Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo is best known for portraying tough women who often have questionable ethics, but in the faith-based dramatic film “Seven Days in Utopia,” people can see a very different side to Leo’s talent, since she plays a stable, religious woman named Lily Hawkins in the movie. “Seven Days in Utopia” (adapted from the David L. Cook novel “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia) begins with professional golfer named Luke Chisholm (played by Lucas Black) having a car accident after losing an important match.
Luke ends up stranded in the small Texas town of Utopia, where he gets to know the locals, which include Lily Hawkins; her daughter, Sarah Hawkins (played by Deborah Ann Woll); and a young man named Jake (played by Brian Geraghty), who sees Luke as a rival for Sarah’s affections. Oscar winner Robert Duvall also stars in the film as an eccentric rancher who helps Luke get not only his confidence back but also his spirituality. I sat down with Leo at the “Seven Days in Utopia” press junket in New York City, where we talked about the making the movie; one of her favorite memories (not shown on TV) from the night of the 2011 Academy Awards; and her thoughts on her TV series “Treme” and the untimely death of “Treme” actor Michael Showers, who drowned in the Mississippi River in August 2011.
What struck you the most about filming in Utopia, Texas?
I went for [Robert] Duvall, but the location. My gosh, if I had known! It’s a really aptly named town. The hill country of Texas is a beautiful part of the country. And as you drive through it — and I drove away from Utopia several times; I’d have days off and I’d go explore — there would be these big mountains of pink granite. I found a guide out of Austin, and we went over there and climbed and drove back into Utopia, once from the east and into the west. It sure looked like the sun set on Utopia.
And that water in the river: the film doesn’t even capture the beauty of it. It’s a beautiful film, but still and all to be there, it’s one of the best pleasures of working: to get to go to places and see things and meet people that I doubt if I was a waitress, which was my other [career] option, I’d doubt I’d have the opportunity.
I had one of my best days shopping in years in Fredericksburg [in Texas]. There’s one main street. It went up one side. It was great. That’s another pleasure to go to towns, especially now. And they give you some money in your pocket when you work. You go and get your paycheck, and they give you something that you’re supposed to eat on, but you can eat on an apple a day over at the set, and spend that money in the town.
It’s a pleasure from the work I do as well. Even in New Orleans, when I go grocery shopping down there, I always buy a little more than a little less to [help] keep the [local economy] going.
What can you say about working in New Orleans on the TV series “Treme”?
Thank you for asking about “Treme.” We really need to build an audience for it. We’re going to do Season 3, and we’d really love to do Season 4 and Season 5 and complete the arc that we have in mind. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, to be in that city, to feel that I’m helping that city.
You can go to a sports bar and watch it on HBO on Demand if you don’t have it in your home. I’m not supposed to say that, but it’s a really fun way to watch the show. I love doing it. I have no idea what’s in store for Season 3. Literally. They keep it very secret from us, which is an exciting thing about working on this show.
What should people know about Michael Showers if they didn’t know him or never worked with him?
We have so many folks that come and join us, from the musicians to local folks of all shapes and sizes. And we get actors. And it was really when he would show up to work because he was an actor. He worked hard to work as an actor. And I was really glad when I’d see his name come up in the script …
The loss of anybody is hard … Everybody asks, “Why did they do that to John Goodman?” [Goodman’s Creighton Bernette character in “Treme” jumped into the Mississippi River and drowned.] They didn’t it to John Goodman. I don’t get to play with him anymore. He’s still alive and kicking and doing very well, as a matter of fact.
But when they disappeared Creighton off of the back of that boat, people asked, “Why did you do that?” It’s because that is the aftermath of [Hurricane] Katrina. It’s gone on since days after, at it still goes on now, six years later — especially with men trying to make it in life in a way that makes sense for them …
What surprised you the most about working with Robert Duvall?
It’s not that it surprised me, but it endeared him to me. Meeting him alone and being with him was enough. But we were shooting a scene that doesn’t even end up in the film. Luke [Black] comes into the church and sits down in the pew. There was a little scene of us outside talking afterward. We were talking about how it was Easter Sunday … in the film. And we were there, getting ready to black the scene, and Mr. Duvall looked around, and said to Matthew [Dean Russell, the director/co-writer of “Seven Days in Utopia”], and said, “Where are the Easter bonnets?”
Matthew didn’t even hear. He was trying to set up the shot or whatever. So that actor [Robert Duvall], I found later on, back at a church, leaned up against one of the gravestones, humming “Easter Parade” to himself. The script had said “Easter Sunday.” We needed somehow to share that and know that.
We tell our stories in pictures. And acting is not what people who don’t do it guess it to be. It’s kind of the opposite. And the awareness of the littlest of things is what we’re counting on, so we believe, so you believe. And there he was, leaned up there, singing “Easter Parade,” because by God, he was going to make it Easter Sunday for himself somehow. It’s an insight into actors that really just endeared him to me.
You’re known for playing troubled characters, but in “Seven Days of Utopia,” Lily Hawkins is a stable, calming force in her community. Can you talk about that and how the townspeople characters’ stories ran almost parallel to the movie’s golf story?
I think that’s what depicted by Kathy [Baker] and myself and Deborah [Ann Woll] and Brian [Geraghty] and Brian’s buddies that you barely even see (who are just darling guys, actors through and through, awesome guys). I’m sure Matthew also wanted to depict something that goes on in a lot of places. And I think this should definitely be encouraged: to live within the community in which you live, to know one another and embrace one another. And perhaps it is utopian in the sense that there are so many things that get in the way of us embracing our neighbors, but I do believe that it is nonetheless quite possible if you and the neighbor would be willing.
You were one of the most memorable winners the 2011 Academy Awards, when you won best supporting actress for “The Fighter.” Is there anything that happened on Oscar night that wasn’t on TV that ended up being one of your favorite memories? And where do you keep your Oscar?
My Oscar has been visiting with people who work with me: a longtime accountant, an agent, a manager, who all helped, along with Mr. Duvall, to get that golden man in my possession. The object itself has a power greater than I could imagine an object could hold. For almost anyone, it’s quite remarkable. And so he will be mine always.
And I separated myself from him at a distance and shared with others who have been so integral. He will come home. I’m renovating the house. There will be a place for him in my home, without a doubt, and for several other beautiful trinkets that have been given to this girl who never graduated from anywhere or won anything until quite recently. So I’m pleased.
And on Oscar night … I get to the Vanity Fair party, and I really have to pee. Really, really, really! So they walk me to a VIP door, and I go in, and there was somebody on a BlackBerry [whom] I have known all my life. And I walked past him, and I thought, “Wait a minute, girl!”
And I interrupted him on his BlackBerry. God knows what it was about. I hope it wasn’t important. And I said, “Hi. I’m Melissa. I just won an Oscar. I just had to say hello, Mick Jagger!” That might have been the highlight amongst many of the year.
What was the transition like to do a “feel good” movie like “Seven Days in Utopia” from doing projects with darker subject matter, such as “Treme” and the movie “Red State”?
Within two months, I shot “Utopia” and Kevin Smith’s “Red State.” That wasn’t as hard as when I was on the New York stage [in the play “The Argument,” portraying] a woman who was fighting to have an abortion, and her boyfriend is tying her to a chair to keep her from leaving the apartment to have the abortion. A grown woman. And then playing an Irish-Catholic mother in Boston [in “The Fighter”]. And the flight between those two jobs was a little hard on my psyche. [She laughs.] But anyway, they do OK.
For more info: “Seven Days in Utopia” website
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