Jennifer Jason Leigh, co-star of the "The Jacket" Movie!
A professional actor since the age of nine, Jennifer Jason Leigh earned her Screen Actors Guild card at 16 and dropped out of high school to study at the Lee Strasberg Institute and star in seedy made-for-TV movies. Born to actor Vic Morrow and writer/actress Barbara Turner in Hollywood, CA, Jennifer picked up the middle name Jason from family friend Jason Robards Jr. Throughout her career, she has made a name for herself portraying helpless, damaged, or mentally unsound characters, often performing at a higher level than the material. Also known for extensively researching her roles, Leigh dropped down to less than 90 pounds for one of her first features as an anorexic teenager in the TV-movie The Best Little Girl in the World. Never one to shy away from touchy subject matter, her breakthrough role came in 1982 as the naïve high school girl who gets an abortion in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. After a decade of developing a repertoire of various troubled characters, she was nominated for two Critics Circle awards in 1990 for playing prostitutes in both Miami Blues and Last Exit to Brooklyn. She would continue to play vulnerable characters in dangerous situations as the rookie narcotics officer-turned-drug addict in Rush. This was followed by her notorious role as the psycho roommate Hedra who tries to steal the identity of her roommate (Bridget Fonda) in Single White Female. She played a phone sex worker in the ensemble film Short Cuts, her first of three projects involving director Robert Altman. Leigh occasionally stepped out of her down-and-out roles, and in 1994 she shined as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy. Her comic turn as a plucky undercover journalist was said to recall the work of legendary actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. She delivered critically acclaimed performances in her next two films, with a Golden Globe nomination for Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and an Independent Spirit nomination for Georgia. After playing an angry daughter in Dolores Claiborne, a spitfire kidnapper in Kansas City, and a domestic violence survivor in Bastard out of Carolina, she took another dramatic turn toward a period film. In Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square, Leigh proved her range by portraying a shy, clumsy girl as she evolves into adulthood. She returned to more showy roles for two films dealing with Shakespeare's King Lear: A Thousand Acres with Jason Robards Jr. and the fourth Dogme 95 film, The King Is Alive. Not limiting herself to dramas, Leigh appeared as an isolated computer programmer in David Cronenberg's thriller eXistenZ and as an over-the-top mom in the comedy Skipped Parts. Around that time, she also appeared on-stage in Broadway and off-Broadway plays, most notably as dancer Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Testing out new ground in 2001, she and fellow Cabaret star Alan Cumming wrote, directed, and starred in the ensemble comedy The Anniversary Party, a digital video project inspired by Dogme 95. Continuing to evolve as a respected actress, she went on to work in the crime genre, first as a hitman's wife in Road to Perdition, and then in Jane Campion's thriller In the Cut.
Jennifer Jason Leigh: What you see and what you get
She's a Hollywood child who has no time for showbiz nonsense. She's often driven and tormented in her film roles but presents her real self as a peacemaker. It's easy to have preconceptions about Jennifer Jason Leigh - and most of them turn out not to be true.
A reviewer once remarked that Jennifer Jason Leigh makes even the most mainstream film seem arthouse just by being in it, and she has much the same effect on real life. Whatever she’s talking about, you have the sense that something importantly weird is about to happen, or maybe just did. As she sits down — we’re at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, not her kind of place at all — she sees some chips rush past in the arms of a waiter. She eyes them intensely. “Look at those fries. It’s nice when you see something, and then you want to eat it. It’s a good feeling. Especially when you can ... just ... order ... it.” No ghost of a smile — truly, this is arthouse lunch-ordering.
We’re here to discuss two films, The Machinist and Palindromes. The first is eerie, brilliant and unfathomable for about three-quarters of its length. Christian Bale plays a man who has not slept in a year — strange things happen to him, constantly. Strange allegiances are forged, and then evaporate. Impossibly gruesome accidents occur in the factory where he works. Jason Leigh plays a kind and complicated hooker, pulling off a masterful balance of trust and wary fragility. In the business of creating a cinematic atmosphere, she really is peerless.
She seems pleased with the film. “I think it does engage you. I like a movie that the audience actively has to participate in, and not just casually observe. Whatever my part in it, just as an audience member, I find that exciting. Plus [The Machinist] has an interesting look. There’s a lot of green in it.” This preference (for interesting films, not films with a greenish tinge) shows up in her CV — there’s little schlock in it, a marked leaning towards Hollywood’s most interesting directors (Altman, Cronenberg, the Coen brothers), and no repetition, although she has played an awful lot of prostitutes: Tralala in Last Exit To Brooklyn, Susie Waggoner in Miami Blues, Lois Kaiser, the phone-sex worker in Short Cuts (not strictly a prostitute) and now Stevie in The Machinist. It’s not gone unnoticed. “My manager at the time was going, ‘No, you shouldn’t do this part, you have done it, you have played prostitutes before. But I thought Stevie was a different kind of prostitute ... ”
She has said before that she finds acting a good way to discover and vent emotions that she would not want to have in real life. I wonder if her predilection for playing prostitutes represents the sexual dimension of that. She thinks on this for a second. “It’s like Sartre. His most typical story that represents existentialism — a woman in the window watches the prostitutes outside, and the only thing that separates her from them is going outside. You know, you really do choose your existence in a way. If that stuff appeals to you, which it does to me, you can have a very existential experience in acting.”
