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This image released by Showtime shows Melissa Leo as Goldie in the new series, "I'm Dying Up Here,"  about a circa-1970s L.A. comedy club.
 (Justina Mintz/Showtime via AP)
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Melissa Leo: seriously great in a drama about scoring laughs

This image released by Showtime shows Melissa Leo as Goldie in the new series, "I'm Dying Up Here," about a circa-1970s L.A. comedy club. (Justina Mintz/Showtime via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Dying is easy. Playing the owner of a circa-1970s L.A. comedy club — THAT’S hard.

“But when I say that it was hard and that it was a reach for me, I mean: Those are the things that interested me as an actor,” says Melissa Leo, who stars as Goldie, the tough-love gatekeeper to fame and fortune for a rising wave of standup comics on “I’m Dying Up Here,” which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT on Showtime.

The 10-episode season dwells on a swarm of young comedians (played by Ari Graynor, Michael Angarano, Clark Duke and Al Madrigal, among others) whose pilgrimage to stardom — a career-launching spot on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” then a sweet TV or movie deal — has first led them to Goldie. But dying is easy. Landing 15 minutes on Goldie’s stage is hard. Goldie is no pushover.

“So much storytelling asks women to be somebody’s something — somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife, somebody’s sidekick. Goldie is not like that,” Leo says with satisfaction. “She is allowed to be her own character. She is a CHARACTER!” As in: odd, eccentric or noteworthy person. “And I like playing CHARACTERS.”

Through a three-decade-long career, Leo, 56, has declared independence and wholeness for her characters in such films as “Frozen River,” ”21 Grams” and “The Fighter” (for which she won the best supporting actress Oscar), and on TV projects including “All the Way” (playing Lady Bird Johnson to Bryan Cranston’s Lyndon Johnson), “Mildred Pierce,” ”Treme” and, in the role that first brought her attention, as Detective Kay Howard on the groundbreaking NBC cop drama, “Homicide: Life on the Streets” in the 1990s.

Over breakfast on a recent rainy morning at a boutique hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — that once-scruffy neighborhood where Leo spent her formative years — she is clad in the casual attire of her current upstate New York habitat: jeans, flannel shirt and, on her head of cascading red tresses, a knit cap.

And no makeup.

“I don’t wear it in my life. God forbid I meet someone and then wake up in the –” she cringes and laughs at the idea of her partner’s morning-after disillusionment.

Both on and off the screen, she seems free of vanity.

In contrast, “Goldie is a lady,” says Leo, leaning hard on that word. “She knows how to use her feminine qualities, her sexuality, to get what she wants. That was not something I was brought up with. To play Goldie, with her makeup and bleached-blond hair, I had to act like a girl, and that was, oddly, the reach for me.”

Dave Flebotte, the series’ creator and an executive producer, says Leo’s reach was unequivocal.

“There’s a no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip, I’m-the-devil-you-know kind of attitude with Goldie that Melissa embraced, and then really embodied and took off with,” Flebotte says by phone from Los Angeles. “There was so much stuff we didn’t have to do with exposition because Melissa plays it. She can do something with a look that might have saved two lines of dialogue.”

From early childhood, Leo felt the need to embody other people. As a tot, she helped make puppets for a Greenwich Village experimental theater, then began appearing in its plays. She says she recognized her calling even before she knew what to call it.

“I’m a very uncomfortable human being who’s learned to socialize, to a degree, mostly through my work,” she says. “My interest in my own image, my own self, has always been about creating other characters.”

No wonder she identifies with the compulsions dramatized on “I’m Dying Up Here.”

“Everybody has known a class clown or someone acting crazy at the office. And it isn’t hard to see they do it because there’s so much pain inside, they feel compelled to do something for attention, to get a response. The standup comic gets onstage with all that great pain and shares the depth of it, and the audience sees themselves reflected and laughs. But you don’t get that laugh from them unless you’re sharing the worst part of you in the funniest ways.”

Tapping into that unfunny side for laughs is a large part of what her series is about. Another component is what Goldie represents: a reality check on performers who aren’t ready yet, no matter how much they crave the next level and think they’ve earned it. If they aren’t ready, Goldie does them a favor by telling them no, Leo says.

“This afternoon, I’m going to meet with a director,” she says by way of explanation. “I came within a hair’s-breadth of playing a lead in her very successful film back in the ’80s. But SHE is not who stood in my way by not giving me that role. Now, I’m meeting with her again.

“I’m using what I’ve learned through the years to play Goldie: my knowledge that the only person who can get in your way is yourself.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org.

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