From writer/director Maggie Betts, Novitiate follows a young girl’s (Margaret Qualley) journey into a life devoted to the worship and servitude of God. But as she progresses through training, she finds her faith repeatedly challenged by what it really means to be a servant of God, and the dawn of the Vatican II era means that radical changes in the Church are threatening everything the nuns have ever known.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Academy Award winner Melissa Leo, who gives a profound performance as the convent’s Reverend Mother, talked about the appeal of Novitiate, why she wanted to play a nun, the experience of working with everything but her face covered, and why she chose to stay in one of the dorms at the church that they filmed in. She also talked about playing Goldie in the Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here, returning for Season 2, and reprising her role for The Equalizer 2, for director Antoine Fuqua.
Collider: This is not only a film written and directed by a woman, but it’s also almost an entirely female story.
MELISSA LEO: The best thing about it is that I’ve talked to a lot of guys about this film, and they haven’t mentioned that once. That’s an accomplishment. It’s nice to see that, in 2017, you can see a film that’s largely held up, in every way, by women. Why wouldn’t that happen, every day of the week? What’s really interesting is that the men that I’ve spoken to that have seen it, my father included, don’t talk like it’s a woman’s film. That’s interesting.
When you read this script and learned about this character, what was the appeal of it for you?
LEO: The appeal came long before I’d actually read the script. The appeal came at the offer. The offer was to play a Reverend Mother. And then, I wanted to know how much of her we were going to see, and whether she’d be on the periphery or integral to the story of the film, and she was integral to the story of the film. But it took me the entire filming and now talking to everyone about it, to understand who she is. I guess had I had more time with the filmmakers, prior to starting shooting, that wouldn’t be the case, but I met her and we started shooting. So, I was seeking and searching through every scene we shot with active questions like, is this what you want? How does she feel about this? Where is she coming from, and where is she going to? The more specific information that I have, the more I can be supportive of the filmmakers’ needs. It was a constant ongoing seeking and searching, and that was interesting because Reverend Mother was also seeking and searching. After a lifetime of quiet contemplation, Vatican II has made her seek and search, and feel confused and uncertain. I wish I could say that I knew who she was, but that wasn’t how it happened.
You’ve said that being a nun was a lifelong dream. Was that as an actor? Had you just always wanted to play one?
LEO: That’s a very savvy little question. As an actor, you live a little bit of a cloistered life. It’s a lonely life. You oddly, strangely find yourself all alone, quite often, with a lot of time to think. Maybe it’s that. I remember reading Patricia Neal’s autobiography, and she had a convent in upstate New York. She never enrolled as a nun, but they welcomed her as a guest. There’s something about retreat from the world outside, and there’s the costume. That’s a costume, if ever there was a costume. Until very recently, that’s what they were wearing, with very little change, and that’s fascinating.
How did you find the experience of working with everything but your face covered?
LEO: I found it a really beautiful challenge. The entirety of me, from the things you see and don’t see, goes into the building of the character. I know that one of my difficulties, as an actor, is to try to do too much, from all those years ago, when my acting took place live on a stage. It was just my shiny face there, so you’ve gotta be super careful how much over-expressing you’re doing with your eyes and nose, and so on. I found it a fascinating and marvelous challenge. It was a really good example of how the costuming informs the player. There are the things that are challenging and there are the things that make it easier. On the one hand, it’s a challenge to have your face out there, but on the other hand, the costume gives me that. You have to let the costume inform you.
Why did you decide to actually stay at the church that you were working in, and how did that inform your performance?
LEO: It’s probably just that I’m somewhat of a peculiar gal. I live in the country and I live a fairly natural, holistic life. Sometimes I get put up in hotels where they use chemical sprays to clean things or there are chemicals used that I stay away from. I don’t mean to sound neurotic about it, but if that’s the option, which it was, I was happier in the older building that was fit with dormitories. Then, I also could feel that I was working. I wasn’t down in Tennessee to have fun, and go out and have all the fun in that town. I was there to do the work. So, when I found out that the church dorm rooms were available, and they wouldn’t mind if I had a little hot plate and refrigerator in there, I moved myself into one of the dorm rooms. I asked if I could do that for my own comfort and for the continuity of the character. And this location that was found is a character in the film and it’s a huge part of how the film works. All of my scenes took place at a so-called convent, which was actually this school, right in the middle of Tennessee. Even though it appears to be in the country, that was a little bit of movie magic going on. It was a delightful place to be. The more around you that can be real, it helps with the pretending. It’s one more thing that I don’t have to pretend. The environment really felt like a cloistered convent.
You also did such great work on the Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here, with another incredible character to watch and get to know. Did you know what Goldie would grow into, or were you pleasantly surprised by her journey?
LEO: I knew nothing about Goldie. All I knew was that I got this script, which was just the pilot script, and I did not know it was based on a book. They told me they were looking for me, but I didn’t hear about it until a little while before. All I knew was that the woman’s name is Goldie and that she’s Jewish. I went to the local hairdresser and bleached my hair blonde, and then I flew out to California and started shooting the pilot. Part way through, they told me there was a book. I said, “Should I read the book?” And they said, “No, don’t read the book.” As we went to series, I decided to read the book, so that I could be in the conversation instead of outside of it. So, I read the book and we are only very, very loosely based on the book. I’d say pretty much 98% of the characters are loosely based on people you might recognize. Goldie is some hard work! I love the people that I’m working with there, and I’m delighted to go back for a second season.
As your perspective on life and your career changes, does it change the type of roles you want to play?
LEO: I want to play the roles they want to give me. That’s what I’ve decided, at this point in my life. I tried to come up with some clever ideas of what I’d like to play, but I’ve really just tried to make the most out of what’s been offered to me, over the years. So far, it’s working out pretty well, so I don’t want to try to manipulate it too much. If I can deepen and complicate, in a good way, the women that I’ve played, that’s my pleasure to do.