Melissa Leo Talks Acting, Auditioning and Preparation

Academy Award nominee Melissa Leo on acting: "If there’s anything else you can do, do it. And if there’s nothing else you can do, and nothing can stop you, do nothing but."

When Melissa Leo is on stage or you see her in a TV show or film, the project is immediately elevated to a different level. She has an incredible gift of grounding every scene she’s in, making everyone around her better.

If you saw her Oscar nominated performance in last year’s Frozen River, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Need more proof? Check out the first 5 seasons of Homicide, 21 Grams and the upcoming Welcome To The Rileys.

She’s currently starring in HBO’s Treme as attorney Toni Bernette. If you haven’t been watching the show, you are missing some great performances. Not only from Melissa, but John Goodman, Khandi Alexander, Wendell Pierce… the list goes on.

I talked to her while she was on set, filming another HBO project, Mildred Pierce.

When I first became aware of you in Homicide, and everything I’ve seen you in since, is that you bring a deep reality to everything you’re in. You keep everyone and everything around you grounded. That’s a big reason that Homicide stunk after you left the show.

Oh my God! I don’t know if I want all that responsibility but that’s quite a compliment. An actor at a festival once handed me a card, and she had written on it “Acting, the art of pretending the truth.” And I use her quote an awful lot, because it is. To me, that’s what it’s about, even when things go into the fantastical realm that they can on stage or in film. That’s an extraordinary compliment. Thank you.

After Frozen River, do you still have to audition now?

The auditioning has waned, some of it by choice. For many years, I recognized that I was used for casting directors to impress directors with their choices, to find out how a difficult part, in fact, can work. So I, as I’ve begun to have work offered to me, have backed away from auditions from time to time.

You seem to take these roles that might be difficult to cast, but you fit them perfectly.

Well, I think that anybody who does any kind of work gets the thing that if you’re going to be working, you might as well be working hard. So, that’s what I do, and I guess my passion and love for it is that acting really is my life. The only other thing really is my son.

So how much of “you” do you bring to a role?

I try to bring as little of me as possible. The actor’s instrument is innate. It cannot be changed. It’s that thing that makes us love a great actor. [Al] Pacino was Kevorkian, he was an MD. But you Al in there, because as much as he became someone else, he also is Al Pacino. So, I actually look for the things that are further from me to hone and make my own.

You don’t seem to play the same character twice. How do you go about preparing for a role?

Reading the script, first and foremost, again and again. Finding what others think of my character. Where does she sit in the picture as a whole? What is her role in the story? And ‘who is she’ should be on the page. The costume department, the hair and make-up department help me enormously. It’s quite traditional that the very first call an actor receives from production – sometimes the only one – is a call from the costume department. So I begin working with them, they work more directly with the director, 9 times out of 10. I include that advice in it. And again and again, go back to the page. If an actor works too much out of their hopefully, vivid, imagination, they’ll veer from the project as a whole, and it can harm a project enormously, I’ve learned.

Let’s go back to your beginning. When did you realize you wanted to be an actor, because you went to London to study at 15.

I did. And it was many years before then, maybe 10. And as I talk to you today from Cooper Square in New York City, I am half a block away from where it all began. The building that’s now the Public Theater here in New York was the building owned by the city of New York that Peter Schumann and his Bread & Puppet Theater had the use of for a few years in the early 60’s, when I was a child growing up around the corner. My mom took us over and we participated in public workshops, and the nativity play the theater has done each year for many, many years. That was the beginning of it, in a darkened room with people coming to watch the spectacle, children and adults alike creating and believing in a make-believe world. I found a place that I was comfortable, and walked the path toward that, and learned eventually that it’s called “acting.” You can find employment as an actor if you are so lucky. I just took every opportunity, left high school in part because I could not do theater at the public high school I was at in Vermont, and went to the theater school in London eventually.

And then you came back and went to SUNY Purchase?

Very, very, very important time in my past.

What did they teach you, because so many great actors came out of that program?

I think it was a curiousness and respect for the art of acting that Purchase was designed to be. Not a mill to turn out a commercial, get a job. We were dissuaded from work the entire course of the four years there; it was a conservatory. Every one of the mentors there, my own, Joan Potter, just so damn serious about acting. I was just talking about it in the van back from Long Island last night with Brian O’Byrne and Mare Winningham, that training is still what I rely on.

You go from film to TV to theater kind of like most actors change clothes. Do you have a preference?

[Laughter] I don’t have a preference, which is probably why my work is so varied, and in size, student films and big films and television. It’s unusual and it is my pleasure. To me the most horrifying thing about spiders and heights and darkened corners is a fear of sameness. The notion of living a life, God bless the people who can do it, 9 to 5, 5 days a week, with a weekend and a holiday each year. To me, that would be unfathomable. So maybe it’s that I embrace that changing, not knowing, going to the audition and “Did you get the job or not?” It’s out of my hands. My whole work life has made me a better human being, because I’ve learned to take it as it comes.

When you go from theater to film—the theater obviously you have a long rehearsal process, and with film you have maybe 10 minutes before you do the scene—what do you take from theater that you bring to film or TV, and what do you take from film or TV that you bring to theater?

It’s very interesting that you ask this question. They’re exactly the same and they’re totally opposite. In rehearsal, we all make preparation together for a play. We sit around a table and read it out loud, sometimes for days and days to crack open the true meaning of the play. Then we get it up out on its feet and find its movements all together. We go for 8 hours a day and work with a guide, our director, to get to that thing. But then you walk out at 8:00 each night, and sometimes twice a week in the afternoons, and try to hit those marks you know are there.

In film we prepare, by and large alone, somewhat with a director and the other departments involved. It’s a little scattered like that. In a play rehearsal there’s a wonderful day that the set designer comes up and shares with all of us the plan of the set. We don’t know in film what are we going to walk into, what the movement is going to be, does the director have an idea of the images he wants in the space, so we find that for him. Then on film you do this amazing, magical thing where you capture and use the finest of the moments, the moments when you do get those marks that you try each night to hit on the stage. So they’re the same but a little bit opposite. I guess it’s about the preparation primarily, and because of the way you asked the question, it’s a new thought to me. I can’t wait to read what I said. [LAUGHTER]

Preparation, preparation, preparation. You’re so right. Now you’re currently starring in HBO’s Treme.

I am such a lucky girl, oh my gosh. I had been hoping that something would invite me into television to broaden the public’s awareness of my name. The public knows a lot of the time my work, but then they don’t recognize me if I go into the mud truck to get my coffee in the city. Which is fine by me.

You’re working with David Simon and John Goodman, two wonderful, great people. You and John—did you know each other before, because it’s like you’ve been married for 20 years?

John is my favorite kind of people. John is an actor. He is an actor, an actor, and an actor. With some actors you fall into it, and with John—I had never met him before, I had admired his work for long, long time, felt that he was often misunderstood as an actor because he’s so good at being funny that the depths of what he’s able to bring to things is unsung, or not properly sung at least. What the writers have given him through the season, to be saying about the circumstances in New Orleans, it was so moving to watch being filmed. Easy peasy for “Toni Bernette” to love that nutty husband of hers. [LAUGHTER].

What’s your advice to actors?

If there’s anything else you can do, do it. If anything can stop you, let it. And if there’s nothing else you can do, and nothing can stop you, do nothing but. Just like when we work, it’s 101 Acting, you can’t go for a result. And in our career paths, we should avoid the notion of a result. Have a golden dream in your heart and head, but just do your life like you’re acting. Let it happen beat by beat. Be informed by what comes at you.

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