Director Quentin Tarantino is known for his cleverly written scripts and extremely violent films, and his latest movie, “The Hateful Eight,” is both talkative and really bloody.
It’s a western that centers on a fugitive named Daisy Domergue — played by Jennifer Jason Leigh — who is destined to be hanged. But a snowstorm forces Daisy and a bounty hunter to take shelter in a remote cabin where a lot of bad things start happening.
Leigh is coming off one of her most successful years as an actress. In 2015, she voiced the part of Lisa in the critically acclaimed animated film “Anomalisa.” Now she has an Academy Award supporting actress nomination for her role in “The Hateful Eight.” Leigh’s early credits include “Single White Female,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” and “Short Cuts.”
After becoming a mom, she did fewer movies and was mostly cast in smaller indie films. The Frame's John Horn spoke with Jennifer Jason Leigh about how she almost gave up on acting, the awkward and intimate sex scene in "Anomalisa," and how acting in a Quentin Tarantino film and Charlie Kaufman film changed her life.
What roles were being offered to you before you got attention for your roles in "Anomalisa" and "The Hateful Eight?"
Really, almost nothing. I mean I was wondering maybe I'll just start writing. I've done some writing and that seems like a lovely way to make a living, and I was focused. I have a child who is very young so I was doing a lot, like I was doing dioramas and things like that, and that was my life. I wasn't acting very often at all and really taking what came my way that I could potentially pay a few bills with, and thinking that I had a really nice run and just being grateful for what I had achieved, and realizing that this might be it.
Because of what? Because you reached a certain age? What had happened? You weren't any less an actor.
No, exactly, but at the same time as an actor you don't have much control. You don't get to choose what you do and when you do it. I find that even in the past when I've done plays — and this is gonna be sort of a terrible thing to say — but if you do a play for 10 or eight months, it just takes you out of the film world for that amount of time and it's harder to get back in. Then also envision having a child and then the first job you do when having a child is doing a play.
So you're penalized for having a life and having varied interests as an actor.
Well, except that all those other things are great and doing a play is really rewarding and fun, but in terms of film, it makes it harder. So I never expected to have two films come out this year that I love so much and that are probably two of the best characters that I've had an opportunity to play.
One of those films is "Anomalisa" written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and the other is Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight." I mean there couldn't be anything more different in these roles but also incredibly unique people.
Yeah, that's also what's fabulous for me is that the roles could not be farther apart and it's just a strange coincidence that they're coming out exactly at the same time, because we voiced "Anomalisa" two years and just because it's stop-motion animation that it takes — they shot literally if they were lucky two seconds a day. There's a sex scene in the movie that took six months to shoot, voicing it took three days.
But watching that scene as a movie-goer is incredibly intimate and uncomfortable. What was it like to have voiced the performance of that scene?
Yeah, David Thewlis and I were farther apart than you and I are right now. So we were about six feet apart in a dark room with these mics and it was probably the most intimate, the most awkward and uncomfortable sex scene I've ever done. I've done sex scenes where I was completely naked with an another actor and this felt far more intimate. I have no idea why, but I think it has something to do with the truth of the writing and the awkwardness of the encounter and how honest it is and how it's done real-time. Also, we had nothing to hide behind. You feel so naked when it's just your voice in a certain way.
You're making a fascinating point that you're more naked with your clothes than when you're naked on a set.
Yeah, and not touching the other actor in a sense. It's so mortifying to watch, but I also love it.
What does it feel like to be at that point where you weren't sure of where your next job was going to be or if there was going to be a next job to ending the year with two incredibly performances. Does that reinvigorate your interest in acting and does your phone now start ringing?
Yes, my life changed dramatically, it really did. It also reminded me how much making these movies reminded me of how much I do love acting and it is a big part of who I am, and it's something I kind of forgot about, that's so nice for me.
What is it like being a mom and an actor and how do you figure out a good balance between those two things?
Because acting is such an odd world, I also grew up as a child of actors and writers. My mom's a screenwriter and before that she was an actress, and my father was an actor, my step-father was a director so I was on sets a lot as a kid. I loved the magic of the set. You walk in and it's a living room and you walk outside and it's just a piece of wood held up by another piece of wood.
There's a lot of magic involved in movies that as a child I really appreciated. So I love bringing my son to set. It reminds me of what I loved doing as a child and also as an actor you have a lot of down time. So you're not always on as if you're directing the movie or if you're the director of photography of the movie, and the shoot is two or three months, so the rest of the year a lot of times you're not working. I sort of spend every moment that I'm not working doing things with my son. You do the best you can and you make the most of the time you have.
People who have done Quentin Tarantino movies know that you show up knowing all your lines and you don't deviate from the script, but Quentin and your co-star Samuel L. Jackson have talked about what you brought to Daisy in terms of gestures and unexpected looks. What is the liberation as an actor when you know you're not gonna vary the words but you can vary performance through looks and gestures?
Quentin's theory is that if you're ever searching for a line, you cannot ever be fully alive, and then that moment that's inspired can never come. It's really true. You really have to know those lines backwards and forwards and the lines are so good, there's no reason to change them. Honestly, being in those scenes with those other actors, I was constantly engaged in the moment because I was surprised every time because the dialogue is so rich. Things seem to springboard and every take does feel different and new and you feel tremendously free and the scenes feel incredibly alive.
I am someone that's shy. So for me, to be able to communicate inside of Daisy or play Daisy — someone, for a lot of it, doesn't speak and she is feral and mysterious at the same time. It was so much fun because I'm pretty private and if I can keep my mouth shut for most of the day, I will.
Is that why you're an actor?
Well, you can communicate so much about yourself when you're playing other people, but it's all very private. No one knows what is me and what is Daisy. No one else will know, I know, and yet I can disappear into these women and also play things that I have no idea what they're like and completely come out of myself in a way I would never have the courage to do. I'm a fraidy cat. I play everything very safe in my life so I think that's why I like characters that don't.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is nominated for an Oscar for "Best Supporting Actress" for her role as Daisy Domergue in "The Hateful Eight."