Melissa Leo is driven to be herself The former 'Homicide' actress brings intelligence and instinct to her starring role in 'How I Learned to Drive' at Center Stage.; Theater

Melissa Leo was always convinced that her "Homicide" character, Kay Howard, was not supposed to be your stock excuse for sexual tension in a male-dominated cop show.

"There are very few female homicide detectives. There are some, and they are very particular women. They are bright women," says Leo, 37. "They are deeply involved in their work. They are not vain women. They are not concerned about what the fellas think."


And neither, apparently, is Leo.

The makeup-free, no-nonsense actress, currently starring in Center Stage's production of "How I Learned to Drive," played Howard as a no-nonsense, makeup-free woman during her four years on "Homicide."


Leo said she was often at odds with the "Homicide" writers. But despite their efforts to paint Kay into more of a standard female-character corner, Leo stuck to her vision of how Kay should be portrayed.

She and Kay were both trapped in a boys' club, Leo says, Kay's being the fictional homicide unit, Leo's being the real "Homicide" set. Leo was fired at the end of last season.

"They won't give me a reason," she says. "I won't ever know what the truth is. ... I staunchly maintained the original premise, and they thought that I was being difficult." NBC representatives wouldn't comment on Leo's firing.

Leo says she has always fought to do it her way, from acting to art assignments.

She was kicked out of the eighth grade for telling off an art teacher who insisted she follow a project exactly as it was mandated in the lesson plan, instead of how it felt right for Leo.

"That was me, angry young girl," Leo cracks.

The actress also has had struggles in the recent past. Not only was there the "Homicide" situation, but she also faced a highly publicized and painful custody dispute with her former boyfriend, actor John Heard, over their 10-year-old son, Jack.

However, Leo didn't have to struggle to land the part of Li'l Bit, which finds the actress back in Baltimore.


It was in New York about a year ago that Leo received a call asking her to discuss Center Stage's coming production of "How I Learned to Drive" over lunch with Center Stage's artistic director, Irene Lewis, director Barry Edelstein and playwright Paula Vogel.

Leo asked what she would be expected to read for them. Nothing, they replied. They just wanted to talk. A week after the lunch, they called with an offer.

"Now I feel like the part is mine, but coming into it, it was a little nerve-racking," she says. "We win our parts. I hadn't won the part, so I kind of came down wondering about that."

In conversation, Leo's dialect and inflection sweep from master Thespian to high school confidante to Southern belle, depending on the topic. Her wild red hair, clear, ruddy complexion and rich green eyes blend well with her casual cream pants, flowered cream shirt and stylish green gardening clogs.

She grew up in New York City and Vermont; her parents divorced when she was 9. She got a high school equivalency diploma and attended theater school at State University of New York at Purchase. She lives in upstate New York with Jack and her boyfriend of five years, ski instructor Biff Russell.

Leo's intelligence seems to mix instinct and spirituality - "non-book smart," is how she describes herself. She shows a hardened, mature side while talking about "Homicide," then smoothly transforms into a gushing, vibrant admirer while discussing Jack and Vogel.


"She's [Vogel] just delightful, warm. She's like what all of us should hope to be. She's got this great, big, enormous open heart," says Leo, "We kept on hearing she would come down. And then, gosh darnit, she won the Pulitzer, so that just totally tied her up. That was great news to hear."

Leo gives the impression that she's a survivor. It's a quality that director Barry Edelstein picked up on, seeing it as a perfect foundation for the delicate, disturbing role of Li'l Bit, who needs to tap into her inner strength after being sexually abused.

A member of a dysfunctional family with a positively pubescent fixation on sex, Li'l Bit is drawn to Uncle Peck, the only member of her family who is interested in her. A little too interested.

"She's [Leo's] able to make the funny stuff funny and yet have that weight and that darkness about her at all times," Edelstein says. And, as a "Homicide" veteran, Leo was also a Baltimore celebrity whose work Edelstein had admired for years. "She carries all that complexity with her every moment of the play. She really looks like a woman who experienced this traumatic thing and through sheer brainpower and through sheer force of emotional will, managed to survive."

He added that Leo had even been considered to fill the role in the recently closed New York production. Mary Louise Parker originated the role, also played by other actresses including Molly Ringwald and stage veteran Jayne Atkinson.

"With Melissa, the play's the thing. That's how she approaches her work, and how I like to approach my work, too," says Dennis Parlato, who plays Uncle Peck. "It's not about 'I'm such and such an actor, and I have to have what I need, and I don't care about your problems.' "


To prepare for the role of Li'l Bit, Leo, who hadn't seen the play before, relied more on instinct than research. She says she can't start getting into her character until she meets the director and other actors and begins the process.

"It sounds awfully lazy. But I know I kept on having this intention do preparation work and I didn't," she says. "On the other hand, maybe all my life is a preparation to do it."

She knew the controversial subject matter would make this role difficult, but she trusts herself and Vogel enough not to worry about it.

"There was nothing to make me anxious," says Leo, who doesn't have an acting job lined up after the play's run. "The way that Paula wrote it, she is conscious of protecting both the audience and the actors in it. It's a play not about being victimized, but about surviving."

Pub Date: 5/24/98