Melissa Leo: Revealing 'other truths' about 'The Fighter'
Melissa Leo has played many roles in her more than 25 years as an actress, including the desperate and destitute mother in "Frozen River," a 2008 performance that led to her first Academy Award nomination.
But in Leo's words, becoming Alice Ward -- the determined, gritty mother of boxers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund in "The Fighter," a portrayal that has already earned her a Golden Globe nomination and will probably lead to a second Oscar nod -- is "one of the most fascinating experiences" she's ever had as an actor.
Leo recently talked via telephone about that experience, working with director David O. Russell and her co-stars, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, and her feelings about the sport of boxing. During that conversation -- throughout which Leo was always forthright and occasionally feisty -- one lesson was definitely learned: Don't ever say even a semi-negative word about Alice Ward. Because if you do, Melissa Leo will come out swinging.
Jen Chaney: I read that at first you were not sure about playing the part, for a couple of different reasons. Can you talk about that, and then talk about what changed your mind?
Melissa Leo: What I think is the first and most obvious reason -- I hadn't really seen a script, you see. I had heard about her and I had heard I was going to meet on "The Fighter" with David O. Russell -- to play what? Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale's mom? Like, now, all together in the same era? Okay...
You know, there's some very wonderful, qualified female actors that are of an age to play their mother. But anyway, I was interested to meet David O. Russell and I took the meeting. Within about five minutes, that man had -- we were working on it. I was Alice and this was what we were going to do. ... David was revamping the script when I met him, to be his film. And that included really fleshing out these two actual living characters and Micky Ward's story. Not only does his brother Dick play a large part in the story, but his now-wife Charlene and his mother, Alice Ward, play a large part. David was fleshing all that out, and I think in his excitement of finding more uses for Alice he was trying to incorporate 35, 40 years into an hour-and-a-half film, finding pivotal moments. And we just leapt into it working.
I still felt a little doubtful. Mark Bridges's costumes were an enormous help. The hairdo -- that David found in one of the photo albums of Alice and her family and insisted -- that one, no shorter than that. [Then] no, like this one, very, very short. On the third haircut we finally got the hair. ... I walked out of the trailer and the town of Lowell said, "Hey, Alice!" It was with some amount of confidence I could move forward and had more assistance than ever before on the external part of my character.
The internal road to Alice came about a month before when I met her while we were shooting and could see in her a genetic link to me somehow. She, too, was a woman like my mother's mother, who had done extraordinary things, not only as a mother but as a woman before equal rights.
JC: It sounds like David had already made up his mind and through force of will, he made up yours.
ML: [Laughs] I don't know how he makes up his mind, he can often change it quite quickly, too. But I know that Mark had suggested that I be Alice and I can only tell you my half of the experience of going for what I thought would be an interview and diving into a part. For me to observe my Alice Ward now is one of the most fascinating experiences I've ever had as an actor.
JC: Does it almost seem like it isn't you?
JC: In a different way than your other parts have felt that way?
ML: In a different way. Usually the job of finding the character is much more up to me, and it was twofold here. We had Mark and his commitment to this story and David who was helming it and shaping it -- their voices first and foremost, long before my character. And then this whole thing of having to walk such a long path to find myself as her. It's usually a less describable, slower walk toward the character.
JC: Talk to me about working with David. As you said, he has a reputation for sometimes changing his mind, for being a little wacky --
ML: I don't want to bandy words about David O. Russell. The word I would bandy most and used quite often on the set is "genius." Often [bleeping] genius. That's about what I'll say about what went on on the set. The set is a very sacred, hallowed place to me. It is my place of worship. There's a lot of things I find now, although I'm eager to explain and explore my process and the process of filmmaking, the more experience I gain, the more I find it indescribable and best not described. Unless you have a couple of weeks and you want to make a seminar down there in D.C. and I'll come down and we can really get into it. But in an interview -- it's complicated, it's deep, it's marvelous, it's frightening -- everything.
JC: Do you find it frustrating sometimes that there is so much more attention on that side of filmmaking and perhaps in ways that, as you say, don't capture all the nuances?
ML: I think the general public, and you as journalists know this, are very curious as to how we do this thing. Right? But I find that the more I try to explain the complexities, the realities, the less interested they really are. So I'm not going to make light of it and go, oh, it's this or it's that. It's my life and if you really want to understand it, there is no more favorite subject of mine than that.
JC: Well, I really want to understand it. I'm not sure if we can do it in 15 minutes, though.
ML: [Laughs] Well, that's sort of what I am saying to you. Then I would have to draw in other examples of other experiences I've had, I've heard of, I've assessed, you know? A director who is overly friendly and bonding and kind and thoughtful of the actors' experience, and just wants you to be happy -- oh my God, that can be worse than a director who never talks to you.
JC: Can you talk a bit about working with Christian and Mark? Your character is kind of the pivot between the two of them.
