Melissa Leo worked hard to look older


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TORONTO -- No one in "Prisoners" looks the least bit glamorous.

Hugh Jackman's panicked furious father, hunting for his missing 6-year-old, has dark circles under his eyes, and Maria Bello didn't wash her blond hair for days, in keeping with her character who falls into sleep day and night rather than face the reality that her daughter is gone.

Actress Melissa Leo insisted the props department not clean the eyeglasses worn by Holly Jones and asked the costume designer to pad her posterior.

"The prop department is usually quite fastidious about wiping glasses off as they hand them to the player. I insisted they not do that. Because there is that person who wears their glasses and their fingerprints are all over them and you wonder how can they see," she said in an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival at the luxurious Shangri-La Hotel.

"I don't know that Holly sees the world so clearly, so it made sense that her vision was so cloudy somehow," she said of the woman whose nephew, portrayed by Paul Dano, is suspected in the disappearance of two little girls. Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are the parents of the second child who has gone missing.

Ms. Leo knew Mr. Dano by reputation but had never met him until the table read of the script, and "instantaneously the relationship that needed to be established between us was established."

In a black and gold striped dress, dark stockings, metallic-colored shoes and with her hair long and less vividly red as in some movies, the actress looks decades younger than Holly Jones. Which is the point.

"I was first and foremost blessed with Donald Mowat being the head makeup on the job, and we had worked together on 'The Fighter' and we had a pretty good idea of how to simply get my face to highlight the age in it and downplay the youth that remains -- I hope," the actress, who turned 53 in mid-September, said.

In the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, Holly is described as having waist-length gray hair but dyeing hair gray doesn't look realistic on film, painting it wouldn't have been practical for an entire movie and director Denis Villeneuve initially decreed "absolutely no wigs in my film."

"So it took a lot of conversations and eventually, a masterpiece of a wig was built for Holly."

That wasn't the only film fakery, though, thanks to costume designer Renee April.

"I suggested that perhaps Holly Jones needed more of a bottom than I had, and Renee was delighted with the idea and built a wonderful foam-rubber bottom for me, and that really literally grounded the character and the slower I walked, the less I picked up my feet, the more informed by that heavy bottom, the happier Denis was."

Ms. Leo read the script, once attached to a different director, so long ago that she cannot remember if someone told her whodunit. The first time around, though, she passed.

"When it came again almost three years later, I said, 'Well, I said no thank you and I meant no thank you' and some very, very wise people that represent me suggested it would be a good idea to meet Denis, and so I did and was completely enraptured with him, with his ideas about the film, with his desire for me to be his Holly."

So this time it was yes, thank you.

Ms. Leo, who just won her first Emmy as outstanding guest actress in a comedy for "Louie," doesn't need to like the characters she plays.

"It's not a question I ask. I wonder if she likes herself. I wonder if others like her. Not the audience, but in her life."

As for how she sees the person responsible for the girls' disappearance, she said, "I think the film is an amazing portrait about how people who are hurt will undoubtedly hurt. ... People who have been treated badly treat others badly if they get no help."

On Feb. 27, 2011, Ms. Leo became an Academy Award winner, joining "The Fighter" co-star Christian Bale, Natalie Portman from "Black Swan" and Colin Firth from "The King's Speech" in the winners' circle.

Ms. Leo played Alice Ward, the Lowell, Mass., mother of nine, including boxers "Irish" Micky Ward and Dickie Eklund portrayed by Mark Wahlberg and Mr. Bale. Just 11 years older than Mr. Wahlberg, she nevertheless pulled it off although she cut and dyed her hair and spent 90 minutes daily in the hair and makeup chair.

Even as a child, Ms. Leo was drawn to the art of pretending and while she received compliments for her work, she rarely registered on the radar of awards voters until "Frozen River" in 2008 and "The Fighter" in 2010.

In the former, she was a mother of two and a part-time worker at a dollar store who illegally transports people across the frozen St. Lawrence River into the States. She was determination and desperation personified.

Apologizing that she might get a little teary, she said of the Oscar, "To be included in that club, by the members of that club, means more to me than words can speak. Has it changed my life? Not really," although she might be considered for work that would not have come her way.

"I did have a lot of people cheering for me," she agrees. "Men, women, young, old, all around the world have said to me, 'Oh, Melissa, when you went up there and were given that golden statue by Kirk Douglas, I felt like I was up there with you and it's true. I don't know if ever an Oscar has been shared so thoroughly with so many."

But it's her name engraved on the personalized plate affixed to the statue and in the Hollywood history books.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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