Melissa Leo is one of those character performers who has been in so many things, it seems as if she's always been with us.
But despite a busy career onstage, the 50-year-old New York native really broke into the big time with her work on the 1990s TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street," then solidified her reputation as a top talent with her critically acclaimed performance in the 2008 film "Frozen River."
Now, she's visible all over the place: as a hard-boiled cop in the recent film "Conviction"; a crusading lawyer in the HBO series "Treme"; and a traumatized mom in "Welcome to the Rileys," which opens Nov. 5. Lewis Beale interviewed her during a publicity tour for her latest film.
Your character in "Welcome to the Rileys" is a mother so traumatized by the accidental death of her daughter that she hasn't left her house in years. What attracted you to the part?
It seemed plausible that that would be the woman's response to the feelings she had. I don't want to imagine that occurring to my one and only son. I have friends who have lost children, and there is a devastation that is unspeakable. I didn't question it; I believed it.
You've been shooting a lot in New Orleans lately. "Welcome to the Rileys" was filmed there, and so is "Treme," in which you have a recurring role. What do you think of the city these days?
I went to shoot "Welcome to the Rileys" never having been to New Orleans before, and I didn't get to know the town at all. And then a month and a half later, I got a call from David Simon to ask if I would do the pilot. And I wanted to get to know the town, because in "Treme" we see all sides of New Orleans. I found that anywhere you go, you get two different kinds of folks - those waiting for others to take care of them, and those who take care of themselves, and it is the latter who have saved New Orleans. New Orleans is back, and to be there when the Saints won the Super Bowl was an extraordinary experience. And I witnessed my first Mardi Gras shortly thereafter, and it was nothing compared to the Saints parade.
Your dad was a book editor and your mom a teacher. How did you get into acting?
We were fairly bohemian. My dad worked as a book editor for most of my young years. There were a lot of interesting people in and out of our house. There was a sense of freedom, and I was brought up with that. And around 1963, my mom took me to the Public Theater, where they were doing puppet theater, and it was really fun, and that was me walking into acting. I got into it not from external sources, like TV or films; it was an internal source knowing what it is to pretend, better than I know what it is to be.
How did "Frozen River," which earned you an Oscar nomination for best actress, change your career?
It's been a beautiful growth and transition on the heels of that. I feel most comfortable with it because it's not completely different from what it was before the nomination. There wasn't a rush of people sending me leading-lady scripts, but slowly and surely work has become more and more, and I get paid a little more.
What kinds of parts do you get offered these days?
"Conviction" just got released, and I play the black hat in that. Lois Riley, in "Welcome to the Rileys," and Dec. 10th, "The Fighter" will open, and I play the mother of Christian Bale and seven daughters. They are three very different women, and that's what's just coming out right now.
Your father, Arnold, was the longtime secretary of the East Hampton Baymen's Association, and was very involved in highly publicized protests around restrictions on striped bass fishing. You spent your summers in the Hamptons. Any memories?
East Hampton is one of my homes. My dad's cottage in the East End is the closest thing I have to a childhood home. From the time I was three, I've gone out there during the summer. It remains one of my most favorite places on Earth. I can still call East Hampton my home; I know where the rocks and shells are hidden.