Melissa Leo became a movie star at 48, well past the age of most actresses’ first Hollywood curtsy.
In 2009, after more than two decades of television work (“All My Children,” “Homicide: Life on the Street”) and small film roles (“21 Grams,” “Hide and Seek”), Leo collected her first Oscar nomination for “Frozen River,” in which she portrayed a mother supplementing her unstable income by trafficking illegal immigrants from Canada. Suddenly, Leo’s name was mentioned in the same breath as Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Angelina Jolie.
Regardless, it took another two years and an actual Oscar win ― for playing the brash matriarch of a boxing clan in “The Fighter” ― for Leo to develop a reputation to precede her. When she couldn’t land the magazine covers and other promotional perks that are standard for Oscar hopefuls, Leo purchased her own glamorous ads, stamped the word “Consider” on them, and cemented her renown as an iconoclast.
Ever since, her career has blossomed, from HBO’s “Treme” and Showtime’s “I’m Dying Up Here” to “Flight,” “Oblivion,” “Prisoners,” “The Big Short” and now “Novitiate,” which opened in limited release last weekend. In the 1960s-set drama about a teenager (Margaret Qualley) choosing to devote her life to God, Leo plays the top-ranking nun at a strict convent. When a modernizing decree handed down from the Vatican greatly diminishes nuns’ stature within the Catholic Church, the very foundation upon which Leo’s reverend mother has built her devotion crumbles. The movie could net Leo’s third Oscar nomination.
Leo’s résumé offers a museum of stern characters, and this latest addition fits in well. In person, I expected her to mirror her typical screen persona: tough, brittle, direct. Leo didn’t disappoint, but I’d shortchanged how tender she could be. We talked about her frustrations with the infamous “Consider” ads, her lifelong desire to play a nun and the one role she regrets turning down.
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You’ve lived with this movie for a while. It was one of the buzzy titles at Sundance earlier this year.
It was almost two years ago that we shot it. As a matter of fact, underneath the reverend mother’s habit, Melissa’s hair is about an inch and a half long. And now it’s down below my shoulders. I had it short because I had done so much dyeing. I play a woman on Showtime, and she’s bleached. I played Laura Poitras [in last year’s “Snowden”], and she [has black hair]. It was that black dye for Laura Poitras. I had to cut some of that hair off.
Were there photos of this? I want to see your short crop.
No, no, no. Nope. You’ll never see it. I made a suggestion to [“Novitiate” director Maggie Betts] that we see it at some point. She didn’t feel it was necessary. But it’s there in the film because I know it to be so. I’ve always talked about ― from my shoes, socks, underpants ― undressing the character. So to put the habit on each day and have it be closer to her is a help.
So you imagined the reverend mother having short hair, too? I assume so if you were willing to reveal it.
It’s what was true, so there’s what I think of, after 30 years of doing this, as real, true movie magic. Another example is when it snows. In Tennessee? In the springtime? We got a dump of snow, and I said to the company, “Get your camera out, get your camera out. I’m putting the costume on. Get your camera out.” Because the film takes place over years, not just a few days. [...] So they got the little bit of footage you see in the film of the girls playing in the snow.
That’s a nice moment of levity. It’s a break from the girls’ rigid piety.
It’s a nice thing, too, that you see that these are young girls and they have that in them. They’re human beings, too. But sometimes I will lose weight or gain weight — I don’t really mean to — and then I’ll see the movie I was working on and realize why. All I’m saying is things sometimes happen for a reason, if you’ll just let them happen.
Did you grow up religious at all?
[Leo shakes her head vehemently.]
Everyone who wasn’t raised Catholic seems to have a different interpretation of nuns. Before “Novitiate,” what was yours?
Part of my draw to it was, as you’re talking about, the great mystery of it. First of all, it’s a costume. Even before I started working, I’ve always been an actor, and I just love a costume. I don’t even know how to get dressed up to be a regular person, but I can put a costume on. I went to a Montessori school on the Upper East Side that was housed in a Catholic school. So as we had our teachers, who were not nuns, in Montessori school. We would pass in the halls these women in these costumes. I was fascinated by them. We were told there was a certain kind of respect you had to pay to these women. You could address them by calling them “sister,” and there was one of them you had to call “mother.” I remember being scared to death I might not know which one that was. I don’t think I ever got in trouble on it, though. It just laid in this thing. As I get asked about it, I think back and I think, well, yeah, I’ve just always wanted to play a nun. I find it fascinating. A commitment to something so full and complete? The costuming? To believe something you cannot see? That’s what actors do.
And to believe it so intensely that you would effectively remove yourself from the world as an act of devotion.
You think that would sound so terrible. Is it really so terrible? Have you seen the world today? [Laughs]
Maybe at this point we all need to become nuns.
Cloister a little bit.
At least until 2020.
Exactly. Back in our closets again for a little while.
Did you see nuns as autocratic figures? Yours is certainly commanding and inflexible.
No, I’ve talked to people who have this idea of the harsh nun. They’re never talking about cloistered nuns. They’re talking about nuns who went into education. You either go into education or you go into a convent. For the cloistered nuns, I would hazard a guess that it’s a little more complicated. When the reverend mother is saying things that the outside world finds harsh — because now we’re doing the interviews and I’m hearing the feedback — I did not perceive them as harsh. What she’s doing is — excuse the expression — goddamn serious. Right? And teenage girls? Well, you get more than one of them in a room and you’re bound to get some trouble. Reverend Mother knows that better than anyone. Reverend Mother was one of those girls, and, as she says in the film, rescued by the convent for her way of thinking. What I hope the film can also do is that you begin to recognize that someone can live a life you might not understand but that doesn’t make it something threatening. And you meet Reverend Mother not in her 40 years of quiet contemplation, but once the Vatican has come plopping on her desk telling her that she don’t matter anymore.
