Melissa Leo: 'I'm Not the Prettiest Actor Around, But I Protect My Characters'

Melissa Leo Flight Arrivals - P 2013
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Melissa Leo Flight Arrivals - P 2013

The self-effacing Oscar winner tells THR about her new role and how she's gotten more famous with age.

Melissa Leo has a credits list that suggests a superhuman stamina, yet you'd be hard pressed to know in which films, exactly, she has starred. The 52-year-old is a chameleon, aging herself, donning wigs and slipping into the working class and military elite so seamlessly that her presence is natural even when a role calls for her character to stick out.

"I don’t get hired because I’m the prettiest actor around, I get hired because I can lay down the truth to the filmmaker," the Oscar winner tells The Hollywood Reporter, offering a bit of humility in order to prove her point. "When the character’s choices are being disregarded, disrespected, when I can’t ground her no matter what she might be doing, find a reality for it, I’ll call it. In the end, it’s the director’s film and I give them what they need, but I do try to protect my women."

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In the case of her next film, Antoine Fuqua's popcorn terrorists-attacking-the-White-House thriller Olympus Has Fallen, she means that quite literally.

Leo, unrecognizable once again in a wig and pantsuit, plays the secretary of defense to Aaron Eckhart's president. When a rogue group of North Koreans invades the capital, top policymakers are ushered into a secure chamber that is ultimately overtaken by the terrorists, who take the politicos hostage (a secret service agent, played by Gerard Butler, must defy the odds and save the day). At one point, Leo's character, Ruth McMillan, finds herself brutally summoned to face the splinter cell's leader.

A stunt double was used for the ensuing scene, but it was Leo who stepped in to dictate the action.

"That for me was probably the most difficult thing. She’s not standing the way Ruth would stand. Ruth has been trained militarily, and she has trained toe-to-toe, no matter how fast her heart is racing, no matter how long it’s been since she’s done such a thing, she knows what it is to stand toe-to-toe with a killer," Leo explains, growing passionate as she stepped back into the shoes of her character.

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"So the stunt double got up there and she was acting like most of the women she had to play on film and was cowering from him," she continues, "and you could see it in her back and body language, and I said, 'Antoine, get her to stand up to him, don’t be a girl up there.'"

With a political knowledge limited to knowing that President Barack Obama is in the White House and thinking Michelle Obama is "fabulous," Leo tried to build a character based on what she thought it would take for a woman to rise to secretary of defense -- a glass ceiling that has yet to be shattered in the real world.

On the one hand, she says, "I think women, being mothers, have a very interesting perspective on things of a defensive nature," but Leo also understands the bloody reality of climbing the political ladder. "I think in the world today, it’s so hard for women to rise to power that when women rise to power, a lot of their intentions can be lost along the way. I think that goes for anybody who gains power.

"I did a film years ago about the very, very complicated attempts at the revolution in Puerto Rico," she adds. "And at the very end of his life, one of the factions of one of the movements realized he could not trust the men, and when he knew he was dying, he passed off the leadership to women."

The actress, who first gained national fame for her five-season run on Homicide: Life on the Street, will be seen (though, of course, perhaps unknowingly) in up to 12 projects this year, ranging from playing Mamie Eisenhower in Lee Daniels' The Butler to co-starring in Tom Cruise's sci-fi flick Oblivion. Her work ranges from mega-budget to micro, including a small indie film she did last year in her home Hudson Valley called Francine. Yet despite her flurry of work, she remains self-effacing as ever.

"From my vantage point, I don’t know how much I have to offer," Leo says, repeating the theme. "I'm not the prettiest actress around. But I have the truth of the character to offer. And I will be caught red-handed arguing for the character. Otherwise, I’m so happy to be there at work, and I think I’m pretty fun to work with."

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