Melissa Leo, ‘Frozen River’

Decades of hard work in TV, film paying off

When an actress signs on to do a film called “Frozen River,” it isn’t exactly a shock when the working conditions require more than shorts and T-shirts. In this case, it was much more.

Pic stars Melissa Leo as a mother of two young sons living in upstate New York who becomes so desperate for money that she gets involved in transporting illegal aliens across the border from Canada into the United States through an Indian reservation. Much of the journey takes place across an ice-covered river, so that should offer a clue as to the layers of clothing required during filming.

“The weather held a big part of what the film was,” says Leo, who might be best known to audiences for her turn as Det. Kay Howard on the NBC series “Homicide: Life on the Streets” during the 1990s.

“We waited until the ice was frozen thick enough to drive on,” she recalls. “Then we had about nine days of pre-production.”

Leo is no stranger to ice. She was born in Manhattan, attended the State U. of New York at Purchase, and has lived in various places in the Northeast. “I’m a New England girl,” she explains. “I lived in Vermont with a ski instructor.”

In “Frozen River,” most of the time Leo’s character of Ray Eddy is either inside a car with her Native American companion Lila (Misty Upham), driving back and forth from Canada to the U.S. across solid ice, or she’s inside a run-down trailer home.

“I must say our crew suffered greatly, as did (writer-director) Courtney (Hunt) and our d.p., Reed (Morano),” she says. “I had prepared very arduously to take care of myself and not let myself get ill from the chill. We didn’t sit in trailers, we sat in a Dodge Spirit. They had holding areas nearby, basically a garage.

“I don’t mind hard work, not it in the least. I kept very warm the entire time and was ready.”

Warm also describes the reception the film has gotten since it hit the indie festival circuit. The pic, Hunt and Leo have all been honored several times, including snagging the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year.

“I can’t begin to express the feeling of having the performance recognized,” she says. “You just don’t read roles like that very often.”

Coming attractions

Leo has a full plate of projects ahead, including “Everybody’s Fine,” with Robert De Niro and Kate Beckinsale, and “Welcome to the Rileys,” with James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart.

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