Jennifer Jason Leigh:’ I’ve been at this precipice so many times’

She was the queen of 90 s film noir, starring in Single White Female and Short Cuts. Now Leigh is back with two of the biggest, bravest roles of her career. Could this be her year?

Jennifer Jason Leigh has said it more than once, over a three-decade career in acting, that she doesnt scheme, or plan ahead that she isnt a careerist. The 53 -year-old tells it today, sitting in the bar of a hotel in New York. Im not great at judging a career. Or scheming one. It would sound like thesp-talk, the kind of thing established actors say to help us imagine them cool and fallible, were Leigh not so obviously guileless, with a history to back up what she tells. Her CV is wild: like the inky passport of a student whos been InterRailing on gut, shambling upon great things, then oversleeping stops, objective up in sidings.

In person Leigh is soft-voiced, a floor-starer, with kinked blond hair that hangs down over her cheeks. She wears loafers, leather trousers, a dark jumper and a colorful patchwork scarf. Curled up on a sofa, she tells a tale about how , not so long ago, she was going through a quiet patch, professionally. She took work on a French cartoon series, voicing the part of a plucky cowgirl in French. I thought it might be lucrative, tells Leigh. It was not lucrative. Anyway I got fired after 10 episodes, replaced by a French actress. In the years since, Leigh tells, there havent been a lot of screen tasks that she has been proud of not until this wintertime, when shell superstar in the new Quentin Tarantino film, The Hateful Eight, as well as in the new Charlie Kaufman film, Anomalisa.

This is huge, I tell. Insane! The two best movies Ive built in a decade, she tells, came to see you right next to each other. But this seems to be how things work for Leigh, who in her own words has been around for ever.

She is admirably unbitter about the lack of awardings she has accumulated. Back in the early 1990 s, when the Hollywood magazine Movieline operated an introductory profile on the actor, the cover line was bold: Future Oscar Winner, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The actor giggles, genuinely tickled, when remind ourselves this. Her Oscar has never arrive , not even a nomination. At the ceremony in 1996 when Leigh might have got a nod for the drama Georgia, in which she played a forlorn alcoholic Meryl Streep ran about backstage, grabbing at least one mutual acquaintance to tell: Jennifer supposed to be here ! Again, Leigh giggles. Meryls sweet.

She talks about her pleasure at being asked to audition for Tarantinos Hateful Eight. The film, out in the UK this month after a December release in the US, is set in Wyoming shortly after the civil war. Among the warring gang of desperados who make up the titular Hatefuls, Tarantino needed someone to play a convict called Daisy Domergue, wild-haired, foul-mouthed. Shes a pepper, aint she? it is said of Daisy, in the opening scene. Tarantino required relevant actors who could do pepper.

They gratified for dinner, and reminisced about the Cannes film festival in 1994. Tarantino had been there with Pulp Fiction, Leigh with a biopic, Mrs Parker And The Vicious Circle, as well as a Coen Brothers movie, The Hudsucker Proxy. These were the only two American movies up against Pulp Fiction for the Palme dOr, and Leigh was starring in both. Tarantino took note. He told me that when he was coming up, I was one of the actresses he paid to go to the movies to assure. Hearing that was a big deal. I dont look back and think, Oh! There was a time! But its nice to know that that old work can still mean something.

Leigh is clearly dismayed by the tendency in Hollywood to consider actors as having a sell-by date. And this is something that attains Quentin different from most directors, she tells. He doesnt simply look at the last three movies youve built. The last three years of your career. He was quoting lines from a movie I built when I was, like, 23. He can look at me and see that Im still that person who dedicated that performance … Not to compare an actor to a painter, but you can go through different phases and still be the same artist, yknow?

In

In Single White Female with Bridget Fonda, 1992. Photograph: Snap/ REX

From the start, Tarantino has been a great one for reviving the standing of neglect or under-appreciated actors: John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Daryl Hannah in the Kill Bill series. Just about all of his movies have one the apparent Rehab Project. Did Leigh interpret anything patronising in his interest in her?

No! I felt grateful and luck. Its a really fun part and you simply dont come across those. Forget about age. Forget about male or female. Keep forgetting anything. You simply dont come across fun so much. And Quentin writes like nobody business. So no, I didnt, uh

Leigh believes for a moment.

I can imagine other people thinking it. Like, Oh, thats so nice for[ Jennifer ]. It could be a breakthrough for her again. For me its all about the elation of the doing.

