Melissa Leo doesn't do any boxing in The Fighter, but her role nevertheless required her to step into the filmmaking ring with two men responsible for on-set verbal brawls that have become the stuff of YouTube legend. Playing mom to Christian Bale, who went notoriously batshit after being distracted by a crew member on the Terminator: Salvation set, Leo had to take direction from David O. Russell, whose explosion during the filming of I Heart Huckabees sent a torrent of b-and-c-word shrapnel at Lily Tomlin.
Many an actor would balk at signing up for an experience that required the handling of so many combustible ingredients. Leo might have, too, had she not been blissfully ignorant. "I was at a great advantage, because I don't watch a lot. I certainly don't read a lot of entertainment news and I barely know what YouTube is," she says from Toronto. "I went into it with no preconceived ideas of what I was walking into."
Leo did have her own reservations about the role of Alice Ward, however. For one thing, the 50-year-old felt she was too young to mother Bale and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, a ripped-from-the-sports-pages true story about boxer Micky Ward and his family.
"I did not go so willingly into Alice," said Leo, whose best supporting actress nod is among the Golden Globe nominations The Fighter received this week. "I felt it was terribly far from me."
The brassy, bleach-blonde, chain-smoking Alice certainly has a different look than most of the redhead's previous screen incarnations, including her Oscar-nominated turn in 2008's Frozen River. But after meeting with director Russell and the real-life Alice, Leo began to relate to the character. As the mother of a grown son, she found it particularly easy to imagine the horror of watching one's progeny take a pounding. "Those were her kids, her golden kids up there doing that dastardly sport, and as skilled as they may be there's great danger in boxing," Leo says. "That wasn't lost on Alice, not for a single round of those boys' careers."
Considering that, as manager to Micky and Dicky---the crackhead ex-boxer played by Bale---Alice was often the one who put her sons in harm's way, such motherly concern might seem incongruous. But Leo doesn't see it that way.
"When someone is living their own lives, they take the actions in the moment that they feel they need to," she says of Alice, who also has seven daughters. "When you're the parent of nine children, I can only imagine that you're pressed to decisions more than once or twice in the course of a single day."
Leo also sees parallels between Alice's experience in the boxing world and that of female actors in the film realm. Both, she says, require women to hold their own in a male-dominated environment. "Neither for Alice nor Melissa was that easily accomplished.
"That's not a complaint," she adds. "I have no fear of hard work. But it was not without its hardships."
While those hardships may not have included any Tomlin-like battles, Leo said she did have to dig in her heels at times to protect her character. "I felt and I feel that I understand Alice's choices," she says. "I was---fighting isn't really the right word, but advocating for her truth in that department and I had to be ever vigilant about it."
The Fighter opens in Halifax Friday, December 17.