Jennifer Jason Leigh Thought Her Career Was Over Until Quentin Tarantino “Resurrected” Her

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Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight. Photo: Courtesy

Jennifer Jason Leigh does not look glamorous in Quentin Tarantino’s new film The Hateful Eight, out December 31. As outlaw Daisy Domergue, Leigh scowls her way through the three-hour Western, one eyed blackened and her nose frequently dripping blood. The film, a violent, harsh drama that is heavily male-dominated, finds Daisy a prisoner of Kurt Russell’s John Ruth, who is taking her to be hanged for murder. Leigh’s expressive and complex portrayal of Domergue’s has earned her numerous accolades, including a Golden Globe Best Supporting Actress nomination. It’s a far cry from her other new film, Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion tale Anomalisa (out December 30), in which Leigh provides the voice of a very self-conscious woman named Lisa. We spoke with Leigh at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills recently about embodying these two very different women, working with Russell and how The Hateful Eight feels like a career resurrection.

Yahoo Style: As an actress, was there something specific about The Hateful Eight that was exciting to you?

Jennifer Jason Leigh: Well, it’s such an epic. The character reveals herself very very slowly. Usually scripts use dialogue to communicate a character and with much of the first couple of chapters Daisy says very little. But she’s pivotal. That was a real pleasure for me to sink into. And Quentin really wanted to find her internally. It’s easy to slap on some tough attitude and go for a result and he didn’t want that at all. He wanted it to come from inside. He wanted Daisy to be organic and he wanted us to find her together, to find everything about her together.

How did he help you do that?

He’s so brilliant and he’s so kind. He had me come up to Telluride to do a hair and makeup test. I got there and I went to his house and he said ‘You know, I don’t really need to do a hair and makeup test with you. I just want to play you a piece of music.’ And of course, he has a turntable. He played it for me and said, ‘I’d like you to play that in Minnie’s. You play guitar?’ I said ‘No, I don’t. Actually I’ve never held a guitar in my life.’ He said ‘Well, I have faith that you’ll be able to do it. We’ll get you a teacher and you’ll learn it and you’ll do it.’ And that was just the best thing he gave me. That got me into Daisy so quickly. Daisy is trying to survive. She will do anything to survive – she’s being brought to be hanged! There’s a lot at stake here. So I wanted to do anything I could to give Quentin the vision that he had.

Is liberating as an actress to look beat-up and bloodied for most of a movie?

Absolutely, it is. I just played Ladybird Johnson [in next year’s LBJ] – talk about liberating. But some of Bob Richardson’s lighting is so beautiful that there’s moments with Daisy where I’m like, ‘Wow, I look really beautiful in that shot.’ There are scenes where I do look just heinous, but then there’s other moments where the lighting is just beautiful. There’s a part of Daisy that Quentin captures and keeps and lets you ponder on. That’s really amazing to me.

Daisy gets slapped around by men a lot in the film. How do you become okay with that as the actress playing her?

She’s gets a lot of her sense of self and her ego from being tough and being able to take it. She’s like, ‘Go ahead, give me what you’ve got! Is that the best you have? Well that doesn’t mean much to me. You’re not going to see me cry. You’re not going to break me.’ And there’s a moment where she nearly does, but she just won’t. She steels herself and she won’t and that’s very telling. I feel like you get a lot about her childhood in that moment and you get a lot about who she is. I think it just shows you how tough she is. She’s with all these guys and she’s the toughest one.

With Tim Roth and Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight. Photo: Courtesy

Did you like being onset for so long with a bunch of guys?

I loved it! First of all, they’re the greatest guys on the planet. Really, it was like a dream job. They’re all so brilliant and so generous and kind and funny. I remember saying to them one day, ‘I want to thank you guys because you never made me feel like the woman. You never treated me any differently.’ And yet I also felt very protected and cared for. It was the nicest place to be.

You can tell that you and Kurt Russell are really enjoying yourselves.

It’s a weird marriage the two of them have. A little of the Stockholm Syndrome applies. And we just found that. It just happened organically. We rehearsed for a long time and then we shot for a long time. In a certain way, they are connected. Were it a different time, had they met in a different way, you know, who knows? But when he wasn’t at my side, when I wasn’t cuffed to him, I missed him.

Were you actually hand-cuffed together?

We were actually cuffed, yes.

Did the cuffs hurt?

Yes, they did. At times they hurt, not always. But yeah, they’re real and you got locked in.

That sounds scary.

No. Not if you’re with Kurt Russell. He’s the best dance partner ever.

You first acted in Anomalisa ten years ago as a play. Did you ever think Charlie Kaufman would come back to you and say it was going to be a movie?

No, but I was desperate to do it again. I really loved played Lisa. She’s such a beautiful character. I loved doing that role. We only did it two nights at Royce Hall so I was often seeing Charlie and saying, ‘When are we going to do it again?’ There were these rumors of going to Australia with it. He finally called me and told me – and that was over two years ago – that we were going to do it as a stop-motion animated movie. I was beyond thrilled.

It’s an incredibly intimate movie, which seems unexpected for puppets.

I had a really strange thing [watching it] where I kept getting drawn in and forgetting they were puppets and then remembering and then getting drawn in. And I’m in it! It’s me, but it’s not me. There’s something about the puppets that allows everyone to project themselves on to them in a certain way. It becomes more intimate and you become more emotionally involved. You experience it in a very real way.

And you sing in both movies.

I know. It’s really funny.

Had you sung onscreen before?

I sang in Georgia. I love singing. I sing all the time. It’s just something in me. If you say something and it strikes the memory of a lyric, I will sing it… But in my family I have the worst singing voice, but I still love singing. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do Georgia. It’s especially touching to me that Charlie wrote [Anomalisa] and it’s all about the voice and he wanted me.

Showing off her shiner in The Hateful Eight. Photo: Courtesy

There’s a lot of attention on both your performances. How much have you been paying attention to awards season?

I haven’t gone online so much. So I don’t know. I haven’t been following anything. That’s what I feel so fortunate about this year is to have two of my favorite roles in movies that I’ve made coming out at the same time. It’s remarkable. And at this age and this time in my life. Who would have thunk it?

You didn’t have a sense you could be here?

No. I basically felt like, Okay, I’m a mom now and I’ve had a good run and I’m happy and that was nice, but it’s not really a big part of my life now. I hadn’t really worked for a long time. Quentin resurrected me. And I’m so glad because I rediscovered my love of acting, you know? Charlie’s thing I did two years ago and then they lost the financing, they lost the money, so I didn’t know if it was going to get finished. And that’s something that’s very dear to my heart. And then to be cast in this – I never thought that would happen for me.

What did it feel like to watch yourself in The Hateful Eight with that in mind?

It’s incredible for me. I’m still sort of stunned, I have to tell you. I love the movie. I really think it’s this huge, brilliant epic and so funny, but also strangely moving at the end. I still can’t believe I’m in it. I still look at the poster and I’m like Oh my God, I’m actually in this film. It’s too good to be true in a way.

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