Chris Connelly interviews Melissa Leo for 'The Callback'

Melissa Leo dishes on her upbringing, being a parent, and her new show, 'I'm Dying Up Here.'
38:43 | 06/29/17

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Transcript for Chris Connelly interviews Melissa Leo for 'The Callback'
Hi I'm Chris Connelly you're watching the call back this is a series of longer form interviews were doing. Usually based on some sort of professional history I have with the subject over the three and a half decades of that doing this kind of thing but today's subject. I have ever personal connection to her name is Melissa Leo and you've seen her win the Oscar for the fighter. And now she stars for show time in a series entitled I'm dying up here here's my conversation with. Well with the lead. Melissa Leo thank you for joining us here in this fabulous suite at the hotel then sanded it Austin, Texas. So here at SXSW because you've got the most hated woman in America whose biography of Madalyn Murray O'Hair and we should please leave this rate check your home and you know I remember that controversial young atheists from mine callow youth. And endured starred also in nine appear for showtime where you play goal the eight comedy club owner. In 1973. At the Boston comedy club there's unit. Accurate answer oldies but they come one come all they collapse yet it wouldn't book us. And I'm so that they. Now it's 77. Johnny Carson moving the Tonight Show home to California in 1972 and that meant that all the comics. Think this thing way of seeing that reason I I think it also has to do with what an interesting moment. In stand history wise. Not just Karstens move out there but that's it explosion. That that happened me and said it was in gold ECU. But bill. N eventually there was sort of clubs in New York in Los Angeles that would have. Ought to improve improvisation and maybe folk muse it may be Samie and strangers theater pieces that Matt. Well and I don't weep some comics. And why. Goal visas. Is a place in the early seventies maybe late sixties scene in which he has decided. Only come. Now and it is there are around with things. And puts us paints the place black very dark with the spotlight so the focus is the literally on the comic. And in a way kind it has created and stand up comedy as we know today. And she is representing Canada phys the singular voice of the young. Comic thru route isn't she she represents for them she nurtures them she attempts to get them what they want NG. Should be she yearns to lead them to find their unique force. Well yeah because once a lousy. Good comic you can to sell when it. So for her and for them and for the world she wants to you know cure rate that with the curator maybe that's machinery. Weird at 1973 funny you. I was thirteen am we know that quick man because those when and I sold 1960. Round numbers helped Celtics. Health me. Prior to birth of my son by some years so I have to the orient can access your data ND three I what is probably we had left New York City. And I was up in southeastern Vermont. Having grown up on the lower east side. These tree it's. Who is the artist in that period of your life who met the most to you. That's so funny the Frist mean that comes into my mind is Peter asks. The pop artists. Who had sort of become. Leaving. Who have commercial. Visual yet was it was a mean war all and Max and there would they would doing something that was ten I think in art fairly forward moving. And a part of that forward movement what to do with commerce. So you had all those Peter Max posters up on the long now I never had a lot anything up on the law because that area had a Walt hang anything on. So I. I just when you ask me it's his very vivid images that come to mind and also liked. Have gone from the hurly burly of a lower re sciences the ultra bucolic world of south. Vermont that that she. Well I it's just that it is my brother and I and it kicking and screaming. But my brother still lives up there my mother who finished her life but there a couple of years ago and it Vermont very much became home and that balance of New York City which is still no Alan love fun that very girl reality in the early seventies and Vermont is. Think nice balance for an act up. What you were of course. Schooled in a Montessori school in New York hot home just in the very beginning my very friends school was indeed a mindset is a I probably would have been better suffice it stated it could have stated Montessori remember the name of this. The case in school that's correct you know only no fun at that school mr. Kamen you know my mother. Well well. I'm. My mother found a cat and school. I was in the first graduating points. You Wear a uniform like you're darn right because it was housed in the Catholic schools and we had to Wear their uniform that's correct I was wearing a little gray uniform with the way insurers agree. Hershey's chocolates here but I'm. Chocolates are all I ever asked me and I think that it Ebert and get it taken out. Well. As I walked in. I'm holding this kid in my my hand and the chocolate is all over me it's painful but it's just a kick it as I walked in. A monsignor that my mother knows is coming out at the same time and she says we have to go oh hole on yet and he what's. And he made me kneeled down in front of the ER and blasphemy before it went in to get the camp. I'm how it really what's your relationship with chocolate. And it's you know what's that we you