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Melissa Leo on Her Role in 'Unlovable' & the Thing That Gives Her the Greatest Happiness

By Gary Duff | January 14, 2019 | People

Oscar winner Melissa Leo's latest role as recovering sex addict in the indie dramedy Unlovable, opposite Charlene deGuzman as Joy and John Hawkes as Jim, takes a softer approach to understanding a growing epidemic in America.


Melissa Leo as Maddie in the dramedy, Unlovable, an Orion Classics release.

There's no role that actress Melissa Leo can't play. In her latest as Maddie, she reluctantly takes on the job of mentoring a struggling sex and love addict named Joy, whose story the movie actually follows closely. In her latest chat with Gotham, the Academy-Award winner dishes on her acting process, the struggles of addiction, and the thing that gives her the greatest happiness now.

I always find you super in-sync with whatever character you're playing, whether it's The Fighter or whether it's this movie, how do you find that place? And how do you know when not to push?
Oh gosh. Well, hopefully, I have a director that's got an eye on some of that and helping me. I do ask many directors I work with to keep me down out of the trees. The theater actor that I was trained as has not yet left me. I know Suzi Yoonessi so well now after several occasions of working her that the pleasure of being on the set with her is unparalleled in a way. She's just so clever and deep and can tell the darkest of tales in the lightest of ways. I also think that there's a strange thing that I learned actually in this interview process and trying to come up with a reasonable answer to questions that in some way I'm a little more comfortable acting than being Melissa Leo. When you act, you are told what to say, what to wear, where to stand. You're given a blueprint of what your life is in the script, and most importantly, over the years I've learned to really seek an understanding of what the purpose of my character in this particular story is. And certainly in Unloveable, Maddie is not the lead character. We're not following her story. So what does the filmmaker need from Maddie to help Joy's story? And I think that sometimes acting is perceived as very egotistical art form, and for me, it's quite the opposite. I think that helps my filmmakers have a character that is helping to tell a story. They're not concerned with Melissa's political views or love affairs or whatever. I'm really happy to embrace my whole being in a character that's described by the filmmaker.

But on some level, it is intriguing to think about where Maddie would be hadn't she had an addiction. Where would she be if she hadn't had that issue? Or is she still, do you think, finding herself?
ML: Well, you see, it's not really my place to make up some other story than the story that's being told. I appreciate the question. It tells that you're interested in the character of Maddie and tells me I must be doing an okay job. I think there's definitely an indication in several ways, in several portraits including the portrait of the young woman who is no longer alive that we find out a little bit about at the very end of the film, that this is goddamn serious business. This is a huge problem in our society, and the victim, whatever the addictions are to, kill. So the simple answer is I think Maddie might have ended up dead, probably at her own hand, or in the least a victim of some horrendous sexual encounter that she had opened herself up to. It's quite a possible prospect. There is a proclivity to that bad behavior that is not helping the addict in their life, because if it was there once, it might very well show up again. And I think at the beginning of the film, Maddie is quite reticent to engage on a deeper level because she's been scared to death of reaching out a hand and trying to help someone. In the 12-step process, once one has helped themselves, they can give back by helping others. So it's an interesting way to look at the recovery process in different stages of its form.

There are people who question whether sex addiction is real or not, so I was curious to know what your take on it is.
I think that it's possible to be addicted to almost anything, and I think when it comes to things that give us some kind of idea of momentary pleasure, that makes it even more inviting as an addictive substance or behavior. So there's an interesting description I heard of what an addiction is in fact, and it's really a behavior that you sort of know is not helping you, it's not really making you feel better, and yet you go back to it again. The more that you push that button that has been proven to give you release, that pleasure seeking is a huge part of our reality, and so I think that there's a cautionary tale of maybe you should be a little careful how fervently we push that pleasure pedal, whatever it might be.

Has there been someone, whether in this movie or another, that you found most complimentary to your acting style?
You know who I really enjoyed working with over the last few years? And this sort of blows your theory totally out of the water. Antoine Fuqua.

Oh really?
Fuqua keeps me safe and gives me freedom.

You've won Emmys, Academy Awards, Golden Globes, but what gives you the greatest happiness?
I am trying to learn how to seek happiness in my life. I have placed happiness at a very low priority almost all my life. And I am right now at almost 60.

ML: I don't quite know why. I think part of the journey now is figuring out, yes, why indeed. So I do know that working with people who know what they want, like Suzi Yoonessi, as a filmmaker. I mean, this woman has got to be watched. You should go back and look at the things she's already done because you're going to want to be ahead of the curve on that young woman. She is brilliant, and that makes me incredibly happy that I've known Suzi since she was a student at Columbia Film School. I've watched her grow and get married and have a family and build this incredible lexicon work at this point. She can be tossed almost anything with not enough to do it, and can somehow turn out a product that has a weight, a value, a merit. And to be in comradeship with someone like that makes me very happy, and my work mostly is what has made me happy, and often times, I'm working with people who only think they know what they want, and that makes me very unhappy that they're wasting everybody's time and efforts, and it's ridiculous. But when I find somebody who knows what they do want, then that makes me quite happy.

Photography by: Photography courtesy Orion Classics.