Getting To Know Showtime Star Melissa Leo Melissa Leo shares how she got the part and owns her role as den mother on Showtime's latest series I'm Dying Up Here.
Posted on Aug 11, 2017 06:00am

After years of steady but unheralded work, New York City-born Melissa Leo hijacked the market on tough-as-nails broads with a trifecta of roles: Detective Kay Howard in Homicide: Life on the Street, her Oscar-nominated performance as Ray Eddy in 2008's Frozen River, and her Oscar-winning performance as monster mom Alice Eklund-Ward in 2010's The Fighter.

Now, as Goldie Herschlag, the indomitable owner of an early 1970's L.A. comedy club in Showtime's I'm Dying Up Here—executive produced by Jim Carrey and based on the nonfiction book of the same name—Leo lets it rip again with a fierce, sexy, and vulnerable turn that should add new statues to her collection. Asked about playing the drama series' coke-snorting, hard-drinking, king-making mother figure, Leo says, "It's one of the best jobs I've ever had." Damned right. Watch now.

With its flawless '70s ambience and kick-ass ensemble—led by you tearing it up in maxi dresses and tight, zippered, Angie Dickinson-esque flight suits—I'm Dying Up Here kills. Halfway through episode one, you rip open a pantsuit and proffer your chest to a talk show producer while delivering an aria about your grip on your stable of young, tortured comics: "You know what these kids get here that they don't anywhere else? These babies! I nurse these [bleeping] kids, they latch on, and they don't let go till I say when." Sheesh. How'd you prep?

When I got the script to play this woman, Goldie, I didn't know there was a book or that it was based on actual people. She's Jewish, and I'm such a shiksa that I thought, How am I going to do this? So I went to my local hair salon and had them bleach me blond. I was not going to believe my own red hair, so that was my first step into her.

As so many of your characters are, Goldie is a firehouse of a smoker. She practically eats cigarettes. You and Bette Davis could have had one helluva smoke-off.

[Laughs.] I was a lifelong smoker, but my mother passed away a couple of years ago and I was able to quit just before she passed. It meant the world to her! So now I smoke herbal cigarettes on set, but they remain delicious props. You can say so much about a character with a cigarette. I don't drink much, either, but put a little water in a vodka glass and I'm "drunk" in no time.

Your trademark roles are steely alpha females. Do you make people tremble in real life?

I hate to disappoint, but it's all a show. Really, I'm a shy, awkward wimp who forgets to brush her teeth and doesn't know how to get dressed in the morning. But I'm also a natural redhead, and that always makes everybody a little leery.

About what?

As soon as you see a redhead in the cast, she's the one who's going to steal a boyfriend, she's the one with a temper. The first time I went brunette for a role, it was astonishing. People would actually look me in the eye and say, "Good morning." Then I bleached blond and they'd come up close enough to touch me. Redhead? They cross the street if they can. [Laughs.]

Though you're sizzling hot in I'm Dying Up Here, you're famous for not caring how you look onscreen. And defying all odds, your career gets hotter the older you get. Your secret? Great acting chops and no Botox?

I'll leave you to make comments about my acting abilities, but the other answer comes from my dear mom: She refused vanity in her daughter. So although I feel secure in myself, it's not based on how I look. It has to do with my own innate sense of truth. When I'm looking for a character, I'm not looking for ways in which I'll look good; I'm looking for how the story will be best told. I'll also add this: Bombshells have a shelf life.

And character actresses don't. You confirmed that at age 48, when you snagged your first Oscar nomination for Frozen River. Despite years of work, starting with All My Children in 1984, it was as if you were a new face. High-profile work flooded in and clearly still does.

True. But I would argue that after 25 years, it was about damn time!

By Brantley Bardin | Originally published in Watch! Magazine, July-August 2017.

Photo Credit: Leslie Hassler/Contour by Getty Images.

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