An in-depth piece about new Tarantino star Jennifer Jason Leigh for the Sept 9 2015 issue of AnOther magazine.
There’s something about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s acting, an arresting combination of haunted and feral that has always attracted the greatest directors—Ron Howard, Robert Altman, the Coen brothers, Sam Mendes, Charlie Kaufman and most recently, Quentin Tarantino, who handpicked her to play the sole female lead in his upcoming post-Civil War western, The Hated Eight. She smiles, slightly incredulous, when talking about the film—the lead in a Tarantino movie, a career peak after nearly 35 years in the business? Who would have thought. “You almost can’t take it on board, it’s like too big, in a way,” she says. “It sounds so trite to say ‘dream come true’ but for an actor, it really is, and especially this time in my career.” The Hated Eight will introduce a new generation of filmgoers to Leigh’s unique ability to shape shift into the embodiment of pure ravaged emotion, conveying a mountain’s weight of darkness with one sideways glance. It’s a fact -- no one in Hollywood does ‘flawed’ quite like Jennifer Jason Leigh.
We meet at an English pub in Hollywood called the Pikey, a dimly lit, red leather booth kind of joint that serves gourmet fish n chips and Guinness. Wearing beige and cream layers and a little summer hat, she could not be more low key if she tried—it’s a running joke that she is one of the least recognized actresses in Hollywood, unless she’s being mistaken for her doppelganger, Ally Sheedy. Her ability to fly beneath the radar is surprising when you consider her work, so much of it iconic, and critically acclaimed. The tragically numb prostitute Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn; the waify, unfixable junkie Sadie in Georgia (she dropped to 89 lbs for that role), the sociopathic roommate in Single White Female , and the naïve virgin Stacie in 80s high school movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High are just some of her most memorable roles. Leigh’s characters are complex, broken women, maybe boozed up, sometimes strung out. The narrative thread is clear—Leigh’s girls are flawed but fierce, and the wily prisoner Daisy Domergue, her character in The Hateful Eight, fits perfectly into the mold.
The story behind the film is worth a film itself—Tarantino wrote the script in 2013, but when the script was leaked in January 2014, he decided not to make the film, but write it as a novel instead. In April 2014 he held a reading of the script at the Ace hotel in downtown LA, and it was so successful he decided he would indeed make it as a film. The part of Daisy was among the most coveted in Hollywood--Michelle Williams, Hilary Swank, Robin Wright and Demi Moore were reportedly chasing the part. It was announced that Leigh had won the starring role in October 2014, playing a tough prisoner who is wanted for murder and due to hang for her crimes. “Hateful Eight” is set in Wyoming following the Civil War. The story follows two bounty hunters, Daisy, and a local sheriff as they wait for a storm to pass in a small haberdashers’ shop with four men who, it’s possible, may be attempting to free the prisoner.
“There’s a certain innocence to Daisy because she is so animalistic in a certain way, relying on her instincts and her smarts,” says Leigh. “She’s very present and in the moment, because she’s chained and is being brought to be hanged, so she doesn’t known if she is going to be able to get out of this or not. It’s all life or death, so every moment for her she is so alive and so in the present because she’s got nothing to lose—that’s really exciting to play. I feel like in a certain way there’s a bit of that in Sadie Flood (Georgia) and Tralala (Last Exit). People who live on the fringes of society but have very deep loyalties and connections.”
The only female among a cast of heavyweight males—Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Channing Tatum, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins and Demian Bichir—her cast mates joked that she was the most hateful of the eight. “All the guys were kidding me that I was the scariest person in the room, that I was the most terrifying in a way. I do think that vulnerability combined with wildness in a woman can feel very dangerous.” In contrast to the roles she so often plays, Leigh does not consider herself wild, reckless or dangerous. In real life, she is quiet, an observer, someone who considers things before jumping in—“unemotional”, she says. “I’m so different to the roles I play, and perhaps that’s why they are appealing to me as an actor. But I would never want to inhabit my characters’ shoes in real life.”
