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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

On today's show, we're going to feature interviews with three actresses who are up for Academy Awards Sunday, all for playing women who, to one degree or another, are very intense. Later in the show, we'll listen back to interviews with Natalie Portman, who is up for Best Actress for "Black Swan," and Jacki Weaver, who is up for Best Supporting Actress for "Animal Kingdom."

But first, let's listen to Terry's interview from earlier this year with another Best Supporting Actress nominee, Melissa Leo, for her work in the film "The Fighter." Melissa Leo previously received an Oscar nomination for her starring role in the 2008 film "Frozen River." On television, she's been featured in two excellent ensemble drama series: NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" in the '90s and "Treme," now filming its second season for HBO.

In "The Fighter," a true story based on two brothers who are boxers, Melissa Leo plays their mother and manager. She's tough, crass and small-time, but she has big ambitions for her sons. When the older son becomes a crack addict, she focuses on getting fights for her younger son, played by Mark Wahlberg, but sometimes they're the wrong fights, ones he can't win.

Wahlberg's girlfriend, played by Amy Adams, thinks he shouldn't let his mother manage him anymore. In this scene, after Wahlberg took a beating in the ring, Melissa Leo and her seven mean-looking daughters pay an unexpected visit to Wahlberg and his girlfriend.

(Soundbite of film, "The Fighter")

Ms. AMY ADAMS (Actor): (As Charlene Fleming) Hi.

Ms. MELISSA LEO (Actor): (As Alice Ward) Well, well, well, look at this.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Look at what?

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Are you hiding from us, Mickey?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) He's not hiding.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to my son. What are you doing, Mickster, huh?

Mr. MARK WAHLBERG: (As Mickey Ward) I'm right here. I ain't hiding from nobody, Alice.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) What are you gonna do, turn your back on Dicky next, huh? All we ever wanted for you was to be world champion.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Mickey's a grown man. He can think for himself.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Shut your mouth, skank.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Don't call me skank. I'll rip that nasty hair right out of your head.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) I'm his mother and his manager.

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Mickey) You're not my manager anymore, and I'm not waiting for Dicky, okay? I'm not getting any younger.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Who's gonna look after you, sweetheart? I mean, come on. I know you don't understand it, but I had nine kids, and I love every one of you the same.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) You've got a funny way of showing it, letting him get beat up, letting him get his hand broken.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) You're crazy.

(Soundbite of cross-talk)

TERRY GROSS, host:

I love that scene. Melissa Leo, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your nomination for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and on winning the New York Film Critics Circle Best Supporting Actress Award. Good for you.

Ms. LEO: Oh, thank you so much. And now I get to be here talking to you, so...

GROSS: Would you describe how you look in this film?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEO: Well, I'm not very recognizable. I show up at lots of parties after the film has been screened, and nobody has any idea who I am in the room. She does not look like me.

She looks like Alice Ward. She has a very stylish hairdo, very short, very white-blonde, very teased and hair-sprayed, and some fabulous costumes provided by Mark Bridges(ph), who actually had the family albums, as did the whole production company, to make reference for Alice and the family during the years that our film takes place.

GROSS: And you look so tough and hardened. Even the way you smoke your cigarettes, it's like you are puffing on them so hard. You are attacking those cigarettes. Everything in you is just, like, it's so aggressive. Even, like, there's something aggressive about your hair even. I mean, I can't explain it, but...

Ms. LEO: Yes, I see what you're saying, and I really think that, you know, having walked in Alice's shoes, she's actually a very gentle and loving lady, do you know?

But she saw an opportunity for her boys and rose above whatever she felt she might be inside of herself and made careers for the two of them. Now, the fight game is a ugly game, and I don't mean what happens in the ring.

The management, the horror stories of fighters being duped by their own management, stolen from, put in life-threatening situations by their own people, it's just an extraordinarily nasty game. And I think if Alice has a little rough about her and a little aggressive about her, I think that it's something she had to learn, or how she could have gotten Dick in the ring with Sugar Ray? How could she have begun Mickey's career?

