Trail Tales Cast Interview with Melissa Leo

"Emma Shannon"

A Unexpected Treasure

What began as a quick phone call to say 'hey' to Melissa's Agent turned into the chance of a lifetime. Informed that Melissa would be in their offices at 6pm I was luckily able to finish my tour and have a few minutes to prep before picking up the phone. [My list of questions and my recording equipment were 30 miles away, so I had to take notes like a madwoman!]

A little after six I dialed New York and asked to speak to Michael, so, you can understand my shock when Melissa herself picked up the line. ”Hello.”

I'm afraid I made a huge fool of myself as I swallowed half my brain-cells and asked. "OMG, is THIS Melissa?"

"You recognize my voice?"

How do I tell her "HECK YEAH!" without sounding like I've lost the REST of my marbles? There is no way.... so I opt for the "Why, of course!"... and then proceeded to relate to Ms. Leo how near and dear she is to the hearts of the fans. I'm afraid I embarrassed her a bit, but I wanted her to understand how much of an honor it was to speak with her.

Worried over her schedule, I inquired how much time we had for the conversation. She answered with a gracious tone. "My time is your time." *How much do I love her?* Even those few words, filled with the same rich color of Emma’s voice, brought home the knowledge that the woman on the other end of the phone was an incredibly warm and beautiful person... a definate treasure.

Just a few days before the interview, TNT played it's Law & Order Marathon, including the episode where Melissa Leo played a lawyer that became a defendant in a vicious dog case. I lamented over her stint in jail and how Un-Emma-like the character was.  Currently, Ms. Leo has just finished filming "21 grams." Where she plays the wife of Benicio del Torro's character. She had such a delightful laugh when she informed me that again, this character is very un-Emma like.

In a moment we switched gears and went back to 1989 and the beginning of "TheYoung Riders." When asked about the auditions for TYR she informed me that it was still in the days of  "Going to Network"... The Network flew a number of actors out to California to meet with the Executives. She remembers that the cast was there... the riders, Anthony Zerbe and of course... Melissa. After the meeting at the studios, she went back to her hotel room and met with a group of her friends that were living in California. They were thinking of where to go out and eat, when Melissa received a phone call that she had the job! Well, forget going out to eat, they stayed right there and had a party right out of the mini-bar! Why not?

From there, it was onto Arizona! Where she said she had a GLORIOUS nine month stint.  Ms. Leo said that seeing and living in all of the different locales is one of the great perks of working as an actress. There was a beautiful wistful quality in her voice as she recalled the beauty of the Arizona desert and the landscape.

How much of Emma's character was 'given'... and how much of her character came from her own instinct?  When they began the show and she received the script, she read over it and was struck by the serious tone of the script. The history that was woven into it and the years of research and care that was built into the words. Ms. Leo took her cue from the script and imagined what Emma's life was like. A single woman in the middle of no-where in the Old West.  She knew that Emma would have to be a practical, strong back-boned, no nonsense kind of woman.

We paused for a moment as she related a story about the beginning of the second season.  At the end of the first season, she had been informed that she would not be back for the second season due to money concerns, they were scaling back the cast. So, when the second season was about to air on ABC, she sat down to watch the show with her son, who had been with her on the set and knew the actors. They were set to watch 'the boys' begin the next season.  It came as quite a shock to see another female character in the credits. She never watched another episode.

Determined not to leave her in a melancholy mood, I forged on to the next question. Of all the women on the show, I'd hazard a guess that Emma was the most 'period'.  What was it like working in the Arizona heat in all those layers?

Emma, like all the rest of her characters, was dressed from the inside out. Every layer that was period, including corset and all the underpinnings, was worn on set. She said that the costumer was an absolute delight and guided her in dressing for the period and Melissa still has a few pieces of her wardrobe. A pair of period boots made just for her feet by a cobbler in Los Angeles, one of Emma's beautiful blouses, and a green velvet jacket. She continues to use the costume pieces for theater readings and other projects.

