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Interview: Melissa Leo on Playing 'The Most Hated Woman in America'

By Jose Solís 

Few actors can command the screen like Melissa Leo. She has cemented her status as a true scene stealing chameleon in films like The Fighter, Frozen River, Mildred Pierce, and The Big Short. And while she’s mostly regarded as a character, read supporting, actor, she gets a chance to show off her leading lady chops in The Most Hated Woman in America which debuts this week on Netflix. She plays atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair who led a campaign that banned Bible readings in public schools.

Leo infuses the part with heart and courage, so that she becomes a perfect embodiment of the notion that the personal should be political. Director Tommy O’Haver uses Madalyn’s kidnapping and horrific murder, to frame a film that aims to reach everyone’s humanity, regardless of their religious beliefs. Anchored by Leo’s majestic performance, it becomes one of the most important films of the year, in terms of the conversations and debates it could, and should, spark. I had the chance to speak to Leo from SXSW where the film premiered...

JOSE:  What made you want to play someone who was thought of as the most hated woman in the country at one point?

MELISSA LEO: I think the title is like Madalyn herself -- you think you know what that means, but maybe you don’t. Why would she be the most hated woman for speaking up for the Constitution of the USA? It’s a very deep and complex question. I don’t know that Melissa Leo needs that title in her list of happy accomplishments, I like to play misunderstood, difficult women, so it was my great pleasure to be asked by Tommy O’Haver to play Madalyn. He adores her, he’s researched her thoroughly, even as we shot, he continued to pour information he found about her. He loves her and that’s who I was going to make the film with. I was also proud to play someone who accomplished so much, and I got to play her from her 30s to her 70s, and you don’t get asked to do that every day of the week.

JOSE: I wasn’t very familiar with Madalyn’s story, so I was shocked to learn her work started with her advocating against obligatory religious activities in her kids’ school, which is something my own father did for me and my brothers when we grew up. I admired her fierce commitment to defending her children’s rights, and wondered if playing her made you reevaluate or remember things about when you were growing up and discovering faith was optional.

MELISSA LEO: I was very well fitted to play Madalyn, just as well suited to play the Reverend Mother I played some months before. I wasn’t brought up on a specific religious faith, so I find that often with the characters I play, my upbringing and my life are the very last thing I consider, if I even think about them or consider them. I’m playing a character and what’s interesting to me is what she thinks and feels about religion, I’m present because I can’t fully actually disappear, but my objective is to become the character. I don’t really know how my upbringing influences my playing of her, perhaps if I’d gone to Catholic school and thought it was a bunch of nonsense, I might have oversold the anti-religious aspect of her. Madalyn was not anti-religion, she was not a believer, she had her own atheist faith and she didn’t want to be told by someone else that she had to have their same faith. That’s what the Constitution says!

I find it so wonderful that the film is coming out at a time when the government is trying to take away people’s rights to believe in what they want, to live open lives, and to practice their own religion. Can you share your thoughts about what it means for the film to come out now?

I certainly appreciate us talking about this! I’m very proud of this particular film in this particular climate. Right at the inception, as our forefathers were dreaming up the Constitution to lead this nation, we were slaughtering the first nation that was already there. I submit that’s not so far from religious oppression. I don’t know if we’ve ever been safe from the government interfering in our faith and beliefs, or non-beliefs. Does that make any sense?



So, I agree the film is timely, but this is not something that just began. One of the things that made Madalyn so irate was that the government was moving towards a fundamentalist Christian nation, not long before she took this matter of Christian prayer in public school to the Supreme Court, the government had seen it in their wisdom to put “in God we trust” on our money, to change the words in the Pledge of Allegiance from “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” to “one nation, under God”! Whose god? That’s the world I was born in, and I’m almost 60 now, so this has been going on for a long time, the time is now for there to be more Madalyns. It’s time for individuals to stand up and speak out for the rights of all individuals that are citizens here, that hope to be citizens, that have sought refuge in this continent, like my people who arrived 400 years ago.

I love that the movie is on Netflix because people all over the world will get to see it at the same time. In terms of bringing a political message, what are some of the things you appreciate about this distribution platform?

I am very hopeful that this new day of film is a whole new way to get “asses in seats”. As a performer you haven’t done your job until it’s been seen by the audience, so it’s very important, it’s a very interesting way. As things stand now it’s beautiful  because with the cost of a movie ticket being $15, it does make it much more available to many more people.The small screen has always had millions more viewers than the big screen, and Netflix is one of these entities that’s taking this notion and doing something. My fear comes to internet connections, and things that seemed more available when they began, now to stream something you need a better system, and you need to pay more. I’m hoping we can move forward and have this notion, which is a beautiful part of the USA, that everyone would have a chance to see this and other films on a very equal footing. Only then will the conversations around movies grow, if only the people who can pay $15 get to see movies, we’re not doing it right. Look who goes to the opera…


The Most Hated Woman in America premieres on Netflix on March 24.

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Reader Comments (11)

Melissa Leo is so watchable. Love her. I'll try to watch this one although I'm not subscribed to Netflix right now. For me the ideal would be to release the movie in theatres and on Netflix at the same time. Be able to choose.

March 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Few actors can command the screen like Melissa Leo. Also few actors can command award season campaigns like Melissa Leo.

March 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTruth

I love actors who are not afraid to go BIG

March 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Had no idea this was even a thing. Should I give it a watch? I will CONSIDER it.

