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Melissa Leo talks about playing a nun in ‘Novitiate’

Melissa Leo stars in

Melissa Leo stars in "Novitiate," a movie about nuns in the 1960s. Credit: Invision / Charles Sykes

It’s no stretch to say that Melissa Leo is one of America’s greatest character actresses, an Oscar (“The Fighter”) and Emmy (“Louie”) winner who has enhanced a wide variety of projects, including “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “21 Grams,” “Frozen River” and even big popcorn movies like “London Has Fallen.”

Raised in Manhattan and Vermont, the 57-year-old actress also has strong Long Island roots, thanks to her father’s work as spokesman for the East Hampton Baymen’s Association. In Leo’s latest project, “Novitiate,” she stars as an old-school nun trying to cope with the 1960s liberalization of the Church called for by Pope John XXIII.

Your character in “Novitiate” is harsh, some would say sadistic. After similar nasty nun portraits in films like “Philomena” and “The Magdalen Sisters,” how do you humanize someone like that?

I had hoped to make a gentler portrait, but I am just a character in the film and I am guided by the director and her script. You don’t see Reverend Mother before [she entered the convent], and she’s had a long life in the convent. So how do I portray that life in this time of upheaval and trouble? That’s not who she is, that’s how she is in this moment in time. I am trying to maintain this woman in prayerful contemplation. So I am struggling like Reverend Mother is.

Are you a religious person?

I have no organized religion that I grew up with, and none now. It’s a great controller of the masses, that’s Melissa’s opinion. I just take the tools at hand, the scripts, the instructions from the director. But I think I do understand what it is like to believe in something you cannot see or touch.

You also recently appeared as a tough club owner in the Showtime series “I’m Dying Up Here,” just renewed for a second season, about the L.A. comedy club scene in the 1970s. How much did you know about that scene when you accepted the role?

I wish I’d known more; I knew nothing. It’s so typical of me. I got a call, they sent me a script, and I was ‘Me, You want me to be Goldie?’ And she was Jewish, and I’m so not Jewish. I bleached my hair, I did the pilot, they said you have to read the book [the series is based on a book by William Knoedelseder] and we go to series, and I read the book, and it’s helpful to a degree. I had never been to a comedy club until we went to series.

Another critically acclaimed role of yours was playing a liberal lawyer fighting police corruption in the New Orleans-set HBO series “Treme.” How did that role come about?

I had met [series creator] David Simon when we made his book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” into a TV show. I was delighted to hear from him, and more than delighted to spend that time in that city. I heard that “Treme” was a part of bringing that city back from Katrina. We told those stories, and a difference was made to the people in that city, if only to the individuals of lives we were portraying. Story after story of people watching the show and remembering heroic acts people had done.

What kind of preparation do you do for your roles? A little, or a lot?

Every woman is different. I find it’s more advantageous to be led by your filmmaker than your own imagination. I’m not a very good researcher; if I need to, I will. For “Novitiate,” I talked to a few nuns.

You’re thought of as something of an indie queen, yet you’ve appeared in big action films like “London Has Fallen” and “The Equalizer.” Why did you choose those projects?

Because they’re offered to me. I take almost every part that’s offered to me. That’s just the way it’s worked for me. I get a lovely compliment again and again, how well I choose my roles. But not really, they pick me. I do get a little fussier today, and that’s because I’m a woman of a certain age, and some of those roles for women of a certain age are offensive to me.

When did you realize you could make a living as an actress?

I made a commitment to it long before I could make a living at it. I was waitressing; I walked out of the job with no net to catch me. That made all the difference, and within a few months I was working at the Public, got my Equity card and was in “All My Children.”

What’s the worst advice you ever got about the business?

“Oh, you want to be an actor; if anything can stop you, let it.” It’s just something that stuck in my head.

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