|Taraji P. Henson|
She holds her own ... with critics like Time’s Richard Schickel, who observed, "There's nothing overtly heroic about her [Leo’s Ray Eddy] as she plods forward under her burden of her small-scale dreams. She's not cynical, but she's not expecting much, either ... You can see it in her eyes, in her wiry body's alertness to both danger and opportunity. The reserve in Leo's performance, the way it earns our sympathy without asking for it, is screen acting of the highest order."
You should know that ... navigating the problems of single parenthood and tricky relationships is something that Leo has dealt with in real life, as well.
In 1986, Leo began dating actor John Heard -- a versatile stage-trained actor. The relationship was volatile, and the couple broke up after three years. They had one son, John Jr., and Leo was given custody. A year later, Heard starred in his most recognizable role to date, ironically playing the unflappable, distracted father in Home Alone. Assuming the cliché is true: that with more money, comes more problems, perhaps Heard’s instant fame shifted the power dynamic between Leo and Heard.
In November 1991, Heard was arrested after defying a court order to leave his son alone, violating strict visitation rights and slapping the actress. He was charged with criminal contempt of court, custodial interference and assault. Three years later, Heard again was denied custody by New York judge who ruled he “lacked the temperament for parenting skills.”
According to the actress, Heard soon began stalking the boy. And in November 1996, Leo, along with her new ski-instructor boyfriend John Russell, filed stalking charges against Heard. Alarmed that he may try to kidnap their son, she told the police: "I fear for the safety of my son and my safety." She filed a complaint noting that Heard had been parking across the street from the boy’s private school and watching him through binoculars. The couple also accused Heard of peering into the windows of their house and leaving threatening messages on their answering machine. In another incident, Heard reportedly struck Russell three times in the chest and neck.
Heard surrendered to police on Nov. 19, and was released on bail. On March 21, 1997, he was convicted of telephone misuse and trespassing, but was acquitted of more serious charges of assault and harassment of Leo and Russell.
Fortunately for Leo, her career went more smoothly.
Born in New York and raised by a single mom in the U.S. and England — where she became infatuated with London’s West End theater disctrict -- Leo quit college school in search of acting work, eventually securing a role on the ABC soap All My Children, for which she won a Daytime Emmy nomination in 1985. She quickly developed into more of a character actress, stepping into the world of TV movies and guest spots.
In 1993 -- in the middle of her battles with Heard over John Jr. -- Leo became the lone female in NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street. She was a standout, playing a steely sergeant in a way few women were seen on TV -- without makeup, and sporting a tussled, red mane. She left the show in 1997; as she later put it, the push was on to salvage low ratings by bringing in newer, sexier faces: “The network needs … those tight sweaters on those girls. And if somebody had come to me at some point and said, ‘Melissa, would you stuff your bra and put a tight sweater on and do Kay?’ I would have said, ‘Oh, sure!’ But nobody ever came to me and said that. So … [Laughs.]”
Turns out, she didn’t need tight sweaters – or TV. In 2003, she gave a powerful performance opposite Benicio Del Toro as the fearless, unflappable wife of an hopeless addict in 21 Grams -- earning her a Best Supporting Actress nom from the L.A. Film Critics Association. Two years later she gained notice again in the Tommy Lee Jones-helmed The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in 2005.
In 2008, she graduated to the limelight, as the rough-riding, unapologetic Eddy. Owen Glieberman of Entertainment Weekly notes, "Leo's acting has a brittle severity and power. Every moment of her performance feels torn from experience."
She confesses … “I have handled a gun or two in my time. I had never shot at anything living. I don’t know if I’d have had the heart to do that. When I was 16 and 17, I shot a lot of guns. I was told a lot about by [the film’s] gun handlers that, “You have to use two hands on the kick. Blah, blah, blah.” [Incredulously] It was a .22! I know what a .22 feels like in my hand ... [it] has a little bit of kick to it, but you can certainly shoot a .22 with one hand. I think that information helped sell it [the scene]. There was no blank in the gun, so I had to perform the kick. I think it looked like a pretty real shot!”
She’s unstoppable … with over 10 films in various stages of production, including the America Ferrera-starrer, American Tragic; Gruff, with Hilary Duff and Ellen Burstyn; Don McKay, with Thomas Haden Church and Elisabeth Shue; Welcome to the Rileys, with Kristen Stewart and James Gandolfini; and Everybody's Fine, with Robert DeNiro and Kate Beckinsale. Reminiscing about their low-budget Frozen River shoot, Leo has said: “We changed [costumes] in garage offices and kind people's bedrooms, and all that kind of thing. It is a part of what makes Frozen River the quality of what it is, as a truly independent film. You're making things with duct tape and wire hangers. There's a lot of creativity that can come out of it.”