Melissa Leo On Addiction In 'Flight,' Intimidating Denzel, And Making Robin Williams Laugh
Oscar winner Melissa Leo has always been one to keep busy, and in Robert Zemeckis's Flight she fills her dance card with yet another brief but potent supporting turn. "'There are no small parts, only small actors,'" she quoted to Movieline as we sat to discuss her Ellen Block, the key investigator and the lone figure standing between alcoholic pilot-hero Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) and a prison sentence in the addiction drama. "Sometimes there are small parts, actually," she laughed, "but this was no small part." Leo, one of the go-to character actresses working today, has made an art out of popping up to deliver crucial supporting roles when she's not carrying her own indie movies. (She earned her first Oscar nod for her work in Frozen River and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Fighter, while Francine, an intimate study of a woman newly released from incarceration, is the rare film featuring Leo in the lead; it's in select theaters now.) In Flight, she manages to do no one else in the film can, and what few have done in the movies, period: Intimidate Denzel Washington. Movieline caught up with Leo in Los Angeles, where we spoke in-depth about Flight, what President Obama has in common with Washington's Whip Whitaker, how she came to play Robin Williams' wife twice in one month in The Angriest Man in Brooklyn and Lee Daniels' The Butler, and why mixed messaging is a clever way to get audiences to experience the terror in Flight more frightening than a plane crash: "There are all kinds of people in the world, but the way that addiction can grip a talented human being is so sad." You are having such a busy year. When you stop to think about it, does it seem that way to you? I’ve been very, very busy. Most of it is unfortunately all the traveling between all of it, which is the hardest part of it – but I get through it, because why complain? I get to go to Romania and work with Shia LaBeouf [in The Necessary Death Of Charlie Countryman], and then I get to go up to Canada and work with Sammy Rockwell [in A Single Shot], and I got to do this with Denzel. It’s been a lot of running about doing work, but its been fun. The most fun part of it has been the experience and talent I’ve gotten to play with in the last six months. It’s funny that you should mention the constant traveling, because you'd think a movie like Flight might frighten you away from airplanes. [Laughs] I’m an actor, right? I know that when I’m up there in my little red jacket I’m not as smart as that lady is. I can pretend to be that smart, to play her – but I’m more aware of the pretend of what we do. That’s the angle that I come at it from. So the “accident” is thrilling moviemaking to watch; I’m fascinated by the filmmaking in it. And Brian Geraghty! His fear makes me feel so afraid. Just a terrified little boy in the cockpit. I think that is one of the scariest pieces of that amazing thing Zemeckis did, staying inside the airplane. But it’s play! When I arrived in Atlanta to shoot I was lucky enough to see them building the animation of the shot where the plane knocks the chapel off the church. I saw the inner workings of how he was going to do that. So you see, it’s not real to me. Why be afraid? If you’ve got Whip Whitaker out of his mind on booze and coke in that pilot’s seat, well, you got on the airplane and that’s your lot in life. I don’t wish a plane accident on myself, by any means, but if it happens, so shall it be. That’s such a terrifying scene, the audience collectively gasps because we’ve all been there on a plane, wondering what would happen if things went wrong. It’s such an odd sensation, to be at once terrified and entertained by a scene in a movie like that. We also go on ferris wheels and roller coasters, to get our hearts racing in the way that perhaps they raced when our husbands went out in loincloths to slay a bear. It’s a human necessity, to elevate your feeling in that way – and that’s why we go to the movies. The more terrifying force in Flight is Whip’s addiction... So well put. But I can’t imagine everyone out there will know that going in, based on the ads. I think it’s a genius plan to get everyone in the United States to sit down and watch that film, because they’re going to see Denzel Washington and this big plane accident and it’s going to be so exciting – and to get this intimate portrait, this sad, sad portrait of a talented, capable, functioning addict is much more scary. Your character plays a very interesting role in Whip’s story, in that she’s a looming antagonist – she’s the one who could bring his world crashing down, who he and his legal team worry will be their undoing. How was the character presented to you, and why did you decide to do it? I tell [screenwriter] John Gatin all the time that I’m so pleased they mention her name so often in the film, because when she comes you really know who she is. Some people have said, ‘You’re so mean to him,’ but I don’t think she’s mean at all. That sort of delineates people in their responses to it – if people understand what it is to need help, they do not see her as mean. I was so highly honored that someone with such experience, such scope of who he could use in the role, would come and not just ask would I do it but beg me to do this role for him. I understood, you know, the old expression ‘There are no small parts, only small actors’ – and sometimes there are small parts, actually –but this was no small part. [Laughs] The load that he was giving me far outweighed the moments in it. It’s also more dialogue than I generally have to learn for an entire script! It was a responsibility that Mr. Zemeckis placed on my shoulders, and that was not lost on me. The honor he was giving me, saying ‘You can bring this home for me.’ If the scene doesn’t work, the film doesn’t work. He was asking me to do that. And having now seen it and heard people’s response I feel I can say I did a pretty OK job. It’s also pretty fun watching you in the hearing scene, having Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, and Bruce Greenwood all intimidated by you. [Laughs] We accomplished most of that by simply staying very distant all day. There’s a big temptation on a set to get to know folks and chat with them, but it’s not really why any of us show up. I think some of us show up for the press because we might get an opportunity to do some of that friendly visiting! But in my mind very clearly Ellen Block has her own agenda, she has her own people she answers to, and as far as she’s concerned she knows exactly what this ne’er do well attorney is up to. She’s not involved with them in any way, so by shutting them out of my world maybe that’s what establishes that distance between them. She’s also quite surprising in that she’s built up in such a way, from Whip’s perspective, that you expect her to be some big scary lady coming after him, guns blazing. That’s Mr. Zemeckis. That was his choice. I asked him what he needed from it. It could have been done in a very mushy, maternal way. It could have been done in a very angry and judgmental kind of way. He didn’t want any of that; he just wanted her to extract the truth. It was a very clear direction. So much of Whip’s life is a performance – he’s acting, pretending to be something he isn’t, just to hide his addiction from people. He’s getting by in that way until the crash makes him a celebrity and the world puts him on a pedestal. I may be reaching, but can you relate to the balancing act of having to deal with that sort of attention as a celebrity while retaining your own private complexities as a human being? You’re not wrong in seeing how complicated it is. With little recognized accomplishment does anything negative get said about you, would anybody bother? No, they wouldn’t. But if you have an accomplishment or accolade given to you, you’re much more open to speculation of your more dark sides, and judgment about you. Eventually you learn to know that everybody has an opinion. It’s kind of interesting that anybody would have an opinion about you, you know? But it’s a funny thing. It makes me think of dear Obama. Back when he made that speech as a senator years ago and people were like, ‘What a speech!’ It’s almost even since that moment that people began to find things to tear him apart with. Until you walk in any shoes like that, it’s the same with Whip Whitaker – what are the reasons that he’s turned so fully? The portrait of a strong and capable man who’s such a dirty rotten addict… I’ve known such addicts, and it’s so much harder in a strong, smart, capable person than somebody who wasn’t ever really going to do anything with their life anyway. There are all kinds of people in the world, but the way that addiction can grip a talented human being is so sad. Shifting gears, I’d like to take you back in time a bit. You’ve done so many great and celebrated projects during your career, but one of my favorite credits of yours is All My Children. [Laughs] Before I worked on it, man, I used to watch them all the time! We all did. Back when I did it, soap opera just had one of its biggest heydays ever. And that was even from radio, when it was the only kind of entertainment. I loved that job, I really did. It was shot the way live television was shot, and I’ll never get an opportunity to do live television again like that. There’s a famous cat fight scene that made the rounds a few years back. Do you remember it as fondly as the internet does? When that came up on the internet and somebody pointed it out to me, I couldn’t even remember the fight. I looked it up, too, because so many people were asking, I felt like a silly goose that I couldn’t remember. Now fast forward to the future – you have about a dozen movies coming out in the next few years. Yes, and they’ll all be like this. Well, not all of them; you won’t have to wait ‘til the end of the movie to see me in all of them. But most of them are one or two –day parts, and the continuing story down in New Orleans playing Toni Bernette on Treme, and getting to play Robin Williams’ wife twice in the last month, what a hoot… How did that even happen? Just a fluke. A total, absolute fluke. I’ve met Lee Daniels over the last few years and I was just delighted when he asked me to come do his Mamie for him with Robin as his Ike. At the same time Phil Robinson wanted me to play Robin’s wife in The Angriest Man in Brooklyn. Did you and Robin find yourself bringing one movie marriage into the next? Oh, it was really delicious! With both roles, we had so much. If you’ve ever spoken with Robin or have spoken with anyone who’s spoken with Robin, he’s a very serious actor, and very concerned. He was constantly at Phil’s side after takes – not neurotically so, but just like, ‘Did I get it right, is that what you needed?’ But he also cannot help himself – if he hears something out of the corner of his ear and he has a joke, out will come a joke, and another, and another. Everybody’s on the floor laughing! So as we played Mamie and Ike, it was very serious to both of us – he had done an incredible amount of research on Eisenhower. And the way Lee wanted them portrayed is not really in the history books. It’s from Forest’s eyes that you’re seeing all these presidents and their wives come through the White House, so you really want a more intimate portrait of them than you’d get in a biopic. But then to be back up on Brooklyn shooting, I said to Robin at one point during this lovely dancing scene, ‘Remember that party where we dressed up as Ike and Mamie Eisenhower?’ And I got him to laugh! I was so delighted. Read more on Flight, in theaters today. Follow Jen Yamato on Twitter. Follow Movieline on Twitter.