Oscar Unknowns: A Chat With Nominees Michael Shannon and Melissa Leo

By Nicki Gostin

Each year, scattered among the Jack Nicholsons, Meryl Streeps and Sean Penns on the list of Academy Award nominees are a few lesser-known actors, names that make the average moviegoer sit up in befuddlement and ask "Who?" This time around, joining superstars such as Heath Ledger and Angelina Jolie in the running for Oscar statuettes are Michael Shannon (who has had roles in "8 Mile," "Vanilla Sky" and "Pearl Harbor") and indie standby Melissa Leo (whom you might recognize from TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street," bit parts in "21 Grams" and "Mr. Woodcock," and a host of independent films). NEWSWEEK's Nicki Gostin sat down with each of the formerly unknown actors to find out whether they think they'll win, how the nominations have helped their careers and what they're doing to prepare for the big night.


NEWSWEEK: Congratulations! How exciting!
Michael Shannon:
Yeah, well, it's been quite a rollercoaster. I had a friend last year who got nominated, Amy Ryan. I watched her go through the whole thing, and I thought, "Well, that will never happen to me."

Did you get up early to watch the nominations?
No, actually, I was at Sundance, and I was up till, like, 3 in the morning the night before.

Every actor says they were sleeping and their agent woke them up. Surely there must be some actors who watch it?
I might have been more inclined to watch it if I had thought I was going to be nominated. It was a real surprise to me. I thought I had fallen out of contention pretty early.

Why did you think that?
Because I wasn't nominated for a Golden Globe or a SAG [Screen Actors Guild award].

Wow, how many Academy members did you sleep with?
As many as I could without getting sick. Um …

Don't worry, it's a joke question and we know it wasn't a serious answer.
You guys are going to use that as your headline.

Well, of course. So do you think you have a shot?
Anything's possible now, right? Once you get nominated, you kind of feel like anything can happen.

Got an acceptance speech?
I went to the nominees' luncheon and they told us we only had 45 seconds. I don't think I could write anything that short.

Did you get lots of long-lost friends calling you?
You certainly realize how many friends you have. There's a lot of people out there who were excited about it. Not like anyone trying to take advantage or anything; I don't have too many phony friends.

Your mum must be so proud.
She goes to this bakery every morning and they have a little TV set in there, and when she walked in, they were replaying it on the local news.

Are you getting inundated with scripts?
It's funny, people think that would be the logical progression, but recently there was a job I really wanted and I had to audition and I didn't even get it, so I'm getting turned down.

If you win you should dis them in your speech.
Yeah, "See, look at me now! You could have had me in your movie."

You could name-check everyone who dissed you.
That would be a long list. Longer than 45 seconds.


NEWSWEEK: Mazel tov!
Melissa Leo:
Thank you. It's so very, very exciting for me. It's a lovely time.

Did you cry when you heard?
No, a friend called and told me. I was very quiet when she squealed the news to me. It washed over me like a warm and welcoming blanket. An enormous honor. Just really yummy. I really didn't expect it. It was not something I paid a lot of mind to or time, but it's all coming my way. I know I probably had the finest female role of the year.

Do you know what you're wearing to the ceremony?
I've talked to people about it. We are working on something. It seems such an important question because everyone asks about it.

"Frozen River" was a low-budget movie. Probably the cost of you getting ready will be about the same as the film's budget.
Probably you're not far wrong. It's a little bit bizarre. But you see, size doesn't matter if you make a good quality picture. That's what people want.

How low-budget was it?
I was paid $100 a day.

Was food included?
They paid for meals on top of that. My union protects me. If they're going to pay us so little, then they damn well better feed us.

Whom have you met that blew you away?
There was a wonderful moment on a red carpet when Clint Eastwood approached me and said, "I want to meet that girl!" It was really thrilling.

Who are you taking to the ceremony?
My beautiful son. He's excited and very proud. It also allows him a huge sigh of relief that taking the time off to raise him did not take me from my work.

Are you getting more calls for work?
I really have spent my whole career not knowing [from] one job to the next, but now there is definitely a buildup of calls coming in.

What do you think your chances are?
Very, very slim. Next to nothing. Come on!