Melissa Leo: Playing pretend but not playing around

The intense Academy Award-winning actress is again earning Oscar buzz for her vicious role in ‘Novitiate’

Adam Graham Detroit News Film Critic

Toronto -- Melissa Leo is seated inside a crowded hotel cafe during September’s Toronto International Film Festival. She blends into the crowd; few realize a fiery Oscar-winning actress is in their midst.

Melissa Leo: “When an actor, who is professional, hears a bell rung, you cannot un-ring it. And I always have to find something to ground (the character) in some factual truth.”

Leo is starring in “Novitiate,” in which she plays a ferocious Reverend Mother overseeing a class of would-be nuns. In the film, you’re well aware of her presence, which has its own gravitational pull and is earning the 57-year-old talk of her third Oscar nomination (she previously won for 2011’s “The Fighter”).

In conversation, Leo can transition from speaking so softly you can barely hear her above the din of the room to raising her voice and slamming a fist on the table for emphasis. She keeps you on your toes.

When she received the script for “Novitiate,” she had a pressing issue with it, and she went to the film’s Nashville set two days early to have a discussion about it with writer-director Margaret Betts.

“Kindness,” Leo says simply. “Gentle kindness. There were parts that were hard to see on the page, there were a lot of questions to ask, and the filmmaker wanted, almost every time, the harshest possible playing of it. When an actor, who is professional, hears a bell rung, you cannot un-ring it. And I always have to find something to ground (the character) in some factual truth.”

Leo says in her experience, these issues are common.

Melissa Leo is gaining Oscar buzz for her portrayal of Reverend Mother, who oversees a class of would-be nuns, in “Novitiate.”

“It might sound ridiculous, but I do need to know a little bit of ‘why,’ because so often the woman that is written for a female actor of my age is very unexplained on the page,” she says. “This happens all the time with scripts today. So I look to find the depth in the character, and I think that’s part of what’s given me this great success in the second half of my career.”

Leo worked steadily in TV beginning in the mid-1980s, and she landed the role of detective Kay Howard on NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” in 1993. She played the part for five seasons, and followed it with a mixture of TV and film roles. She scored her breakout big-screen role, at age 47, in the crime drama “Frozen River,” for which she earned a Best Actress nomination. That made her an in-demand presence, and she has since appeared in films such as “Flight,” “Prisoners,” “Olympus Has Fallen” (and its sequel, “London Has Fallen”), “Oblivion” and “The Big Short.”

For “Novitiate,” Leo had to call upon a religious background she never had.

“I said to my mother once, in the latter part of her life, ‘I remember you taught me that to have faith in God was to have a crutch that you simply didn’t need, take care of one’s self, stand up by your own two bootstraps,’” she says. “She denied having ever said that. But that was the message I got.”

Leo found herself elsewhere. Raised in New York City’s East Village, her mother brought her to the Bread & Puppet Theater, a politically radical, anti-war theater group where she helped make puppets from paper-mâché alongside the theater’s founder and director, Peter Schumann.

“It was all grown-ups, no children, and we would practice pretending,” Leo says. “It was the most wonderful thing I had ever done.”

Things got even better one night when, as a 5-year-old, she had a chance to go to “the pretending house” and perform for an audience.

“We’re getting ready to do it, everyone is really excited, and then, ‘Shh! Shh! Shh!’ And now I know we’re going to do the pretend from start to finish, which is the best way to do it. And these people came and sat down, they believed the whole thing, and the donkey was made out of cardboard.”

That was Leo’s first taste of performing, and from there, whenever she saw a door labeled ‘acting,’ she walked through it. She felt the audience that night at the theater and she still feels the audience, whether she’s acting on a stage or on a set in front of a camera lens.

She wells up when she talks about her experience shooting “Novitiate,” a sometimes difficult shoot that she was nonetheless able to navigate. And part of it brought her back to her childhood.

“I am that girl on the Lower East Side,” she says, “and sometimes I get to go out at night and pretend for people.”

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