For many Oscar nominees, there comes a time when the army of advisers around them—the publicists, the studios, the agencies, and the various consultants—decide it’s best for them to just stop talking. For Melissa Leo, that moment may have arrived shortly after the Best Supporting Actress contender for The Fighter took out a number of ads in the Hollywood trades to promote herself.
The mock beauty campaign—showing Leo looking glamorous, with the word “Consider” placed strategically above her head—was meant to be humorous, and it was certainly original. But not everyone was amused. Suddenly Leo, who had been seen as a frontrunner, was facing questions about a backlash.
On one hand, there was the brilliant, scene-stealing performance as the big-haired matriarch in The Fighter, which had already garnered Leo a Golden Globe. But once the ads hit, there was some buzz that Leo was pushing it, a possible blunder in an industry where campaigns cost millions of dollars but are supposed to look effortless. And so this reporter, on a quest to talk with Leo, ran into radio silence: Emails and phone calls to her representatives went unreturned. Clearly, someone had reasoned, there was nothing to be gained from speaking any further.
But then, as luck would have it, there she was—sitting in a restaurant in downtown Manhattan chatting with a theater director, just a few feet away from the reporter who’d been trying to wrangle an interview. When this reporter approached her, he expected little more than a stock referral to her representatives. But instead, Leo ripped a sheet of paper from her notebook, wrote down her personal phone number, and set up an appointment for that evening.
Six hours later, Leo was at her house in upstate New York, dusting the place, which she shares with her cat and her dog (“There’s no one special,” she said. “I find interpersonal heterosexual relationships difficult”) and dishing openly about her unusual life and her current status as not-quite-Oscar frontrunner. (And on her controversial ad campaign, too; more on that later.)
Leo grew up in New York City, doing shows with a puppet workshop around the corner from her parents’ apartment. But then at age 9, with the “rent control laws changing and my father fucking up big time,” her parents’ marriage broke up. “There was a year I remember very painfully, when my father was traveling around Europe trying to find himself or some nonsense, and we were up in Vermont trying to make a living,” she recalled. But she adds that her dad is “a part of my life at this point, and he is who he is and that’s how he did it.”
At first, Leo hesitated at the idea of playing Wahlberg’s mother in The Fighter—at 50, she is just 11 years older. “It didn’t feel appropriate at all,” she said.
From there, Leo lived an itinerant childhood, eventually winding up in England. There, she enrolled in theater school before going broke, dropping out, and moving back to the U.S. Soon after, her father reemerged and sent an application for his daughter to SUNY Purchase, which is known for its strong drama program. “I didn’t take no test,” Leo said, with a laugh. “I didn’t sign no form.”
Leo was accepted—but left after two and a half years. Her pre-college education had been weak, and Leo was utterly unprepared for the academic part of the coursework. “They claim me as an alumna, though I did not alum,” she said. Back in New York City, Leo learned how to dance on stilts and began performing in the streets and at Bar Mitzvahs with a Dixieland Jazz Band.
In 1983, she got her first acting work, with a recurring role on All My Children. It led to a respectable career as a working actress, doing everything from off-Broadway plays to forgettable TV movies. In the mid-'90s, she found greater success as the tough detective Kay Howard on Homicide: Life on the Street, the critically acclaimed NBC drama. After Homicide, there were other jobs but nothing that would ratchet up her profile further. “There were mountaintops and deep dark valleys,” she remembered, her voice cracking a bit. (“I’m a little verklempt,” she admitted.)
But then, when she hit her mid-40s, Leo’s career got interesting—at the very point when most actresses begin to falter. First came a role in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s much-lauded 21 Grams, playing the grieving wife of a man who’s just been convicted of vehicular manslaughter. Then, a few years later, she filmed Frozen River, an indie flick about a woman who becomes an immigrant smuggler after her husband abandons her. It sold to Sony Pictures Classics and earned Leo her first Oscar nomination.
Which brings us to The Fighter. As it turns out, Frozen River also attracted an inquiry from David O. Russell. He’d watched the film at the suggestion of Mark Wahlberg, with whom he was working on a new movie about a boxer who’s being trained by his retired, drug addicted brother.
At first, Leo hesitated at the idea of playing Wahlberg’s mother Alice . At 50, she is just 11 years older than her would- be celluloid son. (His crack-smoking sibling onscreen is Christian Bale, 14 years Leo’s junior in real life.) “It didn’t feel appropriate at all,” she said. Still, she wanted to meet Russell and keep the door open for future projects—and Leo quickly overcame her misgivings. “David is like a magical child,” she said. “His excitement is contagious and palpable and he was quite convinced that I should be his Alice.” (Oddly enough, the two met at the same karma-packed restaurant that brought Leo together with this reporter.) By the end of two hours, Leo was sold. “I left and called my people and said, ‘I really want to do this film.’ ”
It’s a good thing she did, Leo said , because everything about her Fighter role has been a joy—the garish costumes, the press-on nails; and working with Bale, Wahlberg, and Amy Adams, who plays her son’s girlfriend onscreen and whom she calls “an angel at my side.” Leo even admitted to enjoying herself on the awards circuit, despite the endless appearances and interviews. “The food is pretty good,” she shrugged.
And as for that ad campaign that Hollywood isn’t sure what to think about? Truth be told, Leo said, she’s mystified. “I’ve been busting my ass, trying to get the movie sold and seen, and now I show up where they ask, get put into hair and makeup that they pay for, so I can promote this thing [and campaign]. So I’m a little confused. I thought this is what we’re doing. This is what all the girls are doing.” Leo adds that she conceived the ads before she was nominated—and if she had known she would wind up in contention for Best Supporting Actress, she might have done things differently. “It didn’t seem so nomination oriented,” she said. “It was fun.”
Particularly after a two-year period in which she worked constantly. In addition to The Fighter, Leo had a sizable role in the most recent Hillary Swank vehicle, Conviction, as well as a regular part on HBO’s Treme. And she’s just starred in Kevin Smith’s new movie, Red State, which recently debuted at Sundance.
With awards season drawing to a close, Leo said she’s looking forward to getting a little time off. “I do feel like I can step back just a bit and make some decisions now about the work I do, rather than the work simply choosing me,” she said. Then she paused, and reconsidered.“But I don’t want to get too choosy about shit. I just love working. I have to work.”
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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.