Melissa Leo

Standing by her red pickup truck near her home in upstate Stone Ridge, with a straw cowboy hat on the dashboard, Melissa Leo doesn’t look like a 2011 Oscar winner. She’s wearing jeans with rolled-up cuffs, a simple striped shirt and not a speck of make-up. But she’d still be recognizable to her fans, because this former part-time resident of the Springs area in East Hampton, where her father still lives, looks just as rough, ready and natural in many of her roles.

Her police detective Kay Howard in the much-admired 1990s NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street seemed like a real Baltimore cop, with freckles and tousled red hair. Her character in the current highly-praised HBO series, Treme—Toni Bernette, a public interest attorney who helps the downtrodden in post-Katrina New Orleans as she raises a teenaged daughter—has a more lived-in look, with the creases and lines of any 50-year-old.

However, for her Oscar-winning role in The Fighter, she became a flamboyant bleached-blonde, working-class woman who rules her adult children—a son who’s a potential boxing champ, a more troubled son and their seven distinctively intense sisters—with steely determination.

Leo’s own father wasn’t surprised by her fine performance. “Melissa was a performer as a very little child,” said Arnold Leo, 75, a former book editor and later bayman who for 34 years has been the spokesman for the East Hampton Baymen’s Association. “She really knew how to get people’s attention. I don’t mean by being bratty and noisy, but by being enchanting.” She and a cousin would write and perform all the roles in musical comedies they put on inside the family’s small summer cottage on Accabonac Harbor. When Melissa and her brother Erik were still children, their parents divorced. The children moved from Manhattan to Putney, Vt., with their mother, Peggy, and visited their father, who moved to Springs full-time, during summers.

imageMelissa’s February turn on the stage of the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles drew people’s attention, too. First, there was a touch of controversy before the Oscar ceremony about ads she placed in Hollywood trade publications, featuring glammed-up photos of herself, which some observers felt were not only unnecessary—she’d already won several major awards—but could scuttle her chances for the statuette as Best Supporting Actress.

And then things got a tad scandalous—she dropped the f-word in her acceptance speech. “When I watched Kate two years ago, it looked so f—ing easy,” Leo said, referring to Kate Winslet. The offending word was bleeped out, the audience laughed and Oscar host Anne Hathaway joked, “It’s the young and hip Oscars!” In later interviews, Leo repeatedly apologized. But her slip-up is now part of Oscar lore.

Her win had other consequences. A May announcement heralded the release of a DVD version of an early film, Streetwalkin’, in which she played a teenaged runaway forced into prostitution and, in some scenes, appeared nearly nude. Simon & Schuster recently signed her to write a memoir, promising she would address her “stormy breakup” with ex-boyfriend John Heard, the actor, with whom she had a son in 1987.

Mostly, though, it means that in every promotional poster and press release from now on, she’ll be tagged an Oscar winner. (Before, she was an Oscar nominee, for her starring role as a struggling single mother in the 2008 film Frozen River.) And there will be many such announcements, because she’s an unusually busy actress.

Leo was heading on to have her hair cut for her next role, in Predisposed, also starring Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), immediately following our interview at SparrowHawk Affaires, a rustic inn near her home in the Hudson Valley-Catskills area. Filming was to start the next day. She came across as direct and accessible, articulate and quick to laugh. She spoke with animation about her home, family and career, along with a seminal childhood role inside a puppet and her East End memories.

What brought you to Stone Ridge of all places? You grew up in Vermont and New York and spent summers on Long Island. Why here?
You have the answer in your question. This is close to New York but is in the mountains, like Vermont. When I finished The Young Riders [a TV series] and my son was about 2ish, in ‘89-‘90 we came back to New York. Although I had grown up in the city, I wanted a home and a community for him so that when my life took me traveling, he would have a base. Bonnie Timmermann, a casting director, had bought a house near here, and she gave me the name of her realtor. I’ve owned the house I’m in now for twenty-something years. This is home.

What does your son Jack do now?
He studied art at Otis [College of Art and Design in Los Angeles] and CalArts [California Institute of the Arts] and graduated a year ago. He’s spent the better part of this past year on a grant that he got to study Joseph Beuys [a legendary German performance artist]. Jack is in Denmark now, and he’s gone to Iceland, Germany, Lithuania, Amsterdam, Brazil and Mexico… He’s living in a suitcase, as I have for much of my life.

Do you also have a second son?
I have a young man whose parents had a hard time accepting his homosexuality, quite frankly, and in a way, I’ve been a more accepting mother for him, and in that way I adopted him. As you get to know me, you’ll see that I have a very casual sense of what family is. Legal ties are not what make my extended family at this point in my grown-up life. In my gypsy-like way, I’ve taken on other familial relationships.

Let’s talk about your Long Island roots. Were you happy there?
No matter what sadly gets done to Long Island in terms of building and developing, I will always see it through my three-year-old eyes, when I first got to know the Springs, and as I got older on my bicycle the roads to Amagansett and the beaches, the gleaning in the potato fields that are now golf courses.

You went gleaning?
Oh, yes. On the way home from the beaches, it was a good way to go. Then we found out that we had to wash them really well, because we didn’t know what they were putting on the potatoes. They’re golf courses now, but I still see them as potato fields when I drive out there. It’s still home in some ways, and Vermont is still home in some ways. The thing that hearkens me back to my childhood is that spit of land in Springs.

imageHow did you get interested in acting? It doesn’t seem that it was in the genes.
There is an ancestral context. The last actress came off the stage and then took the name of Leo. She was onstage with a throat issue and someone asked, “Is there a doctor in the house?” A Dr. Leo attended, and that was the last time she was on the stage. She married him and became a wife and the mother of probably my grandfather’s parent. So she’s my great, perhaps, great-great grandmother. Also, my parents were living a bit Bohemian very early in the ‘60s when I was young, and friends introduced us all to Peter Schumann and his Bread & Puppet Theater. When I was three or four years old, I was playing with puppets with Peter and his gang, and as I got to be in my 20s, and people started asking what drew me to acting, I realized it was Peter and his puppets and the world of make believe, pretend, where I was more comfortable than in the actual world. And here was a group of grown-ups pretending in the dark, and more grown-ups would come with their children, and they would believe our pretend. It was quite magical.

