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The stars are coming out for Andrea Riseborough’s turn in Michael Morris’ indie drama To Leslie.
Jennifer Aniston, Charlize Theron, Sarah Paulson and Edward Norton have hosted screenings, with more recent showings booked by Gwyneth Paltrow and Courteney Cox. After Paltrow’s screening, attended by the likes of Demi Moore along with Morris and Riseborough in attendance, the Goop founder called it a “masterpiece of a film” and went so far as to say that the title star should win “every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet.”
Many more have also posted about it on social media including Aniston (“Beautiful”), Susan Sarandon (“beautiful, lil gem of a film”), Helen Hunt (“If you’re out there voting for performances, don’t do it till you see Andrea Riseborough”), Zooey Deschanel (“amazing movie”), Melanie Lynskey (“even for her this is next level”), Mira Sorvino (“absolutely stunning, wrenching and beautiful”), Constance Zimmer (“you’ll never forget this performance”), Rosie O’Donnell (“devastatingly beautiful film”), Minnie Driver (“run don’t walk”), Alan Cumming (“an insanely raw and beautiful performance”) Daphne Zuniga (“incredible performance”), Tan France, Jenny McCarthy and many more. Frances Fisher, Rosanna Arquette, Debra Winger, Patricia Clarkson and Howard Stern are also part of the chorus of supporters.
Inspired by true events, the gritty To Leslie centers on a West Texas single mother who wins a modest $190,000 sum only to squander it in short order. Years later, with her charm running out and nowhere to go, she fights to rebuild a life and find redemption. Riseborough stars opposite Janney, James Landry Hébert, Stephen Root, Owen Teague and Maron in the Momentum Pictures release that was written by Ryan Binaco.
When the film premiered at SXSW, The Hollywood Reporter critic Sheri Linden praised Riseborough’s turn as “riveting perfection”; she “delivers a performance that’s extraordinary in its moment-to-moment sparks of hope against hope and slow-dawning self-awareness amid the despair, dissembling and self-delusion. To Leslie is a movie about hitting bottom but also a story steeped in grace — and even, within its understated, lived-in aesthetic, tinged with a bit of fairy tale, Prince Charming arriving in the form of a low-key and affecting Marc Maron.”
Even with such high praise, making a splash with low-budget indie features, especially during a crowded awards season, has always been a challenge, which is why the support from bold-faced names means so much, says Morris. “We can’t even afford an ad. We live or die by people’s reactions to the film,” he adds. “We’ve been so under the radar and our only strategy has been to get people to see the film. I don’t want it to become another title in the library. I want it to be seen.”
Riseborough, repeatedly praised for chameleonic work in sometimes challenging films that show the range of her talent, also received a lift for her work in To Leslie after receiving a best lead performance nom at the upcoming Spirit Awards as well as from the Chicago Film Critics Association, which nominated her as best actress. The film was singled out as one of the top 10 independent films of the year by the National Board of Review, and both Riseborough and Maron received acting awards at the recent Gijón International Film Festival in Spain.
First-time helmer Morris, who says that the reception from fellow actors has been “wildly surprising” and satisfying in the best possible way, explains that he had a specific vision for the film, one that did not center on alcoholism or addiction but rather on a human being. “The movie is about a person who happens to struggle with certain things, and she deals with and endures those things as best she can,” says Morris, who has a long list of episodic TV credits including Better Call Saul, For All Mankind, 13 Reasons Why, Kingdom, Halt and Catch Fire, Shameless and House of Cards. “It’s an important distinction because it makes the movie about a human being, and something about that has registered with actors.”
His hunch is that on a professional level, Riseborough’s fellow actors respect the performance in such a way that they have volunteered to get behind it. “It’s virtuoso,” he says. “She’s able to play the different levels of [being under the influence of alcohol] so perfectly and transparently as if it’s not being played and still tell a compelling story.”
That seems to have been what pushed Paulson to lend her support. Even though she says her reaction to the film is what motivated her to get involved, she had secondary, more selfless ambitions.
“I was just struck by its authenticity. I felt like I was watching a movie from the ’70s, a time when so many of my favorite films were made. Coming Home, Tender Mercies, Badlands. Movies about the human experience. Made without judgment, or commentary, just that magic of watching people behave,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Andrea’s performance affected me profoundly; achingly human and without vanity — and I do not mean ‘vanity’ in terms of appearance, I mean ‘without awareness of how one is perceived or how one will be perceived’ — just total embodiment. Immersion. Movies like this, made for little money, that are this powerful and true, should be given the same attention and consideration as those that have huge studios and therefore budgets behind them. Anything I could do to help bring eyes to it would mean I was doing something for all of us as actors and moviegoers.”
Morris also said he had a hunch that Riseborough’s turn could strike a chord with fellow artists after he showed the film to his wife, actress Mary McCormack. “She’s always been brutally honest about everything she sees, and I’ve never seen her react to a performance like this,” he explains, adding that Theron was among the first to see it outside the family, and she had a similar reaction. “This is an endangered species kind of movie, and I want to be mindful of that and work to protect it. It’s so rare.”
Also rare: Norton got in on the social media action by posting his praise on main. “I don’t post a lot about films or actor performances,” wrote the three-time Oscar nominee. “But for those interested in really great acting I’ll share that Andrea Riseborough’s portrayal in To Leslie just knocked me sideways. It’s about the most fully committed, emotionally deep, physically harrowing performance I’ve seen in a while.”
While the indie character study may be a rare breed these days — at least on the big screen — Morris concludes by sharing hopes that the universal themes of To Leslie can help continue to draw a crowd, famous or en masse. “I never imagined that it would touch people as much as it has, but what underpins the film is that so many have experience on one side or the other. You either are a Leslie, have loved a Leslie or been hurt by a Leslie.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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