'Frozen River' Star Crafts A Desperate Character Best known for her role as Detective Kay Howard on the 1990s TV show Homicide: Life on the Street, actress Melissa Leo takes on cross-border smuggling in her new movie.
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'Frozen River' Star Crafts A Desperate Character

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'Frozen River' Star Crafts A Desperate Character

'Frozen River' Star Crafts A Desperate Character

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LIANE HANSEN, host: In the film "Frozen River," a Dodge Spirit, the car, unites two single moms living near each other in upstate New York: Lila, a young resident of the Mohawk reservation, and Ray, a middle-aged white woman who works part-time in a dollar store. Ray's husband has abandoned her, their two kids, and the car, stealing money that was supposed to buy them a new double-wide trailer home.

(Soundbite of movie "Frozen River")

Ms. MELISSA LEO: (As Ray Eddy) What are you doing with my car?

Ms. MISTY UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) That? I found it.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) You stole it?

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) It had the keys in it.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) So, you just took it?

HANSEN: The next day, Ray finds Lila at the wheel of the Spirit and agrees to a lucrative devil's bargain, helping Lila smuggle immigrants across the U.S.-Canada border.

(Soundbite of movie "Frozen River")

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) I got a friend who might buy that.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) It's not for sale.

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) He'll pay more than it's worth. Maybe 2,000.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) Who is that?

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) He's a smuggler. He's always looking for cars with button-release trunks.

HANSEN: Actress Melissa Leo plays the role of Ray. She's probably best known for her role as Detective Kay Howard on the 1990s TV show "Homicide: Life on the Street." Melissa Leo joins us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Welcome to the program.

Ms. MELISSA LEO (Actress, "Frozen River"): Thanks so much for having me. What a wonderful introduction. You really nailed the film.

HANSEN: Well, yeah, we have to give a bit of the plotline, you know, to give our listeners a chance to hook in. And this is a film that was written and directed by Courtney Hunt. How did she pitch the role to you?

Ms. LEO: About three years before we went up to Plattsburgh and shot the feature, we did a short. Misty Upham, who plays Lila Littlewolf, and Courtney and myself and - actually, there was a Pakistani couple in the film, and they were there with us in the short. Courtney had sent me a DVD when she had her final edit on the short and said would I be interested in doing a feature?

HANSEN: We first meet your character, Ray - I mean, the very first shot of you, I think, is a tattoo on your toe, and then, you know, you have this cigarette and the bathrobe. Before you even say anything, you're letting us know who Ray is.

Ms. LEO: What you've just described was pretty much written both very detailed and yet quite sparse. And when we got to shooting it, we were very deep into the shooting of the film because, of course, we never shoot in order. So I knew Ray very, very well by then and could simply sit and smoke and be her.

HANSEN: It's curious that the scenes are not shot in order. Of course that's the way movies are made. But the relationship that develops between Lila and Ray is really a series of small encounters, as it begins with the confrontation over Lila stealing the car, and Ray then, you know, takes out her gun and shoots her door.

(Soundbite of movie "Frozen River")

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) The tribal police don't like people shooting holes in other people's houses.

HANSEN: And then you discover later on that they're both mothers. And then you discover later on what the relationship each of them have had with the whole idea of the Mohawk reservation, because it becomes about race. What is that like for you, knowing that this is a relationship that develops chronologically, at least in the audience's mind, and for you to have hit Ray's right note with Lila during the filming?

Ms. LEO: Well, that's where an actor really hopes that they have a very fine director that is keeping in mind the whole of their film. And we had that in Courtney. And she knew very well the kinds of tones she needed. That was exactly the kind of direction that she would give to Misty and I as we shot in the "Mighty Spirit," which is part of why I loved your introduction, because that Dodge Spirit was an enormous part of the film, and I called her the "Mighty Spirit." Courtney would guide us and be very specific about when she wanted us to look at each other and, much more often, not look at each other.

(Soundbite of movie "Frozen River")

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) He was dead.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) OK, whatever. He was dead. You brought him back to life.