I find, as ever, that the introduction of Jean-Paul Sartre into an answer makes you forget what the question was. But her take on the catharsis her job offers is more straightforward. “It’s pretty liberating not to be afraid to get angry, or afraid to feel jealousy. So you get to experience all these things in life that you would normally try to suppress, or be more graceful with.” The curious contention here is that acting an emotion is the same as living it.
She is not, she says, a “dark person”. “People can have so many ill-conceived ideas about me based on the parts that I play. I’ve had guys, when I’ve been single, come out of the woodwork to date me and I’ve found out very quickly that they were expecting some kind of whirlwind, some dramatic crazy person — and that’s just not me.” Jennifer Jason Leigh is one actor who is rarely chosen for a part because it reflects her personality. The only other I can think of who is, like her, a different person in every film is Gary Oldman.
She has a highly unfashionable, methody way of approaching her films. For Single White Female, she famously spent a lot of time in a psychiatric ward, showing a dedication and seriousness that the film probably didn’t warrant (it is a little bit schlocky — though at the same time fantastic). For Mrs Parker And The Vicious Circle, she spent months going to sleep to a tape of Dorothy Parker dispensing arch remarks.
While The Machinist is a thoughtful and intricate film, it doesn’t come close to Palindromes, the latest from Tod Solondz, for complexity or sheer weirdness. The palindrome of the title is the name of its protagonist, Aviva, a 12-year-old girl who, desperate for a baby, gets pregnant by some nearby ne’er-do-well. Her parents force her to have an abortion. She runs away, and fetches up in the house of some pro-life born-again Christians. The abortion-forcing parents are by far the vilest people in the film, while a passing trucker, who has sex with Aviva and then abandons her at a motel, is, broadly, quite a sympathetic character.
You could walk out of the cinema thinking you’d seen 100 minutes of anti-abortion polemic, with a side order of “paedophiles aren’t necessarily all that bad”; however, I think the clue is in the title. Solondz takes cornerstone liberal truths — abortion is fine, child abuse is evil — and works at them from the diametrically opposite pole, to see if they read the same backwards (that is, in a world in which liberals are intolerant and evil, and fundamentalist Christians are kindly and big-hearted). Nevertheless, it’s an unsettling, unpleasant film. Jason Leigh plays Aviva towards the end of the film (the actor playing the role changes throughout). “I’d been wanting to work with Tod since Welcome To The Dollhouse, and I auditioned twice for Happiness ... once, and I didn’t get the part, and then I begged to audition again, and still didn’t get it.”
She takes a studiedly neutral line on the politics of the film. “I’d much rather be in a movie that people have really strong feelings about than one that makes a hundred million dollars but you can’t remember because it’s just like all the others. Sure, he’s given us this movie in which the most loving person is this born-again Christian who wants to kill abortion doctors, but you know, it’s a movie directed by a liberal intellectual, so it’s not ... ” She trails off — her line is basically, “Don’t worry, this can’t be ethically dodgy, because we’re in safe, liberal hands.”
She was born and grew up in Los Angeles. She talks of her mother, the actor and screen writer Barbara Turner, with such respect, bordering on awe, that I’d imagined her growing up in a boho all-female household, especially since her parents split up when she was very young. Her father was the actor — method actor, in fact — Vic Morrow, known for the TV series Combat and smaller parts, often villains, in numerous films, including Blackboard Jungle — he died in a helicopter accident in 1982. Her mother began as an actor; one of her last appearances was in Robert Altman’s 1964 TV film Nightmare In Chicago. At his suggestion she worked on a screenplay for Petulia, and although the project was revamped and directed by someone else, she decided she was by then a writer. Latterly she wrote the screenplay for Altman’s 2003 ballet film, The Company, and the Ed Harris film Pollock.
“She’s brilliant,” says Jason Leigh. “Her scripts are truly amazing. And it was definitely her energy that was in the house when I was growing up — I saw this woman who was so interesting, very powerful but also very introverted, and there was a lot of mystery there. That’s more interesting to play than some kind of simpleton.” Though there are highs and lows in her filmography (One Thousand Acres, for instance, is an object lesson in why you shouldn’t remake King Lear without the good bits), she has stuck rigorously to the notion that female leads have to be more than very attractive people who say “help” a lot.
