Melissa Leo's perfor- mance in "Frozen River" has been ri- veting audiences and critics since the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, winning the grand jury prize. As a woman driven to smuggle illegal immigrants over the Canadian border, Leo is a portrait of desperation; an early close-up reveals a world of troubles in her eyes. The film began as a short by writer-director Courtney Hunt in 2004, also starring Leo, and with Missy Upham in the role of her smuggling partner. Upham also reprised her role in the feature film.
A working actress for more than 25 years, Leo divides her time between Los Angeles and upstate New York. She is probably best known for her work as Kay Howard on "Homicide: Life on the Street" and as the long-suffering wife of Benicio Del Toro in the 2003 feature "21 Grams." Leo's schedule was already full when she got the word that she won one of the two best actress awards handed out at Spain's San Sebastian Film Festival earlier this fall.
A few frantic hours later, between packing and getting a ride to the airport from a housemate, Leo sat down in her modest Los Angeles home to talk about acting, awards and the heartbeats that lead from one to the other.
When did you find out you won the San Sebastian award?
Five-thirty this morning. Misty Upham's been staying here at the house. She came sleepily into the room and said, "Melissa, they gave you best actress." We were just in San Sebastian last week. The bag I just dragged upstairs to pack I only just dragged upstairs and unpacked yesterday.
Is Misty a roommate?
She's staying here. Her family is outside of L.A., a little far for commuting, and she's beginning to meet with people and have auditions for things here.
So you became friends on set?
It very rarely happens, but I really took her into my heart. She's a very, very talented young woman. I really feel almost an obligation and a great pleasure in helping people come along.
Is this your first lead?
No, it's not. What I've done probably the most of in the leading department is a three-hander kind of thing. I've done some leading on stage. It's just never caught. Nothing I've done has ever caught as this has.
What do you attribute that to?
Every single heartbeat since, now, more than 12 years ago, when Courtney thought, "That might be an interesting story." Every single heartbeat of every single person. We all knew it was a very special project from the time of the short [film]. I'd call Courtney and say, "We're making that movie one day, right?" But that it be this? My experience could not have allowed me to dream this up -- it takes a lot for something to hit. First and foremost, it had to work. And the film works; it's just a good film.
Did you ever dream of flying off to San Sebastian and dealing with all the awards talk?
[She lets out a kind of joyful holler.] Oooh, just tell them I threw my hands up in the air and I was suddenly at a loss for words at the prospect.
I'm not a girl that grew up dreaming of having a white dress and being in a fancy wedding, and I'm not an actor that grew up thinking I would walk a red carpet at such prestigious events as have been mentioned in many a review. I will wake up each morning as I have these last few months and see what the day holds, take it in with joy, every second of it, and use it for all it's worth, and go for the ride just as far as it goes. Whatever happens come later this year, I'll be acting till the day I die.