Melissa Leo talks the season one finale of HBO's <i>Treme</i>

Melissa Leo discusses the season one finale of HBO's Treme

The season one finale of Treme, Episode 1.10: I'll Fly Away, is set to premiere on HBO this Sunday, June 20th. The series chronicles the fall season of 2005, three months after Hurricane Katrina and the massive engineering failure in which flood control failed throughout New Orleans, flooding 80 percent of the city and displacing hundreds of thousands of residents. As the first year comes to a close, we find that Toni's (Melissa Leo) concerns about Creighton (John Goodman) have turned to anger; Albert (Clarke Peters) and the Indians are suiting up for St. Joseph's night; Antoine (Wendell Pierce) has gambled away a big payday; Davis (Steve Zahn) is trying to convince Janette to stay put; all while Annie (Lucia Micarelli) weighs her future options. To end the season on a prolific note, A funeral procession offers its mourners a chance to reflect on the events of the past year in New Orleans.

We recently caught up with actress Melissa Leo to chat with her about Treme's season one finale. Here is our conversation:

I heard you are currently in the midst of shooting?

Melissa Leo: Tonight, I will go to work at five and then work till five. I will work throughout the night on Mildred Pierce. It's really fun. It's almost too much fun. The costumes. The hair. The make-up. Todd Haynes. Kate Winslet. It is very fun to be over there. We are shooting all around Brooklyn, and Long Island. Out on the Hudson River. Outside of the city. All around the place. And a little bit in Southern California.

Terme is a great series. As an HBO show, did you have grand expectations for it to be as good as the other series on that channel?

Melissa Leo: I did watch HBO a little bit before I started working for them, and I thought, "I better get this in my home." I would watch it in a hotel. Over the years, I've caught little bits and pieces of the series they've had on. My hook was David Simon. I had memories of him in Baltimore. They took his book and spun it into a television series. David and I spoke, and he sounded like he had, cannily, like a journalist, studied how a quality television show is made. He fixed what was broken, and left what wasn't. He had succeeded with The Wire. I had high hopes. I thought this was a good choice I was making in meeting them down there. Because it did feel like a choice. I could have never experienced this otherwise. I am so blessed to have such a great job. (Laughs)

The show hasn't yet garnered the kind of notice other HBO shows have in the past, even though its on par with some of the greats. Sometimes it takes a season or two for audiences to really notice a show. True Blood didn't do much in its first season, and now it's a phenomenon. How are you guys working to make an even better show next season, and get more eyes on it? Is it up to word of mouth at this point?

Melissa Leo: That's what happened with Homicide: Life on the Street. I have heard that's what happened with The Wire. I didn't realize that about True Blood. I caught the first episode of the first season and I was mesmerized. Here, David stepped forward with a big, big plan in mind. A long-term plan in mind. That is what it spun on. Like a good novel, I know it's going to get better.

A lot of us don't have HBO. I don't have HBO, and I rely on the DVD releases to see most of this stuff. We don't get to see a show like Treme until it passes on to DVD. It's an interesting process, because all of a sudden, way more people are watching it, and its popularity just surges...

Melissa Leo and John Goodman in <i>Treme</i>
Melissa Leo and John Goodman in Treme
Melissa Leo: What I do? The art of acting is to share with other people. Right? Television is a powerful medium. It always has been. It's in people's homes. That thing of sitting down on Sunday nights? I do it with everybody. Sitting down to watch it with other people is spectacular. That's the shock. It just gets better. You can get this On Demand. So you can wander into any bar or hotel, or any place that has a television, and there are sports on. When its time, and there is no particular game on, you can ask them to turn on HBO In-Demand. You can order up the show. It is available in that way. Then you have the DVD. The longevity of it is not Kleenex paper that gets thrown out after one viewing. It's actually something that grows and builds. That's part of the sharing of it.

How emotionally draining has this show been on you as an actress? Or do you find it cathartic in a sense?

Melissa Leo: Acting is where I get my catharsis. That is not even really true. I have my own personal catharses. When I am working, I am working to have the audience experience the ancient cathartic experience. I am working. I have a job, and it's a good one. I am happy. That is what is required of me in the work. When it is well written, you can easily do that.

Are you happy with Toni's place in the world at the end of season one? And can you describe her evolution from the beginning to now, in your own eyes?

Melissa Leo: I am still so resonate to talk about Toni as a whole. As we get each script, we find out what our characters are up to, and what is happening to the people around them. As the audience experiences it week after week, or DVD after DVD, they learn what happens as it grows. Like life. Toni's experience is very much about the experience of the other people around her five months after Katrina. When we first meet her. She has a husband, a child, and a job. You see her as she works her job as an attorney for people she has primarily met through the music industry down there. That is where her passion lies. She has a soft spot for musicians. She has a basic civil rights schooling in law. Her journey is one she has been on for a long time. What you learn watching the show is what is going on with this poor ass trombone player who can't hail a cab driver to save his life. And his trombone ends up in hock. He has to find out what the police have done with it. They have confiscated it from him. And Toni has to find out where his wife's brother is. He has been missing inside the prison since the storm came in. As best as she can figure. When her personal and professional life collide at the end of the season, which is clear from last week's episode that this is beginning to happen to her, and the week prior, she finds herself at a precipice at the end of it all.

What sort of resolution will we see in Toni and Creighton's relationship?

Melissa Leo: I don't know. I am only going to talk about what has been aired. Toni is sitting at home wondering where the fluck her husband is.

You don't want to talk about the finale at all?

Melissa Leo: No, mame. You won't get that from me.

Did you just call me 'mame'?

