Melissa Leo goes from big win to Big Easy as 'Treme' returns
Melissa Leo stars in "Treme," which returns for its second season Sunday on HBO. (Photograph by Leslie Hassler)
A far more typical image of the actress is of her on a recent blustery day. She's in well-worn jeans, a gray sweatshirt, plain boots, no makeup and hair pulled back. Leo strides into a hotel on New York's Bowery, and it would take a sharp-eyed fan to recognize her, which suits Leo just fine.
Leo, who travels without an entourage, picks up borscht from a Ukrainian restaurant and offers to share. Just stopping by Vaselka proves what a downtown woman she is. Leo grew up in this neighborhood before it was chic.
Settling into a club chair, Leo happily discusses playing a mule her first time onstage, what happened at the Oscars, and the return of HBO's "Treme" Sunday, April 24, in which she plays Toni.
"I have to say, I don't think she's a civil rights attorney," which is how Toni is often characterized, Leo, 50, says. "She is a bleeding heart not just for left-leaning politics but for music, the sacred music of that city."
That city is post-Katrina New Orleans, and Leo refers to it, without malice, as "a beautifully backward town."
She had shown up for work with her Oscar in her luggage, but airport security found it troublesome. Leo won her Oscar for her portrayal of Alice Ward in "The Fighter."
"It's very powerful," she says of the statuette. "It's not just an icon that we use as a term. It's an actual, not a virtual, icon. Security in New Orleans didn't know who he was or how I got him."
So she parked the statuette with her accountant ("my money husband," she says) while her house in upstate New York undergoes renovations. It's been five weeks since the Oscars, and Leo has had time to reflect.
"I had a fair amount of practice to make a nice thank you," she says. "I had noticed what a great big stage it was and I remembered being on the opposite side, watching Kate (Winslet) get hers. She was so dignified and thanked all the right people and it seemed so f... easy!"
Winslet and Leo worked together in the remarkable "Mildred Pierce," also on HBO.
Just after the Oscars, in a separate interview, Winslet tells Zap2it, "I sent her a text message and said: 'Is that f... you, Melissa, you motherf... cow?' And the b... hasn't called me back! Everyone dumps all this s... on me, all the f... time!"
Yes, the great Kate speaks like a drunken sailor, but in a plummy British accent.
Incidentally, Leo did not receive the text message because she does not text.
Leo apologizes again for what she said, and adds, "It is American vernacular, and I am sorry to offend. Network television is not the time and place. The time delay is wonderful."
With a glint, she adds, "Thank f... goodness!"
As for the rest of that glamour-soaked evening, Leo adores the dress created for her, which isn't as heavy as the 70-pound dress she wore to the SAG Awards. And Kirk Douglas is still a sexy man, she says. They're meeting for tea in Los Angeles.
Some of her recent characters -- Lucy in "Mildred Pierce" and Toni in "Treme" -- are the sort of women other women want for a best friend. There's an iron core of loyalty and a can-do spirit about them. The common thread between them is that "both of these characters are inwardly happy," she says. "They are living the lives they had envisioned for themselves."
Leo also emanates that. As a child, attending nearby P.S. 122, which has since become an arts space, she knew she wanted to act even before she knew what to call it. She loves to work, which is why she's hoping "Treme" is renewed and she continues working with series creator David Simon, for whom she worked on "Homicide: Life on the Street."
Leo has been incredibly busy the last couple of years, racking up 24 credits. She downplays that number, explaining some were student films or two-day gigs. If she could have her pick, Leo says, she would work "in European film," she says. "That's a pretty broad statement. No particular language, no particular country."
Her other goal is to learn to play the guitar. Despite being tone-deaf, Leo bought Ani DiFranco's guitar at an auction to raise money for New Orleans schools to buy instruments. Though offers are coming in since her Oscar win, what she wants -- meaty roles for women -- aren't common.
Leo reflects on that last Sunday in February, when her life changed.
"Nobody could have told me that winning an Oscar would not be the cherry on top, but to get it from Kirk Douglas," she says, beaming. "I am the luckiest girl who ever lived."