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Both Dallas and Ida Walker are such complex characters, with so many layers. Which has been for both of you the key to understanding how to portray these roles?
Melissa Leo: I can answer this question by saying every single word in John Swab’s script. All the information I needed to have was there. I was delighted when I saw the final product and discovered what impact she has on the story and the movie, even if she has this handful of scenes.
Frank Grillo: I agree. John wrote a script with all the information about who the characters are. We had some fun, for example depicting Dallas’ sexual preferences and how to work that into the movie. All the elements just synced up in the way John told the story: the love for the family, the violence, and the other parts of Ida Red. I was taken by who these people are: you’re not supposed to like them, and still you do.
In a movie like this, full of emotional scenes, which was the most challenging to shoot?
M. L.: It is an interesting question, because I didn’t find it challenging because of John Swab. The process was so grounding, calm, and fulfilling. After acting for more than thirty-five years my work is rarely challenging, and John was exactly like that. He’s a remarkable and true filmmaker.
F. G.: He really is. It’s an honor to keep working with him again and again, we are both doing another movie with him after this, and we are very excited. For me, there’s a scene where I executed a young girl and John wanted to be very specific, and he wanted me to let go. As an actor, you always have the feeling that you’re doing too much, but when I saw the scene I was really, really happy with the way he put everything together.
Behind the genre, Ida Red has a strong social commentary about how difficult life is in some parts of the United States, where society and the economy are something that is very difficult to deal with. Is there anything you’d like the audience to take from watching the movie?
F. G.: I do a lot of genre movies, and most of them have no messages. They’re there for you to escape for ninety minutes and have fun. Ida Red has something to say without forcing you to listen, talks about the condition of middle America and how limited a lot of people are: how are they going to make a living and support the family, take care of things that most of us take for granted. The beauty of America isn’t necessarily in those parts of the country, where good people sometimes have to do not such good things.
M. L.: I am thrilled to be here in Switzerland to show a very American film. To me, it’s very important because it’s an aspect of the United States that is kind of lost for the rest of the world. Everybody thinks we all live in fancy homes and have three cars, and everybody is so comfortable living the American Dream. The United States is way more complicated than this. The film shows in fact a hard, dirty truth, and it’s much more than a crime-movie. It’s an American family in the world today.
Ida Red in some ways has strong roots in American cinema’s history. Watching it I thought of Boxcar Bertha or Crazy Mama. Is there a movie or a character that inspired you when you started thinking about how to play Dallas and Ida?
F. G.: For me Mean Streets came to mind: the way Robert De Niro plays his character, so wild and unpredictable that you couldn't take your eyes off of him. I thought a lot about my character in this film being so unpredictable, you never quite know what he’s going to do.
M. L.: I honestly don’t tend to remember films once I’ve seen them. The more I think about that, the more I feel that no one except John would have written my character as a woman: most filmmakers would have had her husband in prison, running the family. There is a different truth in Ida, you can see her maternal role in the story. That’s what convinced me to take the role.
Interview by Adriano Ercolani