British bookmakers , not a bunch to risk their money, have Leigh down as a good bet for an Oscar nomination for The Hateful Eight. Thats nice, she tells, learning this. She points out that Charlie Kaufmans film Anomalisa, a stop-motion animation to which she has lent her voice, has been a part of the possible-Oscar dialogue, too.( Anomalisa, out in the US this month, wont be released in Britain until March .) Its all nice.

Only nice? You know what? Honestly? Ive been at this cliff, like, so many times.

Leigh was here with Last Exit To Brooklyn( 1989 ), in which she played a distressed prostitute and received rave reviews. And with Georgia, for which her co-star, Mare Winningham, was nominated for an Oscar instead of Leigh, and afterwards voiced candidly embarrassed about the fact.( In my mind[ Jennifers] will always be the greatest performance of[ 1995 ], and a lot of other people thought so, too .)

Leigh continues, So I kind of just let myself think: Thats nice. Awardings are lovely. Im not going to say: Awardings! Who requires them? It feels nice to get them. And they look pretty. But I dont There are a lot of people who are locked[ to be nominated] and, you know, if I listed all of them, some would build the list. And some not.

For those who are serious about their statue, the campaigning work becomes full-time around Christmas. No doubt Leigh has damaged her chances in the past by being a reluctant lobbyist. If you knew what actors did to get nominated, she once said, it would build you shit your pants.

Will she made the campaign trail for her work in The Hateful Eight? If she was asked to, she would. You know why? I genuinely feel like this movie could be The Last Great Thing. Shes 53, but Leigh refers to herself once or twice as a veteran, and seems to connote she wont have all that many more decades left to wait for the first-class portions to be offered. I certainly feel like “weve all” a part of something magnificent. So you want to give it everything that you are able to. I have a great movie … Two great movies, because I think Anomalisa is groundbreaking and poignant and beautiful … Two great movies that, when my child is old enough which will be many, many, many years from now he will be able to see. And I hope be proud. Im proud of them. And thats really nice to be able to say at 53.

When not on locating, much of The Hateful Eight was shoot in a small studio in LA , not far from the home Leigh shares with her five-year-old son, Rohmer.( Rohmers father is the American director Noah Baumbach, Leighs former spouse .) Mother and son would spend a lot of time pootling around behind the scenes together. Field trips, Leigh calls them.

Id take Rohmer to the makeup trailer and explain about prosthetics. This is the silicone rubber it was for a little cut on my face, yknow? He was transfixed. But still. Its a little off-putting for a kid. Theres a scene in which my nose is contravene, swollen again, done by prosthetic. He did not like kissing me when I had that on. He would ask before visiting the decide, Will you have the snout? Or not the snout? Between scenes the two of them would ride around the lot on scooters. Mines silver, Leigh tells. His is blue.

She grew up around movies herself. Leighs father, Vic Morrow, was an actor; her mother, Barbara Turner, to whom Leigh is still very close, is a screenwriter. The actor once said she knew how to judge the quality of a script because shed grown up reading drafts of her mums work. I trust her, Leigh tells now. Shes always been symbolic to me of what a woman can do in her life.

Jennifer

Before playing a phone-sex operator in Short Cuts, Leigh spent time in phone-sex offices. I read the call logs and recognised the names directors, two people I know personally. Photograph: Steve Schofield for the Guardian

Mother and daughter disagreed, however, about Fast Times At Ridgemont High( 1982 ), Leighs first big film. Mom said she didnt respond to the script. I recollect she was blowdrying her hair when she told me. It genuinely cut me to the quick! Leigh trusted her gut and took the portion anyway, going on to play a prim Ridgemont High student called Stacy. The film was a smash-up, launching careers as if out of a Gatling gun those of Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, Nicolas Cage, the director Amy Heckerling, the writer Cameron Crowe. It took a few years before Leigh established a name of her own, though, post-Ridgemont. Last Exit To Brooklyn, in 1989, won attention. Miami Blues, a year later, was the first movie I built where I felt like there was no scene I fucked up, she recalls.

By this phase Leigh was already entrenched in the lifetime habit of deep and time-consuming prep for portions. Shed imagine herself into the heads of characters and write diaries. Cast as a blind daughter in an early horror movie, Eyes Of A Stranger( 1981 ), Leigh spent time between scenes brushing up on her braille. She geared up to play a stalker preoccupied with Bridget Fondas character in Single White Female( 1992) by wallpapering her dressing room with pictures of her co-star, as well as spraying a prop dildo with mint flavouring between takes when filming the infamous blowjob scene. Before playing a phone-sex operator in Robert Altmans Short Cuts( 1993 ), Leigh spent time in phone-sex offices.

