It’s about ten days since Melissa Leo won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Fighter (and enlivened an otherwise dreary ceremony simply by saying “fucking”). She’s just flown from New Orleans, where she’s shooting HBO’s Treme, to New York, where she speaks by phone about another HBO project. In Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce, Kate Winslet plays the titular heroine, stuck with two daughters and only her resolve and baking skills after her husband splits. In the Depression-era five-part miniseries, Leo, 50, (who was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar in 2009, the year Winslet won) plays Mildred’s truth-telling, no-nonsense friend Lucy.
How’ve you been since the big win?
I’ve been very busy ’cause I went right back down to New Orleans, and it was at the end of Carnival and so in the madness of Mardi Gras I cel-e-bra-ted! Now I’m gathering my wits about me.
Just so you know, you can say “fuck” to us all you want—we don’t mind.
It’s good to have a place where the complete American vernacular can get its airing, and it’s also understandable that, you know, [to] my son, I said, “There may be a grandparent or two that don’t want to hear me use that word.” I brought him up unable to keep my sailor mouth out of the family.
What’d you make of the controversy surrounding your launching your own ad campaign for the Oscar?
I was mostly surprised at the enormity of the feelings on the subject, much of it based on bad misunderstandings. But fascinating.
What was the misunderstanding?
To cite the misunderstanding I’d have to cite the misunderstanding that might be misunderstood. [Laughs] Did you say “ad campaign”? Um, it was a pretty picture in a magazine.
I was surprised myself by the backlash. Isn’t the awards season all about self-promotion?
Perhaps that’s very so. [Laughs]
What drew you to Mildred Pierce?
First, Kate Winslet. I’d been often asked the year before what it was like to be in competition with her. Amongst the women in the category, it’s not my experience that it’s a competition. We are comrades in like pursuits.
What was it like working with her?
More fun than I could’ve imagined. As long and hard as she was working and taking care of her children at the same time, she was a delight to work with. I can’t wait to share Mildred Pierce with everyone. What Todd wanted was not a stylized version of that time but real people living real lives, and to play in Mildred’s kitchen and restaurant with Kate was an acting high point.
People often comment on how you disappear into a role.
Well, taking on a character is what an actor’s job is.
Sure, but not every actor can do the job in that way.
Perhaps it comes from where I come at acting from. I didn’t choose acting because there was a result to be had, whether it was a paying job or an Oscar. It was about being very uncomfortable as a human being and finding a group of puppeteers as a very small child in New York City. We pretended, and people believed our pretend! A lot of actors are awkward blank pages that then can get filled.
You’re an exception to Hollywood’s emphasis on young women. Has that been a struggle?
If I serve as example that humans and women in particular are not ready for disposal when they hit 40, 45, but perhaps are ready for their best years yet, I will shine as that example forever—why not? It’s just my path. I didn’t plan it. Somebody else planned it.
Do people ever confuse you with who you play?
Oh, I’ve never been confused with who I play. I simply am not recognized as anybody but another being on the street.
That hasn’t changed with the Oscar?
I just flew up from New Orleans in my cap and my jeans, and nobody said hello to me. They gave me a hard time getting the little golden man through the security in New Orleans, as a matter of fact. In Los Angeles, sometimes they want to see it, so they open the case. In New Orleans, it’s New Orleans, so they got a way they do things, and they do it in their own time. [Laughs]
And when they saw the statue, they still didn’t recognize you?
I did not feel any sense of recognition when a Louisiana state trooper was yelling at me that [With a Southern accent] he’s gonna make me miss my flight if I kept that up!
What were you doing?
I had waited while my bag was not getting checked while I watched two other bags get checked, and I went and asked if there was somebody maybe that could check my bag. That was what I was doing. [Laughs]
Mildred Pierce premieres on HBO Sunday 27 at 8pm.