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Melissa Leo, Oscar nominee and 'Nana'

The 'Frozen River' star is also a friend and 'mother goose' to a procession of artists who have taken a room at her place.

February 18, 2009|Gina Piccalo

Of the five lead actress Academy Award nominees, Melissa Leo is probably the most bohemian, the least likely to live in a luxury hotel or employ a personal assistant or spend weeks worrying over her Oscar gown. Leo tidies her own house, cooks her own dinners and spends so much time caring for the young artists who routinely crash at her modest A-frame near Culver City that they all call her "Nana." She is a self-described "workaday actor" and a totally different species from the marquee names with whom she shares this year's nomination.

After 25 years of steady work but relative obscurity, Leo's role as the desperate but determined single mom Ray Eddy in the bleak indie drama "Frozen River" has finally landed her on top. On a recent wet Friday morning, Leo, 48, settled into her snug living room to marvel over her later-in-life career coup. But her distinct environs nearly upstaged the actress.

When she's not at her home near Woodstock, N.Y., Leo lives part time on a dead-end street just a couple of blocks from the Santa Monica Freeway. Inside, the small rooms are crowded with furniture, and every nook features a photo or odd piece of memorabilia that merits closer study. This is a house where guests are expected to linger.

There'd been a short reprieve from the showers pummeling Los Angeles, and Leo had made a pot of coffee. She'd set out some biscuits and, under a delicate little crystal dome, three scoops of raspberry butter. She carried her Natural American Spirit cigarettes and folded herself into a giant black-and-white chair.

Leo had decorated the house herself with careful attention to energy flow, she said. Rainbow curtains draped the windows. An oversized zebra-print ottoman announced itself from the center of the room. A giant antique door from New Orleans sat in the corner, a gift from director Jake Scott off the set of their upcoming drama, "Welcome to the Rileys." On the piano against one wall, two album covers perched on the keys -- Janis Joplin and Judy Collins.

"Everything you see in this house was given, loaned or gotten used," Leo said.

Then she quickly added, "Except for the awards."

She pointed to her fireplace mantel, busy with the icons of film festivals and critics associations. All of them recognized "Frozen River," which stars Leo as an impoverished single mother so desperate to buy her family a double-wide trailer that she starts shuttling illegal immigrants over the Canadian border in her car trunk.

"That one," said Leo, singling out a sculpture from the American Indian Film Festival, "is Misty's."

Misty Upham was Leo's young costar in "Frozen River" and is the latest in a menagerie of musicians, filmmakers and actors renting a room in her house. Upham moved in last summer and credits Leo with launching her into adulthood.

"It was the first time I was on my own," said Upham, 26, during a break from her job serving coffee and folding laundry at a Culver City cafe/laundromat. Upham started acting in Native American theater in Seattle in her teens and was just 18 when she first met Leo. But acting wasn't her first love. She'd always planned to become a nun. Shooting "Frozen River" persuaded her to move to Los Angeles and start auditioning.

When she first arrived, Upham said, she "didn't know how to write a check, I didn't know how to do a lot of things. [Melissa] really helped me and showed me how to take care of myself and set up an independent life. . . . She is very much a mother goose."

Leo's also a worker, a dedicated doer who gets irritable when she isn't consumed with a role. During her early years in New York City, she auditioned tirelessly. One casting director recalled seeing Leo at every call, sometimes counting pennies for subway fare.

In the mid-1980s, she earned an Emmy nomination for her role on "All My Children." But for the next 10 years, Leo was mostly under the radar in small films and TV guest roles. She costarred in the 1988 war drama "A Time of Destiny" with William Hurt and Timothy Hutton. A year later, she appeared with Josh Brolin and Stephen Baldwin in ABC's short-lived Civil War drama "The Young Riders." By 1993, Leo was costarring as a detective in NBC's Emmy-winning "Homicide: Life on the Street."

After that show ended in 1997, Leo worked steadily, but several years passed before another big break. In 2003, Leo earned accolades for her small role as the struggling wife of Benicio del Toro's drug addict in "21 Grams." But it was Del Toro and costar Naomi Watts who earned the Oscar nods.

"It's not like she's somehow not as good," said "Frozen River" writer and director Courtney Hunt, who cast Leo in her film after seeing her performance in "21 Grams." "It's just the way things play out. Some people get to one place and some people get to another."

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