A bunch of them, she remembers. I read the logs and recognised names. There were directors in there. Two people I knew personally. Their credit card numbers. How often they called. Predilections!

Did she ever take a call?

No. That would have been intersecting the line.

So there was a line?

There was a line.

Things that didnt cross the line: turning herself into a chainsmoker before Dolores Claiborne( 1995 ), or letting Alan Cumming punch her for real during a fight they filmed for The Anniversary Party( 2001 ).

Looking back, have these preparations ever come to look excessive to her silly even? Not genuinely. Its simply all exploration. I never threatened myself. I never forced my mode of working on anyone else. Everyone has their own route to get to it. If ever she was cast to play a mother, before she was a mother for real, she tells she used to think of her love for her puppy. These days she thinks of Rohmer. You can use that, that love its so huge.

Leigh began dating Rohmers father Noah Baumbach in 2001, the pair introduced by a mutual friend. They married in 2005, the year they started making a film called Margot At The Wedding together. A drama that Baumbach directed from his own script, with Nicole Kidman, Jack Black and Leigh cast in the central roles, Margot was a wonderfully twisted tale of inter-family rancour. Leigh played a well-meaning and occasionally irresponsible parent, about to have a second child. For the role as a route to get to it she drew on the fact that she and Baumbach were gearing up to become parents themselves. I was just about[ trying to get] pregnant then. So “its easy” to have maternal feelings.

Rohmer was born a few years later. By then the couple had collaborated on another film, Greenberg, the story of a depressed carpenter, played by Ben Stiller, who begins a relationship with a younger woman, played by Greta Gerwig. Leigh had a small but significant role as Stillers ex, and she shared a writing credit with Baumbach. A perfectly pitched film, Greenberg was one of the best dramas of 2010.

Leigh has not rewatched it. I havent revisited those movies. I think theyre both good movies. Yknow, I enjoyed the process of constructing them…

Jennifer

With former spouse Noah Baumbach: Id just got married when I first read Anomalisa. By the time I built the film, I was a single mum. Photograph: Startraks Photo/ REX

Her marriage to Baumbach aimed at around the time of Greenbergs release, and he has since been in a relationship with Gerwig. In a joint interview published in the New Yorker, Baumbach and Gerwig insisted their romance began after his matrimony was over. The new couple have gone on to collaborate on more movies, two since Greenberg. Meanwhile, documentation relating to Baumbach and Leighs divorce has been uploaded to several gossip and celebrity websites.

Leigh, understandably, is not eager considering this side of their own lives. I dont think its that important for people to know. She tells of Baumbach: We co-parent really well. Asked if shes started watching anybody since, she sets out a thumb, polite, firm: enough. That I dont want to talk about.

What she will say is that Anomalisa has served as a strange kind of frame around the upheaval. Kaufman wrote the script for Anomalisa more than ten years ago. He always had Leigh in mind for the part of Lisa, a woman from Ohio who is lonely, eager to be loved, but spirited optimistic. In the tale, Lisa has a short, sudden romance with an older British man called Michael. Back in 2005, Kaufman arranged for Leigh and the British actor David Thewlis to perform Anomalisa as a play. The small-scale production ran for two nights at a student theatre in LA. After that, Kaufman put the script away, eventually reviving it a couple of years ago and beginning the process of turning it into an animated film.

He asked Leigh to play Lisa again. Seven or eight years, and a lot of life had gone by in that time. Id just got married the first time we did Anomalisa, Leigh remembers. And by the second time I was alone, creating my son as a single mom. And life had changed. Like, under my feet, without my knowledge, suddenly this big change.

Lisa is such a lovelorn figure. Did the changes in Leighs situation alter her approach to the character? I dont know, she tells. Lisa is so beautifully written, theres simply no way to fuck her up. But I guess I understand her in a very deep route. She leaves it there.

As long ago as 1992 in that old article, in fact, that had Leigh down as a future Oscar winner she outlined to the publication how she hoped her future would pan out. I want to spend my entire life, she said back then, remaining out of those who-fucked-who maps of the world … My ideal life would be to play all these great characters, and disappear.

How well does Leigh think shes done on this?

I think pretty well, actually, she says.

The Hateful Eight is released on 8 January.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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