Oscar nominee Melissa Leo talks about working with Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, and appearing in the HBO series Treme.
Melissa Leo on the method behind her greatness
Melissa Leo won the Best Supporting Actress awards at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild for her turn in The Fighter, and there's a fair chance that the Manhattan-born star will have to make space on her mantlepiece for an Oscar as well.
The gongs are well deserved rewards for the remarkable performance she delivers in David O'Russell's boxing biopic starring Mark Wahlberg as "Irish" Mickey Ward and Christian Bale as his older half-brother and fellow fighter Dicky Eklund.
Ironically in a film about men throwing punches in the ring, it's actually the women in their lives who are the most formidable creatures. Amy Adams appears as Ward's new love Charlene Flemming, but it's Leo in the role of the fighter's mother, Alice Ward, whom you wouldn't want to cross. She's the matriarchal mother of nine children, seven girls in addition to her two boxers, and it's easy to see how men who are Goliaths in the ring quiver like mice whenever she throws them a stern glance.
By all accounts, the actress was as formidable on set as she is in the film. An advocate of method acting Leo stayed in character whether the cameras were rolling or not.
It's an approach that obviously works for the 50-year-old actress. In 2009 she received an Oscar nomination for her turn in Frozen River, playing a woman who smuggles illegal migrants across the Canadian border to make ends meet. She is also currently lighting up the small screen as a civil rights lawyer in the HBO series Treme, from the makers of The Wire, about life in New Orleans post-Katrina. It's the busiest time of her career and Leo's star has never shone brighter.
On the challenges of playing a real person as opposed to a purely fictional character, Leo is frank: "She really is a character. "She's 20 years older than she's depicted in the film. The family provided all these photo albums to the production company and the costume designer Mark Bridges imitated the costumes for the screen. The hairdo that I have in the film is the spitting image of hers - in a certain period she wore her hair in a couple of different ways, and the one they liked best is the hairdo you see in the film. So a lot of research work and meeting Alice was very, very important to me.
"I didn't spend the kind of time that Christian spent with Dicky and certainly not what Mark spent with Mick, but I had a handful of hours with Alice that were so valuable to me. I felt quite distant from the role, how was I going to do this? And it was meeting her that made me feel I had something internal, with all this external hair and costume and things going on. The internal part that I connected with is something that reminded me of my mum's mother."
She explains that her grandmother wasn't nearly as ferocious as Alice, but the connection came more out of being from a different era: "Not so much feistiness, it's maybe seeking an understanding of what would make a woman so feisty, a woman who was brought up in a time when women were brought up to be ladies."
As for boxing, Leo admits that she was no aficionado of the sport: "I didn't know much about it. I've always been fascinated by the sport in some kind of way; if I saw it on television it made me stop and made me watch and I think I learnt a little bit about why that might be. It's an extraordinary man-to-man game that occurs today and it's really rather ancient and heroic."
Then there's the skill and strategy, "not just within the ring but the arrangements of the fight", she adds. "I've never understood baseball statistics, but now I say, 'Oh, I see, so you look at the record from before and what they're most likely to do and this is how you draw statistics' and that's what goes on in a fight game, hopefully."
Alice is her son's manager, so it's no surprise that Leo wanted to learn the intricacies of boxing, and her fascination with the sport seems genuine.
The Fighter was a project that Wahlberg had been trying to get made for years. He spent time in the gym, learning and copying Ward's moves, but the film went through a number of directors. It was, though, the decision to appoint David O'Russell, a director that Wahlberg had worked with previously on Three Kings and one with a difficult reputation (as seen in the leaked outtake of him arguing with Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees) that grabbed Leo's attention.
"Well, the David O'Russell enticement was definitely what got my foot through the door," she says. "But Mark had suggested that I would be ideal to play Alice and David said, 'Well, let me meet with her.'" She went along for what she supposed was an interview, "and within five minutes the man is completely convinced I'll be his Alice, and talking about revamping the script he was in the midst of, that Mark had had for all those years". She adds: "David was really building the roles of both Charlene and Alice in his version of the script."
As well as The Fighter, Leo also appeared recently in Conviction, alongside Hilary Swank. The actress says: "I enjoyed playing the police woman in that. And that is something that's kept me very excited and interested all these years, never playing the same woman twice, always getting to do something different."
The second series of Treme has also started shooting and will go out in the US in the spring. The show is shot in New Orleans and Leo says the city has had a great impact on her: "To be down there shooting and getting to know the history, getting to know all the various kinds of people that live there," she says. "New Orleans is probably the most truly unique American city I've ever been in."
Leo worked with many of the creative team behind Treme in the mid-1990s, when they adapted David Simon's book Homicide: Life on the Streets as a television series in which she played Detective Kay Howard.
The actress is flying high right now and also stars in Red State, the new film by the Clerks director Kevin Smith, which is about fundamentalism in the United States and had its world premier at the Sundance festival last month.
She baulks at the categorisation of the film as horror, saying: "It's a complicated film that starts out one way and then suddenly you're watching something different, and then, it's actually important, is it possible? And there's some pretty horrifying stuff that we shot too, so don't worry, horror fans, there'll be some of that too."