Melissa Leo

Melissa Leo spent many weekends during the early part of this year staying in fancy hotel suites and accepting awards in ballrooms full of her fellow actors — no doubt the high point in her career.

Meanwhile, during the week, on the set of HBO's Treme, she slipped back into the skin of civil liberties lawyer Toni Bernette, a character no doubt at her lowest point following the post-Hurricane Katrina depression and eventual suicide of her husband, Creighton (John Goodman).

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"Going back to Toni grounded me," Leo told TVGuide.com at a recent release event for the show's Season 1 DVD release. "I don't really know anything about walking red carpets and talking to folks and selling movies. It was my saving grace to go shoot Treme."

Leo won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her supporting performance in The Fighter. She played Alice Ward, the tough-talking mother/manager who complicated the career of son Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) by insisting that she and Micky's crack-addicted half brother  Dicky (Christian Bale) be involved in his training. Although the movie ultimately reaches a feel-good ending, things remain dire in Treme's second season.

"The first year ... you are a survivor without a doubt," Leo says. "The energy of that first year is 'Can we do it? My God, we are doing it!' By the second year after Katrina, everyone in that city was exhausted. The people who had returned started to leave again because it was so hopeless and dark. That's where you will find us."

Check out photos of the Treme cast

Toni also faces the challenge of parenting a teenage daughter (India Ennega), who begins acting out as way of coping with her sadness and frustration about her father's death. Toni, however, chooses to keep busy taking on new clients. "She's still working her a-- off," Leo says with a laugh.

But Leo believes her character's work ethic is true of many New Orleans residents, both those trying to rebuild and those who need the distraction from the city's latest setback: last year's BP oil spill.

"There are still places that haven't even been looked at," she says. "So much so that the freaking oil, which is inches away from them, is not even taken into account. Those people can't even imagine it."

Treme airs Sundays at 10/9c on HBO. Season 1 is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.