Melissa Leo is one of those character performers who has been in so many things, it seems as if she's always been with us.
But despite a busy career on stage, the 50-year-old New York native really broke into the big time with her work on the 1990s TV series “Homicide: Life on the Street,” then solidified her reputation as a top talent with her critically acclaimed performance in the 2008 film “Frozen River.”
Now, she’s visible all over the place: as a hard-boiled cop in “Conviction,” which opens today; a crusading lawyer in the HBO series “Treme”; and a traumatized mom in “Welcome to the Rileys,” which opens soon in limited release.
Your character in “Welcome to the Rileys” is a mother so traumatized by the accidental death of her daughter that she hasn’t left her house in years. What attracted you to the part?
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It seemed plausible that that would be the woman’s response to the feelings she had. I don’t want to imagine that occurring to my one and only son. I have friends who have lost children, and there is a devastation that is unspeakable. I didn’t question it, I believed it.
You’ve been shooting a lot in New Orleans lately. “Welcome to the Rileys” was filmed there, and so is “Treme,” in which you have a recurring role. What do you think of the city these days?
I went to shoot “Welcome to the Rileys” never having been to New Orleans before, and I didn’t get to know the town at all. And then, a month and a half later, I got a call from (“Treme” creator) David Simon to ask if I would do the pilot. And I wanted to get to know the town, because in “Treme” we see all sides of New Orleans, and I found that anywhere you go, you get two different kinds of folks – those waiting for others to take care of them, and those who take care of themselves, and it is the latter who have saved New Orleans.
Your dad was a book editor and your mom a teacher. How did you get into acting?
We were fairly bohemian. My dad worked as a book editor for most of my young years. There were a lot of interesting people in and out of our house. There was a sense of freedom, and I was brought up with that. And around 1963, my mom took me to the Public Theater, where they were doing puppet theater, and it was really fun, and that was me walking into acting.
How did “Frozen River,” which earned you an Oscar nomination for best actress, change your career?
It’s been a beautiful growth and transition on the heels of that. I feel most comfortable with it because it’s not completely different from what it was before the nomination. There wasn’t a rush of people sending me leading-lady scripts, but slowly and surely work has become more and more, and I get paid a little more.