She's been a working actor for almost 30 years - having dropped out of Purchase College of the State University of New York to take a role on All My Children - but it's only in the last few years that Melissa Leo has become a brand name unto herself.
Indeed, when Kevin Smith approached her to act in Red State, which debuts this week at Sundance, "he told me thought that having me in the film would let people know that it's a serious project," Leo says, sounding amazed at the very thought.
Leo is an odds-on favorite to be among this year's Oscar nominees for best supporting actress, for her role in David O. Russell's The Fighter. And her win at the Golden Globes for the role makes her a serious contender to take the Oscar home.
A nomination would be her second in three years - after a best-actress nod for 2008's Frozen River. Between shooting those two films, she's acted in almost two dozen films - and played a starring role on the acclaimed HBO series, Treme, whose second season she's currently filming.
At the age of 50, Melissa Leo is obviously in her prime. But she couldn't quite see herself playing Alice Ward, her Fighter character, and says, in this telephone interview, that she had to be talked into taking the role by director David O. Russell.
Q: Is it true that you didn't think you were right for the role of Alice?
A: The first thing was the age issue. I said, "Don't you think I'm too young for this?" I thought I was too young to play Mark (Wahlberg) and Christian (Bale's) mother. David completely ignored my questions. He believed I was Alice. I went along with David's belief that I could do it. I wondered how I could find her inside of me. And meeting Alice Ward, I decided I do have her in me.
Q: What sort of obligation do you feel playing a real person who's still around?
A: It ends up being a beautiful obligation. The relationship Mark established with the family through many years and promises he'd made was strong. David didn't know what he'd find when he joined the project but he fell in love with the family. So it was an enormous responsibility. It's been a delightful experience to work so closely with them.