Melissa Leo: (Laughs) It's the highest respect I can think to pay! (Laughs)

You know I'm a guy, right?

Melissa Leo: That's to anyone. It's not personal, hon.

I'd never been called mame, before. You had me wondering if I sounded like a woman on the phone.

Melissa Leo: (Laughs) As a woman who is a member of mankind, I draw the line.

How amazing has it been for you to witness John Goodman's transformation these past few months?

Melissa Leo: Thank you so much for noticing. It was miraculous to watch that gift of an actor, that wonderful human being, continue on a journey he began when I first met him. It was one of taking care of himself. His joy shines through in his performances, this is what he enjoys doing. What a pleasure to work with him!

How does your relationship off screen with John play into what we've been seeing on screen? Have you guys been able to find that connection needed as people to portray such powerful characters?

Melissa Leo: The writing is so strong. The relationship is very drawn, even in what is not said. There is a lot of action that is written out for us. I have never been married in my life. But I have had a lot of husbands. With the best of actors, you just meet, and you know what the relationship is. This is a long-term husband and wife. We just knew what that relationship was about. I am very fond of calling him my honey husband, or other pet names, upon seeing him. He responds in kind. Then I say hello to his wife. I smile when you ask me this question. This is the way I experience matrimony in my life. Ah, jeez! I love being married to John Goodman.

And we've loved watching you guys from week to week. It's a great relationship on screen.

Melissa Leo: I am so glad to here you say that.

Once again this summer, New Orleans has experienced a whole new set of problems. Do you think these things will play into the future of the show?

Melissa Leo: That is very true, and I can only guess. I haven't talked to the writers about it, but they do like their historical accuracy. God willing, in five years time, we will get to 2010. The Saints will go to the Super Bowl. And they will win! That is up to the television Gods.

What has been the reception of the show as far as the citizens of New Orleans?

Melissa Leo: I was lucky enough to still be down there as the shows began to air. We got to share them with the folks down there. We saw them early with the crew, and a lot of that crew were locals. As we are shooting it, people get to see what we are shooting. They hope we are getting it right. It's been great getting to share this with them. I don't think there is a person there that doesn't see a family member or a friend reflected in one of the many characters. I doubt there are many people there whose neighborhoods have not been at least glimpsed at. Even in this first season alone. They are respectfully looked at. First and foremost, before you fall in love with New Orleans, you must respect it.

What sort of gravity does actually shooting in New Orleans bring to the show, and do you ever feel the weight of the atmosphere as your are shooting in any particular local?

Melissa Leo stars in <i>Treme</i>
Melissa Leo stars in Treme
Melissa Leo: I get a little verklempt. I don't quite know how to answer this. Because it's really deep. The location? "Where am I?" That is one of the first questions an actor must ask themselves. It's a serious acting question. If you are lucky enough to be in the location upon which you are depicting, you can be influenced by it. Otherwise, you have to recreate it. Like, what I am working on right now. Suddenly, I am in Southern California. It is two different kinds of work. One of the poignant moments came when we sat a bunch of mud covered, battered cars under one of the overpasses that crisscrossed the city. There was more than one person that day who said, "You have to move those cars!" Just to see the cars back under the overpass was unbearable for some people. What I pointed out to those people, and I believe this is happening as the show airs, is that they don't have to live through it again. They don't have to live through that fucking flood again. But they can remember what it felt like by watching the show. That, my friend, is a true catharsis. A healing catharsis. That is the healing part of acting. The smells, the sounds, the people. The rhythm. You can't move like a New Yorker down there. You bump into something, you might find yourself in trouble. The city has a rhythm. It has a certain sky down there. There are these extraordinary skies overhead day and night. All of that stuff informs your performance. Absolutely.

Did the show slowly mutate as shooting went on, and local stories were heard? Or did you guys always have a set 10-story arc in place before you even began shooting?

Melissa Leo: The creators spent eight years down there. They knew what they wanted to do. Every now and again, I do have to add something to what is written on the page. I like to come to my work with a great respect for what is written on the page. There is no reason to come to them with anything else. Nothing has crossed my mind, or any story I have heard that I feel is worthy to share with this team. They have their information. They have a structure they are working with. What happens when people share their stories is, I think to myself with a smile, "We are eventually going to tell that story."

Where would you like to see season two take Toni and Creighton?

Melissa Leo: That is not a question I'll get into. Except that the joys of working with John Goodman are too innumerable to name. I just hope that season two is all fine.

Why don't you like thinking about that question? Do you simply enjoy living through this character on a script-to-script basis too much to consider her long-term future?

Melissa Leo: No. I have a vivid imagination. I could invent things. But I have a great respect for the writers. I don't know what this is, and I don't feel I need to know. The conversations I need to have, to understand certain things, I do. Sometimes I need to understand where Toni is at, because I don't know where the writers are headed. By either a promise or an oath, I have been asked by my company to not share what I do know. Though, quite frankly, next season, I have no idea where we are headed. (Laughs)

Frozen River was an amazing film. What are your thoughts on that film now, and how do you personally feel it's pushed your career forward?

Melissa Leo: Yes. Frozen River was an extraordinary moment. It came at a point where I'd reached twenty-eight years in this business with my career. It was something I'd always dreamt of, but never imagined. I knew what was lacking was a solid story that I was permitted to carry. Frozen River was that. Courtney Hunt realized her script so impeccably that it couldn't go unrecognized. It's a very special film that will be around not only for my lifetime, but for many years to come. The whole thing of it is kind of miraculous. That is what movie magic is. Anything can happen. It leads to this, this, and this. And golly, you can do it.