Melissa Leo Talks The Most Hated Woman in America
Melissa Leo plays Madalyn Murray O’Hair in the original Netflix biopic, ‘The Most Hated Woman in America.’

Major variations in American society and beliefs can start with the smallest and most spontaneous moments. One of the most notable examples of an unpredictable action leading to a shift in American culture was led by outspoken atheist leader, Madalyn Murray O’Hair. While she rightfully felt that all Americans’ civil liberties should be protected, her views were often championed in a way that many others considered to be uncivil. Her attitude and disdain for politeness garnered her so much attention that she was nicknamed The Most Hated Woman in America in the press.

O’Hair’s moniker is now being used as the title for the new Netflix original film that’s based on her life, ‘The Most Hated Woman in America.’ The biopic had its world premiere during the Narrative Spotlight section of SXSW last Tuesday, March 14, before it debuts on the streaming service this Friday, March 24. The movie was directed by Tommy O’Haver, who also co-wrote the script with Irene Turner. The helmer also served as a producer on the drama with ‘The Hunger Games‘ actress, Elizabeth Banks.

Beginning in the 1950s, ‘The Most Hated Woman in America’ follows Madalyn Murray O’Hair (Melissa Leo), a single parent who feels out-of-place in conservative Baltimore. The mother of two sons is a firm supporter of civil rights and a self-proclaimed atheist. Madalyn, who lives with her children in her deeply religious parents’ home, struggles to find meaning in her life.

Madalyn feels as though she finally received her calling in the early 1960s, in the form of school prayer. When she discovers her eldest son, Bill Jr. (played by Vincent Kartheiser as an adult), is forced to recite the Lord’s Prayer in his classroom, Madalyn takes up a lawsuit with the Baltimore Public School System. When she ultimately wins her case in the United States Supreme Court, prayer is no longer allowed to be recited in public schools. The decision becomes one of the biggest victories for the First Amendment, and is a huge step towards the separation of church and state.

Since most of the country is upset with the ruling, the press nicknames Madalyn “The Most Hated Woman in America.” She decides to use the attention to her advantage, and create American Atheists, one of the first organizations of its kind. With the help of Bill Jr. and her younger son, Garth (portrayed by Michael Chernus as an adult), Madalyn turns the non-profit into a successful institution. She also begins to gain media sensation, as she begins to make frequent appearances on ‘The Tonight Show’ and ‘Donahue.’

But Madalyn’s professional achievements unfortunately don’t guarantee her personal happiness; in fact, her fervent views have lead to her estrangement from Bill. But she still maintains close ties with his daughter, Robin (Juno Temple), and Garth. When the three then suddenly vanish, rumors begin circulating about their disappearance. Many people begin to believe they fled to New Zealand, where the family had the bulk of their fortune stored in off-shore accounts.

The mystery might never have been solved if a San Antonio reporter, Jack Ferguson (Adam Scott), didn’t begin an aggressive investigation what happened to Madalyn, her younger son and her granddaughter. Jack eventually uncovers an elaborate kidnapping scheme gone awry, which involves one of Madalyn’s former employees, David Waters (Josh Lucas). The writer’s examination into the case explains what really happened to a woman who much of the American public resented.

Leo generously took the time recently during SXSW to talk about starring in ‘The Most Hated Woman in America’ during an exclusive interview over the phone from Austin’s Four Season Hotel. Among other things, the actress discussed how she was immediately drawn to portraying O’Hair in the biopic after O’Haver sent her the screenplay, as she felt that the controversial protagonist offered her a unique chance to bring a distinct voice to the screen. Leo also expressed her excitement over having the drama premiere at SXSW and on Netflix, as she feels that reaching a wide array of audiences through different mediums is one of the most important aspects in the art of acting in, and making, films.

The conversation began with Leo revealing why she was interested in playing the title character, in ‘The Most Hated Woman in America.’ She explained that Banks and O’Haver developed the story together for a couple of years. Their initial idea then “grew into a script, which was sent to me over five years ago. Tommy then asked me to play Madalyn Murray O’Hair for him. So I read the script and met with him, and felt like this was a great opportunity.” The Oscar-winning actress added that she thought “it would be a fascinating story to tell. It was a very juicy role for a woman to play.”

Leo then indicated what a strong connection she developed with O’Haver, as both a writer and director, while they were working on developing Madalyn’s arc in the story. “We had a good five years to work together” from the time the filmmaker sent the actress the drama’s screenplay, to the time they began shooting. She disclosed that she and the auteur “live in different parts of the country, so sometimes there would be many months between the conversations.”

The performer added that she thinks “both of our love for Madalyn only grew during that time. I was guided by the admiration that Tommy clearly has for Madalyn. That really informed my portrayal of her, and it helped me feel really safe.” Leo then explained that “when you’re asked to play someone who’s seen as maybe being quite difficult in one way or another…you’re hopefully being led by someone” who will help nurture the character’s development. “I certainly was with Tommy.”