know we keep in touch but we're not we're not lightly clone. I would say yeah that's kind of traumatic I had I had count there how awesome. Well as some girls I had brought a little. Malice. Pet that not pet you don't stuffed mouse to and they had opened it up and hand. This August that it was filled with was coming out and they chased me around that schoolyard shaking that. And it was it was those teachers there say me rescued me from those nasty horror Carlos are it was a big objectives for. It was huge saying my mother was very interested in early childhood education on baton and was at noon an interesting thing in education that point. He has very lucky to go to like this and I'm not joking I would have done much better I could a state count the beads and playing with a quiz narrowed some. They gave me numbers in nine just wiped out. Unleaded. Few washer and death skewed warrior it was all the things that Maria Montessori Hitler when she was. Working with the children of labor's I think peck in. Italy Italy as a practicality. An education. Does indeed stick with me today who's the actor who whines that influencing human making want to become performed to conceal. Think that is what do. Well there's my mom sending me dad came and so on. It was not we didn't have you don't know whom both we both Academy Award winning actor friends. And it's true it's illegal. But we did not have a television in that house for years and years and that's probably close to ten before we actually had a television. In the house did not see a lot of movies. No not far from our house on tenth street between second and third is that building that's now now houses the public theater anymore. And at the time Peter issue month for a dollar a month. Had rented a floor and that building to have his bread and puppet theater and my brother and I would tackle Greg play with a paper ms. Shane build the puppets. And only got to practice this pretend. And it was great my brother wasn't so interested I loved it and it wasn't children it was grown ups. And he's grown ups taking pretending so seriously and we practice it and they wanted it to be the same each time only knew indifferent also Alan. This fascinating pretend with Alice pack my patent I ended state pretending. And one heat all he's had a crown scheme. Let's start it was night which is excited to be out of the apartment at night. By yourself if that. Especially in that neighborhood my mother used to say Graham and hand don't talk to the pimps on your way to Baskin Robbins. Well we didn't go around the corner to the battery with state of ten absolutely. And these people came they sat down and watch just pretend. It paid attention. Eve. And that's sold me I didn't know it was called acting took me years kinda gets us. And bread and puppet of course was this usually see you know successful and influential. And not just in terms of the wonderful publicity but they had a political dimension culture every minute on the they almost have a kind of utopian community that put all these things together both. In new York and I think he in for. Right now eventually in Vermont did eventually and that took months but it was started there I think 196364. Recognition as I've vodka. And that was your moment that was that was the beginning of this notion that there was a larger. Group body of people out there who are willing to pretend for serious. And eventually up in Vermont and was that part of that little local community theaters man. What made you feel like you would be really good as opposed to it just being something you had an affinity for what made you feel like I have unique skill can be successful. I don't know that an actor really ever feels that entirely about parents what you don't commit to that life it's leave them as well. David there's not a lot of other things that I have any capacity for. Him trying my best here in this interview for example. But. And succeeding. I'm just not paying kid I say it's something I know I've always understood. Like you before Brittan puppet three years old likened on the street and grabbed my mom's hand mom on line. And have her walk me it just to pretend to be something other than. Boring old and comfortable me. Who was the first person who wasn't related to you were friend of yours who. Believed in your ability and nurtured told to you'd be able to succeed. I don't know if I know that very first person is but I do remember. When I was accepted to SUNY purchase to the acting program there. And I had never worked professionally I have done a lot of acting here and there would have right could find a way to. But it the end of my first semesters at acting student purchase just cocktail called me because that some pop acts that games. And ill he was doing something very improper which suit purchased students for not supposed to work during their four years of training at purchase and he was inviting me to audition for some work he thought it was right for. And that supported me bike show was really the weakening realized involving kids in the class I'm the one he's asking to to do this so. That impressed. Meanwhile line and purchase it was a real hot house of real doubts at that moment you really wasn't don't know what what's going on with purchase these days but it was still quite a young school and its intention was to relieve the affordable conservatory for. Actors what do you think you have it was special that he's. Had seen answers as to answer