Melissa Leo has garnered Oscar nominations (and a shiny gold statue) for her characterizations of tough, working-class women. In her latest movie, the atmospheric indie Francine, which runs at MoMA for two weeks, she portrays a recently released convict who channels her struggle to connect with other people into relationships with animals. Vulture spoke with Leo about working from a very loose script, canine co-stars, and her unforgettable guest stint on Louie.
So, you kind of stumbled upon this film.
I live up in that area [Hudson Valley], and know the film commissioner. And he puts out a missive on the e-mail, and a casting notice caught my eye. Then I wrote and asked if he would see if the filmmakers had their Francine. And I inserted myself in the project. Because it was vastly silent. Because I got to carry the ball. And because it intrigued me no end to see what the three of us [she and directors Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky] could build together.
There really isn’t a lot of dialogue in the film. Was that hard to work with?
No, there’s no difference from an actor’s perspective, if you’re asking me to speak or not to speak. The key to acting has much more to do with listening than with talking. It was a beautiful way to work. It was a constant conversation [with the directors]. Because we don’t have a conventional script that we’re working from. We have basically an outline, with the scenes sort of described in there.
You worked with a lot of non-human costars.
The animals in Francine’s home, for the most part, are rescue dogs and cats that live in a mother and daughter’s home in the Hudson Valley — not quite as filthy like you see them in the movie! So they were improv actors that were really skilled. For me, probably one of the finest examples of what acting is, is the scene in which the dog appears to be euthanized. People wonder if the dog is being put to his final rest. The dog was there for a tooth-cleaning. And he was going under a temporary anesthetic. If you look on a large screen very closely, you can see his little nostrils still going when he seems to be dead. You believe him to be dead because I believed I was holding a dying dog. That’s what acting is. And the dog did really good, too.
Francine is not a terribly glamorous star turn — which seems in line with many of your roles.
I think this notion of acting and glamour is getting in everybody’s way. I’ve had a lot of experience acting. I haven’t had a lot of experience with glamour. I’ve never had to mask myself, as many now not-so-young actresses have had to do. Female actors in that regard have a different lot in life than male actors.
It can be a lot harder for women.
It’s complicated. I would hate to say harder and make sides. It’s very complicated. And I know in my experience of life, for women, for females, our job is not only to show up looking our finest. We have other jobs in life. So when I play women, I’m more interested in the other job. It’s neither that I am opposed to beauty and glamour, nor married to grit and dirty nails. [Laughs] I’m looking for my character, and I am blessed to not have a boundary that many of my contemporaries have. The anti-aging movement is really a crime.
You’ve also done a few recent turns in comedy, both in Why Stop Now and most notably as a guest star on an episode of Louie [playing an aggressive date who demands sexual favors from Louis CK].
Louie was something that dropped out of the sky in my lap. I’d never seen his show. I know my son and some close friends were admirers of him. He’s the only person my son ever asked, “Oh mom, I want to meet him,” at the Emmys. And I went over and introduced us, which might be how I got the job. But I didn’t really know what it was. They sent me some copies of the earlier shows. The more I found out about it, I was really fascinated. So much fun to work with him. I didn’t know if it would work. I was nervous about it. I rarely feel the need to do this but, with the Louie episode, I spent a week and a half with a friend beforehand for the dialogue. I had to get that dialogue exactly as he had it on the page. I don’t know from funny. He does. I needed to say what he had written, and say it accurately and pick up on the cues, so that as we worked I could begin to discern from him about timing, about other comic kinds of things. So I was even more prepared than I would be for Shakespeare with his dialogue and going into that.
Were you surprised by the response to the episode and your performance?
Utterly. The response to it, I still — it’s going to take me another couple months to really come up with the words. I have worked for 30 years and won an Academy Award. I have never had a response like that to anything. Personally, on the street, people come up to me about that episode. It’s a phenomenon! There’s something about accessibility. And Louis is nothing if he doesn’t appear to be accessible. So my having touched that might allow people to come up and say something. Awkwardly! Because it’s awkward! [Laughs] I’m also really, really pleased in the response, nobody is mistaking me for her. Nobody. Thank God!
That had to be a fear, reading that script and seeing what she was demanding from him.
Had I done it some years ago, people might just think I was some kind of sexual pervert or predator or something. But it’s quite clear that this is acting. Which I’m very pleased about.