GROSS: How did you get the part of the mother in "The Fighter"?

Ms. LEO: Well, ordinarily I'll get a script first and sort of begin my decision-making, you know, off the page. For "The Fighter," I had been told that David O. Russell wanted to see me. I found out later that Mark Wahlberg was very interested in me playing Alice Ward.

And so David and I met, and I have to say within about five minutes of meeting David, it was as if the part was mine already. He believed I was his Alice, believed in me so greatly that I found myself believing that with him and forgetting my very desperate and important question about: Aren't I too young to play Mark and Christian's mother?

And on we went, and off to the costume shop and the hair department and all the rest of it.

GROSS: Too young, I hadn't thought of that. How old are they compared to you?

Ms. LEO: I don't know. There's not 10 years between us, I'll tell you that.

GROSS: Wow. So what did you do to compensate for that?

Ms. LEO: Honestly, I just - I remember it being an enormous hesitation on my part to begin with. And I remembered that at some point I saw that that question had sort of vanished and just plowed on ahead, I guess, and believed myself to be their parent and the parent of the seven other girls as well.

And that's probably the biggest secret of acting. If the actor believes it themselves, I can make you believe it.

GROSS: There's a scene in "The Fighter," after you've caught your son, who's played by Christian Bale, you've caught him at the crack house. You're trying to drag him back to your home. So you're driving him back. You're really angry with him and basically not talking with him.

And then to try to win you over, he starts singing the Bee Gees song "I Started a Joke." And you eventually just kind of like warm up, and you start singing along with him.

Now, I have no idea whether that's a story that you or the screenwriter was actually told by a member of the family or whether that song was arbitrarily chosen. So I'm wondering if there's any back-story for that scene.

Ms. LEO: Yeah, it's a scene that's very dear and precious to me. We almost didn't shoot it. And we shot it with very little light left in the day, and it's an exterior scene in the car there. You have to have God's light. God's light goes down at a certain time, whether we want it to or not.

And it was really looking like it was getting (unintelligible) out, and the producers were kind of relieved because David really wanted that particular song, which might turn out to be rather expensive, and if they didn't shoot it, they wouldn't have to worry about it.

And I said, you can't not shoot this. I've been sitting here for five hours waiting to shoot this, what I think is a very important scene. It's important because it says so much about the relationship between Dick and Alice, which is an important element in the story, where you're dealing with not only this exciting boxing triumph in the end, but you're also dealing with a very complicated family that both, as much as they might be detrimental to each other along the way, really can't live without one another.

And I love that you bought that scene in the film. I love that it ends up being in the film. And I, not being a singer, loved having a duet with Christian Bale.

GROSS: So how did David O. Russell choose that song? Why that one?

Ms. LEO: That is something you would have to ask Mr. O. Russell. All I knew was that it was ideal, perfect. Like, why wonder? It was just so perfect. How could you have thought of anything else? What a perfect song to sing right then, right there, and tell a story of many, many years of history and many times the song might have been sung before in jollier moments. There's just so much there and such irony in the lyric of that song.

GROSS: Yeah, and you know it means that they have their duets, and they have their in-jokes, and he's just trying to kind of get back on that track with her.

Ms. LEO: And that she still sees, crack addict or not, she knows who that boy is, and she loves him. She's really mad that he lied to her, but she's not making judgment about him.

GROSS: You have great scenes with Christian Bale and great scenes with Mark Wahlberg. Do they both approach acting differently and get into character differently?

Ms. LEO: Well, I think that it's fairly obvious that Christian goes in a very deep, method-type way into his character. I met him the day he was meeting Dick Eklund for the first time, and I actually watched this process of Christian morphing into this other man that he plays in the film.

Mark comes with four years of training and getting his body in the right shape and his boxing abilities in the right shape, to be able to really sell the fighting in the movie the way that he does, but it doesn't come with a set of ideas of how the scene might play.