I asked her about the 'gift' she gave Brett Cullen at the end of the first season. What a 'FANTASTIC' laugh she has... she said, the only reason she remembers that is that when she worked with Brett on 'Legacy' he reminded her of it.  I asked her if he had gifted her with anything.. you could hear the smile in her voice. "Very fond memories of both Brett and his wife."  She went on to say that when they filmed the pilot she had been breast feeding and had not needed the pads, but as time went on and her son stopped breast feeding they added the pads in.

When asked who she keeps in contact with, she told me that during the filming and still to this day, she is a close friend of Deborah Adair (who was then Josh's wife).  On Josh, "He is a wonderful actor and does not disappoint or let down when he's acting. Amazing.. and full of magnetism."

Funny moments on set. There were too many to remember, the boys "and they really were boys back then... 17 ... 18 years old."  At the time she had her son on set and Trevor [Josh and Deborah's son] was just a baby as well... so the boys would try to get her son, Jack, to say the strangest things, like "antidisestablishmentarianism" *Perhaps Josh was working into the role of Mr. Sterling from 'way-back-when' * She remembered fondly the high testosterone level that was on the set and how the actors were constantly playing around... even with the level of joking on set.. they were a great group to be around and she knew that they were all great guys.

Just like the characters on the show, they all had their own particular personality traits.
Gregg - was difficult to get to know, but once you did, you found out how 'deep' he was.. a true soul.
Ty - a very genuine guy that always tried to do the right thing.
Josh - even though he could get naughty, he really was a great guy, a good soul.
Travis - a sweet, sweet guy.
Stephen - lots of fun
Anthony - a genuine sage... when he turned his attention on you, you felt like you could do 'anything'

Scary moments.. there wasn't anything very 'terrifying' about the show.. but there was one moment that was quite a painful memory. Emma usually drove the buckboard, which was fine with her, as she was not an experienced rider. There were a 'few' times that Emma had to ride out on horseback. There was one scene where she was riding off and she heard a 'gun-shot' and stopped short, landing hard on the saddle-horn. Later, in watching the show, she 'thinks' that they used THAT shot in the episode.

It was after that painful memory that she found out that Rosalind Dean was more than happy to let the actors ride whenever they wanted. The horses needed exercise, and what better way to do it.. then to have the actors practice their skills and exercise the horses all at the same time!

Oh! She remembered speaking to someone, just a few months ago that had been to Mescal and seen the set... and being from Arizona, they told her that what she thought were river-beds [where she had practiced riding] were actually water channels/trenches that people dug to direct water where it needed to go.

**Story added in during my meeting with Melissa Leo in New York July 03**

During the Episode 'End of Innocence,' the script called for Emma to fall from the a raft and go into the water. Jimmy is supposed to dive in in an attempt to save her... but in turn, Emma really saves Jimmy.  During the take of the scene, Melissa fell off into the water and was told to stay under for a few seconds. (Through TV magic and added cuts... the final scene looks longer)  When it was time to suface, Melissa felt like something or someone was holding her legs, keeping he underwater. For a few precious moments, she struggled to figure out what was happening... while she was slowly using up her air. Finally, she realized that her petticoats had come unhooked and the weight of all the fabric in period width, now soaked through with water, was holding her down!  When she finally managed to wiggle out of them and pop up from the water she continued with the scene and brought Josh back up onto the raft.

When the director called PRINT she collapsed on the raft and was shocked to see the techs SWARM around JOSH!  It seems as though he still had scenes to finish and they had to dry him off. Melissa retired back to her trailer and took a nap, only to wake up HOURS later. She was exhausted.

**End of added section**

When asked about practical jokes, she said that the filming was FULL of jokes.. but she couldn't remember any of them in particular.

