“Frozen River” – Melissa Leo interviewed by Brandy McDonnell (Exclusive)

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After more than 20 years of acting, Melissa Leo finally is getting the chance to carry a film.

Leo, 47, embodies the starring role in writer/director Courtney Hunt’s drama “Frozen River,” winner of the grand jury award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

She plays Ray Eddy, an upstate New Yorker whose gambling-addicted husband abandons her and their two sons the week before Christmas. Through a chance encounter with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian woman with her own struggles, Ray gets involved in the lucrative practice of smuggling illegal immigrants over the frozen St. Lawrence River and across the part of the U.S.-Canadian border running through the Mohawk reservation.

In discussing “Frozen River,“ Leo comments on the uniqueness of her experience in starring in a film about women–especially one that was written and directed by a woman.

“There’s good directors and there’s mediocre directors and there’s downright lousy directors. And Courtney Hunt is a fabulous director,” says MELISSA LEO. “I don’t know, is it to do (with the fact) that she’s a woman? Perhaps. She wrote the script, and I’ve been many years at reading many scripts: I’ve never seen a role quite like this, where the female carries the film–and she’s not somebody’s, and she’s not being scared to death by someone.

Say, Naomi Watts in “The Ring,” halfway through that movie, I thought, “Gosh, they’re really letting her carry this picture.” Then, I realized 10 minutes later, oh, they’re scaring the daylights out of her. So it’s a very rare thing, and that might be the piece that a woman had to do.

I think it’s long established that in fact we’re not exactly the same as men. It’s kind of a delightful difference between us–and women are far better multitaskers. That sounds ideal for the job of director to me.

BRANDY McDONNELL: Tell me about how this project developed; if I remember right, it initially started as a short film.

LEO: That’s quite right. About three years before we were able to shoot the feature, we shot a short on the same subject. … Courtney, she got a lot of questions, a lot of interest, she clearly was on to something. She threw that short out — she’s a bold and brave writer — and started all over again at the beginning, let the characters lead her and wrote this beautiful story.

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Then for three years, I’d call her every three or four months, ‘You gonna make that movie?’ and sort of encourage one another along. … I was shooting (“Lullaby”) in Johannesburg, South Africa, and she called or e-mailed and said we got the money.

She had nine days to set it up, nine days of pre-production, 24 days to shoot it. It was pretty frigid cold, I knew that going into it. I know that the crew was staunch and brave and suffered through it. … I just did everything I could to stay warm and dry so that this little thing like chilliness wouldn’t get in the way of this clearly very important role for me.

McDONNELL: Tell me about your rapport with Misty Upham–because you have really great chemistry.

LEO: She is one of the few actors that I have met at work and remained a friend with. She is a very a close friend of mine now. She is nothing like Lila Littlewolf. She is a gregarious, very silly young woman, very bright, deeply intensely bright, in many, many ways.

She’s got many roles that will not likely come her way; I mean, she could play an English lady, but I don’t know that anybody’s casting her that way, maybe on the stage someday. She’s a very talented actress, and it was a joy to work with her.

McDONNELL: I kind of looked at her performance and wondered where she had been.

LEO: She’s been just trying her level best. She found her way into the Seattle theater when she was 12, 13 years old, literally found her own way into it. And had a home in Seattle theater for several years, a really solid training base … and eventually Chris Eyre saw that talent in her and he used her in several of his Native films (“Skins,” “Edge of America”).

It’s a real closed shop. It’s a closed shop for the black man, it’s a closed shop for women, and Native women. There’s virtually nothing. We’re going to try to change this.

McDONNELL: You don’t see very many stories like this with two different women of two different ages, two different ethnicities, very different backgrounds, put in this situation. They just seem to come from such different worlds and form an unlikely bond. Was that part of what you drew you to this project?

LEO: What drew me to it was—you know, and I’m ashamed to say—was, quite frankly, the size of the role. This notion of my getting this opportunity that I’ve always held in my heart I would be perfectly able to do, I have rarely been given the opportunity to carry the film. It’s clearly Ray’s story.

But that is absolutely one of the delights … in the film itself. I think it gives people really something, especially in the climate today, to sit and think about, without battering them over the head with it. You know, perhaps we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Perhaps our neighbor who looks so different from us might very well be the person who could save our lives.

McDONNELL: Your character is interesting, very tough, self reliant, obviously desperate, and she’s doing something illegal. But she comes across as sympathetic and as a fierce protector of her children. How do you make all of those facets work?

LEO: Good. I’m glad to hear. (laughing) … It was just really clearly on the page. I mean, I do have a boy who’s 21 now; I was his tiger of a mama as he grew up. I figured that’s what a mama’s job is. I knew nothing about it before I had him and feel like I know everything about it now.

There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for our children. We want our children to rise above what our circumstances were, regardless of who we are and where we’ve could from. … That theme of motherhood, it even excels beyond motherhood, it’s about parenthood, and I think fathers get it, too. And I think children who have mothers – which is all of us – get it, too.

McDONNELL: What do you think people will take away from this movie, besides seeing something different?

LEO: Everybody’s got a mother, and I think there’s that. I think the other thing that’s really important to say about “Frozen River,” is, you know, that everybody goes (to movies) – and what do we pay now? $12 to go see a film? And it’s kind of like, yeah, well, OK, whatever. “Oh, they tied it up in a neat little bow at the end, that’s disappointing. What was that about really?”

That’s the not the experience that “Frozen River” will give you. It’s just a good movie, it’s kind of like an old-fashioned, good, old movie. You go through the adventure, you don’t get damaged going through it, and at the end, it’s kind of a feeling of satisfaction I sense from the audience. Like, yeah, you could make up all kinds of places these women are going, but both of these women have grown and changed by the experiences that the audience has shared with them … And that’s kind of the point of being alive.

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Brandy McDonnell

Brandy McDonnell writes features and reviews movies, music, events and the arts for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma's statewide newspaper, and NewsOK.com, the state's largest news Web site. Raised on a farm near Lindsay, Okla., she started her journalism career in seventh grade, when she was elected reporter for her school's 4-H Club. Taking her duties seriously, she began submitting stories to The Lindsay News, and worked for the local weekly through high school. She attended Oklahoma State University, where she worked for The Daily O'Collegian and earned her journalism degree with honors. She worked for three years at small Oklahoma dailies The Edmond Sun and Shawnee News-Star. In 2002, she joined The Oklahoman as a features reporter, writing about movies, the arts, events, families and nonprofits. She moved to The Oklahoman's entertainment desk in 2007. In 2004, she won a prestigious Journalism Fellowship in Child & Family Policy from the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Along with her membership in AWFJ, she also is a founding member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. Brandy writes The Week In Women blog for AWFJ.org.