Because I am this person, this is how I might do this is the sort of question Christian might ask himself going into it. Now, that's an assumption on my part. I don't know the inner workings of Christian. It's just...

Then Mark shows up and, on a dime, can offer you the same moment in the film with laughter, with fear, with hatred, with regret, with anything that David Russell asks in a single take, and Mark delivers. It's an extraordinary thing to watch.

When you have an actor like Christian, and you want to adjust the performance, you've got to work a little harder because he's already done all this other work that you have to re-work to get the - right? It's two very, very different ways of acting that really suited the characters that they were playing and my relationship to them then.

BIANCULLI: Melissa Leo, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview from earlier this year with Melissa Leo, who is up for an Academy Award Sunday as Best Supporting Actress for her role as the mother of two brothers who are boxers in "The Fighter."

GROSS: Two years ago, you were nominated for an Oscar for your performance, your leading performance, in the independent film "Frozen River," in which you played a woman trying to raise a couple of kids on her salary from a part-time job at a dollar store.

Your husband is a gambling man who's run off with the money that you'd save for a new double-wide trailer home. The home that you and your family do have is falling apart. So to get some income, you team up with a Native American woman who had stolen your car, and together you smuggle immigrants across the Canadian border to the U.S. And that requires driving over the frozen river that the movie is named after.

Let me play a scene here. In this scene, you're confronting your son about damage he's done to the house while trying to repair frozen pipes with his father's blowtorch. You'd warned him against using that blowtorch, and he's damaged what's left of the home. So here's the scene.

(Soundbite of film, "Frozen River")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) What do you want? Did something happen to dad?

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) No.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Then what do you want?

Ms. LEO: (As Ray) Did you have a fire here last night?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) The pipes froze. So I fixed them.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray) You fixed them?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Yeah.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray) Did you use a blowtorch?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Dad did it before.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray) So you used the blowtorch. Look at this. We can't live here anymore.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) So what, it's just (Unintelligible).

Ms. LEO: (As Ray) No, this was our house.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) So we're getting a new one, right?

Ms. LEO: (As Ray) That's it. Damn it, son of a bitch. Don't touch it.

GROSS: Melissa Leo in a scene from "Frozen River." I think it's great that you started really getting the accolades you deserve in I guess your late 40s, at a time when a lot of actresses are considered to have already reached their expiration date, which is so unfair.

Ms. LEO: Exactly right, exactly, totally right. And it is with great pleasure that I share this recognition, that I share the recognition about "Frozen River" with all of those women. I know many of them. I know many of them, and they are fine, fine actresses that maybe they weren't even ousted out of the business, but their hearts and bodies, souls couldn't take it anymore. They're kind of like oh, yeah, no, sort of, you won't - you know, it's just such a judgment place.

You know, it makes me then think of the relationships I had with both of my parents' mothers. And it was their age and their wisdom and what they had seen in life and what they had been through and things you couldn't do in a couple of years, you could only do in 60, 70, 80, 90 years. It's a very important part of living, getting older. Anti-aging, (makes noise).

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: One of the things I really appreciate about your acting is that you're not vain about looking older. As far as I can tell, you haven't done Botox or plastic surgery. And I think a lot of actresses, once they turn 40 or even younger, are starting to get work done.

So this is one of the reasons why I love watching you because I feel like I'm watching a real face that shows signs of some age, like a real face. Are there pressures in the industry to get work done when you're an actress?

Ms. LEO: I have not encountered that. I was blessed with a mother who refused to raise a vain daughter, and it's really assisted me in my acting career. I don't really think so much about how pretty or how sexy the character is unless it's applicable to what she's got going on in her life.

GROSS: Now, you're very good at playing tough women, whether, you know, it's like the mother in "Frozen River," who is taking a lot of risks and being really tough in order to raise money for her family and for a home or, you know, in the tough mother in "The Fighter" or going back to "Homicide," where most people first became, a lot of people first became aware of you, where you played a detective, like the only...

Ms. LEO: She was a whole other kind of tough mother.