Her ability to convey emotional responses she may never have actually had is based partly on raw talent and method acting, of course. But some of it she attributes to having watched her sister, Carrie, struggle with the drug addiction that brought her to the edge of disaster. Usually fiercely guarded about her private life, Leigh is open when it comes to discussing Carrie, who was a heroin addict for 13 years. Leigh was in her late teens when Carrie was first admitted to rehab, shortly after Fast Times, and by this point, already profoundly influenced by the sickness and dysfunction she had witnessed in her sister. “I think a lot of my personality was formed as a child by watching Carrie,” she says. “She had a lot of temper tantrums, which made me want to be the opposite. I didn’t want attention, I wanted to be the good girl, so I would go clean my room while she was causing havoc.” She never allowed herself to express anger or be explosive as a child, “but I could allow it through acting, in a very safe way where I wasn’t hurting anyone or causing damage.”
Leigh was born in Los Angeles, in 1962, into a Hollywood family—her mother is the screenwriter Barbara Turner (she penned the script to Georgia) and her father the late actor Vic Morrow. She was three years younger than Carrie. “I think she started using drugs when she was 13 years old, really young,” says Leigh. “I have memories of her smoking cigarettes at the age of six, actually. We lived on a dead end street and I remember her cutting her own hair and smoking cigarettes.”
Growing up with showbiz parents, being a Hollywood actress never felt like a far fetched dream for Leigh. After a few non-speaking roles and some TV movies (including one in which she played an anorexic teenager) she landed her first film role, playing a blind, deaf, and mute rape victim in the 1981 slasher pic, Eyes of a Stranger. After that, she quit school to focus on film full time. “I knew I wanted to act from a very young age, but it also seemed that’s what people did when you grow up in Hollywood. It’s the industry of this town so it didn’t seem like this far off and faraway dream, it seemed like that’s what people did when they grew up. Like if you worked at a railroad town you would work at the railroad. It felt very natural for me.”
Leigh has a tough time remembering dates, specifics about her past, and can remember feelings much more easily. It’s hard to imagine what 1982 must have felt like for her, a year marked by public success and private tragedy. 1982 was the year Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out, based on Cameron Crowe’s undercover infiltration of high school politics. It featured the debut performance of Nicholas Cage, and the late, great film critic Roger Ebert singled out Leigh. "Don't they know they have a star on their hands?" he wrote. It was only her second film role, and people still come up to her in the street, quoting lines from the movie that she can’t even remember saying. “I think Cameron Crowe wrote a great script and Amy did a great job casting and directing it, so that it ended up really capturing a time and specific time. It is strangely real. And very simple.” She gained a best friend on that shoot, her co-star Phoebe Cates. “Phoebe and I still talk all the time. We talk about everything.”
1982 was also the year her father Vic Morrow died, under the strangest and most tragic circumstances. Her mother and Morrow had already separated, and Leigh had estranged herself from him in the wake of that, changing her last name as a teenager to avoid being publicly associated with her dad. They were still estranged when he was killed on the set of The Twilight Zone movie, after a stunt helicopter crashed on him and two child actors.
Shortly after, her sister went to rehab for the first time—and not the last. “The way I understand addiction, from all the rehabs I went through with my sister, is that some people are born with less of an ability to handle anxiety. So they’ll do anything to quell it.” She recalls group therapy where all the family would sit in a circle and announce themselves, and “share”. Excruciatingly shy, she had to steel herself for those moments. “It’s very hard for me to speak in front of a room full of strangers but if I have a reason or being there—like, because I’m on camera—it’s different.”
Through witnessing her sister’s struggles, Leigh developed an understanding of the addict’s mind, and of self-destructive thought processes. Also, a subconscious desire to exorcise those memories, and perhaps get closer to her sister’s experience, through her acting. (nb: Carrie made a full recovery and became a drug counselor).
