“To add to the lexicon of women of a certain age being nasty, cruel, or abusive in film, Melissa Leo has no desire to do that,” Melissa Leo tells The Daily Beast. “With age, for women, comes wisdom. Not nastiness.”
Looking deeply into our eyes, she continues: “I was a young woman once. I am not so much anymore. I am a better human being now than ever before. If it sounds harsher sometimes, maybe you should listen to what we’re saying.”
We’re discussing her decades-long career and her experience in an industry in turmoil; in crisis under the fallout of sexual assault, harassment, and rape allegations levied against Hollywood power players including Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, and an iceberg we’ve only grazed the tip of. “More names are going to come out,” she warns.
The more we talk to her, the more we realize how right she is. Melissa Leo is only interested in speaking the truth. And it’s time we should listen to what she’s saying.
When we meet Melissa Leo, the Oscar-winning actress from The Fighter, the Emmy-winner from Louie, and the chameleonic force of nature from Frozen River, Mildred Pierce, Prisoners, and Homicide: Life on the Street, she is startled away from a conversation she is having with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Well, she had been talking to a poster of him in the film Capote hanging on the wall of the conference room we’re in. “It’s the only way I can chat with him now,” she says, shaking our hand.
The manifesto when it comes to the characters she portrays—and, more, how those characters in turn are portrayed by critics and reporters—comes as we talk about her role as the formidable-to-the-point-of-domineering, traditionalist Reverend Mother at an American convent in the new indie drama Novitiate.
The film is set in the 1960s during the time when the Catholic Church’s radical Vatican II mandates sent shock waves through the institution. The plan to modernize the church reverberated especially with the cloistered nuns—Leo’s Reverend Mother had not left her convent in 40 years—who were now told their vows made them no holier than the average person. The largest exodus of nuns in the church’s history followed.
While grappling with the terms of Vatican II, the Reverend Mother clings to ritual, testing the postulants in her charge with seemingly sadistic practices, from self-flagellation to psycho-trauma to crawling across the floor while reciting Hail Marys as penance.
To that regard, Leo is well-aware that most of us are coming to Novitiate and viewing her character through the lore we’ve heard all of our lives about tough-as-nails, tyrannical nuns—yarns you likely heard spun by your relatives who grew up in the Catholic School system. Because of that, she finds a certain laziness in branding the Reverend Mother “nasty, cruel, or abusive.”
“I think it’s much too easy to see what she does or hear what she says and view it as just cruel or mean,” Leo says. “I don’t think the Reverend Mother is tough. I think Vatican II has altered who she is in a very unexpected way.”
She has her ways of doing things, but she’s not the villain. Too often it’s that nuance that’s lost in the conversation about women.
Leo’s eyes light up when we mention how what’s going on in the outside world provides context to how a person views a film, making it particularly fascinating to watch Novitiate at a time when there is deafening conversation in her industry about the abuse and weaponization of power and the silencing of women.
It’s particularly intriguing given a scene in which the Reverend Mother is confronted by the archbishop (played by Denis O’Hare, one of two males with speaking parts in the film) about her hesitance to enact the reforms of Vatican II at her convent.
This is a woman who had spent 40 years cloistered from the world, interacting only with women—and 50 years ago at that—yet she doesn’t back down from the male authority figure who is discounting, patronizing, and demeaning her.
“The nuns are not people who have their hands tied behind their backs,” Leo explains. “Nuns have made a choice for their lives, and they are living those lives. The first feminists.”
Discussing the scene provides the transition to talk further about what’s happening in the industry right now. The women and men who have come forward with stories about being sexually assaulted and harassed by powerful figures in the industry now count in the hundreds, with top Hollywood players losing their jobs in the fallout.
It’s a call-to-arms, of sorts, and this is the first press push Leo, who is typically vocal in interviews, has been a part of during it. Her porcupine needles visibly go up, but she doesn’t shy away from a single question.
“The conversation is so vitally important,” she says. “It goes beyond a single individual who’s been named. More names are going to come out.”
