With her star turn in Frozen River, indie stalwart Melissa Leo has broken the ice, beginning the yearly pre-Oscar trickle of outstanding performances by lead actresses. Leo plays Ray Eddy, a hardscrabble working mother in upstate New York. When her gambler spouse skips town with her savings, she supports her two sons by partnering with a young Native American smuggler (Misty Upham) to drive illegal aliens across the frigid Saint Lawrence from the Canadian side of the Mohawk reservation into the United States.
The role fits Leo like a glove, not only because she has personified tough cookies in projects as varied as NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams and Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. She also had the chance to grow into the part, having first played Ray in director/writer Courtney Hunt’s original short version of Frozen River. On a recent Chicago visit, Leo, a staunch method actor, avers that with her, less is more.
“I can easily do too much, because of my commitment to character—which doesn’t always serve the story in the long run, right? One of the things that was delicious about Iñárritu is that he was one of the first directors I had ever worked with where I would be dripping with tears, snot coming out of my nose, and he wouldn’t stop directing me, would come up and whisper the slightest little things in my ear [like] not to clench my jaw. I’m an actor who doesn’t need a lot of ‘That was wonderful, but—.’ Don’t give me the wonderful crap; tell me what you need, what you’re not getting.”
Hunt, too, wanted smaller and tighter, and advised Leo to prepare by studying John Wayne’s economic performances in Rio Grande and The Searchers. Leo’s work in Frozen River is so deeply restrained, the title could just as easily apply to Ray as to the Saint Lawrence. The arc the character travels from abandoned wife to gun-toting human trafficker is believable precisely because Ray doesn’t crack, whether mollifying her children or deflecting a suspicious cop (Michael O’Keefe). “First and foremost,” Leo insists, “I must give credit to Courtney Hunt, [whose] script was full of concrete information that made sense from one page to the next. Ray’s been lying to her children for years about her husband, and, in fact, has taught her son to lie as we watch him through the movie.” When Ray makes a sacrifice at the end of the film, it’s a logical development that supports the emotional payoff.
“Actors need directors; [the practice of] actors directing themselves is, quite frankly, a joke. Somebody like Tommy Lee Jones can get away with it because the acting thing is like nothing to him. Directing? Now, that’s where he really puts his brain to work!
“He’s a very funny man,” she continues. “My experience of him is that if he is too ingratiating with you, he don’t like you. I saw the way he was with Julio Cedillo, the amazing Texas actor who plays Melquiades: He tormented Julio, and behind Julio’s back, he adored him. If he has respect for you, he treats you like one of the cattle on his ranch.”
Respect is what led Hunt initially to approach Leo at an early preview screening of 21 Grams. The actress didn’t know agreeing to Hunt’s little film would result in this plum role. “We shot the short in about a week’s time. She edited it fairly quickly and got a copy of it to me, [then] said, ‘Want to do the feature?’ And for about three and a half years, I would call her and say, ‘Are we making that movie?’ Because I knew I needed it to happen.”
So, going that extra mile, putting one’s self out there, doing all the follow-through pays off? “I think that is the advice I would give to almost anyone doing anything,” says Leo, “but certainly to young actors and directors starting out. You have to see how wide a scope you can dream of some day, but much more important is, what is your scope right now? What could you accomplish tomorrow, and keep your vision not so beyond yourself that where do you even start? If you keep the vision doable, you can keep putting one foot in front of the other. And then—I don’t know if it’s karma, or fate, or destiny, or whatever name one wants to put to it—that’s how the life we’re meant to live unfolds for us.”