I think I am talented—but I also think I’m very lucky. JENNIFER JASON LEIGH
Entertainment Weekly once called Jennifer Jason Leigh “the Meryl Streep of bimbos.” It was a questionable compliment, but what it really reflects is that over the course of a near 40-year career, Leigh has proven to be a one-woman portrait of the American fringe. Her first big part came at age 18 in the searing 1981 TV movie The Best Little Girl in the World, in which she played a teenager struggling with bulimia; it almost single-handedly started the national discussion about eating disorders. Following her indelible performance as the sweet deflowered virgin in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), she swerved away from the cute-girlfriend route, making a shocking transformation—and a huge impression—in 1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and 1990’s Miami Blues, both of which saw her portray those EW-approved floozies on the edge.
As the ’90s progressed, Leigh, who was born in Hollywood, developed a reputation as the preeminent portrayer of raw-nerved women in varying levels of distress: the police officer who gets sucked into drug culture in Rush (1991); the identity-thieving psychotic roommate in Single White Female (1992); the definitive depressive Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). You can’t envision Meryl Streep topping her performances in any of them.
Not to say she’s been averse to some fun: She essayed Philadelphia Story-era Katharine Hepburn as a girl reporter in the Coen brothers’ Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and played a video-game designer sucked into a virtual-reality world in David Cronenberg’s trippy sci-fi body horror adventure eXistenZ (1999). More recently, she’s clearly had a blast on TV as the villainous mother of the lead character in the soapy Revenge, and as Mary Louise Parker’s wackadoo older sister in Weeds.
Next she’s starring in Quentin Tarantino’s eagerly awaited western The Hateful Eight and Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion animated film Anomalisa. I talked with her this past September, one week before she started shooting her part as Lady Bird Johnson opposite Woody Harrelson in Rob Reiner‘s biopic LBJ. In our conversation, she held forth about her favorite performances, whether she’s accomplished what she wants to in film, the plight of women in Hollywood, and why it’s easy for her to take a punch.
MICHAEL MARTIN: Hateful Eight is so anticipated. Who’s your character?
JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: She’s one of the Hateful Eight. [laughs] She’s like a rabid little animal. Like all the characters, she is hateful, I suppose, but I truly loved playing her. She’s quite feral. She’s a prisoner and she’s a survivor, so she’ll do anything she can to survive. She’s a bit nuts, but crazy like a fox. And there’s not that much I can say about it, because I don’t know exactly what I can talk about and not talk about without giving away anything. So much of the joy of seeing Quentin’s movies is just how explosively imaginative they are, and how you don’t really know where things are going, and you don’t really know who’s who and what’s what and what the truth is. So I don’t want to spoil anything by overspeaking. But I have to say it was probably the best time I’ve ever had making anything.
MARTIN: Tarantino really pushes all of his actors to the edge. I’m curious about how that process works. How does he get you there?
LEIGH: There’s so much generosity of spirit. Everyone wants to give him 100 percent or more, everybody wants to go as far as they can, to be as free as they can. Nothing feels like a risk, because it’s all about jumping into a free-for-all with him. But you do it with such joy, because he’s such a master. You feel truly safe. And he’s so kind.
MARTIN: You get the sense that with him, what you see is what you get.
LEIGH: He’s completely authentic. And he is truly enthusiastic and loves people. And he’s just a genius. I don’t have any qualms about using that word, because it’s true. I feel lucky to be working with him. That’s not the most common experience in this town.
MARTIN: Yeah. And you certainly have a basis for comparison, having grown up in the town, and having acted from such a young age.
LEIGH: And worked with great, brilliant directors. I’ve been so lucky. It’s terrible to compare anyone, because you can’t. But I can just tell you that this experience was just a truly magnificent experience for everyone involved.
MARTIN: You described your character as feral, as crazy as a fox. Some might say that’s a character you specialize in, that you do better than anyone else.
LEIGH: Right. I certainly enjoy playing those types of people. They’re easier to play in a way, because they’re farther away from who you are, but you can tap into things you would never act out on in your own life, or never expose to everyone. They’re the things nightmares and dreams are made of, but they’re not anywhere you would actually want to go or dwell in. It’s fun to do that in a really safe, creative way, and probably really healthy, I think.
MARTIN: How do you feel when people say they feel a real connection to the characters you play?
LEIGH: That’s a huge compliment. Especially when you’re playing people who are living in extreme circumstances. What you want to do is make people feel like they understand that person. I think that’s an incredible thing that we can do as actors—to feel empathy toward someone that you may otherwise detest, you know?
MARTIN: It’s easy to say, “She’s so good at playing these characters who go through extreme emotional situations, so they must be close to who she really is.”
LEIGH: No, I think people are really disappointed when they expect that to be who I am. Because I actually avoid all that stuff in my own life. I really go against drama in my life. Life is too short.
