Melissa Leo’s penetrating performance in FLIGHT pivots dramatic conclusion

Leo as “Alice Ward in her 2010 Oscar-winning role for “The Fighter”

When I first met Melissa Leo– several years ago at the Toronto Film Festival– she lived up to my impression; a terrific actor with an easy way about her, flat-footed assuredness and anything but pretentious. In other words, someone you could talk to; and, talk we did recently about the new movie, Flight.

Leo costars in Flight as Ellen Block, a reputable NTSB aviation investigator, called in to sort through the details of Captain “Whip” Whitaker’s flight crash. The Academy Award and Golden Globe winner –for her arresting role as Alice Ward in “The Fighter” opposite Mark Wahlberg and Oscar winner Christian Bale– brings credibility to her small but critical arc in Flight. She is to this movie what Viola Davis was to “Doubt.”

Leo’s erudite “Block” brings the stoic, in-denial hero to his knees, eliciting a jolting confession from him –with an inevitable consequence—that he cannot escape. It is at this moment in Flight that we come to terms with our beloved Denzel Washington’s “Whip Whitaker” as a tragic figure.

Part I of my conversation with Melissa Leo follows–

Talk2SV: This film is full of dramatic tension, a gripping plot and superb acting. It is also a platform for facing one’s demons and standing in your painful truth. The plane crash is but one aspect of the protagonist’s dilemma; his darker side forces him to reveal a deeper, hidden truth known to few. If we were to use truth as a basis for our conversation today, how do you walk in your truth, now on the other side of winning an Oscar, by comparison to the years before you achieved that goal?

Leo: I think in my truth, I’m really a very lucky lady in that when I was a very small child, I didn’t even really know what an actor was. But that thing that is called ‘acting’ is something I knew I wanted to do. For some, I think it’s more of a job that they do. I am an actor, I’m a mom, and I’m a woman. Maybe in that order. Oddly, I have gotten to live in my own truth by examining others and I get beautiful compliments on the women that I play because I will not let any of them be only one thing, one dimensional, because none of us are. We all have those things that we recognize in ourselves and we have those things we have yet to recognize in ourselves. What I have learned about humanity –by playing human beings– is the biggest gift in my life. Examining truth, pretending the truth. That’s what I do for a living.

Talk2SV: What has been the most recent truth that you’ve reckoned with, that you can talk about?

Leo: I guess it’s a fine question to ask because it’s really a professional answer in the end. So, I won this beautiful Oscar, I have a glorious beautiful statuette at home, people know me in a way now, that in 30 years as an actor, had never known me. Best of all, I have a confidence in myself; I’ve been accepted by my peers in a way that is highly unusual. Not everybody gets that. There’s some damn fine actors who have never even been considered for an Oscar nomination and that sense of belonging, of not thinking, ‘well maybe someday, I’ll just do what I’m doing,’ but, in fact, I am really doing what I do and I can be proud of that.

Talk2SV: In this movie you are positioned at a pivot point because it is the action of your character, Ellen Block, NTSB investigator, that forces the truth from our flawed hero. Was much required of you to prepare for this watershed scene?

Leo: No, I had very little preparation for it. What I had is the script and as you will hear every one of us (cast) say, from Denzel to John Goodman to everyone, it was there on the page. It was pretty obvious what was being asked of us in each of our roles. I arrived on the set on the weekend so it was everybody’s day off. Mr. Zemeckis came in along with the costume woman and the prop guy. We had a brief opportunity to talk, but I got everything that I needed from him. He (Zemeckis) didn’t want me angry with him, disappointed in him, mothering him: he wanted me to get the truth from Whip Whitaker, get the truth. Ellen Block didn’t have an agenda; she just wants to get him to face his truth.

Talk2SV: Interestingly, there was a point in your portrayal that I thought you were giving him an out to escape his truth. I felt that no one wanted to accept Whip’s truth because he works in a system that we rely on it so much, aviation. We, consumers, don’t want to know the truth of what goes on in the cockpit.

Leo: Well, that’s a really interesting interpretation. I don’t know if it’s true but I do know this because of my own experience in the 12 Step Programs that the whole notion of all of that particular truth about compulsive behaviors, addictions, and so forth. You can have God and his brother tell you you’ve got a problem and until you say, “I have a problem,” you’re not going to get anywhere. I think she (Ellen Block) is a smart enough woman to know that she would not get the truth she sought if she accused him of anything but that she had to lead him to his own truth.

Part I, to be continued…

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