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October 14, 2015

Melissa Leo Talks 'Treme,' New Orleans and 'Mildred Pierce'

by Kelly Woo, posted Apr 9th 2010 5:30PM
Melissa LeoIt can't be easy to be part of the follow-up to what many consider the best show on television ever.

Oscar-nominated actress Melissa Leo could avoid the comparisons, though, since she didn't start watching 'The Wire' until she joined David Simon's new HBO show, 'Treme' (premiering Sun., 10PM ET).

'Treme,' much like 'The Wire,' is the story of a city -- New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. But unlike 'The Wire,' Simon's new show doesn't focus on the failure of institutions; 'Treme' is the story of characters, many of them musicians, struggling to rebuild their lives. Leo plays attorney Toni Bernette, who is tracking down a missing man, while her professor husband Creighton (John Goodman) rails about the government to anyone who'll listen. The cast also includes 'Wire' veterans Wendall Pierce and Clarke Peters, as well as 'Deadwood' star Kim Dickens, 'CSI: Miami' alum Khandi Alexander and Steve Zahn.

Leo spoke to AOL TV by phone from New Orleans about the great expectations, her bursting movie schedule and the passing of producer David Mills.

How did you get involved with the show?
I was lucky enough to receive a phone call from David Simon -- I think they might have even begun shooting the pilot -- "Would I like to come down and join them?" and he sent me a few proposed pages. I had worked with David way back long ago on NBC's 'Homicide.' David's book had been the inception of that show and so we had met and worked a bit together. I had done a little of his writing and was very interested in going back into TV. It's a powerful tool so I was delighted to get the phone call and the job turned out to be even better than my wildest dreams.

Why were you so interested in going back into TV?
The power of television -- it's so present in our lives, we don't even know how powerful it is. After the pride with which I brought 'Frozen River' out to the U.S. and to the world, [I wanted to do] a project that wasn't only fun to do but had a great story and maybe even said something, [use] my work to reach people. Television reaches.

What drew you to this character?
Wow. Well, really it was just the chance to play a woman crafted by David Simon and his fine team of writers. I didn't really know much about her. They keep things very hush-hush ... But as I get to know her, which is not unlike the way the public will get to know her very soon, which is just script by script, I think she's a wonderful human being ... The lawyer of my age would have been in law school at a time where you could make money being an attorney or you could go work for people. And I think that Toni Bernette is one of those people who stayed on course with her intention from her youth to help people.

Seems like she's going to be pain in the ass to some people, like the police!
Well, there! You've described an attorney!

The WireSince this is a show by David Simon, the comparisons to 'The Wire' are inevitable. How do you think the two shows relate?
I won't make any comparison. I think that that's a dangerous thing for our show because although the writing is of the high caliber that 'The Wire' was, the stories are so different. It wasn't even until I was here working with everybody that I even got familiar with 'The Wire myself,' which is well worth your time ...

How hard was David Mills' death for everyone involved with 'Treme'?
I thank everyone for recognizing the importance of the loss of Mills to our company and I appreciate the warm wishes I've received from people I know and don't even know. It is hard for us. He was an integral part of the show. He was a lovely and complex man we were just beginning to get to know really. It is a sad loss. But in his name if only, we will sally forth and try to make it even more better.

How is it working with this cast and crew?
First of all, working with this company which is basically Nina and David Simon and, bless his soul, David Mills and Eric Overmeyer and that core group, who are my bosses, is just an incredible joy. We're doing quality material ... These six months in New Orleans have been important and a pleasure. John Goodman TremeThe people I'm working with and for -- the crew, both local and from up and down the East Coast and across the country -- are just awesome people. Their feeling that they're shooting something important, that what they're shooting matters is very prevalent on the set.

John [Goodman], boy, I'm a lucky girl. I could go on and on about working with John and watching him create this role and live in it over the past six months. It's just my pleasure to be part of that. He is an awesome man and an amazing actor.

Is there anything you hope to learn about Toni or any developments you want to see as the season moves along?
No, no. That's the thing about TV. I had the pleasure of playing a woman with more than one story in her life only a few times -- way in the beginning on a soap opera ['All My Children'] and then back on 'Homicide' -- and it's like life. As an actor, I say, "Oh man, I wish I knew what the end was because then I'd know how to play it," but you can kind of just approach it truthfully because we don't know what's around our next corner.

Have you been enjoying working in New Orleans?
I have been. It's a funny little town, a town all its own. Unique in the United States in every way. It's been very important to me to delight in the town because I think Toni does. The pride down here, exemplified when the Saints won the Super Bowl, that I have never experienced ... It's a very separated town in many obvious ways, but there is a collective-ness, a celebration in the streets here that I have never witnessed.

You've got a jam-packed year of movies coming up, including 'The Fighter,' about boxer Mickey Ward.
I still haven't seen that movie. The movie, while we're making it, is being made in David [O'Russell's] head, so we're there dancing as fast as we can and I just can't wait to see what we came out with. We were working with the actual people. The woman I was playing, Alice, the mother of the fighter Mickey Ward, and Mickey and [brother] Dick -- they're with us for the whole shooting. It was extraordinary to get to know them and the guys at the gym who had watched both Mickey and Dick grow up in the gym ... It was a hoot. It was quite something. Christian Bale blew my doors off.

Melissa Leo Kristen StewartAnd there's 'Welcome to the Rileys' with James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart, which was at Sundance. There's 'Betty Anne Waters,' with Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell. The list goes on and on.
Yeah, I like to keep busy. It's weird how things sort of unfold. Some things got together real quick and other things took their time, it's quite a fall coming up.

Plus, you have another HBO project coming up, 'Mildred Pierce,' with Kate Winslet. Are you done filming on that?
Only just beginning. I believe they just started shooting up in New York this week, but I will join them mid-month and risk a little schizophrenia (laughs) -- Lucy in the 1930s and then Toni in the 2000-whatevers over the next month. I'll actually be shooting both at the same time through the course of the month, then I'll more completely go up and join 'Mildred Pierce.' I met with Todd Haynes for the first time this weekend and its going to be a delightful job. The trepidation of, "Oh, am I going to be able to?" washed away in the five minutes of meeting him so he's a great guy and I'm really looking forward to that transition.

Shuttling between two characters does sound a bit crazy!
One time, several years ago, I was shooting 'Black Irish' up in Boston where I played an Irish Catholic mother, present day, who was sending her daughter off to the nunnery to have the baby she's gotten herself impregnated with. Then I would fly back down to New York and get on stage at the Vineyard Theatre and play a woman in a two-character play called 'The Argument," which was about my pregnancy with my boyfriend. He wanted the baby, I was having an abortion (laughs). So if I could make it through those few trips between New York and Boston, I'll make it this next month or so.

[Follow @kellyaoltv on Twitter]

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