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Melissa Leo: A Character Actor Takes The Spotlight
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Melissa Leo: A Character Actor Takes The Spotlight

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Melissa Leo: A Character Actor Takes The Spotlight
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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Melissa Leo has one of those faces a movie fan sees all the time but just can't place. She's had dozens of TV and film roles, including an Oscar nomination three years ago for "Frozen River."

And this has been a banner year - a lead role in HBO's "Treme," and three movies in theaters now: "Conviction, "Welcome to the Rileys" and "The Fighter," which opened this weekend.

In "The Fighter," she plays the mother and manager of champion boxer Irish Micky Ward. She's a steely matriarch who pushes and fiercely defends her sons, even tangling with Micky's girlfriend, played by Amy Adams.

(Soundbite of film, "The Fighter")

Ms. MELISSA LEO (Actor): (As Alice Ward) What are you going to do, Mick - listen to some MTV girl who works in a bar? What does she know about boxing?

Ms. AMY ADAMS (Actor): (As Charlene Fleming) I know they're going to Vegas and getting paid to train year-round. Sounds a hell of a lot better than what you've got him doing here.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice Ward) You gonna let her talk like that to your mother?

CORNISH: Back in the '90s, Melissa Leo's breakthrough came with a character named Kay Howard, a tough and trailblazing detective on the Baltimore-based TV drama "Homicide: Life on the Street."

Ms. LEO: Baltimore had never, before Kay Howard, had a female homicide detective. I'm very happy to say that across the country now, a lot of homicide units have female detectives. But when I played Kay - was not the case, and had never been, in Baltimore.

In the rulebooks by which the police live, there is no dress code for women detectives, right? So the answer I and the original costume designer on that show came upon was that she would dress as closely to the men as to make us all comfortable.

CORNISH: And with that show, you were working with David Simon, who now people also recognize as being the mind behind "The Wire" and in this latest HBO series, "Treme." Are you a member of this sort of - it seems like he's got a kind of informal acting troupe, like a David Simon's players going on, where we see similar faces appearing in each of these programs.

Ms. LEO: It's a really lovely part of the job to know some of those folks so very well. I had not been, since they fired me from "Homicide," invited to join another Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson or David Simon project until I got my Oscar nomination a couple years ago. And David called me up and invited me to join them on "Treme." I am delighted to be on that show.

CORNISH: So you mentioned leaving that program, being written out of "Homicide." And what was that like?

Ms. LEO: Oh, it was really, really, really hard for me. I had done five years of the show. You know, we would end the shooting season and head home, and a few months later would hear hey, the job's up again. And we'd go back down to Baltimore for another season. That went on for five years.

And when we were finishing up the fifth year, for the first time, the network had already granted us the next season. We knew we'd be back for season six. Three weeks out of shooting, they said, well, we're not going to use you this year. And I said, what...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEO: ...and packed my bags and went home - and could not get hired for several years, I'll say. There was something about maybe my face naked of makeup, that people felt that was me. And it was really hard finding work after Kay Howard.

CORNISH: Usually, the question that follows now is about women and age in Hollywood. I mean, how has it been for you?

Ms. LEO: I mean, I turned 50 this past September. And you know, I first and foremost have never been so happy in my life. I just feel incredibly blessed. And you know, come what may here on in, I've had this opportunity these few years here to really embrace myself in a way that I was always kept a little distant from somehow - or something. I don't know if I'm really answering your question or avoiding it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: OK. So I want to turn to your movie "Welcome to the Rileys." That character is a character that for the first 45 minutes, doesn't really say a whole lot. And she's very withdrawn, and she's paralyzed sort of emotionally after years, because of her daughter's death. And how do you approach a role like that - because there are whole scenes where you're just kind of walking around the house?

Ms. LEO: Yeah. It's such a different role for me, and that was the first joy of "Welcome to the Rileys." I saw on the page how quiet, how - exactly as you describe, all of those words - so internal in her emotion. And most of my characters have been pretty out there with what they're thinking about, and how they're feeling.

CORNISH: And what does that involve for a character like the one you play in "The Fighter"? In that movie, your character is a mother and a manager of a boxer. And I have to admit the first time I saw your image on screen, I fully sat there thinking: I thought Melissa Leo played that part. Like, where's Melissa Leo?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: And I put a little note in my notebook: Where does she come...

Ms. LEO: Do you remember on "Homicide" when Kay Howard's sister came to town...

CORNISH: I think so.

Ms. LEO: ...and she was all flirty with the detectives...

CORNISH: Oh, right. Right.

Ms. LEO: ...with her little - short, blonde hair and her makeup, and her Italian clothing.

CORNISH: Which was the complete opposite of the character you were playing. Detective Howard is in pants and has no makeup.

Ms. LEO: Complete opposite of - yeah. When I played Kay Howard's sister, my dad called up the next day and said: Melissa, where did they find that actor to play the sister? She picked up your mannerisms, even.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEO: So you're not the first one to not recognize me doing something. And Alice Ward is the most collaborative character I've ever played.

CORNISH: And this is the character in "The Fighter."

Ms. LEO: Absolutely. She managed both her elder and her younger son in their careers. The other thing about Alice Ward I had not yet mentioned is Alice Ward herself. And I had an opportunity to meet her, and it was the meeting with Alice Ward that made me know she's not so far from me.

There's something in her quality - not her circumstance, not her life, not her way of living - but something in her quality that reminded me of my mom's mom, this indomitable American woman, long before equal rights, who changed the world by the way she behaved.

CORNISH: That's actress Melissa Leo. She stars in "The Fighter," which opens this weekend. You can also see her in "Conviction" and "Welcome to the Rileys," both of which are still in theaters.

Melissa Leo, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. LEO: Thank you for speaking with all of us - me and all my characters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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