When Makenzie Leigh fell into acting, she fell hard. The 25-year-old Texas native was taking a fiction-writing class at New York University when she was told that her characters existed more on the page than they did in real life. “I wasn’t sure how to fix that,” she recalls. So Leigh took an acting class to help with her writing. Ultimately she was the one who ended up jumping off the page—landing an agent and instantly creating a slew of distinctive onscreen characters.
The actress has already attracted terrific buzz for her latest film, this month’s James White. In the searing drama, she plays a young woman drawn to a troubled, volatile man (Girls‘ Christopher Abbott). “I can relate to her insecurity,” Leigh says of the character. “Always feeling like you don’t have the right thing to say, choosing to remain quiet rather than open your mouth and prove yourself.” About half of her dialogue was improv. “I hated it so much at the time,” she says, “but I’ve been dying to do it again ever since we stopped shooting. I guess I’m a masochist.”
Leigh has already proven herself in a number of juicy TV parts, including Gotham (as an ill-fated chanteuse), The Slap, and The Good Wife (as a rape victim who is jailed for tweeting about her accuser). Her next role is in Ang Lee’s war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, in which she plays a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. “That has been the experience of my life so far. I love her,” says the proud Texan. “She’s very religious and has a light to her. She’s not a skeptic. She believes in love and light and God—she’s everything I’m not.” Still, some of the anxiety of creating characters in fiction spills over into her new life. “I always have a bit of mania when I’m performing, that I’ll never quite be able to play her,” she says. “If you’re a writer, you can always edit. With acting, you have that day to do it, and if it sucks, too bad, it’s there. But I love that feeling. I’m addicted to it.”