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The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of To Leslie.

Inspired by true events, this script was written by Ryan Binaco as a love letter to his mother. Michael, how did the script find its way to you?

Michael Morris: Ryan wrote this script and had been brought up by a version of Leslie. But it’s important to note that Leslie, as embodied by Andrea [Riseborough] in the film, is not Ryan’s mother. This is very much a film and a character that was built by Andrea in every beat of the film. Ryan wrote this script to try and understand his mother, and the pain she dealt with, often by herself, and to work through the pain he had growing up without his mother for much of his young life. It came to me through Arlie [Day], our producer and casting director. What I like to think she saw it in for me was that the great subject of the film was empathy. It’s about how to look at other people’s lives and experiences uncolored by any sense of judgment. I wanted to make a film that explores that before you even get into the story and the relationships. That was the guiding principle. Here’s a woman with agency to make things and destroy things, like we all have. The film is not going to judge her for making choices.

The film is not going to judge her for making choices

Andrea, I read that you were in character for the entire time. What is it like to live something like that?

Andrea Riseborough: One of the greatest gifts about this sort of work is to get as specific as possible with someone’s life. Moment to moment, point to point, in “Leslie’s” life, I knew where she was born, I knew where she went to school, the textures that she saw, the feelings that she had. Texas is such a vast state and it’s interesting that this story didn’t spring from Texas, but it really lends itself to being from Texas. I think the power of the story is that so many of us have been touched by alcoholism in some way. Texas is elusive in the sense that it’s different from place to place. Massively. And it’s huge. It was really interesting to learn about the places that Michael and I decided our Leslie would be from. I had a great advantage since I had worked in Texas a few times before. We shot in the height of the pandemic, while things were alienatingly grim. It was a difficult time for all of us, because despite being surrounded by people on set we were divorced from any real intimacy. That was sort of perfect for me while I was playing Leslie, because it reflected her life. She was surrounded by people in a bar, and those people are so close but she’s unable to engage with the consistency and intimacy that closer relationships bring. I wasn’t able to go back to Texas during that time. I generally map out a life by being there geographically for some time. Often we shoot things that aren’t real. I think the production designer and the whole team did such an amazing job with the shoot and I’ve spoken to journalists in Texas about this. They did such an authentic job of realizing this vast, vast state in some of its loneliest parts.

Marc, we know you more from your comedic work. How did you approach this role? You beautifully balance out Leslie in your scenes together.

Marc Maron: When I was first asked to do this, I thought Michael had misdialed on the phone. I couldn’t understand how he saw me as this guy, Sweeney. But he was pretty persistent, and he had Chelsea Handler call me, which is scary. She said he really wants you to do this, and when I finally asked him why, he said he liked my work on my television show. I think the last season of that show particularly resonated with him, where I played a guy who relapses on drugs. Although I’m a comic, I’m a pretty hypersensitive, aggravated, serious guy, as a lot of us are. I was also very threatened by the accent. I told Michael that I can’t do that, and he said don’t worry about the accent. But of course, if I’m going to act at all, I should learn the accent. I worked with a coach, and it was a Lubbock accent. Apparently, some people believe there are no accents in Texas. I grew up in New Mexico—I know there are Texan accents. Lubbock seemed manageable. And it was very odd because the coach directed me to watch YouTube videos of Mac Davis, the singer and songwriter from the 70s. So I put that in place. But in terms of the role, and balancing out Leslie… I have a certain history with sobriety, with co-dependency and caring about people in trouble. There’s a certain zone emotionally where you either get drawn in and destroyed by people who are destructive or you balance it out with your empathy and own personal boundaries. And you can handle whatever emotional struggle they’re in because it’s not specifically yours and you care about them. So that dynamic was familiar to me. And because Andrea is so specific in those behaviors, I felt like I knew these people. There was a way for me to stay open in the empathy for her and have love for her despite the problems she was going through. Not all of it was healthy co-dependency. I’m not sure how a story like theirs unfolds in the long term. But in the period of the movie, I was emotionally invested in trying to take care of Leslie in the very specific way that I was able. I was not going to save her, but I could give her a job, I could be emotionally supportive. I don’t think my character— who had his own beat-up history—thought that he could necessarily save her, but he could do what he could do.

Andre, you have limited scenes in the film but you make such an impact with your time on screen. How did see Royal?

Andre Royo: With Covid, my memories are all a big blur. I don’t know when I got the script, but I do remember being scared about being creative again. I couldn’t go outside to hang out, or to work. I read the script. I love storytelling, and I love the human experience. I didn’t think I was right for the part, at all. I remember writing Michael and I just took a shot in the dark and told him how much I liked the script. I thought the script showed no judgment and it was honest. I knew Andrea was going to play the lead and I’m a fan. I figured at least she’d do her thing and try to get it right! The whole script is about trying, about giving it your best shot even if you don’t know if it’s going to work. Growing up in New York, I got blinded so I didn’t see people except those that were going to benefit me or were in my circle. Then as I got older, I learned how important it is just to look at someone and to let them know that they are being seen. And I wanted Royal to always look at Leslie and see her. To say, I see you, I see your choices, I see what you’re doing. I can be here for you if you want, or not. But I’m always going to be here for you as a person. You deserve that, no matter what. You deserve to be looked at as a human being. That’s the only way I can help you out, because everything else you need to do on your own. I’m doing Hare Krishna, I’m dancing in my underwear, I’m doing what I can do for myself to feel good. And if it’s the bottle with Leslie, then no judgment. I want you to know that I’m going to stay out of your way but I will look at you and acknowledge you as a human being.

Those are all really thoughtful reflections on your characters.

Michael Morris: I think you saw in those three answers just how much these guys bring to the table. There is almost no exposition in the film. This is done very deliberately. We wanted history to come in the scenes. I didn’t want someone explaining all the things that happened. You find out later that Royal owns the place, you find out later than Sweeney had his own relationship with addiction, but in the moment, the history exists in these characters trying to figure each other out. And with these three characters, they’re really the only relationship in the film that doesn’t have history with each other the way the rest of the town does. Royal sort of knows of Leslie from back in the day, but Sweeney is really trying to figure her out for the first time. That’s a really important flavor in the movie because everyone else has specific memories of times Leslie has screwed them over. But we never say that. I wanted to point out that as a director, and as a huge admirer of the script Ryan wrote, that these actors bring that history. Marc answered your question about how he played this with an answer about his life. Andre answered the same way. Andrea and I talked about friends of hers that grew up in the north of England, friends who meant something to her relationship to this role. All of which is to say, an actor isn’t someone who says lines and stands in a certain place. An actor is someone who brings their entire history and experiences to a role and is somehow able to harness them into a specific moment.

Andrea Riseborough: I think one of the great gifts I’ve come away with from playing Leslie is thinking there but for the grace of God go I. To spend such an extraordinary amount of time in that spiritual emptiness and carrying that spiritual emptiness and having in my own life watched it in others while desperately wanting to fill that hole for them and being entirely unable. Michael was probably in this process for three years, and I had been in it for quite some time, so Leslie had been subconsciously brewing with me for years. But when it came to that 6-8 week stretch we had towards the end of 2020, this huge catharsis of committing all these characters to screen, I came out of the end of it feeling like I had swum twenty miles and reached a rock. And I felt gratitude for the rock. And I felt gratitude for stepping back into the remnants of my own psychology. And for the respect that I had for what Leslie had been through. It was a great gift in that I felt like I understand a lot of people far more thoroughly in my life having played Leslie.