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Melissa Leo Talks Short Oscar Hopeful "The Sea Is All I Know"

Any day now -- perhaps any moment! -- the Academy will release the 10-wide finalist list for the Best Live Action Short category at this year's Oscars (prediction charts). Currently approximately 70 films are qualified so it'll be a deep cut for that next-to-nominated list. One of the buzziest possibilities, though, is Jordan Bayne's "The Sea Is All I Know" which stars the LEOgend herself, Oscar winner Melissa Leo. Director and star sat down together to speak about the film after a screening here in NYC to discuss the film.

After Melissa joked about getting all dressed up for us, they chatted and answered a few audience questions.

The Sea is All I Know is a grim 28 journey towards (the hope of) serenity as a divorced couple (Leo and Peter Gerety) say goodbye to their daughter (Kelly Hutchinson) who has come home to die in her bedroom with a view of the sea. Her dad is a fisherman -- hence the title -- and she loves the smell.

Melissa was extremely gracious about the talents of former actress Jordan Bayne who has turned to writing/directing (this is her second short) and the feeling was mutual. In Bayne's own words:

I wrote this for Melissa. At this point she had not even been nominated for an Oscar and I thought she was completely underrated and I wanted to do something about it. Apparently I have a good eye because somebody else wanted to give her a couple of great roles!"

After their first meeting about this project, Frozen River (2008) and The Fighter (2010) happened. Good timing for Ms. Bayne.

I asked about them about the casting process because of the two things I was most impressed with in the film, that was one of them. Melissa told us she originally met her new screen husband Peter Gerety on the TV series Homicide. Unbeknownst to her when he joined the cast in the fifth season he was actually her replacement though she didn't know it at the time. Not his fault she reassured but  "In a funny way that lays in a history between us," she recalled with a smile.  On the subject of casting, Melissa said that Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground (see previous interview) was one of her favorite films this year in part because she found the casting so seamless which allowed you to grow up with Farmiga's character. She knew it was crucial to this short film, too. "You have to know they're a family. In a short film there's not enough time to get you to believe."

Kelly Hutchinson in "The Sea Is All I Know"The daughter is played by Kelly Hutchinson and I found myself wondering if the Oscar winner had a grown daughter I didn't know about. She was Gerety's suggestion. "She walked in and I was like 'Wow. Okay!'" recalled Bayne about the cold reading when she and Leo both met Hutchinson. "I have a tape of the whole thing. It's astonishing the way they were completely one unit."

Leo talks a lot in actor speak about "cheats" and truth and I thought what she had to say was interesting both for aspiring writers and actors so in her own words:

If it's not a well drafted script you have to then go and ask a lot of questions and dig up research and ideas. Everyone who is not an actor is always so flabbergasted by [great cold readings] but if something is well written and you get a half decent actor reading the page for you, it's an extraordinary thing. Writers: if you're wondering where your project is, get some actors to read it aloud. You can learn so much from it. What we do is not so magic in the end. What we do is draw from that written word and we try to bring it to life. It's not just from our imagination. 

I heard from someone once that acting is the art of pretending the truth. So I look for every scrap of truth.

This is not my daughter but she looks so much like me and there's even something in her mannerisms that is so like me. So... for each of those truths I can leave a pretend behind. All you want is the truth so each step away an actor has to make with the "cheats" is the thing that takes you away from landing at the truth. We have to pretend a certain amount. Back in the day when you did a phone call nobody would be on the other end. You might have some script woman reading the lines. Now, more and more often I find they actually make a hook up and get another actor on the end of the phone.  Phone conversations are getting better in films now!"

Find the truth in other words. 

One truth I believe I found after seeing the short was depressing: I don't think, given the rules as I understand them, that its moving Original Song will be eligible for an Oscar (I believe songs have to come from full features) but it adds so much to the emotional punch of the film. Bayne told Timothy Hill and Uno Helmersson what she wanted --something that sounded  ancient, like a sea shanty -- and they delivered. I assumed it was an actual old fisherman's song while watching. It's hard not to tear up when Gerety sings it to his dying daughter.

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Reader Comments (6)

See, naysayers? There's no diva. Melissa is still around supporting young filmmakers, doing PR for short movies and being a great and insightful actor. Each day I love her more and more.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Cal -- yeah, there was not a trace of the diva in her. Just working class actor kinda. She just sat on a couch in her sweatshirt talking to people into we all went into the screening.

December 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Her oscar may or may not have been undesereved but i like her and she is the reason i may check a film in the future.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

Despite I was very rough with her after the "Consider" debacle, I must say I'm totally into Melissa Leo. I would watch her doing anything.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Damn, that trailer looked GOOD.

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