Sundance Film Festival

PREDISPOSED’s Melissa Leo on her wild ride and Tracy Morgan’s Sundance hospitalization

“What happened to Tracy Morgan?”

That was the question on everyone’s mind Monday morning at the Sundance Film Festival after hearing the 30 Rock star had collapsed at the festival Sunday evening. He was in town promoting the ensemble comedy PREDISPOSED, but ended up at the hospital. People immediately began speculating that substance abuse was to blame—a rumor that was quickly debunked by a hospital spokesman, who said no alcohol or drugs were found in his system. Two years ago, Morgan had a kidney transplant and is a diabetic. Turns out it was the altitude.

“I just got off the phone with him,” said PREDISPOSED co-director Ron Nyswaner Monday afternoon. “He said, ‘I’m A1 Steak Sauce.’ That means he’s fine.”

Hopefully the incident won’t overshadow the film he’s promoting, PREDISPOSED—a zany comedy about a piano prodigy, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who is forced to endure a crazy day that involves scoring his drug-addicted, earth goddess mom (Melissa Leo) cocaine from a mouthy dealer (Tracy Morgan), so she can produce dirty urine and enter rehab—and that’s before attending a make-or-break piano recital. According to co-writers and directors Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner, the movie was shot in just 20.5 days on 35mm film, and adapted from a short that debuted at Sundance in 2009. The two filmmakers had cast Melissa Leo in the short, since the three are all friends who live close to one another in Upstate New York.

Sundance Channel caught up with Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo (THE FIGHTER) to chat about her Sundance experiences, life post-Oscar, the making of her latest black comedy, the Tracy Morgan collapse, and more.

First things first: how is Tracy doing?
He did go to a hospital down in Salt Lake City and he is a diabetic. I think it was a combination of the altitude and that. And it’s one of the more serious diabetic realities I’ve ever seen. It was an element in shooting. He has to take very careful care of himself and, given our lifestyles, it’s not so easily done. I think in his excitement in coming up to the mountains, he didn’t consider the altitude. I watched him fading as the evening wore on last night, but I do believe he’s going to be fine and the right answer was to get him off the mountain and back down into the city.

FROZEN RIVER is already known as this huge Sundance success story, earning you an Oscar nod for Best Actress and crossing over.
It really, truly is a miracle story. Something that small is not meant to go all the way to the Oscars. It was a fiercely independent film, FROZEN RIVER.

Speaking of Oscar, what’s the impact been on your career?
I don’t know that I see that much of a difference. I finished up my incredibly eventful winter last year and went to finish shooting the second season of Treme—we’re now shooting the third season down in New Orleans—and then we shot PREDISPOSED, a film that I’d been working on with the filmmaker for four years. Although the honor is not lost on me for a second.

Do you see any similarities between the mother you played in THE FIGHTER and that in PREDISPOSED?
There’s no comparison. I think their whole sense of morality and who they are, where they grew up, even the time in which they grew up is so vastly different. As an actor, Alice was, until she passed away last year, a living, breathing human being. We had references, but Penny from PREDISPOSED is a completely imagined woman and it was really funny to just shake loose and be wild and crazy Penny!

Is it strange to be on the other side of drugs now as an addict, having starred as a cop in HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET and as an addict’s wife in 21 GRAMS?
I never really saw it in that way, but you saying it makes me realize it’s really true. Kay Howard [on HOMICIDE] would’ve arrested Penny’s ass! It was really, really fun to work on, so with PREDISPOSED, I had less of an idea of what the final product would be then I normally do working. There was no constraint to her—who she was, how she lives.

It is a subtle critique of the health care system since this woman, who’s in dire need of care but has no health insurance, has to score drugs in order to produce dirty urine to get rehab.
The short was a much more serious film and anybody who’s had a family member or friend through drug rehab—the rules and regulations about getting people into drug rehab are ludicrous. It’s not what the movie’s about but true nonetheless.

Have you dealt with addiction yourself?
I am addicted to cigarettes. When I was a kid I knew I was a smoker. I think it’s maybe the thing that’s kept me safe from most other addictions—the notion that something else would be in control of me that way is really scary. I got to witness alcohol abuse—not really in my family, but more in the times in which I grew up.

It must have been a pretty crazy shoot with you, Jesse Eisenberg, Tracy Morgan, and Isiah Whitlock trapped in that car.
That wild car! It really was a crazy ride. And there was a fair amount of improv—sometimes we’d run a take longer and throw things in. The relationships were very, very lively. It was a pleasure working in that kind of humor and not only working with serious actor Jesse Eisenberg, but also, serious actor Tracy Morgan. They both wanted to be full and complete in their portrayals of their characters, and if humor came along, that would be wonderful.

The film is also sort of about broken dreams. Tracy’s character is a former high school track star who is now a coke dealer with a cane. Would people who knew the younger Melissa Leo be surprised where you are now?
You’d have to look pretty quick to find me in high school. I was only in high school one year—in ninth grade—and eventually, I graduated with a GED. But I never saw myself as anything but an actor since even before I knew what an actor was. When I was three years old I worked with Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater in New York and worked in puppet workshops and performed nativity scenes. The thought that you could go into a room and act something out and these people would go into a dark room and believe in what you were pretending, that got me.

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