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Interview with Melissa Leo

Melissa Leo interview

HBO

The best friend is a classic role in the "maternal melodrama." How did you approach playing such an iconic character?

MELISSA LEO

Well, she becomes a best friend. At the start, I don't know that Mildred has any need for Lucy except as a neighbor. You see the development of their friendship over the five episodes as Mildred's life becomes different than she expected. But I was primarily guided by [director] Todd [Haynes] -- who did have this notion that Lucy is somehow iconic. I was really taking my cues from him. He's such an awesome and beautiful guy.

HBO

Lucy has some surprising best friend advice for Mildred.

MELISSA LEO

She's a forward-thinking gal! Her husband is in the bootleg business -- I suppose the statuteof limitations has run out now so we can talk about what Ike did back then. I think there's something kind of jazzy about Lucy. She's a little older than Mildred and I'm a little older than Kate. And I find I very happily give advice right, left and center now that I've been around the block more than once. Also, Todd didn't want to stylize an era, he wanted to recreate and capture it, and he's done that beautifully. And humans have always had bawdiness and realistic views of the world but a lot of what gets put out in the mass media makes us look like we've progressed far more slowly than we have. People have always gotten divorced. Women had and still have an unfair advantage in that they are the fairer sex. And the problems and the realities that women face in the world are no different today than back in the late '30s when Mildred Pierce is trying to figure out what to do. In the 1970s my father abandoned (for all intents and purposes) his family, and my mother had to make her way. The children come along and the relationship changes and he's out of the house! What's a woman to do? That's gone on for centuries.

HBO

Did you create a backstory for Lucy, or work with Todd to?

MELISSA LEO

There were a couple of different ideas tossed around, mostly by the wonderful, delightful Ann Roth, the costume designer. She got it in my ear that maybe many years before Lucy came out to Hollywood to be a showgirl.

HBO

Is that where she got some of her cynical views about men?

MELISSA LEO

I think Lucy has realistic views of men. She landed a winner and she's willing to stand beside him and his illegal activity and that's working for her. But it doesn't mean it's going to work for everyone and when your husband abandons you, well honey, you've gotta latch onto another one to take care of you.

HBO

I got the idea that Lucy was keeping Ike afloat.

MELISSA LEO

Eventually yes. You make a living at illegal activity and the activity is legalized, it changes the framework. And if Lucy had not by then forged the real true friendship with Mildred, she and Ike could have been out of a house. But Lucy realizes if Mildred can do this, go to work, I can do this too -- and then she gets Ike work too. When people help one another from their hearts, a lot can get done, you can save whole families. What goes around comes around.

"Women are not taught like boys that competition is a good, healthy thing that just makes us all better. Women are taught that to compete is to be against one another."

HBO

How does Lucy feel about Veda?

MELISSA LEO

Lucy has not had children herself so she doesn't know much how to relate to children. But she does know that one of Mildreds is a gem, and the other one is really difficult. That's all Lucy knows. She sees it as she sees it.

HBO

She does seem to be the only one that tells Mildred the truth about Veda.

MELISSA LEO

That was something Todd and I did have discussions about. There's a foreshadowing of Veda being a bad egg and Lucy's the one who's not taken in by her. Later, when she hears the girl sing, though, she thinks maybe she doesn't understand. Lucy's never witnessed talent before, so I think she doubts her own opinion for a little bit there. But the truth will come out in the end.

HBO

Do you think she sees Ida as a threat?

MELISSA LEO

I think that's an amusing aspect of 'Mildred Pierce' that Todd works to keep a gentle balance of -- a certain sense of competition among women. Women are not taught like boys that competition is a good, healthy thing that just makes us all better. Women are taught that to compete is to be against one another. So that's another gift that Mildred brings: As Lucy and Ida witness Mildred's willingness to befriend all kinds of people, in the end that's bigger than them. Love is greater than fear, by God.

Part 3