Melissa Leo: Discovering The 'Fighter' In Alice Ward Melissa Leo isn't that much older than actors Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. But the acclaimed character actress plays their mother in David O. Russell's boxing drama The Fighter. She discusses her role, which recently earned her the New York Critics Circle Award.
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Melissa Leo: Discovering The 'Fighter' In Alice Ward

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Melissa Leo: Discovering The 'Fighter' In Alice Ward

Melissa Leo: Discovering The 'Fighter' In Alice Ward

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Melissa Leo, won the Best Supporting Actress Award this week from the New York Film Critics' Circle for her performance in the new film "The Fighter," which opens wide tomorrow. That performance also received a Golden Globe nomination this week.

Leo received an Oscar nomination for her starring role in the 2008 film "Frozen River," as a mother who turns to smuggling immigrants across the Canadian border to support her two children. In the '90s, she co-starred as a detective on the NBC series "Homicide." She's now shooting the second season of the HBO series "Treme."

Her new film, "The Fighter," is based on a true story about two boxers who are brothers. 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 it's sometimes 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.

Unidentified People: (As characters) (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of screaming)

GROSS: I love that scene.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: 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 hairsprayed 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 kind 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.

GROSS: So what's the difference for you as an actress working against each of them?

Ms. LEO: The easiest way for me to describe it, Alice's Dicky was right there. And Alice's Mick she had to reach for.

GROSS: So, Dicky's Christian Bale, and Mick is Mark Wahlberg. So you had to reach for the Mark Wahlberg performance or for...

Ms. LEO: Alice has to work harder to communicate with Mickey, and communication with Dick just happens.

GROSS: Well, but that makes sense because you're on the same wavelength with Dicky a lot, and Mark Wahlberg's really alienated from you. He wants to get away from you. He thinks you've been hurting him.

Ms. LEO: Exactly, so in fact, the acting techniques of each of them aided my performance because of exactly that.

GROSS: My guest is Melissa Leo. She stars with Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams in the film "The Fighter," which opens wide tomorrow. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa Leo, and she just won the New York Film Critics' Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in "The Fighter," and she's also nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in that, and the film is nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Film.

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: And your hair, which is so often long and red, did you have long, red hair when you were a teenager?

Ms. LEO: I had - yes, pretty much. Pretty much, I've had the head of hair that has preceded much of me through much of my career.

GROSS: Was red hair a good thing or a bad thing when you were growing up? Some kids get teased for it.

Ms. LEO: I had so little contact with other children when I was little that I don't really know. They might have had an issue with it. If they did, I didn't notice.

As I got - you know, there was one opportunity many years ago that I dyed it brunette. And that experience taught me something about myself that I would not have learned without dying my hair brown, which is that people judge.

As a brown-haired woman, I walked out of the hotel in Rhode Island, and people looked me in the eye and greeted me good morning. And for me, that was astonishing. It had never happened in my red-headed life.

GROSS: Why not?

Ms. LEO: Because people judge a book by its color, and if I wasn't sure, by the time I'd done these two blondes of Lois Riley and Alice Ward and walked in the world not just in costume but, you know, on off days as a blonde, people not only look you in the eye and say good morning, men and women both come up and touch you and ask you very intimately how are you today.

GROSS: Wait, so...

Ms. LEO: A redhead, on the other hand, is someone who will steal your husband, has a fiery temper, and people tend to cross the street when they see a redhead coming.

GROSS: Okay. So you said when you were growing up you had little contact with other children. How come?

Ms. LEO: Oh, poor me. I was a shy, introverted, awkward child. I had my older brother and two boys next door. That's who I remember for the first 10 years of my life.

And then I had a hard time making friends, but when I started to, I make a friend, I make a friend for life. I've got a half-a-dozen women I've collected over the years who are very close, dear friends.

But I still remain a little awkward amongst people, if you must know. I like the world of pretend much more than the real one outside, and as far back as I can remember, two, three years old, I thought the same way.

GROSS: Does having acted a long time and having gotten acclaim for your acting given you a degree of self-confidence and comfort that makes it more comfortable to be yourself?

Ms. LEO: Absolutely. That's absolutely what's happened. You're a very, very smart lady to see and know that. And the recognition a couple years ago by the academy, this by the extremely fussy Hollywood foreign press, with the Golden Globe. The New York Critics, my God, aren't they the fussiest ones in the country, recognizing me, it's really, it's quite remarkable. And I can, I am happy to say, take it in and feel extreme gratitude and a little sense of pride.

GROSS: Melissa Leo will be back in the second half of the show. Her new movie "The Fighter" opens wide tomorrow. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Melissa Leo. This week, she won the Best Actress Award - Best Supporting Actress Award from the New York Film Critics Circle and a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in the new film "The Fighter," which opens wide tomorrow. She was nominated for an Oscar for her starring role in the 2008 film "Frozen River." In the '90s, she played a detective in the NBC series "Homicide: Life on the Street." This year, she co-starred in the HBO series "Treme."

So, as we speak, you've been in the middle of shooting "Treme," 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 this was a contractual thing that got - John Goodman was willing to be there for a year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEO: I don't know if - where the contract began. That I don't know.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. LEO: But what I do know is that there was a story that David Simon and that amazing bunch of writers wanted very much to tell. There was a man who did come to enormous renown post-Katrina, when YouTube was very, very young, with - I don't know if I can say on your radio, but his tag line is the same as Creighton's: F-you you F-ing F's, I'll say on the radio. And that's not what he said on YouTube.

And that that man did, for whatever his own reasons were, and on, you know, history and so on, kill himself at some point shortly after Katrina, and that that was the story that they wanted to tell. So whether it was as things tend to be in my business, you know, sort of contractual and, oh, why'd you use that person for the part? Well, that's who got us the money. I think that John's limited stay was actually more carefully designed than that. I work for some very, very smart people down there.

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.

GROSS: Melissa Leo won the New York Film Critics Circle Award this week for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the new film "The Fighter," which opens wide tomorrow. She's now shooting season two of "Treme." Here's the theme.

(Soundbite of theme song, "Treme")

Mr. JOHN BOUTTE (Singer): (Singing) Hanging in the Treme, watching people sashay, past my steps, by my porch in the front of my door.

Church bells are ringing. Choirs are singing, while the preachers groan and the sisters' moan in a blessed tone.

Down in the Treme, just me and my baby. We're all going crazy, buck jumping and having fun.

GROSS: Coming up, as more financially strapped states turn to legalized gambling to increase their revenues, how's it working out?

This is FRESH AIR.

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