While Slumdog Millionaire, 2008’s ostensible Little Movie That Could, barrels unstoppably towards a Best Picture prize, this year’s real underdog is Frozen River. The least-seen film competing for top Oscars, Courtney Hunt’s no-budget, Sundance-fêted indie drama — about a down-on-her-luck mother who turns to smuggling illegal aliens — scored an Original Screenplay nod for Hunt, and a Best Actress nomination for its star, Melissa Leo. On Monday, we spoke with Leo by phone about the Oscars, her movie (out on DVD this week!), and how freezing upstate New York temperatures helped her performance.
First of all, congratulations on your nomination. How much has your life changed since it was announced? Are you tired of being asked that in interviews yet?
I don’t see what you’re talking about. [Pauses.] Really, I’m ribbing you a little bit, but I love my work. It’s sort of my pleasure to sit in this sunny office today and talk with you to promote the film and promote myself.
At what point did you realize that this role was special? Who was the first person to tell you it might mean an Oscar nomination?
I knew it was a fabulous role that I was very apt to play. In the 24 days [of shooting] up in Plattsburgh, when we got that time in a motel, Courtney would go up to the third floor in the elevators and look down the hall at me going into my room and say, “We’ve got it,” meaning we got the day. Then I didn’t hear about it for a few months, and got a DVD in the mail once Courtney had edited it, and went “Wow. We made a really good movie.” Did I hope then even? No. When Sony Pictures Classics picked it up, Michael from Sony said, “They’re gonna run you for an Oscar, little lady.” Whatever. Even [the night before the nominations were announced], I never expected. But, boy, I’m so delighted.
Of all the roles nominated for Oscars this year, yours was easily one of the least glamorous — you shot the entire film in just 24 days in freezing upstate New York. What was the hardest part?
None of that was tough. All of that, I was prepared for. I knew the conditions we would be shooting in. I knew that we did not need to waste money on trailers because we would never see the inside of trailers. I held [between takes] in the green Dodge Spirit that you see in the film. If I was playing Jackie Onassis under those conditions, that would be much harder to do. But the conditions were actually very appropriate to the story we were telling, so an actor just learns to include them. There was no difficulty in it.
It’s interesting, given what’s happening in the world right now, that Frozen River is the only film that takes a realistic look at American poverty…
I don’t watch a lot, so quite frankly, I haven’t even seen these other films that are up this year at all, except in little clips at awards shows. But I’ve been very moved by some of the performances I’ve seen, even in the little clips. I hear Courtney talk in interviews and about her very purposeful intent of showing poverty as it exists for real on the screen. It is not something that is typically shown in the way we do in Frozen River. In most films, when people don’t have a lot … but then — “Oh! They’ve been given a million dollars!” That’s kind of the poor people we usually see in film. We don’t usually see the underbelly.
You’re primarily known for playing tough, working-class characters. Is there another type of role you’d like to try?
I think that I’ve really played a lot of various types of women over the years. One of the characters I would like very much to be able to do over the next year or so would be Bette Davis, opposite Joan Crawford [in the film adaptation of The Divine Feud], while they worked on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. It’s a beautiful script I have and am hoping to get to do. But I don’t know if Bette is the type of glamour-puss you were talking about.