March 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Hoping the Academy forgives her for the f-bomb. Her lack of subsequent nods concerns me.

March 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

One of the living greats. As adept at naturalistic nuance as she is as stylised/theatrical/electric. Even when she turns up in what seems like a functional non-role (eg. Flight), she colours it in with a lived-in specificity. She's one of the few people - no matter whether she's playing a lawyer, cleaning woman, doctor or saleswoman - she makes me believe it. She seems so relaxed into each role and unself-conscious. Even when I know every single eye flicker is carefully considered.

Will look out for this film!

March 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I've always been fascinated by Madalyn Murray O’Hair (I happen to believe in what she was fighting for), and really like Melissa Leo, so count me in on this.

March 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRob

3rtful, what would she have been nominated *for* after The Fighter? Flight and Prisoners are the only films to gain any Oscar attention and a nomination for one of those would've been hogwash. Stop trying to make narratives out of literally nothing.

March 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Her unauthorized Sandy Dennis biopic Francine. @Glenn not Close

March 24, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I had contact with Madalyn and John. I knew their ways to think,write and act. They made History, as JFK and Robert Kennedy. I respect them and I applaude what they mean for the human freedom of thought..
I´m going to see the film veryclose and critically.
I hope it don´t lye to the public.

April 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJosé Manuel

(The author of this comment was a member of American Atheists between 1978 and 1981, had contact with Mrs. O'Hair and her son Jon and received non-economic support to organize the First International Literature Exhibition for Non-Believers at the University of Stockholm, Sweden, in 1979)
-April, 2017-

Let's start at the end: a legend (at the end of the data sheet) appears on the screen:

Why this film is inspired by real events, some characters are composites
or inventions, and a number of incidents depicted in this film are fictional.
Any similarity to any person, living or dead, is not intended and purely coincidental.

Let's punctuate:

- "... this film is inspired by real events ..." That is, some events selected by the writers. The criterion of selection followed is obvious from the first scenes: superficiality and “impactantibility”.

Among the “real events” we find the main character, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who is part composite and much invention (for example, the most common expression of the real O'Hair was "Holy Shit!" but, instead, the character of the movie says more than twelve times "My God!").

"It is fictional the positive evolution of son Bill, it is fictional the celebration of Christmas as such (Madalyn only used the terms "Winter Solstice "),it is fictional the alcoholic inclination of Madalyn (she was concerned with her diabetes),it is fictional the characterization of her granddaughter Robin,it is fictional the clumsiness and foolishness of son Jon,it is fictional the characterization of O'Hair confunding passion with vulgarity and frontal temperament with cruelty and frustration.

Finally, it is a hypocrisy of the filmmakers to use the real names of persons and then proclaim that “any similarity to any person, living or dead, is not intended and purely coincidental”.
The similarity IS intended and non coincidental:

A) The assumptions about the "theft" Madalyn made of funds of the organization is underlined (did she steal it herself? Did she use the money in luxury travels, expensive clothes, mansions..?)

B) The film presents granddaughter Robin as a cold accomplice of the turbid manipulations of her grandmother. Her suffering by the abandonment in which the father (Bill) left her is never mentioned nor the human sensitivity demonstrated in poems like this:

Fragile, fragile man,
A mere word shatters him,
A mere look crushes his soul.
Break not, break not, man!

As a delicate one,
A figure seeming sound,
Which breaks at a mere glance,
So all is broken

If the buggle sounds,
To start the reconstruction,
What can be done at all?
But to shed hot tears?

Speak not that dread word!
Give not that horrid glance!
Save that delicate one,
Fragile, fragile man.
(Robin Eileen Murray-O'Hair -June, 1981)

C) This film leaves in the non informed public the sensation that
1 - Madalyn Murray O'Hair was nothing more than an ambitious arrogant with some flash of intelligence.
2 - The atheists themselves killed her (her abductor and assassin had been member of the organization founded by O'Hair).
3- Her son Bill became a responsible and kind-hearted adult.

The argument, which not spares unhealthy traits in Madalyn's character, avoids delving into central themes that would clarify the causes of various events:
- There is no doubt (?) that the money obtained by the kidnappers was, in turn, "stolen" ...
- It is not clear what happened to the remaining money allegedly located in off-shore bank accounts.
- The suspicious indifference of the press, the police and Madalyn´s son Bill is not underlined, knowing all of them that the three disappeared were very hated in certain circles.
- There is no mention of the progress made by Madalyn to the atheistic movement, which meant leaving the struggle of intellectual trenches to dedicate to cultural strengthening through serious and profound journalistic articles published on the organ of American Atheists, radio programs, conferences, assemblies and the spread of new literary works on atheism and forgotten classics, printed with their own funds.

The author of this OPINION lacks the necessary prudery to ask that, just for the fact of coinciding with his own ideas on religion, it must sing praises to this murdered atheist woman. But to present her moral “defects” - the real and the invented - in capital letters, leaving in a little relevant background their cultural struggle, does not allow to appreciate with coldness this film that, from another point of view, it seems like one of those low budget films with schematic arguments made around of the middle of the 20th century.

All I ask is respect for a figure that pushed a cultural movement compromising her tranquility and her life.

Atheists have defects like any other human being, but we have never organized armies or crusades to impose our opinion.

Until those responsible for this film do not have the bad taste of presenting some Pope in underpants chasing children, or the "mother" Teresa collaborating with fascism, they will not be able to convince me that, from the same title of this movie, we are not facing a malicious work.

April 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJosé Manuel

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