I think it is just that I am not very capable and anything else. So when it comes to anything that's acting I take it incredibly seriously. I understand it. My son has dyslexia and he's almost thirty now and he's studying art very seriously more and more seriously as years go by. And he's never really been able to read books very easily hurt to his school work very easily. But since he's been in art school he's suddenly his capacity to learn its huge. We go to museums together in what he doesn't know all about artists from another time artists from this time opinions about art. It's amazing to me and I know my son is an artist. Because that's where his. Ability to understand the world life. And Miami ability to understand this complicated world that every passing day it went Lester lasted till it. And my ability to comprehend what it is that we two's sometimes senate sat down ran into somebody it's their very first day ever on a sat and somehow they're one of us. They understand things they have no learning him but at capacity or. And that's who we're really made up the industry and actress work its all kinds and. Sure well all kinds back then you know I looked in the bathroom here and there's an army eyes eyes one would expect anything and there's heat bathtub right in the middle and I thought this is like some hipster version of every. Bad that apartment that I ever saw in Manhattan. Now L kicks in. The play it's like they've turned it into like something ironic thing you know what's the did you over the worst department you had in New York when you were starting out as an actor. All I was really lucked out in apartments in New York I have to say every single apartment I was ever. Housed in in this city I had one little apartment that I grew up until we moved to Vermont. Intense street basement apartments we had backyard shirt blue. And and for a very brief time. I had an apartment way up 125 in Claremont. Beautiful huge prewar apartment that another girl at least on him little room. And subway right outside the Taurus fantastic. And then the one and only apartment I ever actually rented myself was on the upper east side I didn't really mean to live there certainly wasn't terribly hip at that point. But there is handy. And it was basement apartment backyard. And so I lived there for the handful of years until I moved upstate. Did you richer so others know my son was born there. When I was that the apartment on uneasy fare but and then very shortly after. That's where he was three the end of debt to Ulster county near. Hudson now. What do you remember about those days when you're beginning and you work I think of it is being very. You think of a lot of actors kind of coming out of there and being successful and it was sort of like the last boat. That left New York guess that what it's that last group of New York actors that does really well in that 1980 period was it like death and you're. I don't know I I in my life has been so detached from all the other actors I have a small handfuls of actor friends. Most of them are actors you've never heard. I I really am pretty much of a loner which is not so good thing why do you think that it. At the life. You use your constantly going in moving a handful of friends I've been able to maintain their people who understand in my and I hear from me from 78 months and that doesn't mean haven't thought of them wouldn't like to. Being with them. There's something funny to and that. I'm only myself for grief. Periods of time it sounds. Sound actor feelings but it's kind of an actor he you know and then there you are with this whole new family of people that you're working women they knew very close and that's what you're thinking it down I don't have a lot of capacity to think of other. Things while I'm doing and then let. The next day you know. In and again. On in the showtime series you are sort of managing a group. People who are friendly bush who are also highly competitive and who have the ninth for each other frequent. It you know I frequent times is that analogous to what you would see among actors or. Holiday prayer that it the media that comedians are varied different then the actors that comedians really like to cut each other down. They seem to really enjoy it both sides of it and most of them seemed to take as good as they get. It's a little off putting to me I don't find that actor's. Each. Most of the time I find actors are relating to one another in the ways that they are characters. Will be relating to one and other. And once you've known an actor in that capacity it's kinda hard to not. Like if I cited John Goodman wakin. I'd see it pop I had an island because he played my husband and we had a beautiful daughter and that Sally think of him. So Mike I'm Karen know who's in the show with me I've had several different wells with him so that gets a little bit like how'd duet relate to him. What could open up. Yeah I guess I'm really mail mail from the confident that act is being crazy people. Eddy lea how did how did being a parent sort of keep you saying only we're attempting to get workers put. Now being a parent is without a doubt the most wonderful amazing rewarding job I ever had in my life. An incredibly proud of my son because he was able to become such. Beautiful young man in spite of times in which I wasn't there whether he was with his scatter I was working. We remain also very close at the same time. On. Being a parent is phenomenal. And