Growing up, not just in Hollywood, but in such a “Hollywood” house — her stepfather is the TV director Reza Badiyi — left her with no taste for show-business glitz, but made her aware from the start that the acting and art were the point. That isn’t to say she and her mother have always been in perfect accord. Having been to a Lee Strasberg summer school at 14, she got her Screen Actors Guild membership very young, and promptly left school for a part in a horror movie, Eyes Of A Stranger, six weeks before her graduation. She’d promised her mother that she’d sit an exam before she left; she didn’t and, she says with amused exasperation, that still comes up in family rows.
Her breakthrough year was 1990, when Miami Blues and Last Exit To Brooklyn had been released. This would have been her moment to enter the mainstream. In fact the closest she got was Single White Female, in which she played the psycho flatmate to Bridget Fonda’s non-psycho lead. “Barbet [Schroeder, the film’s director] is still a really good friend, we go hiking together a lot.” “I didn’t know you could hike in LA.” “God, yeah, it’s the best thing about the place.”
She bills herself as an irritating actor to work with — pernickety, perfectionist, so self-critical that she often offers to pay for reshoots out of her own pocket — but the directors she’s worked with speak highly of her. Robert Altman has said: “Leigh stands almost alone in her generation. Not only for her lack of ego but for her willingness to take risks.” That’s not quite the way she tells it ... “When I did Short Cuts with Robert Altman, I went up to him on the first day and said ‘hi’, and he said ‘Hi, how are you? Could you get me a cup of coffee?’ When I brought it back, it turned out he thought I was the PA. For him, I come alive on film. As a person, I don’t really register that much. I mean, he loves me, I don’t take it as a cut, although you could. But he says that as a person I disappear in a way. On film, I’m very mysterious, but in life I’m very dull. I don’t feel like I’m dull, but I don’t put out a lot.”
I had expected her to be difficult and uncompromising — as it turns out, the opposite of how she sees herself. “I’m a typical middle child. I’m the mediator. The one that makes everything OK, puts their own needs aside to make sure everybody’s happy. It’s hard to change your nature, even with years and years of therapy.” “Have you had years and years of therapy?” “Oh sure, I’ve been in therapy for years.” “What for?” She looks at me a bit bemused, and very slightly shakes her head. I can’t make out whether that’s at the nosiness of my question, or the idea that I don’t know what the point of therapy is.
There is no ambiguity about Jason Leigh’s politics, which are leftwing, fiercely anti-Bush (possibly not as anti-Bush as her mother who is so appalled by the recent election that she’s talking about moving to Denmark). “It’s frightening, and it’s depressing,” says Jason Leigh. “Bush has gathered this circle, he’s made the Christian right so powerful. Or they’ve made him so powerful, I don’t know which comes first. I had no idea there were so many born-agains in this country. I don’t understand the place I live any more.”
Nor the overt hostility to perceived lefties. “Have you seen the sign on Sunset? It’s a picture of Whoopi Goldberg, Barbra Streisand, Sean Penn, Michael Moore, maybe Susan Sarandon, and it says ‘Four more years! Thank you Hollywood!’ That’s disturbing. It’s expensive to take up an ad like that. And they did it in Hollywood, like they were really sticking it to us.”
In tandem with a general surge to the right, Jason Leigh sees the film industry becoming more basic and less sophisticated. Talking about Georgia, the 1995 film about two country singer sisters she made with her mother, she says, “I cannot imagine getting the money to put that together now. It’s a character-driven film, about a complicated person. I can imagine pulling together one million dollars, but it wasn’t a cheap movie, it was a $5.7 million movie.” Then she remembers, “Of course, we got our money from France.”
The way she speaks, the things she’s interested in, you could be mugged into thinking she was a new friend you’d just made. Which is how come I accidentally asked her the most rude and maladroit of questions as we were talking about not having children. “Did you mean to, and just forget?” She bristled a little. “I don’t see that as a closed window for me. I just don’t plan things. I live a month at a time. I also think, you know, it’s not such a great world ... ”
Without planning it, at the age of 42 she is in a remarkably advantageous position. Having never been in the market for straightforward romantic leads, she can’t be superannuated. She’s produced films and co-written one (The Anniversary Party, with Alan Cumming), there are other things she would like to write. She’s as passionate as she’s ever been about independent directors (at the moment, Lynn Ramsay, who directed Morvern Callar). She’s an independent spirit herself, which is probably what led someone to call Sean Penn her “male doppelganger”. She does a little smirk at this (she never laughs, exactly, but she will do smirking). “I don’t know ... he’s more likely to appear in things. I’m more likely to be watching them.” It strikes me here that she is so fascinated by acting as an artistic process, and so uninterested in every other aspect of it, that she sometimes forgets that she appears in films. Paradoxically, for the audience she forgets she has, this is what makes her so memorable
· The Machinist opens on March 18 and Palindromes on May 6.