Melissa Leo: A Character Actor Takes The Spotlight

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Melissa Leo is one of those faces a movie fan sees all the time, but just can't place. That may change now that she's starring in three different movies at once.

This fall, Leo starred in Conviction and Welcome to the Rileys. She's also in The Fighter, opening nationwide next weekend. In that film, Leo plays the mother and manager of boxer "Irish" Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg.

Actress Melissa Leo in the HBO series Treme

Actress Melissa Leo in a scene from the first season of the HBO series Treme, created by The Wire's David Simon. Skip Bolen/HBO hide caption

toggle caption Skip Bolen/HBO

That's not all. This past spring, she also starred on HBO's critically acclaimed series Treme, the latest work by The Wire creator David Simon.

Leo has been acting for many years — on television and in film — and she was even nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Frozen River. But her uncanny ability to disappear into her roles has made her a recognizable face rather than a household name.

The Rise And Fall Of Detective Kay Howard

Some might remember Leo as the smart, tough and powerful Detective Kay Howard in the critically acclaimed drama Homicide: Life on the Street in the '90s. Her role created a template for a generation of female TV cops — at a time when real-life female homicide detectives were pretty hard to find.

"There is no dress code for women detectives," Leo tells NPR's Audie Cornish. Without any examples of how a female detective might dress, she was on her own. She and the show's costume designer decided to go with a no-frills, no-makeup, just-trousers look.

"Kay Howard could have shown up in tight sweaters and skirts," Leo explains, "but she probably wouldn't get the kind of respect that she needed from her co-workers."

It was Leo's breakthrough role, but it also broke her heart when, after five years on the show, she was let go.

"It was really, really, really hard for me." She wasn't hired again for several years, she says, not until 2003's 21 Grams, starring Benicio Del Toro. The film showcased Leo's ability to completely disappear into a role, becoming almost unrecognizable.

Melissa Leo plays Alice Ward in "The Fighter." JoJo Whilden/© 2010 Fighter, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Actress Melissa Leo as Alice Ward in The Fighter JoJo Whilden/© 2010 Fighter, LLC. All Rights Reserved hide caption

toggle caption JoJo Whilden/© 2010 Fighter, LLC. All Rights Reserved

That talent may also be why — contrary to the frequent fate of aging Hollywood actresses — her career shows no signs of slowing down as she gets older.

"I have never been so happy in my life," says Leo, who turned 50 in September. "I've had this opportunity these few years to really embrace myself in a way that I was always kept a little distant from, somehow."



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