As shoppers grimace down Thompson Street on a bitter Soho morning, a bright-red hat with a broad brim flounces merrily on top of Melissa Leo’s bright-red hair. Onscreen, she’s the cagey lawyer, the stern cop, the badass blue-collar bitch. Today she’s the bouncing ball at the bottom of a kids’ sing-along video, grinning. In an amazing red hat.
“Oh! I got it in Capri,” says Leo, the most working-classiest of working-class actresses, a journeywoman with 92 credits to her name, from cop shows (Homicide) and soaps (All My Children) to dark dramas like 21 Grams. Leo explains that she recently flew to the island for a screening of The Fighter, in which she plays the mother of boxer Mickey Ward and his addled half-brother and trainer, Dicky Eklund. But her luggage did not arrive with her. So she had to go shopping. “Isn’t this hat amazing?”
Now this very Methody actress has been forced—forced!—by her bravura performance in The Fighter to leave her scruffy Lower East Side childhood behind and play dress-up with the likes of Anne Hathaway and Natalie Portman at the New York Critics Circle Awards, the Broadcast Critics Circle, the Golden Globes (just to name the three Best Supporting Actress awards she’s scored thus far). This requires closets of clothes for “all the la-di-da,” as she calls it. And new boots to go with “these little jeans” her stylist picked out—flattering, form-fitting—which she’s accessorized with a fitted black blazer and that floppy, happy red hat.
Inside the boutique Ina, there’s a pair of purple suede two-tone boots with a separate spot for one’s big toe. “What statement is that making?” Leo wonders. She’d prefer little black ankle boots that are a “little more rock and roll,” but can’t find any. She leans over the shoes and brushes back her hair. Dyed shock-blonde and beehived in the film, it’s back to its natural state of lush red ringlets. “All my life, I’ve gotten, ‘Fiery! Oh, she has a temper; she’ll steal your boyfriend.’ Then I dye it blonde and you get, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’ ” She prefers to stay a ginger, man-eater or not; she’s fine with who she is. And with the boots she has on.
Leo has an appointment with a stylist, waiting for her with another sparkly gown for another awards show. But first, coffee. We duck into a café near the Thompson Hotel, where she’s staying. “Yeah, there’s a lot of bullshit involved,” she says of the awards circuit while sipping a mocha. “But it’s totally fun.” Leo got her first taste of the madness two years ago, after her lauded turn as a grim immigrant-smuggler in Frozen River. When Sophia Loren walked into a greenroom, she froze up. “Then I said, Fuck it! ‘Hi, I’m Melissa Leo, I think you’re wonderful.’ ” She was thrilled when Clint Eastwood said, “Hi, little lady,” to her on the red carpet (despite the red hair). “Now Clint and I are friends! Not often in my life have I felt I belong, and that’s enormous to me.”
Now, at 50, she’s also just won her first Golden Globe, thanks in part to her Fighter co-stars, about whom she notes: Christian Bale was “balls to the wall.” The “lovely” Mark Wahlberg “doesn’t say what he likes or doesn’t like.” And Amy Adams, who “likes to play a little lady” but “has got some big gonads in those pants of hers. She’s a bright little fucker.” Leo’s 23-year-old son (an artist who’s on a fellowship studying Joseph Beuys in Europe) gives her a tough time about the name-dropping. “He said, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t talk about all those people, Mom.’ I said, ‘Those are people that I know, honey, they’re who I work with.’ ”
Still, Leo often embarrasses herself at these parties, a consequence of working on her own movies (in 2010, she acted in five films, plus the HBO series Treme) more than she watches other stars’. “I’m always meeting people and I haven’t seen their work and it’s, Who’s that? Who am I meeting? Oh, oh! Oh, they made what? Oh, I’ve heard of that movie.”
We hurry back over to the hotel, Leo leaving her coffee unfinished. Midway, she suddenly stops to light up an American Spirit, despite the assistant who waves and nods and winks and looms in ever-more-obvious ways to indicate how urgently her stylist needs to pry off Leo’s skinny jeans and zip her into a gown. Leo, unbothered, savors the smoke.
“I went through several years of feeling really ashamed about this bad habit of mine that I don’t go and see everything, but now, at 50, I’m very, very content with it,” she says. “That’s who I am.” The assistant’s nods grow more insistent, but Leo wants me to understand that she has no regrets. “I can’t imagine any other way than how it’s been. I don’t know if it’s the right way or the wrong way, but that’s who I am.” Then the great, gritty actress from the Lower East Side stubs out her cigarette and goes inside, to have her hair blown out.