And so began a career of playing damaged, neurotic characters. In the 80s these roles included a virginal princess kidnapped and raped by mercenaries in Flesh + Blood, which, of all the films she has done, was the first one Tarantino brought up. The nineties began with one of her most iconic roles, Tralala, the prostitutes who is famously gang raped in Last Exit to Brooklyn, adapted from the novel by Hubert Selby Jnr. “Tralala…she’s really very innocent,” says Leigh. “She plays all this toughness and all this knowledge, but really she’s a child. Amoral not immoral.” As Leigh’s fan, the late Roger Ebert pointed out, “Leigh has played a lot of prostitutes in her career, but each one is different because she defines them by how they are needed as well as by what they need.”
She met the story’s author, Hubert Selby Jnr. , and he helped her crack one of the biggest difficulties she was having with the part, namely, Tralala’s infamous walk. “He told me, the walk comes from rage. She’s fucking angry. And so once I could tap onto what was psychologically propelling, I got it. As opposed to working with a choreographer or a dance teacher, he helped me own it from the inside. The director was thrilled.”
Last Exit was followed by Leigh’s crossover into mainstream film, starting with firefighting drama Backdraft, then Rush, then Single White Female, a box office hit in which she memorably plays a woman who becomes obsessed with her roommate, borrowing her clothing, hair style, boyfriend…it’s one her creepiest performances ever. “I think it tapped into something that people are afraid of and many people have experienced. It was a fun role to play.”
Her greatest critical acclaim came with her portrayal of Sadie Flood in Georgia, the movie written by her mom. For the role, Leigh dropped to 90 pounds (41 kg) because, as she had witnessed first-hand, “There really aren’t many fat junkies, although I guess they are out there. Mostly, heroin addicts don’t eat. So I had a very specific diet--two poached eggs on toast every morning. Salad with a baked potato with butter and sour cream, and dinner was plain yoghurt and string cheese. Once in a while I would have a cheeseburger and fries. And that’s it. I was emaciated.”
She was cast as blacklisted writer, flapper and American satirist Dorothy Parker, (who wrote the original A Star is Born) in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, after Robert Altman introduced her to the film’s director, …who was struck by Leigh’s physical resemblance to Parker, once (and perhaps still) the wittiest woman America has ever produced. The film was incredibly hard to raise money for, as no one believed there was a market for a film about a woman of letters. Altman came on board and put his own money into the production, the during which Leigh
remained in character, on and off set. Entertainment Weekly called it the “love it or hate it performance of 1994”.
In 2001, she met the director Noah Baumbach while starring on Broadway in Proof. At the time he was relatively unknown in film, but would go on to co-write The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with Wes Anderson. Leigh and Baumbach married in 2005, the same year that his film The Squid and the Whale came out to great acclaim. She starred in starred in his 2007 film Margot at the Wedding, alongside Nicole Kidman. She and Baumbach welcomed their son, Rohmer, into the world in 2010, the same year he made the film Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller and so-called Mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig. When Baumbach and Leigh separated after nine years, he and Gerwig became both a couple and a writing team. The tabloids couldn't help themselves: “Jennifer Jason Leigh is a single white female again,” they crowed.
A single white female having the last laugh, so it seems. The Hateful Eight was, for Leigh, one of those highs that she never thought she’d have again, not since her first movies perhaps. The kind where you cry when you say good-bye to the cast. “I had no idea how tired I was because we were on such a high during filming. I miss Daisy and Quentin and all the guys and everyone who worked on the movie. I physically and emotionally miss everyone. The movie was an exceptionally glorious time—I hadn’t had that in a long time. Every single cast member cried when we had the final shot…it was that precious an experience.”
Her son Rohmer, fell in love with Samuel L. Jackson. So much so, it was hard for him to accept that the character Jackson was playing might be…bad. “He kept saying Sam is good, isn’t he mom? He’s good, right? And I had to say ‘yes, Sam is good’. I mean, no one’s good though, really. Everyone has one part of them that is their flaw. And in movies, that is the part you care about.”