Perseverance pays off in Hollywood, even for those with established careers.
Take the case of Melissa Leo. Since a four-episode stint on “All My Children” in 1985 — for which she was nominated for a Daytime Emmy — she has been working ever since, including a regular role on the much-lauded NBC series “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
But she came across what she recognized as a special piece of material and, although it took about three uncertain years to go from script to screen, persisted until it became a praised indie with her name emblazoned upon it.
“I was at a screening of ’21 Grams’ (the 2003 drama that featured Leo along with Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro) when Courtney Hunt approached me and asked if I would look at her writing,” Leo recalled. “Less than a year later, we went to northern New York to shoot a short.”
The short eventually grew into “Frozen River,” Hunt’s debut feature that tells the riveting story of a mom with two kids struggling to make ends meet in upstate New York who eventually pairs with a local Native American woman (Misty Upham) to smuggle foreigners into the U.S. from Canada through a Mohawk reservation.
But before that happened, Leo kept a vigilant watch on the project from a distance while touching base with Hunt for status updates.
“I would call her pretty regularly over a three-year period,” Leo recalls. “She said that was the encouragement she needed to forge ahead.”
Eventually, Hunt raised the money for the feature, and she never wavered on which actress she wanted to play the lead.
“I will forever be in gratitude to her,” Leo says. “Other bigger names expressed interest, but Courtney figured I could play Ray Eddy the best.”
“Frozen River,” which won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, was eventually picked up by Sony Classics, further justifying Leo’s belief in it.
“It was of quality, and had merit and weight, and a lot of heart poured into it,” explains Leo, who has a handful of upcoming films in the can and is currently shooting “Don McKay” with Thomas Haden Church.
“We filmed it in arduous conditions, yet everyone (rose to the occasion). It was sweet filmmaking, and it was blessed.”
An actor should always: “Be prepared.”
Lucky break: “The day I was born.”
Favorite film character: “I don’t watch much film. I don’t relate to it in that way. I don’t know that I could name one. I have many favorites.”