Leo returns to Baltimore and spotlight

December 26, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Melissa Leo likes being back.

She likes being back in Baltimore, the place she called home for much of her five-year run on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street and where she recently was the guest of honor at a benefit for the Screen Actors Guild.

"I am a little bit home again," she says, later adding, "It was the city of Baltimore that took me in."

Still, even more, she likes being back in the public eye. Acting-wise, things have been fairly quiet since she left the cast of Homicide six years ago; parts have been scarce and her visibility has been pretty much nil. But director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 21 Grams, in which she co-stars as the steel-willed wife of an ill-fated ex-con, is putting her back on Hollywood's radar screens.

"This is practically like the first film I've ever done," Leo says with a smile and almost imperceptible shake of her head. "Most of my film work [13 films since 1984, according to the Internet Movie Database] has never seen the light of day. Even if it gets released, it's one week in the theaters."

If nothing else, 21 Grams should hang around the multiplex a little longer than that. It was to talk about her role in the film that brought her to the Charles Theatre for last week's Q&A, and it was to talk about her recent good fortune that she sat down beforehand at the Belvedere Square food market with a reporter.

Her performance is garnering raves (Rolling Stone's Peter Travers labeled it "staggering"); at least one critic already is predicting a supporting actor Oscar nomination. And Leo, a New York native who's been a professional actor for more than two decades, is basking in both the acclaim and the spotlight.

"Breaking into the Hollywood film industry has eluded me for 20 years," she says.

Baltimoreans may be surprised to hear that. Certainly, her five-season stint as Sgt. Kay Howard, for a time the only woman in the otherwise all-boys club that was Homicide, made her a favorite around here. Always trying to fit in with the guys, eschewing makeup and dresses for less attention-grabbing business suits, yet determinedly trusting her own instincts, the character had a lot of women identifying with her.

David Simon, author of the book on which Homicide was based - and a writer and story editor on the show during Leo's stint - praised her work. "I was sad when the character wasn't brought back," Simon says. "She made that character very credible."

In fact, Leo says she and Homicide parted ways over efforts to turn Howard into a more conventional female TV detective, complete with heels and tight sweaters.

"The break with me and them came when they wanted me to pose with this boyfriend she had had for a prom photo, that would look like it was shot when they were kids. And I said, `I'm not posing for a prom photo. Kay Howard didn't go to the prom. Me, her and hundreds of thousands of other women who didn't go to the prom ... can we tell that story?' And they wouldn't go there. I sort of went downhill from there."

Then, the disappearing act started. "I couldn't get hired anymore," she says. "Some of it might have to do with my age, some of it might have to do with ... movie stars that never would have done television are now getting the work I would have done on television."

Homicide also left Leo with what she insists is an undeserved reputation for being difficult. And then there was the classic actor's dilemma of being too closely associated with a certain role.

"I loved Kay Howard, I adored her," Leo says, "the way she was so much not me, so much. Yet everybody assumed that character was me, maybe because I went without makeup, so the character looks so much like I do."

She may have a point. Sitting here all made up and tastefully glamorous, appearing considerably younger than her 43 years, she looks nothing like the dour, frumpy Howard (which may explain why not a single person recognizes her). And she smiles frequently, and sincerely; the few times Kay Howard broke into a smile, it seemed like the most unnatural act she could imagine.

Still, the natural look seems to agree with her; she adopts it again in 21 Grams as Marianne, the wife of Jack Jordan, Benicio Del Toro's hard-luck, emotionally conflicted ex-con. While struggling mightily to make his life right, Jack can't get a break; when his continuing bad luck threatens to break up their family, Leo's character grabs control of their lives, at great moral cost to them both.

Leo, who says she wasn't Inarritu's first choice for the role of Marianne, had to fight for her role in the film, to the point where she even had to put together a sort-of audition tape, in which she talked to the camera about herself, her career. "He asked if I would do a videotape of myself, nothing to do with the script, nothing to do with the character, just a videotape of myself," she says. "I gave him soup to nuts, about my personal life, my work life, the ups, the downs. I put it all on tape and sent it out."

True, the audition process was a little unusual, but Leo sensed it would be worth it. "I had been given this amazing script, and the very fine advice to see Amores Perros (Inarritu's first film). Here is someone who wants what I do ... I'm a character actress, and have been since I was a 20-year-old actress starting out. Character is what I'm interested in doing, becoming someone, becoming someone else.

"I saw [Marianne] so clearly," Leo adds. "I understood her. I had no questions about, `Why would she do that? Why would she make that choice?' I got it."

That she did, and Melissa Leo's back in the game.

"I recognize," she says, "that it's up to me to play my cards right, now that I've got this nice hand. I'm trying to do that. I'm trying to have my eyes open and make the right choice and make it clear that there's lots of things I'm willing to do."

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