Melissa Leo has officially entered overdrive. Her past two years have made even the half-decade she spent playing a Charm City cop in "Homicide" look like a modest accomplishment. She hasn't taken a timeout since she earned a best actress Academy Award nomination for playing a struggling upstate New Yorker who smuggles illegal aliens in "Frozen River" (2008).
She has acted in a string of films. "Conviction" with Hilary Swank opened this weekend in Baltimore. "The Dry Land" with America Ferrera appears on DVD next month and "The Fighter" with Mark Wahlberg will start rolling into theaters in December.
She's also become a go-to gal for HBO. Last spring, she pulled off a role in the miniseries remake of "Mildred Pierce," with Kate Winslet, while anchoring David Simon's ongoing New Orleans jazz rhapsody, "Treme."
Last weekend, during a break on Kevin Smith's subversive horror movie "Red State," she flew into Salisbury for a one-scene part in a low-budget made-in-Maryland movie, "Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best."
Before that, I called her in Los Angeles and asked: With everything else she has going, what was the allure?
"You know that film I did a year ago, 'The Dry Land'?" Leo answered. "I played the mother of a son who comes back from Iraq with 'unseen wounds.' Ryan O'Nan played my son. Now he has a script of his own, and he's directing it, too. It's a buddy road trip of a new and strange kind of flavor; the guys are a bit older than they usually are for this sort of thing. And I get to do a funny little scene. But most of all it's because Ryan played my son. How could I say no to my boy?"
She's often the best thing in her movies. For example, playing a frank, sympathetic female trucker to Robert De Niro's wandering widower in "Everybody's Fine," she brought fresh observational dramedy to an overly manipulative film. But Leo doesn't see it that way.
"When I'm on a movie, I feel we're all telling stories, making drama," she said. She follows the same process on any project, big or small. "Within the arc of the whole story each character has an individual arc; we look for the truth in that arc and see how that's working in the bigger arc. Especially in smaller parts, I rely on my directors to tell me if I'm veering off course. That's why they call them supporting roles!"
Leo's detective and then sergeant in "Homicide," Kay Howard, won a wide fan base because of her super-professionalism and subtle complexities. In "Conviction," Leo plays a compromising policewoman in Ayer, Mass. Betty Anne Waters (Swank) spends 18 years trying to free her brother, Kenneth (Sam Rockwell), from prison for a murder he didn't commit. But Officer Nancy Taylor does everything she can to put him there and keep him there. She might have become a stock villain.
Not with Leo in the role.
"I had to figure out what bone she had to pick with him, somehow," Leo said, "and find a way to layer that in."
She constructed a full story for her character. She imagined this cop growing up in the same small town as Betty Anne and Kenny and viewing them as "rotten kids who were always getting away with everything." She even imagined a teenaged version of her character "possibly getting a crush on Kenny or dreaming of going to the prom with him, when his attitude would be, of course, forget it."
She also wanted to convey the pressures put on any woman who tried to rise through police ranks in the early 1980s. "I think Nancy was absolutely involved in the hiding of evidence and the coercion of the witnesses," Leo said. "But I also believe that the police department brought her in to deal with the witnesses because she was a woman and the witnesses were women. They thought they had a better shot of getting what they wanted out of them with Nancy instead of a uniformed male police officer."
She soon will travel to New Orleans to resume her role as civil rights attorney Toni Bernette in "Treme." She regrets that she won't be collaborating this season with John Goodman, who played Toni's husband, Creighton. Leo adored their partnership. She described acting in a series with sympatico talents such as Goodman as part creative adventure and part frolic. "You play a little game with what you have and make that a stepping-off point for some serious work."
For example, after she acted in the pilot for "Treme," Leo had to cut her hair to play the mother to Mark Wahlberg's Micky Ward in the boxing biopic, "The Fighter." Then "Treme" got picked up, so she had to put extensions in her hair to film additional scenes for the pilot. "When we took the extensions out, it set up this funny exchange between Toni and Creighton, where he says, 'You got your hair cut; looks good,' and she says 'Yeah, last week.' That becomes a golden nugget of information about their relationship: He does notice when she looks pretty; he just doesn't notice right away."
Leo keeps seeking out those golden nuggets.
O'Nan wrote and is directing "Brooklyn Boys Beat the Best" in Baltimore. He also plays the lead role of a rock singer-songwriter who is the odd man out in his family. Leo plays a friend of the family in an after-church Sunday-lunch scene. O'Nan said, "she wanted to know everything about this woman and about this group of friends, including how often they got together. Was it a weekly thing? A monthly thing?"
To judge from their work on "The Dry Land," that effort pays off. In a few minutes of screen time, Leo and O'Nan create a strong, poignant relationship between a physically ailing mother and an emotionally ailing son. They wish they could be each other's caretakers, but they can't.
Baltimore native Jason Berman, a producer on "The Dry Land" and "Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best," also produced and helped cast Leo in the inspirational golf movie, "Seven Days in Utopia." There she played the manager of the Lost Maples Cafe in Utopia, Texas, and the best friend to co-star Robert Duvall. Berman said, "My take is that she will only do the film with a smaller role if there's something there that makes her excited and she feels she can add something to the role. That's the kind of quality actor she is. She'll only do something when she knows it's going to add to the picture."
Or sometimes, she'll do it for the challenge. Leo said that on "Conviction," she was happy to be the villain. But she was also determined to stay true to her tenet that "there are no evil people in the world. Even good people do bad things and nine times out of 10 it's because they've been hurt themselves. To get that job done, I can't just embody the shell of a woman. I have to find the truth in her."