Road to Sundance: When 'Frozen River' broke the ice for Melissa Leo -- VIDEO

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Image Credit: Jory Sutton

Every Monday until the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, EW is celebrating a great success story from independent film’s most prestigious showcase. Last week, we revisited Lee Daniel’s Precious. Today, we look back at Frozen River, the 2008 movie that made Hollywood take notice of Melissa Leo.

Leo had been acting for more than 20 years when Frozen River came to Sundance, and most people knew her best for her five seasons as Detective Kay Howard on TV’s Homicide: Life on the Street. In 21 Grams, she’d proven she could act with anyone, but she wasn’t considered for many leading movie roles until Frozen River. In Courtney Hunt’s upstate–New York drama, Leo played a desperate but fierce mother whose lofty ambition of making the down-payment for a double-wide trailer-home leads her to pair up with Native American (Misty Upham) from the local reservation to smuggle people into the country from Canada.

Hunt had urged Leo to study The Searchers, Rio Grande, and Rio Bravo, and her character Ray evoked a modern-day John Wayne in dire circumstances. “We [play] women who have no one looking after us, [people] taking things from us” Leo told EW at Sundance.

In the video below from 2008, Hunt gives the best explanation of why Sundance remains special: “It’s the one place where you can safely bring your little baby film and have it get a good look from the industry,” she said. “There’s a certain sanctity to it, you know. It’s just about the movie… for this one moment.”

Click below to see the film’s women talk about their Sundance experience.

Frozen River was nominated for two Academy Awards — one for Leo and another for Hunt for Best Original Screenplay. Two years later, Leo would win the Oscar for her performance in The Fighter.

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