I can feel much more genuine when I play a parent because I am a parent. Your him stroll for many people is that role Chris Armas because people still think proudly. You in the pants. You kind of uncompromising. Lee represented. It's hard to imagine now what a battle that lasted look like the kind of detective you actually reporting. And it really left out with a because it wasn't such a battle and that's really insightful as there aren't that many people any. It really remember every single woman on television more skirts and dresses. Only had just as to where can you let so handbags all the tech hat and act and it government have you ever had him making your life is how I carry a bag around went on him. But anyway. I usually carry a lot of bags around me actually let. But like it anyway it was like Italy and negative soap opera is totally true it was would be part of. You know. Via a woman's wardrobe. When I play can now. If there had been half a dozen female homicide detectives in the United States of America. To that date I would be surprised. Baltimore never had had one. So in the rule book. It describes how a male detectives needed to dressed jacket and tie. But it did not say anything about a female cast. To the it detected. So extensively. Kate could it come in blue jeans season. Which witness at all the other guys off because that loved to work completely sure. So she opted me in the original costume design and we opted that she would dress says close to that. Just tonight she's gonna manage all kinds of art arguments that everybody being female detective. So let's not happy about my clothing. And that was the choice that was the ties that should and she's just trying to fit in does that help. I mean to have. Two it does that help you work your way into playing this character by figuring out what she will Wear and how what she wears positions through the world under. Percent that's a really important thing. A lot of times for many many years working there is some kind of stipulation about women that directors allowed to call you the producers are never allowed to call you that was. My team heard from. If you picture movies and T I don't in the backyard at the ground apartment you know that constant design. We it out fail. Fines. And they have permission to find me. So the very first used to say that I knew I had the job. Because not because my agent manager's. Job because the cost of designer outlet to get my sizes. And that first conversation and the first thing asked them is how much have you worked. Filmmaker be at that show runner. Director of the project it's. And begin to ascertain if this is something the air creating an air mind or if there inviting me into something that we'll help me it into the show. And those that is that very first thing is the script that's where I get the primary most of my information for any care to ever seen is that script. There's more work to be done at the script isn't so good must work to beat and sets that are. And then clothing clothing absolutely from the socks and underpants right it is or the socks and underpants are wary in. It's very complicated. And if it didn't have the complicated rig. I could not for a second be guilty not for a second. Now you're treaty. This we you look pretty hot in that. I think she is defecting if character I ever played an added about 120. It's there's something about her but it really goes to Christy written boring and stress I'm wearing today. Custom design is the scene in the pilot that she Heston. It was scripted lift her blouse. And I just couldn't see a woman doing that. Especially not this small breasted woman we don't show that off. Wilson well I hope that kind of things that the I don't know why this couldn't fake Dan Christie came up with is that there. And it was genes because instead of parlance. She could Arco death zipped something man. And it gist. It made much sense to me. And it's not really my butt that's a whole lot of help. Think they can easily matter are rapidly. She is very proud of how she looks and she gets the kind of response to clean that area that she wants to get beacons. She's a woman who grew up in a very different hair and I did we are meeting gold in the early seventies but her heyday was in the forties. And I would say women know how to dress like women in the forty. And you're working obviously in a million now for showtime where you can. You can get a little racy in you can drop the F word in you can use. These kind of long term storytelling techniques in the series that you couldn't before when I think it's something like homicide. You look back now and you think how hamstrung you were by the way you at the tolls to respect that. When you think of the different plays ways that stories can be told now. These kind of short form series a don't want that are very candid new additions like the wondering now you kind of think wow they were sold him strong. That it was very hot and but it's funny too because homicide was an enormously groundbreaking for television. In the way they used that camera in the way that they came off of the stands and ships and we were shooting on sixteen millimeter film tissue that show. Which became an integral part of it just before all that digital stuff came in almost anything seen downs and bishop digital. There was a movement that there were lap time camera had that made that show have a completely different look than anything before. And it's hard