It goes beyond just women being abused, she continues. There are men, too. It goes beyond sexual abuse, she adds, explaining there’s emotional abuse—abuse of an actor’s soul—that happens on set that too often goes unchecked.
In 2011, she gave an interview to The Guardian about an encounter she once had with a director who asked her to show him her breasts. “It still remains a hard memory for me,” she told the paper at the time. “The fact that I did it, because of my upbringing, and didn’t tell him to go and fuck himself.”
She doesn’t speak further about the incident when we bring it up, saying: “A couple of things pop up in my mind. The one thing that’s different and why I don’t liken myself to the stories I’ve heard thus far—I don’t pay too much attention to it. I know too much about it already—the couple of incidents that have happened to me in a nature that I felt were invasive, especially in a sexual way, were more around a work situation, on set or at an audition.”
“And maybe that’s the same thing,” she continues. “I don’t know. I just know that there’s a lot of difficulty in the world, and people behaving badly is prime on that list.”
A conversation centered on power dynamics resurfaces a quote she gave us when we last talked to her, when she was playing the atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair in the Netflix film Most Hated Woman in America.
She talked about her experience trying to speak up for herself, not necessarily on that film in particular, but in her three decades in this industry.
“When I raise my voice in my own industry in a work situation, and I’m making a suggestion—‘Let’s not do it this way, but this way…’—everybody only hears when I said, ‘Not this way.’ Nobody hears all the agreement, the collusion, the, ‘Oh yeah I can do it that way,’” she said at the time. “All they hear is the one time I say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s not going to work.’”
When we bring up how that quote feels all the more timely now, she takes a pause.
“I think to so very often be the female in the room, and any female actor will tell you the same story: in the course of the day even in today’s world, you look up and you’re surrounded by men on the set,” she says. “There’s an imbalance that we grow oddly used to.”
She recounts how, just the other day, she was working with two men, and she interjected in a conversation she was being excluded from with an innocent joke. They gasped in shock, aghast. “Like I had said the cruelest, meanest thing in the world,” she says. “I was just trying to be a part of the conversation.”
Leo says she’s proud of the her “comrades in arms,” the women who have stood up and spoken out in recent weeks: “It’s hard.”
“It doesn’t matter what your truth is,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re terrified to speak your truth. The more terrified you are to speak your truth means the truer it is and the more important it is that it be spoken. So when your little tummy’s doing flip-flops and you’re thinking, ‘Do I say something? I know that person is my boss. I know that person is above me in every way. Do I say something?’ That is the small person inside of you saying, ‘You know the truth, and I encourage you to speak it.’”
She takes a weighted breath. “I’m not saying there won’t be fallout. I get in trouble for telling the truth all the time. But I’d rather do that than live in the world of shenanigans and smoke and mirrors.”
With the door open for truth-telling, we figure it’s time to ask her specifically about her experience with Harvey Weinstein, who was executive producer on The Fighter, the film for which she won her Oscar. “I know that [Weinstein’s] name has been on more than a single picture that I’ve been involved in, but I have never said anything more than hello to him, and he to I.”
When we tell her that we’re surprised that he didn’t lead the crusade on her Oscar campaign—as he is wont to do—leading her to self-finance notorious campaign ads, glamour shots captioned “Consider” that ran in the trades, she’s very quick to clarify the intended purpose of those ads.
“It was a moment in this actor’s life, where when a publicist couldn’t get me a glossy cover of a magazine I discovered that I could pay for it myself and get it in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter,” she says.
“By the time it came about and the choices had been made, I wasn’t happy with too much of it,” she says. “I don’t regret that I did it. I do feel that it was misunderstood. I didn’t say on it purposefully ‘For Your Consideration.’ I said ‘consider,’ and what I was asking people to consider was Melissa Leo. Melissa Leo could put makeup on and have her hair all floofy and put fancy clothing on. I could do that kind of part, too. I didn’t have to play mean, old, bedraggled characters.”
She lets out a welcome laugh at the tail-end of an intense conversation: “I’m still waiting for the offer.”