Melissa Leo, 43, is a true-grit gal. Best known as a tough detective on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Streets (and for her bitter breakup with actor John Heard, father of her son Jack, 16), she's getting Oscar buzz for her raw turn as the wife of an ex-con (Benicio del Toro) in the drama 21 Grams.
ON LIVING THE PART Auditioning for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, she videotaped reminiscences of her struggles with Heard, who was arrested in 1991 for assaulting her. "Life had gotten so difficult," she says of that period. "What helped me get the role wasn't all that'd been done to me—but that I survived it."
ON LOSING 21+ GRAMS Toning up to look leaner for the film, "I started an exercise program—yoga with weight training and running. If you're unhappy with something, you can do something about it. That's the key."
ON WARMING UP WITH THE HEARTTHROB "Benicio is a gentleman. Every once in a while it was chilly, and he'd invite me to sit in his truck and we'd chat."
ON SAVORING THE ACCLAIM "I'm over the moon—I'm embarrassed. I just hoped I'd get another job."