When you interview actors, you get used to hearing a lot of platitudes - glibly-rehearsed lines about what a pleasure it was to work with this or that director, how much of an honour it was just to be nominated. Melissa Leo is no fan of platitudes. A working actress for three decades, she has starred in such acclaimed TV series as Homicide: Life On The Street and Treme , and earlier this year was awarded with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in David O. Russell's The Fighter . In person, Leo is wry and worldly, speaking about herself and her career with an openness that cuts right through the usual bullshit.
Take the story of how she was fired from her job on '90s police drama Homicide as an example. Her character Sgt. Kay Howard wore mismatched men's suits, let her hair out, and frequently appeared without makeup - all ideas that were Leo's own. "I'd worked for years with men who went in front of the camera without makeup, so when I saw an opportunity to do the same, I just had to take it," she tells me with a laugh. "The network hated the hair, they hated the lack of makeup, and most of all, they hated the neckties!" Leo was eventually let go, but is proud of sticking to her guns, and indeed, sees Kay Howard as opening the door for less conventional TV policewomen.
All of this brings us, in a round-about way, to Red State, the newest film from indie auteur Kevin Smith. Smith is better known for foul-mouthed comedies of the Clerks and Mallrats variety, and Red State represents his first foray into horror. The film tells the story of a group of religious fundamentalists - based loosely on the infamous Westboro Baptist Church - who murder 'perverts' they find on the internet. Leo plays Sara, a cult member who lures the film's three young protagonists to her trailer with the promise of sex. She is a flawed-but-interesting character in a flawed-but-interesting film, something Leo is willing to discuss with surprising openness.
"I was approached to play the character of Sara," Leo says, of her involvement with Red State. "Kevin paid me a very high compliment, saying that my accepting the role and being a part of the film would show everyone he was making a serious movie. I felt that denoted an understanding of my acting and a respect of it, and I was very happy to come on board." When arriving on set, Leo clarifies, she is very conscious that she is there to make the filmmaker's film. "There's a distance between the words that are written on the page and the film that is eventually made," she says. "That's the filmmaker's vision and I'm there to help realise that." While praising Smith for his "grace and beauty" as a person, Leo says that his singular directing style was sometimes a challenge, and that in many ways, working with him felt like working with a first-time director.
"There are many successful filmmakers of about Kevin Smith's age who are one-man-bands," she says. "They do really interesting things with the medium of film, but they limit themselves because of their limited knowledge about what the collective of filmmakers has discovered over the years. Kevin knows film from watching film. Somebody like Todd Haynes, who directed me in Mildred Pierce, knows film from being on film sets. He knows what all the players are doing, he's in control." Smith's style is anarchic, and for Leo, who is more used to directors who are in complete control of their sets, working with him was a culture shock. "There are lots of these one-man-band filmmakers who have made funny, successful movies," she continues, "but there's a casual element to the way they play around in what I would consider to be a high, holy church."
For Leo, one of the pleasures of working on Red State was reuniting with actors she'd worked with in the past - the aforementioned trailer scene being on example of this. "That was a joy, because of those three boys and their energy and enthusiasm," she says. "One of them, Michael Angarano, had played my son in a previous film, so it was very funny for us actors, with all our various relationships and the way we play, to find our characters together. To have those three beautiful boys making very sexy advances my way for a couple of afternoons was a laugh and a half. They're delightful, the three of them." John Goodman, who played Leo's husband in season one of Treme, also shows up as a police officer. "He's a friend for life," Leo says of him. "If ever I was having a difficult day on set, and there were a few of those, I could lighten the mood by saying, 'Just you wait til my husband gets here!'"
In spite of the fact that her style didn't always mesh with Smith's, Leo said that she is proud to have been involved in Red State. Her biggest achievement in recent times, though, is undoubtedly her Oscar win for her pitiless portrayal of Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg's mother in The Fighter. When asked if the win has changed things for her, she tells me that the biggest difference it's made is in terms of self-respect. "I'm really grateful to be recognised as a peer in my field," she says. "That makes me feel better about myself than I ever imagined I could, and it's given me new strength and courage to go forward to the next phase of my career."
BY ALISDAIR DUNCAN
Red State opens in cinemas on Thursday October 13.