soul to play the character. But Melissa is still present.
You once described this as asking the director to hold your soul while you become this character for them.
Right, so, say I'm playing somebody in I'm Dying Up Here. And what the showrunners wanted from me was to be a very, very harsh woman, right? And anybody who actually knows me knows I am far from a harsh woman, I keep to myself and let you do what you do, and I do what I do until it comes to work. But while I'm playing that role, I’m bringing up my unhappiness with the world, my unhappiness with the way people are doing things — that’s me allowing the character to take over. But for the actor to feel that they would completely disappear themselves would be ridiculous!
“What an actor does is often not understood by people. It almost can seem like alchemy to those that do not do it.”
Many critics actually praise you for your ability to disappear into a role.
Well, I don't know that I try to do it. I'm kind of an uncomfortable person just being Melissa, and so when I've been given a script and a role and an objective of the role and the house that she lives in and clothing that she wears, I feel a great deal of comfort in that. So it's not my intention to disappear! It's just simply the magic that happens when I get to do this amazing thing that they let me do — and then they pay me for it! (Laughs) But I don't know, I think the idea of disappearing into a role, that comes from an observer’s perspective of what acting is.
What does it look like from an insider perspective?
Inside of acting, almost everything about it is kind of the opposite of what someone from the outside thinks. The actor is crying in the scene. “Oh, no poor person.” No, that’s great acting! What an actor does is often not understood by people. It almost can seem like alchemy to those that do not do it. It’s not really something you can talk about! It's dangerous to talk about acting.
Dangerous in what way?
Because I don't know what I do! It's all just a bunch of words, and that's not what acting is. It's not words, and it's not brain surgery where we know that exactly what is what… It's more magical than that. It’s like magicians who notoriously don't want to talk about magic. I get a script, I read it, I figure out what they want.
Apparently you spend a lot of time figuring out what’s being asked of you for a role: you speak with the director, the costume department, hair and make up, all to get a sense of the backstory of your character. Is that approach the same when you’re in a more supporting role?
I think that in the long run for every role, large or small, understanding the part that character plays in the director's film is very important. So when I was working with John Swab on Body Brokers, I needed to know: was this therapist involved in this outrageous scam going on with the rehabs and the insurance companies? Was she aware and complicit in it? And in the end, the very interesting answer is that it doesn't really matter if she is or not. She's got a job as a therapist, and she is committed to that. In her time with these clients, she's gonna give them whatever help her training and experience and knowledge can. She's going to, like most people do, try and do the best job she can.
Is it perhaps more difficult to play those types of supporting roles because you have a smaller window in which to bring the character to life?
Yes, it is the most difficult job to do. It is an extremely hard job. When you're the lead and you're carrying the film, you have so much more information to go on, so much more support from this story, from the costume department… Supporting work is a complicated thing. You have to be even more cautious about stepping outside of the director's vision.
“I don't know how else to put it but to say that acting is my life. And when I'm on a set, when I'm working, when I'm rehearsing a play, I am alive.”
How does that compare to stage and television, where you have multiple episodes or performances to work within?
All three disciplines, film, television and stage are exactly the same thing — and completely different. On stage, the cast and the director work sitting in chairs around a table for a week just reading the script, talking about it, sharing stories of our lives, getting to know one another. And then you begin to find the blocking for the play, and you work on that, and then you get to go out eight times a week on the stage and try and hit those things you found in rehearsal. And every night you never hit them all.
But you get to come back the next night and try again.
And thank goodness! We do it again Thursday night — oh, that was a good show. Friday night — oh, we missed that. So you have this constant process of working. In film and television, there's less control over it because you shoot a scene from different angles, you have a chance to try a few different things and learn about it as you go. And then it goes to an editor who's actually going to decide exactly what works and what doesn’t. The disciplines have similarities and differences.
In whatever medium, is acting something you hope to for the rest of your life?
Until I die in my footsteps, just like Bob Dylan said. If I keel over on stage, I'm a happy, happy woman; very lucky and blessed. I don't know how else to put it but to say that acting is my life. And when I'm on a set, when I'm working, when I'm rehearsing a play, I am alive. And perhaps, like the bear in the winter, in between, I hibernate. I don't have a very social life, I have chosen to not have much of a life except for my beautiful son. I have no partner at this point. And in fact, I learned that this is where I get my seemingly unending energy that I can bring to my work. My life is full of peaks and valleys. And I've learned to not be too concerned when I'm very, very quiet at home as I was much of last year.
Has it been a learning process to accept those periods of hibernation?
Well, I think an actor always is concerned about when the next job is coming. And when I started out, I definitely gave myself an out of acting; I would give myself time limits, six months, three months, and if I didn't get work, I would simply go find some other thing to do, maybe work in a bookstore or something. But I was blessed that every time my time limit was coming to an end, I would get a job acting. And what that teaches me about the world is that if you open yourself up to your own true path, what's meant to happen will happen. It will come to you. That has nothing to do with acting, that has to do with life.
“My life is very isolated and alone. But my work cannot be done by myself. I find that very beautiful.”
And what if it’s not your true path?
(Laughs) Here’s the protocol. If anything can stop you, let it. You might have been drawn to being an actor because you have a talent as a cinematographer or a sound engineer. You've been drawn to the industry because you see acting, so you think it's acting that you’re drawn to. But for the vast majority of actors, it's a hard knock life. And I think if there’s other talents you possess… Don't try to be an actor if you're not an actor. Don't try to be an actor because you want to be an actor. Be an actor because you need to be an actor, because that's what you are.
And you’ve never been drawn to anything else?
Not particularly! I have other things that I do. I did a lot of skiing and rock climbing… I enjoyed that. Am I a skier? No. Am I a rock climber? No. I knit! Am I a knitter? Not a very good one. And I don't know if I'm right or wrong, that's just how I perceive it.
What has acting given you that you wouldn’t have gleaned if you were a skier or a rock climber?
It's given me everything! It's given me a purpose. It's given me a way to share my experience with others. I guess it's a funny thing to say, but you know, after working with me, many actors and other people on crew will mention or write a sweet card saying I've inspired them. I stand up for my character. I am committed to the industry. I'm not alone making films and television or theater. It's a collaborative art. An actor cannot act alone, an actor not only needs the support of the writer, the director, the other actors; an actor needs the support of the audience. You can't do it alone, and that fits really well with me. My life is very isolated and alone. But my work cannot be done by myself. I find that very beautiful.