- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2008

It’s late July. Humidity and Melissa Leo‘s cigarette smoke hang in the air outside Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel. The actress is enjoying a rare break between the endless interviews and photo sessions that come with pre-release movie promotion - in this case for first-timer Courtney Hunt‘s “Frozen River,” a chilling drama about a Mohawk woman and a Caucasian woman, both mothers, who form a tenuous business partnership smuggling illegal immigrants across the northern border in order to survive financially.

Miss Leo’s D.C. visit comes on the penultimate day of the press tour - a day when we would expect her to be showing signs of wear, but is this 47-year-old actress frayed and frazzled? Not a chance.

After more than 20 years of stage, TV and cinematic roles - most notably in NBC’s “Homicide” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “21 Grams” - Miss Leo is finally getting her time in the spotlight. Her juicy role in “Frozen River” is the one that may finally earn her an Oscar nomination, if you believe the online twitters. So for the moment, the actress is somehow managing to keep the jet lag and exhaustion at bay.

Inside the hotel lobby, her director, Miss Hunt, seems even more electrified, her blue eyes beaming and blond curls bouncing. “It was really a privilege to get to do a press tour,” she says. “I don’t feel jaded at all about it. Maybe if we do another movie … but this is like, ‘Ooh! San Francisco! Boston!’”

Perhaps some of the director’s enthusiasm comes from a feeling of relief; the end of the journey she started more than a decade ago finally is in sight.

After she graduated from Columbia Film School in the mid-‘90s, several news reports gave Miss Hunt the idea to make a film about women smugglers on the Canadian border. For seven years, she trekked northward periodically, developing relationships, doing research and writing first a short, then a full-length feature.

Miss Hunt and Miss Leo met at a screening in Chatham, N.Y., where the director lives, and they began discussing the “Frozen River” projects. The more Miss Leo learned about Ray Eddy, the gritty blue-collar mother she would be playing, the more eager she grew.

Both women may have been fired up to begin shooting the feature film after successfully completing its shorter predecessor, but on the set in Plattsburgh, N.Y., things got a bit - er, make that alot - chillier.

“It was in the single digits most of the time,” Miss Hunt explains. “It would go up into the teens, and we’d get all excited; it would feel warm.”

Miss Leo sloughs off all the talk about the cold. “I had a very, very important job to do,” she says. Before the “Frozen” shoot, Miss Leo had been filming in South Africa “in a completely other clime.” The actress seems to live for this type of change in scenery. “There is [no role] I wouldn’t do,” she says. “I like to play people, whoever they are, whatever they are.”

To Miss Leo, “Frozen River” is already a success. It’s well-written; she gave it her all in the leading role; it won the Grand Jury Prize for drama at Sundance 2008; and she’s getting a whole lot of new attention because of her performance.

To Miss Hunt, the film’s success remains to be seen. She’s waiting until the box-office receipts are in to make the final call - but until then, she’s enjoying Miss Leo’s company on her very first press tour and, miraculously, not seeming to tire when asked for the umpteenth time how it’s going.

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