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) That was the creator, not me.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) All I know is Kmart is closed, and I got nothing for under the tree.

HANSEN: Ray is tough. I mean, Ray, she's raising a 15-year-old, a five-year-old. You have some extraordinary scenes with each one.

(Soundbite of movie "Frozen River")

Mr. JAMES REILLY: (As Ricky) What's going to happen to our old house when we get a new house?

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) We're going to flatten it and send it to China.

Mr. REILLY: (As Ricky) Then what?

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) They're going to melt it down and make it into little toys.

Mr. REILLY: (As Ricky) Then what?

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) Then they're going to send them back here, so I can sell them at Yankee Dollar.

Mr. REILLY: (As Ricky) Can you give me some?

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) That's right.

Mr. REILLY: (As Ricky) Yes!

HANSEN: And I have to notice - I mean, she carries a gun. But the way Ray carries it - you carry it in your belt in the front of your pants like a cop. Now, you played a cop, I know. But there's a bit of the John Wayne about you, you know.

Ms. LEO: OK. So one of the other really fine pieces of direction that Courtney gave me, not only guiding me as we shot, she had given me a little bit of information going into it. She called me up and said, hey, Melissa, I think you should watch two John Wayne movies - "The Searchers" and "Rio Bravo." I watched them, and I got immediately what she was asking. The Duke used to appear on his face as if nothing was going on. But in his gut, you could feel this churning.

And there's one moment in "The Searchers" when he's just had enough is enough, and he's been wronged again and again, and lied to. And he turns and snaps at somebody and then reels it all back in. And that guidance from Courtney made Ray not only tough, but likable.

HANSEN: She's a criminal. I mean, she's performing criminal acts with Lila. But you get the sense of this is an instance where you're kind of rooting for Ray because this is the only way that she can get her life together. And that's kind of, you know, the good woman who has to do bad things in order to keep her kids and to keep her home. And did you know much about illegal smuggling?

Ms. LEO: I did not at any point actually even meet any other smugglers, and I knew nothing of this very northern United States phenomenon, so...

HANSEN: It's interesting, though, when they confront a couple - the Pakistani couple.

(Soundbite of movie "Frozen River")

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) They're not Chinese.

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) They're Pakis.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) What's that mean?

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) They're from Pakistan.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) Well, where is that?

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) I don't know. What difference does it make?

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) Big difference.

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) If we wait much longer, we're not going to be able to get back across the river.

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) Look, I'm not driving just anybody across the border.

Ms. UPHAM: (As Lila Littlewolf) Do you want the money?

HANSEN: How do you prepare for doing a scene that has no dialogue? We talked about the opening scene where it's just a shot of you from the toe up. But there's a scene, for example, where it doesn't really qualify as dialogue, but Ray is trying to put a greeting on her cell phone.

(Soundbite of movie "Frozen River")

Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) Hi, it's me. I can't get to the phone right now. Please leave a message. And Troy, if it's you, please at least let us know you're alive. The boys are really worried about you.

Ms. LEO: It's so interesting to me how many people respond to that - to be in a house when that scene plays and the audible response from people about it. I think there might be five people in a crowd of a hundred that have not done that themselves at some point - left a message on the telephone answering machine, or the cell phone nowadays, for someone specific who may or may not call, you know. So that's a - there's a great universality in that that I suppose at some point I must have done that myself as well, because it just seemed very familiar.

And so when there's no dialogue in a scene, there is words on a page about that scene. And in an un-dialogued scene, you have to understand perhaps even better what the point of the scene is because you have no dialogue to tell people. So it has to be in thoughts. And thoughts are harder to read, so you have to be even clearer about what it is that you're thinking.

HANSEN: Melissa Leo stars in the film "Frozen River." It was directed by Courtney Hunt. It's in select theaters now. The film received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Melissa Leo joined us from the studios of WWNO in New Orleans. Thanks a lot.

Ms. LEO: Many thanks for your time. You keep up the good work, hey.

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