WFF 2013: Melissa Leo takes no Prisoners

Maybe it’s the altitude, but there’s a kind of giddiness to the Whistler Film Festival that you’re not likely to experience elsewhere. And so it is that you might find yourself being amiably heckled in the lobby of the Fairmont hotel by a passing Richard Dreyfuss (this actually happened to me), or you find yourself getting an earful from Melissa Leo.

“Well, that’s your opinion, isn’t it, sonny?” she said, through gimlet eyes, responding to my too-glib description of her role in the film Prisoners during a brief interview at the mountain resort. Denis Villeneuve’s dark and morally complex tale of child abduction in small town Pennsylvania received its Whistler premier on Friday (December 6) with Leo in attendance (and it also gets its Blu-ray and DVD release on December 17.)

“You know, some years ago, down in the States, we had a lot of conversation about evil in the world,” the actor continued. “And I’ve been playing human beings for 30 years, right? Which has given me the opportunity to not only get to know myself, but to get to know how it is to live other lives as well. And sometimes there are lives that have absolutely no privilege in them, and it can harden a person. And I think that bad behaviour comes from bad hurt. Every single time.”

She gets no argument from me. Prisoners is a brilliant and challenging film that exists to upset whatever assumptions the viewer makes about its characters—good or bad—as it unfolds. Naturally, Leo was quick to lavish praise on her director, who brought the same cutting intelligence to earlier Quebecois movies like Polytechnique and Incendies.

“He is one of the finest, most bestest directors that I’ve ever had the privilege of working with,” she said. “It’s not something I say because I’m here in Canada. I would find something polite and truthful to say about him had the experience been, you know, about the way it is usually. And it was not that. It was an extraordinary experience. And that is not just my experience of it.”

For the record, Ms. Leo was also animated and funny during our 15-minute chat, ranging over subjects that included her early work in low budget movies like 1985’s Streetwalkin’ (“I don’t know if I would care to see that one again,” she said with a snort), and offering a blunt take on an extraordinarily varied, three-decade career.

“I have a problem," she said. "It’s a disease; it’s an addiction—and it’s to acting. I gotta do it, whether you’re gonna pay me or you’re not gonna pay me, you’re gonna do it in Hollywood, or Vancouver, or Timbuktu. You want me there, I’ll be there.”

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