Leo also noted that O’Haver “knew the script inside and out, because he had written it with his longtime writing partner. So the story had time to grow and adapt into its best form. So it was a tight script, which is very good when you only have 18 days to shoot a film.”

The actress also praised the filmmaker for his directing abilities. “His expertise is in every fiber of the movie, from the casting to the way he so cleverly depicted so many different eras of, and places in, the United States,” Leo further applauded.

The performer then divulged that while ‘The Most Hated Woman in America’ was set in several locations throughout the country, it was shot entirely in Los Angeles. “We only shot for 18 days, and the budget was so minuscule. But somehow we were still able to tell this epic tale of almost entirely of this woman’s life, and what she did for the United States.”

While the biopic was shot independently, the performer explained that the size of a project doesn’t usually influence her approach to portraying her characters. “You approach any character the same way, regardless of time and budget. You approach the characters from the inside out, and you begin that process with the script,” Leo shared.

“With Madalyn, there was a great concern over how we would be able to depict all of these years,” the actress then admitted. “It was our luck that she gained weight as she got older. That was an easy thing to hang her age on. So every time that you see her, with the exception right after the pregnancy in the beginning of the film…she gets larger. So we used different body suits underneath the costumes.” O’Hair’s age also “informed the phases of the wigs that I wore,” Leo added.

“Everything was put together in a precise and clear way, because Tommy so clearly knew his material. When your leader is so clear about what they want to do, and what their intention for the film is, you’re able to pull together this extraordinary cast. You’re then able to tell a story with a lot of detail,” the performer also indicated.

Leo reaffirmed that shooting projects independently doesn’t truly affect many aspects of filmmaking in most cases, but “you do have to be able to shoot more quickly. Most of us who get to work on television these days, and I’ve always done a fair amount of television work, along with film and stage work when I can, know how to shoot so quickly all the time. You have to get about 45 minutes of television in the can in about eight to ten days. So to have 18 days to get (an hour-and-a-half) film in the can is doable, and we did it,” she added with a laugh.

Following up on her experience of collaborating with her co-stars in ‘The Most Hated Woman in America’ co-stars, including Temple, Chernus and Kartheiser, the actress revealed that “Rehearsal for film is a delicate balance. Due to the practicality, you’re lucky if you’re able to gather a cast such as we had during the time that we had for the shoot, never mind find the time to all rehearse together. So the chances that a film’s going to be well rehearsed are not very high,” she disclosed.

“But that’s a blessing, because what you can do in films that you can’t do on the stage is that you may capture a moment that may never happen again. So you really want to know who the characters are, what the situations are, where in the story we are and what the point of each scene is, which is called breaking down a script,” Leo explained.

“The cast and crew do it, so we can all come in with a lot of information. You may have had a chance to talk about that information with the costume designer, for example, so that you can decide what your character’s wearing when, and how it helps the story,” the performer further shared.

“Then we do have a brief rehearsal at the start of each day on film shoots. But the real acting hopefully comes when the cameras are rolling. So films are interesting in that way,” Leo revealed before comparing movie shoots to water rafting. She pointed out that no matter how much preparation people do for both activities, no one can fully be prepared for what’s going to happen once they truly begin, as the natural environments are always changing. She added with a laugh, “That may not be the best analogy that I’ve ever come up with, but you sometimes have to make things up as you go along for both.”

The performer then complimented the work ethics of Chernus and Temple, saying “I could not have asked for better compadres. We knew what our roles were. In our first meeting with each other, we just started to become these characters, in one way or another.”

Leo also conceded that “When Vincent signed on to play the older son and we met, it may have sounded to other people that there was animosity between us. But between Vincent and I, it was more like joking between the characters. That helped us know our relationship as we began shooting” the biopic.

Now that the crime drama is having its World Premiere during SXSW, the actress disclosed what it means to her that the movie is premiering at the festival. “Well, acting doesn’t happen alone in a room, or even with just the rest of the cast and crew; acting really happens when it’s shared with an audience. So I look forward to sharing the movie during my time out here at SXSW, and getting to see it on a big screen with an audience. I haven’t had that experience yet, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the response will be,” the actress divulged.

Leo also expressed her excitement over also having ‘The Most Hated Woman in America’ stream on Netflix, after it plays at the festival. She expressed that she thinks the streaming model means “There’s a whole new day in film, and companies like Netflix are paving the way. So it’s thrilling to be a part of this new world” of entertainment.

Photo ofMelissa Leo
Melissa Leo
Job Title
Actress in the Netflix original biopic, 'The Most Hated Woman in America'

By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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