Those of us who write about movies tend to play things cool, but we're all fans at heart, complete with running tallies of those actors and filmmakers whose work speaks to us on a personal level — artists we think about while sitting in traffic and to whom we send a mental "hooray" when something good comes their way. My own personal list has long featured Melissa Leo, who played Detective Kay Howard on the sublimely talky TV cop show, Homicide: Life on the Street and who stole the show as Benicio Del Toro's crisis-worn wife in 2003's 21 Grams.
A character actor — that means she rarely gets to kiss the guy — Leo specializes in women who show a tough face to the world yet secretly believe in happy endings. Meeting the actress in Los Angeles recently to talk about Frozen River, the Sundance Film Festival prize-winner that gives Leo her first full-fledged starring role, I confess to having long rooted for her success. "Not that you need rooting for," I hurriedly add. She laughs, and pats my arm, saying, "Oh, I needed a little rooting for, and I thank you for it."
Leo appears in almost every scene of Frozen River, writer-director Courtney Hunt's debut feature, as Ray Eddy, a 99-cent-store clerk who lives with her two kids in a rundown trailer located next to an upstate New York Mohawk Indian reservation and near the Canadian border. When her husband runs off (yet again) to gamble away their meager savings, a desperate Ray partners with Lila (Misty Upham), a young Native who knows all the tricks for smuggling illegals over the border. The movie marks Leo and Upham's second run at this material, after they first played Ray and Lila in Hunt's 2004 short film. "I'm a sucker for young filmmakers," Leo says when I ask if her willingness to work with fledging directors doesn't drive her agent nuts. "Look what taking a chance on Courtney brought me — this amazing role."
If she'd been a little savvier, Leo says, her career might have turned out differently. As things stand, "it's been a constant curiosity to me that one thing does not parlay into another," she says. "Even now, sitting here, with my hair done up, talking to you, trying to act like a grownup, it's all because I want to get more roles. For my work, there is almost nothing I wouldn't do."
Leo has been a professional actress for more than 20 years, but may have caught the bug as early as age 4 or 5, when her mother took her to workshops at Peter Schumann's legendary Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont. "It began there, I think," Leo recalls. "I was little, but that sensation of pretending and then having an audience respond was very powerful."
The single mother of a 21-year-old son, Leo understands women like Ray, who is obsessed with purchasing a fancy prefab home she's promised her children they'll have by Christmas. In the film's haunting opening scene, Ray sinks into the open door of her beat-up car, realizing that her husband and their money are long gone. Barefoot, dressed in pink woolly pajamas, she lights a cigarette and takes a deep drag as loss settles into her bones. It's one of the great close-ups of the movie year.
"It wasn't intended to be the opening scene, so that took some of the pressure off," Leo says. "We shot it deep into the shoot, so by then I knew Ray's journey. Movies are always shot out of order and that's one of the fun things, although people always say, 'That must be so hard.' But there's sort of a delight in shooting how you feel after the big moment and then realizing how you have to play the scene that gets you to the after. It gives you a very clear path to walk. For that shot, I was very aware of where the lens was and what it was seeing. There is calculation to it. Beyond that, I have to give credit to that part of acting that I don't understand, and long to put into words."
Throwing up her hands at the mystery of it all — acting, employment, life — Melissa Leo gives me a big smile and a strong hug, then heads out into the fray.