Your résumé skews on the serious side. That one “Broad City” episode you did is very much an anomaly.
Well, she’s a mother.
And a dictator of sorts.
She likes to run that co-op!
What pushed you into such a serious realm? Did you never gravitate toward comedy?
I did get that Emmy for the Louis C.K. show, and that’s pretty funny stuff. I am not ― you’re quite right ― known for being a particularly funny actor. But my friends tell me I’m funny. Some people tell me I’m really funny. I don’t know quite how to take that. And now I do that show on Showtime [“I’m Dying Up Here”], where I’m up to my eyeballs in funny people. But this is all a roundabout way to answer your question. I do not choose. It chooses me. It’s not on purpose. Does somebody else out there have a purpose for me? I know that when I’ve worked with producers or directors in trying to think of people for roles, you do kind of go through this thing of what you’ve seen them do already. The really clever ones, though, can think, oh, let’s see if we can offer it to that one because they’ve never done that yet. For me, as an actor, that’s interesting. And even though they’re all fairly serious and I am absolutely far too serious of an actor for my own good, I am what I am.
Is there a moment you realized you’re such a serious actress?
No, I think the thing that we most are is hardest to see. It would have been other people’s responses to me. I see other people having more fun doing it, but I’m having fun.
Wielding that gun at the end of “Prisoners” isn’t a bad gig.
It’s hard work. I like hard work. Nothing wrong with hard work.
Are you aware that the “Consider” ads make you something of a gay icon?
Aw, I did not know. And I’m glad you’re saying, with your fingers in the air, “Consider.” Because somebody referred to it as a for-your-consideration ad, and it wasn’t.
How do you define it?
OK, so when an actor is taken by a film company, you’re getting publicity. My talking with you is good for the movie I’ve already shot, and quite frankly it’s kind of good for getting work in the future. So then, in working with publicists, I would see many an actor ― male and female ― on the shiny covers of fancy magazines. And I thought, well, maybe if they’re thinking I might get an Oscar [for “The Fighter”], maybe I could be on the cover of a shiny magazine. It’s sort of a little girl’s dream. And then they told me no. And they told me no. And they told me no. And then I said, “OK, I hear your no. Can you tell me why not?” And then they said, “Too old. Not big enough box office.” And then I said, “OK. How much does a page cost in this magazine and that magazine? I can take a pretty picture.” I don’t think the prettiest pictures I ever took are in those magazines. I have a little bit of a problem with the photographs chosen, particularly the one in the back dress. It’s just in-your-face. It adds to this not understanding what I’m doing. I was saying, “Consider Melissa Leo. I could be funny. I could be gracious and pretty. I could play a queen.” But if I got you guys, that makes me happy.
Actresses are supposed to want Oscars and magazine covers, but they’re not supposed to say they want Oscars and magazine covers. They’re supposed to act like it was thrust upon them. But to have someone seek out that narrative for herself speaks to something certain people, especially gay men, want to rally behind.
Thank you. That is so sweet. Thank you so much for that.
You were fired from “Homicide: Life on the Street” after five seasons, in your estimation because the network didn’t find you conventionally sexy. Did that experience change the way you negotiate your roles?
Well, I’m really happy to report I don’t have to negotiate my own negotiations. I have some very talented people who do that for me, and you’d have to ask them, but my guess is it’s made their bargaining a little stronger. It’s definitely a chip to put in there. For me personally, I think the biggest mistake I’ve probably ever made in my professional life is going, “Oh, Academy Award? Well, what’s next?” It took me — I’m embarrassed to say — almost two years to realize that this is what we call expectations. That’s going to get your ass in trouble. So I backed away from thinking I had a better idea than the universe has for me. Because for 25 years I just opened myself up to what the universe held for me, and that works best for me.
Was there a period where you fought against the fate handed to you by the industry?
I had gone for literally 25 years, and I think I had twice said “no, thank you” to something that was offered to me. Once I thought it was a great mistake, but whatever; it’s in the past. And the other time I think it had to do more with scheduling.
What was the mistake?
Tony Perkins wanted me to play the first murder victim when he did “Psycho II.” That would be a funny thing to have on the mantle, right? He wanted her to be redheaded. And to have gotten the chance to work with Tony would have been iconic. So it was silly. That’s why the regret remains there, but it’s no big thing, either.
Really, it’s people I shouldn’t have been listening to [after the Oscar win]. What are you going to say when people say, “Well, has Spielberg called?” No, should he have? So then I started thinking those kind of people should be calling me. But, in fact, in the long run, the people who needed to be calling me were calling me, and it’s working out. I’m working for the third time with Antoine Fuqua, who’s one of the finest directors the United States has ever had. It’s all going along OK. And I like to be asked about it because I like to encourage everyone. You can try and strive to make it different, or think you deserve something. Just get in the boat. Make sure you’re in the right boat for who you are, and take the ride.
Given the ongoing conversation surrounding harassment and intimidation in the industry, it must be trying when it seems like there are so many bullies out there.
Bullies and bullshiters and all the rest of it. To thine own self be true. And you can look back at the end of the day and feel good about it, right?
But the Weinsteins of the world are still out there.
I think it’s very important that big names have been mentioned, and it’s big names that are mentioning those names. It’s terribly important in the world, because big seems to matter. It’s not the only thing, and it’s not the only way in which people are injured. There’s all kinds of abuses. It’s not only sexual abuse. The industry is rampant with it in all kinds of ways. If we are living as shining, shiny examples that people want to look at and read about and write about, then let’s tell the truth about things and help the world. I think it’s very important. You can be butting into somebody else’s business, you can be nosy, but you can also be a human being on the planet with others and say, “You know, you really can’t talk to people like that.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.