Melissa Leo admits that, while she can be downright hilarious on occasion, she's no comedian.
The Oscar-winning actress is acutely aware of the vast difference between making her friends laugh with some tossed-off one-liners here and there and getting up in front of a live audience armed with nothing but a sharpened wit and leaving them howling, especially after being part of the ensemble of the Showtime series "I'm Dying Up Here," which explores the beginning of the boom days of standup comedy in Los Angeles during the late 1970s.
Leo's Sunset Strip comedy club-owning character, Goldie, draws loose inspiration from the legendary Mitzi Shore, whose hotspot The Comedy Store served as an epicenter of the standup explosion, launching the careers of David Letterman, Jay Leno, Garry Shandling, and Jim Carrey (who executive produces the new series), and, four decades later, continues to cultivate some of today's funniest performers.
But as Leo tells Moviefone, Goldie's a more complex creation -- the kind of character work she wins acting trophies for. Just don't ask her to do standup.
Moviefone: What was fun in the preparation for this role, and digging into how this world -- not just the comedy world, but of this very specific era -- was going to portrayed.
Melissa Leo: Oh my God, so many things to say in answer to that! First of all, I'm lucky in that when I got the call to do the pilot, I, a handful of days later, was on a plane out here and shooting it, so I didn't have a lot of time to figure out what was I in.
I was very blessed with the people that I was working with: Christie Wittenborn, our costume designer, comes sweeping first to my mind in that way. The scene with the cocaine, I couldn't have done it without her landing on this perfect costume for me to do it. She also dresses me from my skin out, so literally, I have built a character in playing Goldie. Most of it from the scripts, and a little bit from understanding the book -- I try to move away from those ideas, because I am not playing the woman in the book. I'm playing this other woman.
The woman in the book is, in the true sense of the word, a unique human being. There wasn't anybody else female doing what she was doing. There wasn't anybody else male doing what she was doing.
Really, it was kind of terrifying. I was delighted they had asked me, but I was like, "You want me to play Goldie? Okay." So the costuming and the kinds of languages. In that first episode, there's the speech about the grandmother in Treblinka. I'm such a goy. I was like, "How do I make this woman be Jewish?" I bleached my hair. Her name helps me. The accent then helped me. I thought, okay, so from Vaudeville, New York stage, Yiddish theater. I fancy she's a New Yorker who came out here and bleached her hair.
I began to find ways. I needed the person in the story to be her grandmother, because Judaism is passed through the woman. So it's a long, roundabout way of saying the way that working with [Executive producers David] Flebotte and [Michael] Aguilar on what it was. Flebotte totally shaped the whole thing. We got to do a little final forming to it. I would say all the actors probably feel that way about the characters. Eventually they're written more and more tailored to the people playing them.
What was fascinating about that era? To look at it now and to kind of get the inside story of standup's big evolutionary moment? What strikes you as being the most interesting facets of it?
I think that it's interesting, because the kind of kitsch of the '70s is what tends to be thought of as the '70s. Having been a person who is coming of age in that time, and having come up in the East Village in the '60s, the '70s were kind of dull. Like, what was the music? The clothing seemed a cheap imitation of the kind of Bohemian wear that had exploded in the '60s, in certain sections. Then as they become sort of ready to wear market of those clothing, and sort of cheap imitations of an idea of "flower power." That's my experience of the '70s.
I really remember being a youth going, "Of all the times, this is when I get to be 18? In 1978?" It's a great time for our show to be set, because it was a time where we didn't know where we were going and how we were going to get there. There was not the kind of collective movement that there had been in my younger years in the '60s. What was it going to be?
It was also a time when pop culture was getting a little junky. There was disco and that era.Even the great '70s movies and progressive TV shows were starting to die out and give way to the blockbuster mentality, standup comedy had this electric quality, and we saw it continue on into the '80s. What did that mean to you to explore that side of it, why comedy was flourishing at the moment in time?
That's a very exciting part of the show for me, because I had never spent a moment in a comedy club. I'm a serious actor. Comedy -- I'm not a goer-outer to begin with, so the first time I went to an up-and-running comedy place was when we went to The [Comedy] Store with the guys from the show when we started shooting.
I keep on thinking of court jesters and fools, and that ability to tell the king the truth, because he's just joking. I think in the '70s, people weren't just up there for the entertainment value of it. They were up there, like Lenny Bruce before, with the safety of it just being a joke, to say the truth. It's a fascinating part of it. I think that was part of my experience of the '70s. Again, I was in Vermont. I was in London. Where it was happening was in the comedy clubs. That's what I realized doing the show. That's exactly where it was happening. And we see the result of it today.
I had wondered if you had ever attended standup, because so many performers try different avenues starting out. Was there something scary about comedy for you?
Terrifying! I was invited to The Improv in New York -- now, this is probably early '80s -- to an improv class. "Oh, I can't afford to do that." "No, no, no -- I'm inviting you, come. Just come and attend. We want you to be there." I went one day to that class, and I knew: I am not going to be able to do this.
I think that I have an ability to see the humor in something. I think I have the ability in which funny things comes to my mind when I'm talking, and friends say, "Oh, you're so funny." But that's not comedy. That's a whole other thing. And to get up there in that Improv and be funny ...
Do you feel like we're at a point where comedy is going to be as important as it was then? Is comedy going to be a way for people to cope through this polarized moment in history with our politics that we're at right now?
As you ask the question in that way, I think it's a damn good time that the show happens to be coming out, and that the hope of some kind of greater resurgence in comedy -- and that it doesn't necessarily also have to be like bigger and more extravaganza. That there's a way to just stand, a single human being, on a stage, with a spotlight and a microphone, and change the world. If only for that moment.
Who makes you laugh?
Laugh? Like I'm really laughing? Because I don't laugh at much of it. I can go, "Oh yeah, that's funny. That's kind of like Goldie." I'm kind of like Goldie that way. "That's funny." "No, no, that's a riot, believe you me."
I spent a little bit of time, I am so lucky, with Robin Williams. I worked with him three times. He could sit at the end of a dinner table and get every single executive stick-up-his-ass rolling off of his chair in laughter. I've seen him do some standup on tape or whatever -- I never saw it live -- but that ability to hear something out of the corner of your ear, and roll it into truth, after truth, after truth, that nobody can not respond to.
That's an amazing thing to be around. Being around Richard Belzer on "Homicide" was the same thing, too. We'd be grousing or whatever. He would just come up with a one-liner that was like, "Oh my God," and the whole world shifts.