to remember it is so quickly things change that well that's interesting that's trying to. So hamstrung in away and away. It is also groundbreaking. Is that still a rolling gets shouted at you in the street. If some is in a shout at you and say. And you know. It to my. In this area at this endlessly to scope of business which in theory and love doing ambulance and why don't wanna do is that. If everything and time again for your head movement is new. That atheists. It's yet know exactly that and yet. Jokes about that note jab and I Josie it. It's not funny. But I mountain. Am annoyed at me. Back down now. That's the literal pool color outlet insisting that it. Is it's inches sting who. Remembers what. And homicide. I have had more people like just tennis I just came in from Europe seeing my son and that that border guy. Customs guys in the states and I got that now you're an actor homicide. I used to watch it with my tan. And I could count in the way he was saying it that this was the same comment I have heard again any Canada on the side. That an older kid. Watched it with their parent. And often times the parent it's now gone. Often times apparent that they didn't really get along about a lot of things. Homicide they were able to watch together again and again and again that comment on that show up. And of course someone else is a bad one it's not what you get shouted out but when somebody sees you in no injury and homicide. They are in your face and they want share. Memory of watching. Sometimes with wit wit homicide it happens like that and then it's the other thing which is talking about coming up the home. School with the EU and now I was in your living room but I didn't act. You weren't my third grade class I don't work I can go to school in Illinois so late. I usually to say I dated your sister or I was your eighth grade math teacher. The math teachers usually good because it usually. The little and he's just I totally embarrassed myself because I used to watch a lot of those. Medivation shows and that's what home improvement sort of. Is that it went belly is terribly hands and oh plays he handed me this tool needs since some nice to the homeowners. At night. I don't need you. That. Might. Have his way and no updates but I via a and not. Mart of buying. I have this balcony looking to work. Will you keep the Oscars for. It's in my home. I have a beautiful cabinet when I was in new violence if you shop right you can find some great old antiques sentenced and beautiful glass cap. And he keeps company with my. It might and me and it myself did you ever did you ever Parietti of those words to. Now no known life for those stories here yes plopped adamant to. No all plane alone I think of them more as these tiny little light of Barbie dolls and Africa you know there at a press regularly who does for them that I might talk to them from time to time. When they you to check track. I. Don't judge I'll ask and it would. Well I don't know being counted that debt DIA in Kenya and tell them about it. Do that but. It. No I am very proud I'm very proud of that beautiful hardware but 18. Because it. Says to me that I've been accepted into a group of peers that means the world to me. That I am indeed an actor and then I respected. You didn't know that before in the same way now I think most actors infused scratch the surface of them half a certain. Foolish chilly call it insecurity years self doubt her uncomfortable shy people generally were not that people that I'm trying to cats can. Well we see you play your roles when we always we often see is great strength. And and determination and focus and power and so there are certainly actors with whom we associated certain problems and security. You just don't feel like one of them. Willis well that's very nice to hear I'm I am not the women that I play. You wish you were like me. Now but I always. Learn from them I guess than me and I'm just not really that interested in mice. There's so much more interesting than I am. Any of them and there you can have these interesting conversations. With writer than director. About them more interesting conversations after you've done that with people about them in a way that is different than talking about oneself. I of course went to college with David Ross. Who we use referred by his full name which was David O. Russell V. Because that was the year he was going to graduate. Because there was another David Russell not been sentenced. So every time my sanity oh and I forget it and yet because every time I see what does he think he should at eighteen acres they say that's our kind of associates. And I think about stating now how did winning that award out of their role kind of Alter the arc of Yorker does that she didn't change that kind of roles we're given that changed. Or compensation for some liberals you. In many ways it changed absolutely nothing. And I say that Frist says it's probably the most surprising I am going am I'm on the path. That I'm on I've. Always think that's for my New Year's World Series no you're just Jack I don't think analysis done on what is back there and he. There. About. That a peso would enhance in his. But anyway IAE yeah no. It changed and then. On the other hand. It did some it usually. Beautiful blessed ways perhaps a little more compensation. And always had been sort of the lowest paid actor that you might now. And I don't know if I can take that credit any longer. But still like keep hearing