It has taken Melissa Leo 20 years to stand up for herself as an actor. That doesn't mean she hasn't landed good parts or steady work. She has supported herself and her 16-year-old son as an actor for two decades, appearing as the popular character Det. Sgt. Kay Howard on Homicide: Life on the Streets from 1993-97; starring briefly in her youth on All My Children (for which she was nominated for a Daytime Emmy); working on three Henry Jaglom films, including Last Summer in the Hamptons, and performing in numerous East Coast stage productions.
But wider success and industry recognition largely escaped Leo until now, particularly when it came to acting in major motion pictures. Leo's standing in Hollywood is likely about to change with her supporting role in Focus Feature's 21 Grams, in which she plays Benicio Del Toro's loyal suffering wife, Marianne. The film, directed by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga, the team that made the landmark Mexican film Amores Perros, has "Oscar" written all over it, particularly with respect to the performances, including those by Del Toro, Sean Penn, and Naomi Watts, and Leo is part of that buzz.
"I can feel this buzz in the air, and I just hope I play my cards right for the next little while," said Leo, who was born, raised, and has always lived in New York. "I have my eyes and ears open in a way I never have before, and I am very interested in how one now parlays this. We'll see."
Leo knows that, in addition to having a little luck thrown her way, it's up to her to find and win the next parts that are going to showcase her talents. Taking a proactive role in securing jobs has, before now, never been her strong suit. She knows better now. When auditioning for her 21 Grams role, Leo tried something new. She got aggressive in her campaign to win the part.
In the initial casting stage for 21 Grams, Leo was asked to put herself on tape for Iñárritu, who was, at that time, more interested in seeing what qualities Leo had as a person than as a performer. As Iñárritu has explained in interviews, he is most interested in actors who can bring as much of themselves as possible to the work. So Leo was asked by casting director Francine Maisler to talk about herself on-camera. "So I did, sort of soup to nuts—talking about myself, my life, my work, my ups and downs," shared the actor. "Apparently it was the downs that got him, I heard. And there was a lot of interest, but the interest didn't go any further, and, well, I'm used to that."
As it turned out, Katrin Cartlidge (Breaking the Waves) won the part of Marianne, but Cartlidge died soon after from complications of pneumonia at age of 41. Leo was reconsidered for the part and asked to perform some scenes by herself on tape to show Iñárritu. Leo then tried something she had never done. She said No.
"I knew when I read this script in my bathtub at home that this was historical," remembered the actor. "So I said, 'I'm not going to sit alone in a room and put these miraculous, amazing scenes on tape in a vacuum. Send me somebody, the casting director, the director. Somebody has to be there and guide me. It's too important.' "
Iñárritu respected Leo's request and sent Maisler from Los Angeles to New York to meet with the actor. Said Leo, "Francine just took me under her wing and said, 'Come on. This is the way we're going to get this for you,' and really coached me through the audition tape I did. And there was more interest but it still wasn't clicking. So I did something else I've never done before. I said, 'I'm going to California. Will Alejandro see me? I'll fly myself out there, but I want to be in a room with that man.' And I got an appointment and I read with Benicio and Alejandro, and a few days later I got the part."
Leo isn't exactly sure what made her take charge of the situation, but one thing she thinks helped her was watching so many successful women appear on Inside the Actors Studio and tell their stories of success. "I love to watch and listen to actors doing interviews and answering questions truthfully, and I had seen several women my age [on the Bravo show] say that the way that they really got where they wanted to go was by being proactive," said Leo, a longtime member of the Actors Studio. "It's a hard thing to lay out there to actors, because where do you go and be proactive? Not that long ago I was in that same boat, but somehow you see the door that invites you to come through it and you take that opportunity. It's hard to get the courage to do that, but it feels much better when you do."
Once Leo got cast in 21 Grams, the hard part was over. "I remember how easy it was to be on the set and to do the work—that hard, emotional, gut-wrenching work was so easy to do. It was easy because I've been doing it for 20 years and because I've done television shows where you're making 48 minutes in seven days and you've just got to churn it out. It was a great training ground." BSW