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

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010; E02

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?

"Nothing that you want to write about in the newspaper," she says coyly, back to brassy, herding lentils on her plate.

C'mon.

"Nuh-uh. It's all been expunged by now."

After a taste of higher education at SUNY-Purchase, she dropped out, nannied on the Upper West Side, walked on stilts in Midtown with a Dixieland jazz band and waitressed. While on a break from a shift, she auditioned opposite Bill Murray for "The Razor's Edge." Murray arrived very late, fresh off the golf course, she says, and unwittingly dispensed advice that propelled her into a full-blown career.

"He said, 'You're much too young for this part, but if you really want to do this, you should just do it,' " Leo recalls. "He seemed, in the moment, to be saying I had something, and I should do something about it. I felt he was giving me a gift. Whether he was or not, I have no idea. But I quit work that afternoon and said, 'I will now only take work as an actor.' "

The work came: a part on "All My Children," a long purgatory of bit TV roles ("Miami Vice," "Spenser: For Hire"), a good run on "Homicide," supporting parts in films and a rough road at home. She spent most of the '90s in a painful, bitter custody battle with actor John Heard, with whom she had a son in 1987.

And finally came Ray Eddy, the steely single mother in "Frozen River" who ushered her to the Oscars nearly 25 years after Bill Murray told her to go for it.

"There was nothing that was going to deter me from it," she says of acting. "Now I get this gratitude coming from very fine actors I know who cannot get hired. They thank me for staying in there and proving to them that if they just stick with it, that's all it might take."

* * *

So, Iraq. Katrina. Illegal immigration. One might conclude that she's drawn to American crisis.

"It's drawn to me," Leo says. "They're not going to come to me with a romantic comedy. If they do, we'll have a happy celebration."

So you'd do a romantic comedy?

"Depends on who's opposite."

Who's your ideal leading man?

"Well, because I missed working with him, I'd say Je -- " She catches herself before finishing the name Jeff, tugs on her fingers, fidgets. Maybe she's mouthed off enough. "I dunno," she says. "That's too hard to say."

C'mon.

"No, there's too many delicious, juicy ones. And what I do -- it's sort of a mind game with myself -- is to not have favorites, or ideals. Then you can more easily take what comes along."

The check arrives. Leo requests a box for her leftover salmon.

"You haven't asked me if I'm single," she says with a faint whiff of flirt. Both her chocolate eyes and her tiny nose piercing twinkle.

Are you?

"Yes, I'm single."

Happily single?

"I feel lonely sometimes. I don't know what to do about it. So I thought I'd tell you and you could put it in the newspaper. My friends tell me I have to throw it out there. I've never been married. My son is a bastard. A darling bastard. And then I did try for a long time, for 10 years, with a relationship that had its ups and downs and then ended. I've dated a little bit and so on."

She's getting giggly, biting her lower lip, sitting on her hands, hunching and unhunching her shoulders like a schoolgirl up to no good.

"It's not my schedule that's hard," she says. "First of all, I have never been asked out. I have never. Been. Asked. Out. There's something -- I scare people on some level. I think it's my red hair. I think, in the end, it might be as simple as that."

Don't be ridiculous.

"I don't think I would be very easy to have a relationship with. I don't need to be taken care of in the ways women are used to being taken care of. It would take an inventive liaison. Or maybe this is just how it's meant to be, and that's that. It's clear how much I love my work, right?"

It is.

She looks away, tosses her hand -- her tattoo briefly becoming a shooting star -- and says, "Well, maybe that's all, then."

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