Actress Melissa Leo, of 'Treme' and 'Frozen River,' talks about her career

Click to watch a time-lapse sketch of Melissa Leo by staff artist Patterson Clark, created with the Brushes app on the iPad.
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010

The itty-bitty star inked on Melissa Leo's right wrist came from a late-night trip to a tattoo parlor in Baltimore in the mid-1990s, back when she was living in Fells Point and playing gruff-'n'-tough Sgt. Kay Howard on "Homicide: Life on the Street." There are 11 more stars tattooed around her body, so that if she strips naked and raises her arms and stretches to the left, she approximates the constellation Virgo.

She'll be 50 in September and has groomed herself into a flinty earth mother onscreen and off -- the kind who smuggles foreigners across the Canadian border so she can afford a new trailer for her family (as in 2008's "Frozen River"), or the kind who kicks a cigarette to the curb on 16th Street NW, hitches a zebra-print bag up her shoulder and slides into a booth at Nage on Scott Circle, ready to offer some tart words about the Jeff Bridges movie she turned down in the wake of her Oscar nomination last year for "Frozen River."

She could've played one of the two middle-age women bedded by Bridges in "Crazy Heart," about a boozy, over-the-hill country singer in love with a much younger Maggie Gyllenhaal.

"They wanted me for one or the other," Leo says. "And then he ends up with who? And that's right? She's young enough to be his daughter. That made me wanna barf."

She'll have the slow-baked salmon, please, well done.

* * *

Beggars can't be choosers, and Melissa Leo has been a beggar for most of her quiet career. She almost always says yes. Since "Frozen River" goosed her career, saying yes has been a lot more fun. She's a dogged lawyer in the HBO series "Treme," the sprawling post-Katrina moodpiece that airs on Sundays and reunites her with a dozen of her "Homicide" compatriots. She's sashaying up and down Manhattan with Kate Winslet for Todd Haynes's "Mildred Pierce" remake. She's the emphysemic mother of an Iraq war veteran in the upcoming "The Dry Land," which she accompanied to town a few days ago to show senators and military officials, including the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey.

Is she nervous about watching this anguished, depressing movie with the people who are kinda-sorta responsible for the trauma depicted in it?

She downshifts from brassy to tender.

"The message of the movie to those extraordinary, bright, strong, brave youth is that Mother loves you," she says. "And that's a message we need to hear, that somehow -- in spite of whatever we've been asked to do or have done -- we can still be loved."

Love, in Leo's life, has been tough. Her childhood in the East Village was interrupted by her parents' divorce, which sent her ricocheting from Vermont to England with her mother. She went to theater school in London during her teens, got her GED stateside, then "wasted a bit of time in Tulsa."

Now what does that mean?

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