ML: Well, perhaps that's true. I do know that Mark and Christian teach me so much about acting. The combination of the two of them. To me what is so interesting and curious to the outside world about the way that Christian works is commonplace to me and fascinating because of that. With a relaxed, clear, comfortable, concise way, I watched Christian mold himself into Dick Eklund and play him. And Mark is an actor who, by my experience with him, shows up knowing his lines, knowing the course of action of the story and is remarkably, easily molded in the moment, on the set.
JC: Would you say their approaches are different?
ML: Exactly, polar opposites. And one is neither better or worse than the other. What was delightful for Alice, standing between the two of them as you describe it, is that it then innately developed a relationship between Dick and Alice that was one thing, and between Mick and Alice that was another thing. To nail that pivotal point that the way she cares for each of them is so different was innately there. Just like the town of Lowell. I didn't have to, like in "Conviction," pretend I was in Massachusetts. I was surely in Massachusetts.
[Warning: Spoiler in the next question]
JC: There's a moment toward the end of the film where, during his moment of triumph, Micky kisses Alice, and then Charlene steps in and pulls him away. Was that an improvised moment, or was that in the script?
ML: Alice Ward was not actually at that fight in London. It's one of the few places, other than sort of timeline ways, that really transposes history in having Alice there so Alice could be there at the end of the film. I think it was a wise choice on [David's] part.
When we all leapt into the ring when David was shooting, we would shoot long takes, longer than anything you actually see in the film. And yes, that particular moment, very improvised, with David giving us instruction as to what -- "and a moment here with Mick." And you know, that Micky takes Alice and kisses her, I had not anticipated. I knew that I hoped something would be there that would help the audience know the truth about this family, that the Ward-Eklund clan has a familial love amongst it that is more complex than, by and large, American families will allow themselves anymore.
For those nine children and their mother and father or stepfather to hang together through all these years, through all these triumphs and defeats, is an extraordinary thing. And that is a truth about that family, a familial love so deep it's almost hard for us in the modern day to recognize anymore. And complicated, too. And you know any love has two sides of a penny, no? She hates him for going in that crackhouse. She hates the big boy for going in that crackhouse. And she loves the young boy for his own inner strength. Her big boy didn't get that inner strength.
JC: But she resents it at the same time.
ML: She does not resent it. Not for a second. She makes a choice. With eight other children besides Micky, she makes a choice. Give each one what they need. This is not the one-child family with, oh, lavish it all on the one. She's got no room for that.
JC: Right. I was referring to when Micky sort of fights back at her, that doesn't sit well with her.
ML: When Micky fights back at her?
JC: Yeah, when he wants to go to Vegas and he starts questioning the way his mom has handled his career.
ML: Well, I know other truths that are not included in the film. I know that the man I accuse of coming into Mick's life to steal his money did, in fact, steal his money.
JC: Ah, OK.
ML: OK. I also knew that Dick Eklund would never have gotten in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard if Alice had not been their manager. And she must have been a pretty [bleeping] good manager, first of all, to get Dick recognized and to begin Mick's career as well. And at the beginning of the movie, you see she makes a mistake. And if you watch very, very carefully in the film, Alice realizes she made a mistake. It's the family business. They know they need to make money. The guy says the guy's beatable. Alice chooses to be optimistic. And once again, those crooks in the fight game have screwed over her and her beautiful boys. Now it's not a movie about Alice Ward, so that whole thing isn't told.
But any point in the film where you doubt --- Is she being selfish? Does she care about one child more than other? -- I can point to and go, no. She's doing what she can. You go walk in those shoes.
I'm sorry I get so worked up.
JC: No, I think that speaks to your performance. You have to feel that way about her. You have to empathize with her.
ML: If I found a woman where it was hard to breathe in the room with her ... then that's who I would have played. I simply tried to beat my heart the way that Alice Ward's heart beats, and she's living. So I hope to God I did her justice.
JC: I think another actress could have played her in a villainous way, and you didn't at all. Even if you don't always agree with her, you know where she's coming from.
ML: Thank you.
JC: I have one last question and it's a little random. I was wondering if prior to doing this film, you followed boxing and whether you have a favorite boxer.
ML: Oh, that's not random at all. In several periods of my life, I have found myself sort of stopping on the boxing when I'm going around the channels. I don't stop on sports. As soon as I hear that "ruh, ruh, ruh ruh ruh," I go to the next channel. And the medical shows. They're about the same to me. I don't want to see the inside of anybody's belly and I don't want to see everybody screaming for something that they're not doing. It's weird.
Boxing stops me. The classic fights, even more so. What is that? What I think I've learned after "The Fighter" is that boxing might be the single most test of a man we have today, short of going to war. It's a one-on-one contact that takes a skill and a strategy that I never imagined. A strength, a bravery, sure. But the skill and the strategy, the specificity of the training. To train to the next fighter you're going to fight and then get into the ring while everybody else -- who's making more than you are, probably -- is using you and maybe put a piece of lead inside the other guy's glove, they're outside the ring.
It's fascinating. It's a fascinating and to-be-respected sport.
| December 24, 2010; 3:03 PM ET
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