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay, very good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you ever play the ingenue? Were you even in a teen comedy or anything like that?

Ms. LEO: No, I was not in a teen comedy. I don't know that I have a rom-com to my credit.

GROSS: Which means a romantic comedy, for anybody who doesn't know the contraction.

Ms. LEO: I was nominated for a Daytime Emmy in the ingenue category in 1980-something-or-other.

GROSS: Is this for "All My Children"?

Ms. LEO: For "All My Children."

GROSS: My guest is Melissa Leo, and she stars in the new film "The Fighter," for which she was nominated for an Oscar.

Now, you're in the series "Treme," as we speak, you've been in the middle of the series set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, following characters dealing with going on with life after the floods. And you're shooting the second season, which will be shown in the spring. In the show, you play a civil liberties lawyer, and you're dealing with several people who have lost things or have been lost...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...or missing because of the flood, and you're dealing with police issues and stuff. And your husband, who is played by John Goodman, is a professor who has gotten very caught up in the idea that the disaster part of the hurricane was really caused by man-made problems, by bad levees, by a bad response to the flood.

And he's become absolutely obsessive about this and very - it's led him to become paranoid, and he's kind of not in a good place. At the end of the season, he kills himself. At what point did you know that that was going to happen?

Ms. LEO: I actually was lucky enough to know all along we would just have John for a year. The more I worked with him, the sadder that made me feel. He is a joy to work with, and I am grateful, too, that it wasn't shocking to me, like most of Toni Bernett's life.

I have episode four, season two right here in my bag with me. I'm anxiously - when I finish talking with you, I'm going to crack it open and read it and find out what's happening next with her and what she's thinking and what's she doing because by and large, we really truly don't know.

That particular thing I did know, and I have to say in retrospect, I'm very glad I did know because it was devastating to me. And I spent the whole summer, like, I think much of the country that watch "Treme," thinking well, maybe he'll come back, though. But maybe he could come back. Maybe it wasn't - he wasn't really dead, and he'll be there.

And I found myself sort of in that position. But there we are down there shooting again, and Mr. Goodman is not with us, I'm sorry to say. He lives down there and stops by the set from time to time, which is great.

GROSS: So after you left "Homicide," which is the first series that you did with David Simon, the creator of "Treme," what kind of work did you get afterwards?

Ms. LEO: Well, here's the ugly truth about that. I was fired from "Homicide." I really needed the job. I had a small son and a fair amount of rather public strife going on at that time. I really needed the job, and they let me go - whether it was because I was having such a hard time personally or whatever, I shall never actually know.

But it was a hard job to lose, and it was even harder once I got home, and I could not get hired to save my life. I had been working by then for more than 10 years, closer to 15, and I wasn't even getting auditions. And the scuttlebutt I began to hear - of course, nobody ever says it to your face - had to do with, well, we don't want that.

And I had gone for the last three years of "Homicide" without any makeup on. It seemed to me a reasonable thing to do. I was working with male actors who weren't using any makeup. We were all playing police detectives. Why did I have to put makeup on? Aren't there women in the world like myself that don't wear makeup when they go out every day? Can we show that on national television?

That might have had to do with why I was eventually fired from the job. But as I say, I'll never know - and very, very hard. There was something about the way Kay Howard landed with people that there was a truth in her that made producers and so on feel that was me. And, you know, they didn't want to see that again, or something like that. Eventually -well, it's really not until "21 Grams" came around that there seemed to be an actual career afoot again.

GROSS: Well, the fact that you had such a hard time after "Homicide" makes it all the more sweeter, is that you're getting such recognition now. Congratulations on all the recognition that you're getting now. It's really been a pleasure to talk with you.

Ms. LEO: Thank you. Thank you so much. A joy to talk to you.

BIANCULLI: Melissa Leo, speaking with Terry Gross late last year. Melissa Leo is up for an Academy Award Sunday for her role as the mother of two boxing brothers in the film "The Fighter." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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