MARTIN: So tell me about Anomalisa. You worked with Charlie Kaufman, another genius.
LEIGH: We did it first ten years ago, as a radio play for two nights. Charlie Kaufman had written it for me and David [Thewlis] and Tom [Noonan]. The characters are so beautiful, and it’s funny but so heartbreaking. I kept e-mailing Charlie to say, “When could we do it again?” I really missed playing her. She’s so simple and sweet. She’s actually the opposite of Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight. She couldn’t be lovelier. Then two years ago, Charlie called and said we were going to do it as an animated stop-motion movie. I’ve always loved that kind of animation from my childhood. It’s a perfect marriage for this type of material, which is actually very adult. There’s something so surreal about it, but it really hits you and it stays with you in this way; it’s unlike any other movie I’ve done or I’ve seen. It feels like an utterly new art form. They only shoot two seconds a day with stop motion.
LEIGH: Yes, literally two seconds a day. So it took them two years to make it, and in the middle of it they lost financing. They ran out of money. Then they had to do a Kickstarter campaign. And people love Charlie so much, and the money started pouring in. And they finished it, and it’s like this little movie that could.
MARTIN: And then it won the Grand Jury Prize in Venice.
LEIGH: Yeah, exactly. It’s amazing! When we showed it in Venice, there was, like, a ten-minute standing ovation. And for this tiny stop-motion animated movie that is so brilliant because it comes out of Charlie’s mind.
MARTIN: You’ve worked with some of the greatest directors in the canon: Robert Altman, the Coen brothers, David Cronenberg, Jane Campion, Todd Solondz … It goes on and on. It’s hard to find an actor who’s worked with such a density of great directors throughout their career. When you reflect on that, what do you think?
LEIGH: I feel incredibly lucky. I feel like I had a great career in a way. Maybe not the most successful monetarily or in other ways, but creatively I feel incredibly fortunate.
MARTIN: It can’t just be luck; it has to speak to your talent.
LEIGH: That’s very nice. I hope my talent has something to do with it. I just think this business is so crazy. I obviously do the best I can, and the directors I admire see something in me. But this is a strange business, and there are people who are incredibly talented who never make it, who never get these opportunities. So that’s why I say I’m lucky. I don’t feel that I’m not talented—I think I am talented—but I also think I’m very lucky.
MARTIN: You’ll be in Rob Reiner’s LBJ as Lady Bird Johnson. What attracted you to her?
LEIGH: I’m just really discovering her now. I knew a tiny bit about her before I read the script, but not that much. She’s an amazing woman.
MARTIN: It seems to me that first ladies in the ’60s and ’70s—Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson—they’re really underestimated.
LEIGH: Oh, she did so much. Her beautification plans. She did her own campaigning around the country. She put her daughters on a train and stopped in every state. And she kept a diary every single day after becoming the first lady. She would talk for at least an hour into a tape recorder. So there are these books, just of her transcribed diaries.
MARTIN: What do you look for in parts these days?
LEIGH: Well, I now have a kid, so I look for things that shoot here. [laughs] But aside from that—which is kind of joking, but not really—the director and the script. I’m really drawn to a script that I think is really good and a director that I want to work with.
MARTIN: When you think back on your career, have you accomplished what you’d like to?
LEIGH: I don’t know. I feel like I turned down a lot of things that I wish I hadn’t. But you never know when you’re younger. I don’t have regrets about certain things I turned down. Those films would have required things of me that would have been challenging, and they ended up being really good movies. But I was never a careerist, I never thought in those terms. I’d be like, “Oh, I’m tired. I don’t want to work.”
MARTIN: What are the films that you turned down that you regret?
LEIGH: I don’t like to say, because ultimately the movie got made and the actor who was cast in every single instance did an incredible job.
MARTIN: What performance are you proudest of?
So much of the joy of seeing Quentin’s movies is just how explosively imaginative they are, and how you don’t really know where things are going, and you don’t really know who’s who and what’s what and what the truth is. JENNIFER JASON LEIGH
LEIGH: Not counting these two that haven’t come out yet, I would say certainly Sadie Flood in Georgia , and Susie Waggoner in Miami Blues. Those two spring to mind.
MARTIN: What was it about them?
LEIGH: Georgia, that character felt very lived-in to me. Also, my mom wrote it, so it’s significant for me in that regard. She was just a beautifully written character. It was really hard for me—it was like throwing yourself into thin air. But I really loved it, and I feel like I did a good job. Susie Waggoner in Miami Blues is just such a sweetheart, such an innocent. When I watch that, I really feel like I’m watching Susie Waggoner. I don’t really see myself. And there’s a simplicity to it that I really like. There are flashier things: Last Exit to Brooklyn or Hudsucker Proxy or Single White Female. And Mrs. Parker and Margot at the Wedding; there are scenes in them that I really love. But on the whole, those two stand out to me. At least today they do.
