Jennifer Jason Leigh can be fearless because it’s pretend
Cameron Crowe, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman, Noah Baumbach, Todd Solondz, Sam Mendes, David Cronenberg, Ron Howard—Jennifer Jason Leigh has worked with them all. In the course of her four-decade career, she has played an urbane satirist, a Civil War–era fugitive, and a stalker from the classifieds. More recently, the 56-year-old, Oscar-nominated actress has brought to life an addict mother who turns a blind eye to her abusive husband in the TV miniseries Patrick Melrose and an FBI agent in cahoots with a teenage drug kingpin in the upcoming crime drama White Boy Rick. Here, Leigh and her friend and former co-star Phoebe Cates go back to where it all started—in 1982, at Ridgemont High.
PHOEBE CATES: Are you in the study?
JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: I am.
CATES: Did you just come from yoga?
LEIGH: I did, but let’s not talk about that. Tell me about your kitchen.
CATES: We came to the decision that after 25 years of yellow, we just don’t want to paint it yellow ever again.
LEIGH: You loved the yellow!
CATES: I think we’re going to go with a really vibrant blue. I have to text you the pictures of the color.
LEIGH: Please do.
CATES: I thought it might be interesting to just talk about some of your favorite movies that you’ve worked on, my favorites, and where we were in our lives and our life together.
LEIGH: It would be good to point out that you and I never talk about work.
CATES: Let’s start with Fast Times, honey. How about you say your first impression of me, and then I’ll give you mine?
LEIGH: I remember liking you immediately—feeling comfortable
around you immediately—because you were so direct. I was nervous to meet you because you were so beautiful, but then in two seconds I forgot about your beauty. I knew you were a person I wanted to hang out with all the time because you were so funny and with-it and smart and savvy, and a little bit evil—
CATES: A little bit evil?
LEIGH: It’s a good thing! I remember I asked you about nudity, because I was really nervous about doing it. I had done some, but not a lot, and you were like, “Eh, it’s not that big a deal.”
CATES: Yeah, and it’s not. What are some of your favorite movies that you’ve done?
LEIGH: Some of my favorites would be The Hateful Eight , Georgia , and Anomalisa .
CATES: Let’s talk about Georgia for a second. It’s such a great movie, and your mom [Barbara Turner] wrote it.
LEIGH: It was right after Single White Female . I had a little dough for the first time, and I wanted my mom to write a screenplay. I came up with this idea and I said, “Do you like it and would you write it?” And she did. Then we went around trying to raise the money for it. As shy as I am, and as socially awkward as I am, I was always the one in the room who did the pitch.
CATES: Can I claim some credit for [the film’s director] Ulu Grosbard? I had done that play with him at Lincoln Center, and he was so excited to meet you. I feel like that might have gotten him on board.
LEIGH: I remember him walking around the set of Georgia, picking up magazines or bits of trash, and moving them ever so slightly. But it made such a difference. [Robert] Altman had that, too.
CATES: How many times did you work with Bob? I feel like it was three or four?
LEIGH: Something like that. The first thing I did with him was Short Cuts . At the wrap party for that one, he brought me over to [the director] Alan Rudolph and said, “Alan, I want you to meet Mrs. Parker.” That was the moment that Alan and I both realized I’d be playing Dorothy Parker in his movie Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle . That was another movie that my mother helped me on so much, because I had never read a lot of poetry aloud. I didn’t know the first thing about how to do that. She and I would go out to different hotels or restaurants, have tea, and she would have me read poems and talk to her about them.
CATES: Let’s talk about The Hateful Eight. That seemed like so much fun.
LEIGH: I honestly wish I was still shooting it. To get to work with that caliber of people, and with a director like Quentin [Tarantino], you just feel so—“lucky” is not the word. I don’t think I have the right word to talk about what it’s like to be on one of his sets, and to be able to act like that. It reminded me of being a kid. It’s what I thought acting would be like growing up.
CATES: Tell me about White Boy Rick and the kid they cast.
LEIGH: Richie Merritt. They found him in Baltimore. He’s so good! The beautiful thing about film acting is that you never know who can do it. Someone can be just found on the street like that and give the performance of a lifetime. He’s older than Owen [Kline, Cates’s son] was in The Squid and the Whale , but he has the same kind of honesty and simplicity. He just is who he is. He’ll also probably never want to act again.
CATES: I have to say, I love Patrick Melrose and I think you’re brilliant in it. You can answer this or not answer this, but I can’t help thinking you’re playing a version of your mom in that role, and I wondered if the issues with your father came up for you when you were filming?
LEIGH: Of course they did. People watch that movie and say what a horrible, horrible mother my character is. That’s an easy judgment to make at this time in the world, from where we stand, but I can just tell you from my own experience, my mother had to go into hiding.
CATES: I know.
LEIGH: And that is not an easy call for any mother to make. I mean, you think about the children right now in these camps in America that we’ve created… As an American who has means, I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to have to leave your child behind. My dad [Vic Morrow] was a great actor, and people loved him very much, so this is something I’ve never spoken about. But as it relates to Patrick Melrose, yes, of course it came into play quite a bit.
LEIGH: My father was the one who told me about the abuse, not my mother. It was horrific but true. She never wanted me to know—she didn’t want to poison me against him. I was 2 when it happened. He told me he put her in the hospital, and he told me this on my 14th birthday. Perhaps it was his attempt to have a closer relationship with me, but obviously it backfired.
CATES: Well, you wouldn’t partake in the drugs with him. So, you know…
LEIGH: I wasn’t groovy enough
CATES: The groovy ones are all dead now.
LEIGH: Sadly, and truly. I think my attraction to these roles is a desire to understand what the motivation is. Where does it come from? I feel like you have such a good grasp on what’s moral and what’s not. I feel like I have that, too. But you’re fearless, which is something I’m not.
In my acting, I can be fearless because it’s pretend.
Hair: Lori Guidroz at Rouge Artists.
Makeup: Ozzy Salvatierra at Lowe & Co.
Photography Assistants: Pierre Auroux and Conor Lucas.
Fashion Assistant: Hannah Margeson.