about this money people earned why do that I don't think big money. They make money I earn better money and I used to. I'm not saying on the big money and accurately dangerous and scary but that's probably what it stays away from me when you think it's scary question how does it change because I never met anybody who got money it. One lawn money and then they want to have more money and they want him more money and then they wanted to tell everybody what's Dylan now that the president (%expletive) And. And get first. All I saw was these difficult man. And that was no fun for me I've never been just plain that same moment. Again so I had to back away from a lot of difficult mothers there was that hard for you. As a working actor does start saying no. It was nigh unto impossible. And now like how many years later I'm still trying to learn. No it's a viable and finance there. Because you want to say yes right or the pressure is to say yes I kissed I ate. I the biggest mistake I ever made was after the Oscar I did begin to expect that something. And that was sort of the worst year and a half of my entire career for me personally the year that that for the Oscars were expecting. That you know oh well now everyone colony with a lead role for that you know. And that was not what was happening and it took me awhile to realize it was my great expectations. That was. Problematic. Because it always simply accepted every job that had ever been offered to meet people's bodies chosen such wonderful and I know I just said yes. It's so true I wish there was at different story that but it's the truth. So. Yet know there is an adjustment to the mate now because I get asked by all kinds of people my interest now lies in finding. Experienced. People to work when. A lot of work with first timers in year quote it's well especially because the first time user not even. Qualified to be first times and east house. Because film making that was once an art even when I began scant thirty years ago. Still very young mark we have to remember that offers a long and weighs you just didn't find people on sets to. I think it'll be a dental heights and minister me they'll be at the gate and capture. And you. Had people who are dead as serious about it and now that it job in the industry was gonna say they rights because it was nothing else they can. When out people who went to school and did well in school. That's not who we never again. And now you have film schools across the country graduating thousands of directors every year. It's a big problem for the industry it's a huge pop. And yet there's been this explosion in production in something like the show times here is you're on now is something that might not have. It amenities hours ago they aren't and and that more summit it's better a lot of sports. What more will we learn about cold in the weeks and months to come. That's Lundqvist on cancer because I would rather that people watch the show to find out that this difficulty what do you like best about her we've discussed so awesome she looks well. Like there's confidence in herself. I liked the attention to her appearance that she pays something I've never been very good at doing in my own line. So this could deal of fun to be had and now we really great team that helps you with hair makeup and costumes your hair as though is currently are real well. Landmark for people rate and you probably totally different people we people react to your different here color. Is that true when you know eight. Definitely well Chris there's my father. Who can't stand that this is my actual hair color and I still have my hair color right hand gun grade and then things haven't died this happen. I was blonde from Goldie and it's just grown out since we've finished and early fall. Might down heats it went right here but over the years. Red handed six as myself yet gets asserted sighed long glance from people and they're terrified. So what did he has cited a straight. Because is some fiery temper that's associated. With you know when you see the cast come down now the one red head that's gonna and a troublemaker. It's look at Archie comics it's it's anyway. Dan I dyed Brunette for something. I distinctly remember being in island and locking out after the death had it blown quite smooth and straight lovely chestnut brown. And somebody stranger. That popped out his bucking and looked me in the giants that good morning. I was where it. And it happened all the time now I don't know if the cameras are going to be able to do this but when I go blind people can hold. Me I need she. It. Judge a book by its cover and I think. It's good to deploy right. For let you go to get your flight mom. Is there a role you have in the Bakke I mean the general you have in the accurately in the years. Time to play that you if you could get at this very second I'm getting ready an anxious to get on the plane because we are in the last couple of days of pre production. On a script that ferry street guts the writer married to the mom wrote. For me it showed me a bunch of things smaller parts in them I think I write me a script. And he did it's called for low and on Monday we're gonna start shooting. And I'm really looking for it I'm Anderson dares them. So that's one and has probably dozens more for him. I'll close cropped up thanks so much for talking to us is so.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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