MARTIN: I have to mention that I did a report on Dorothy Parker in my journalism class, and I used a clip from Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.
LEIGH: That was a really fun movie to work on. I loved being her. I loved pretending to believe that I was that brilliant and quippy and miserable and in love all the time. It was a fun place to live.
MARTIN: Why do you think Fast Times at Ridgemont High is so beloved? And how do you feel about having been a part of it?
LEIGH: Oh, I loved the movie. There’s something very true about it, and the cast is kind of amazing. I love that character because she’s an everygirl. She’s a good girl, she just doesn’t know how to say no. She doesn’t really have a lot of self-confidence.
MARTIN: And Single White Female is a total cult film. Do you still get feedback on that part?
LEIGH: Oh, yeah, that and Dolores Claiborne  are the two that people reference a lot. Everyone has had a Single White Female experience. That tapped into something that’s a weird psychological phenomenon, that actually does go on. Everyone’s had the horrible roommate.
MARTIN: What was it like working with David Cronenberg on eXistenZ?
LEIGH: He’s just this happy, completely normal family guy. He’s got this really unusual, bizarre take on things, and yet he’s so easygoing and normal. The shoots are such a luxury, because the day starts at ten, and then you work, like, split days. And he’s incredibly articulate; he’s such a smart guy.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about Rush, a great movie that was overlooked. What do you remember about that film? Your character was so indelible, and again, you pushed yourself to the limits portraying her.
LEIGH: I remember that was a hard shoot. It was physically demanding and emotionally tough. I think Lili [Fini Zanuck, the director] did a good job, but it was tough to work on. You could feel everyone’s nerves. It was like they wore their nerves on the outside of their skin or something.
MARTIN: Do you have a favorite leading man who you worked with? Was it Jason Patric? You had such a great chemistry in that film.
LEIGH: No, it would be Kurt Russell.
MARTIN: Why is that?
LEIGH: Oh my God, well, you’ll see Hateful Eight, and you will say, “Why?” [laughs] Because it’s the most brutal relationship. But he’s just the greatest guy to work with. He’s so there for you; he’s so smart; he’s so damn good. You know, he punched me around quite a bit. I was always getting all these compliments about how well I took a punch, but the only reason I could take it so well was it was Kurt Russell punching me, so I had total and absolute faith that I would never get hurt. He’s been doing this since he was 6 years old; he knows how to throw a fucking punch. [laughs] But when you work with him, you feel like he’s there for you 100 percent—beyond. And we were handcuffed to each other for six months. It was a unique pleasure.
MARTIN: Going all the way back: Best Little Girl in the World—it was one of the first movies that dealt so rawly with that social issue.
LEIGH: You know, I don’t hear about that so much anymore, so it’s really nice that you mentioned that now. That role was important to me, because my best friend in middle school had anorexia, so I felt a deep connection to it. I really loved doing it. You know, the girl who was my stand-in died shortly after doing the movie. And that was quite horrible. It was so sad, because you didn’t know what responsibility we had in that. Did we make the movie glorify it for her in some way?
MARTIN: You dieted yourself to under 90 pounds, I read. From the beginning as an actor, you pushed yourself to the wall. For a lot of actors, there’s a vanity to their performances. But not you.
LEIGH: It’s not like some magical or weird thing. I think they’re just more fun to act. It’s like if you could eat something incredibly delicious or something that’s just good for you and bland, what would you choose? And neither one’s going to hurt you. Neither one’s going to make you fat. But one’s going to be an incredible experience, and one’s just going to put food in your stomach. That’s a really bad analogy.
MARTIN: Not at all. I wanted to ask you how you felt about ageism in Hollywood for women. Didn’t Anne Hathaway say something like she went in for a part and was told that she was too old at 32 to play the girlfriend for somebody in his fifties? What’s your experience with ageism in Hollywood?
LEIGH: It exists. But my experience is so outside the norm, you know? I’m also not someone who calls my agent. I’m just not ambitious in that way. I’m not chasing roles. I don’t even know what’s going on half the time. But I’m sure if I were, I’d be told, “You’re too old, you’re too old, you’re too old.”
MARTIN: How do you feel about the climate for actresses in Hollywood generally? How has it changed since you started out?
LEIGH: I don’t know. I’m not great with those questions. There are a lot of good roles out there. This is an incredible year for me. I don’t think Quentin looks at somebody in terms of how old they are. That’s not what’s interesting to him. But I do think it gets harder for actresses after, I don’t know, 45 maybe. But I’m not the best person to talk about this, because I’m not that entrenched in it, in a way.
MICHAEL MARTIN IS A WRITER BASED IN NEW YORK.