Training Ground
Interview | Melissa Leo

We talk acting, learning, and playing strong women with the Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo.

You often portray very strong, complex women – are those the roles you seek out?

When I started acting, I was offered roles as a prostitute or very mistreated women, including a rape victim based on a real story. A friend pointed out that I was always playing the victim, and I realised I didn't want to do that. That really made a difference, and now, when they ask me to play a role, I will find the strength in that woman.
As I get older, the roles that are written are often those of hardened, difficult women – but maybe they have a reason for that, and that's the story I want to tell! When I played Alice Ward in “The Fighter” the press asked, “What's it like to play a bitch?”. I said I did not play a bitch, explained to them who she was, and that made them write about her differently, like a strong woman.

How did you approach playing her and other real characters?

I had never played a real woman before Alice, and it's very different from playing a fictional character. I met her, her family, her ex-lovers, I walked in the town she lived in her whole life. This gave me information that an actor usually has to use their imagination to create.
When Oliver Stone asked if I would be Laura Poitras for “Snowden”, I was beyond delighted. I asked him if I would have a chance to meet her, but he didn't think it would happen: Laura was supportive of the project, but worried Edward might be misrepresented. While we were in Hong Kong, shooting in the hotel, I randomly bumped into her in the elevator as she was there to screen “Citizenfour”. It probably made the portrait feel more genuine to me. She didn't put it in words, but I know from her eyes that she told me “you can do it”, and that permission was huge.

You're here to talk about acting - can it ever be taught?

In my opinion, to act, you must be an actor. You can teach everyone how to read; you cannot teach everyone how to act, I know that for sure. But you can learn about acting. I learn acting every day, every time I go to work. As a matter of fact, I learn acting every time I watch acting!

What are you looking forward to do at FEST?

There is really bad trouble going on in my country, and that's gluttony, perhaps the deadliest of deadly sins. I want to take personal responsibility, and tell the young filmmakers here that there is no need to aspire to Hollywood's idea of filmmaking, that films with millions of dollars spent on them are not necessarily better. Making your film truly yours, without thinking of what's going to make the most money, is all that matters.
I'm working on a project and I'm hoping to get a script written, so maybe I'll find an interested young writer in Espinho. I also have a couple of completed projects that did not work, and I want to find out why, and how they could be done it instead. It's not an offer to make a film with me, it's an offer for a conversation.

So, always learning.

Always learning! I've come to Espinho to learn.

Chiara Puntil