She remembered one plot line in particular and said that it was a case in point about television shows. In the episode with Jay O Sanders, she recalled the fact that it was a 'huge' point of the script that she had a watch, a keep-sake, that Emma was 'never' without. In the episode, Emma gives up the watch to save 'Jimmy.' When they went back to film the next episode, there was no 'watch' among her costumes or props.  When she asked about the watch, they said it had only been rented and they had sent it back after they finished filming the episode. She said they made an attempt once or twice to have a 'stand in' watch, but it just wasn't the same.


I asked if she had lived close to the set... and found out that the cast made the 80-ish mile trip to and from the set everyday. While most of the guys found apartments near each other.. or in the same complex, she had a different housing needs, since she had her son with her. She remembers the house as being a funny little desert house just off of Speedway... along with a fantastic restaurant just around the corner.

Emma's Backstory: There was not a lot of Backstory given to her at the onset. She was told where the story would go, but as with all things, the storyline grew and changed as the season went along. Like Emma's husband. All they knew at the beginning was that Emma was on her own, but they didn't know that she still had a husband, so when they began filming the episode she understood why Emma was glad to be rid of the man. She didn't really get along with her 'on-screen' husband. So of course that led me to the man who would become Emma’s on-screen love interest...

Sam and Emma's Chemistry. It seems like Sam and Emma had such a great playful tone to their relationship, a real warmth. She said that it was truly a case of wonderful casting. That Brett was always very polite and cordial and there was a deep mutual respect between the two. Of the cast, it seemed that Brett had the most experience with television and so they took a lot of cues from him.

Would she do another western? In a heartbeat!

Melissa also does some work in the schools. It began when her son started in school. She would go into to help with his class, now, when there is work with drama, she'll go in and help out.. do character work and other topics. What a great contribution!

While I was explaining our annual fan reunion in Tucson, I luckily sparked a memory. We usually gather outside the Marshal's office for a picture and she remembered that the first day that they filmed out at Mescal, there they were, sitting in their directors chairs with their names embroidered on them, right next to the Marshal's office.

Pictures? [Yes, I am Japanese, I HAVE to ask] She knows that she has a BEAUTIFUL picture of Gregg with her son. She said that Gregg was one of the boys that actually would get down on the ground and look Jack in the eye, and recalls that the picture was like one of those precious memories of the show, near the Train at OTS.

****Added story from July 03 meeting in New York****

  On the topic of Gregg, Melissa revealed that of the boys, Gregg seemed to be the most conflicted about his role and the show. Being Native American, she said that the portrayl of Buck and the other Native American's in the show was a real concern for him. He wanted to make sure that the picture painted by "the Young Riders" was respectful of  his heritage.  Also, Melissa spoke about Gregg's environmental concerns.  He would always make sure that the production did its part to keep watch around the area and keep its natural beauty safe.

***End of Added Section***

"The re-enactors are coming."  For weeks before the episode was shot, there was a buzz on set. "The re-enactors are coming." With the show beginning to 'hint' about the Civil War approaching, they brought in some re-enactors. Melissa remembers the concern over where to 'house' the men, but they were perfectly happy to pitch a tent and take care of themselves. *Yep, that's re-enactors for you!*

In sharing some information about our fandom, I commented on the number of countries that are listed in our fan-base and she was amazed at the wide spread fandom, but she said that western's have that effect... it's that clean cut line between good and evil, where being good counts for all the right reasons.

A little end note: As we were wrapping up and I was thanking her profusely for speaking with me, she mentioned that although she's really not a computer person, it's amazing how computers can connect people. She found out about the Trail Tales site while she was filming in Florida.. there was a 'scuffle' amongst the grips as they argued.. "it's her..." "no, it's not..." "yes, it IS!"

Well, to settle the argument, they brought her over to a computer and showed her some of the pictures on the site.. and sure enough... there was Melissa's picture on Trail Tales.. and that, as Paul Harvey says, is the 'Rest of the Story.'

Parting words for the Fans: Ride Hard, Ride Safe!
I just wanted to THANK Ms. Leo again for her gracious spirit and her generosity with her time!
I am forever in her debt! -  Raye