What were you doing with the puppets?
We would build puppets and then we would be in the shows. The one I remember most clearly is the Nativity that Peter would do. At one point, I was the ass that carried Mary… The donkey would come on, and the angel would come up, and Peter would blow a horn [she mimics the notes] and the angel would say, “Be not afraid!” Peter taught us not just to manipulate the puppet, but to be the puppet—to be the donkey and the angel. That was the key, the ability to believe the pretend. I learned that at SUNY Purchase, too.

But you didn’t graduate, did you?
I left after about two and a half years. School had never made sense to me. I had never really learned how to do schoolwork. When I learned about dyslexia when my son was young, I believe that I, too, had dyslexia.

It’s surprising that your mother, as a teacher, didn’t recognize it.
My mother took me as I was. That was the gift she gave to me. She wasn’t an educator when I was a small child. She never pushed me to be anything I wasn’t.

You have a book contract now, and your publisher says you’ll have some interesting things to say.
Simon & Schuster has given me a good long while to get all my papers in order, so that I can be accurate in my recall. I’ll be spending the next few months accruing information and trying to figure out where the story lies.

Will you be writing about your relationship with John Heard?
It’s an integral part of my life.
What happened there?
I was young. He was older. One wants to share something that would be helpful. There’s a reason we cringe when we see that older man with that younger woman. It’s not right. It’s not right for human evolution.

At the Oscars—I hate to bring it up—you said the F word and later apologized. Have you had any other thoughts on that?
An actor thinks he’s ready for it. I heard my name and up I went, and nothing ever before or since…to look out at the house, where you have to literally crane your neck to see to the back, the top of that theater, and every thought went out of my head. I’ve apologized at every opportunity I can.

In The Fighter, you don’t have much dialogue but you come across so vividly. Did you know as you were doing it that this role could lead to an Oscar?
It felt like it was lightning in a bottle while we were shooting, that something really important was going on. But we were there to do a job. The result of it is never on your mind. I thought I was a little young for the part, but my agent-manager encouraged me.

imageYou looked really different. What did they do to you, other than the blonde wig?
It’s not a wig. We cut my hair, we dyed my hair. I held my mouth and my body in a certain way. The clothing helped me. But most of all, I had Alice Ward [the real-life character she portrayed]. I had her photo album, and I met and spent time with her and her family. I’d never done anything like that before.

I’ve read that you’re sometimes called Margaret May. What’s that about?
When I was on Homicide, I played Kay Howard’s sister in one episode. They didn’t want me to play her or to get credit, so I took my mother’s name and her sister’s name. My mother’s name is Margaret and her sister’s is May. Plus, some years before that, when my grandfather died and I couldn’t make his funeral—I think I was working on a TV movie—as a tribute to my grandfather, I asked for Melissa Chessington Leo as my credit. Chessington was his name. Later I asked for that again when my grandmother died and I couldn’t make it to her funeral. I don’t have a middle name.

Do you see any similarity in the roles you’re cast in now? You seem to play a mother a lot, and often a mother with issues.
I think that has to do with what’s written. We’re hoping very much that Predisposed is a very different movie, a movie more like Frozen River, in which no one ever called Ray Eddy a bad mother. What she’s doing [smuggling illegal aliens] is outright illegal, and no one ever called her a bad mother. When the mother’s story is not fully told, in deference to the whiny kids, you get what gets named by the press “a bad mother.”

Do you think Alice Ward was called a bad mother?
I wouldn’t let them, and eventually it got turned around in the press.

I read that Streetwalkin’ is coming out on DVD. That was your first movie role?
I don’t think that’s why it’s coming out now (laughs raucously). I’m sure it’s because I just won the Oscar. It’s because of the sex—”See Melissa Leo like you’ve never seen her before!” Yeah, and you’re never gonna again, because I’m 50, not 22.

Who are your friends—people here, other actors?
I have several circles of friends. I have friends that are more like family, sister friends. I have a lot of husbands and boyfriends, too. It could even be someone on the subway, a nice afternoon affair—in my mind. (Laughs.) And I have my co-workers, whether it’s set workers down in New Orleans or Ron Nyswaner, who’s writing this film [Predisposed], or Phil Dorling, our writer-director.

How did you get this part?
I’m happy to report that the role was pretty much written for me. Ron was encouraging Phil to write, and encouraged him to think of not quite a muse but someone very specific, and hope that I would do it, first for the short and then the full-length film. Ron Nyswaner [nominated for an Oscar for writing Philadelphia] and I are members of this nice little group up here, like Guild Hall only not quite so upscale. It’s called Actors and Writers and we do two staged readings a year.

Do you have any favorite movies, your own or others?
I’m not much of one for favorites. To think too much about what we want in the future, or hold too much with what was our favorite in the past, it’s not a good place to be. It’s important to be in the here and now.

Shot on location at SparrowHawk Affaires, a circa 1760 Brick colonial b&b nestled into the Hudson Valley. Hair by Ezel for Woodley & Bunny / SACHAJUAN Professional Haircare. Make Up by Matthew Anthony. Custom tailored shirt by Duane Cerney available at D.L. Cerney, NYC.

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.