Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Jennifer! Jason! Leigh!"

I require your patience and forgiveness. I really do. When one speaks to an actor of the caliber of Jennifer Jason Leigh, a woman long respected for rather shocking actorly dives into grueling often tortured women (think Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn or the disintegrating Sadie in Georgia), one should probably begin with solemn acknowledgement of their skill with the craft. But when I spoke with the one and only Jennifer Jason Leigh I actually kicked things off with a sitcom aside. "So, um Jennifer. How did you feel about Jack McFarland taking your name in vain on Will & Grace all those years. (He had such a thing for the three name actresses)?"

I don't know what possessed me. I'm really not this geeky and socially awkward in real life. Thankfully, Jennifer chuckled -- presumably for my embarrassed benefit --providing the laugh track that I needed and went with the question. She informed me that she heard about it second hand, later saw a couple of episodes and assumed it was meant with love. "A good thing, right?" She asked, already knowing the answer.

Trying to save face, I quickly moved into professional interviewer mode and we took a trip back to the 80s and her rise to fame. I asked her about those heady days, particularly in the late 80s and early 90s when critics were regularly found cracking open thesauri to find new ways to top each other in their genuflection to the girl with three first names. A critical darling she most decidedly was... and is, I should add, now that she's back to work in Margot at the Wedding.

When confronted with my curiosity about her breakthrough years, she didn't elaborate much beyond "It was a good time for me. I got to do really exciting stuff" but there was gratitude in her voice and no pretense whatsoever that she doesn't read reviews, god bless. Don't you hate when actors pretend that? I found her down to earth throughout the interview and altogether lacking in pretense. She acknowledged that it's great to read kind words about your work.

Jennifer Jason Leigh inspired heated critical devotion and public lust in equal measure as far back as Fast Time at Ridgemont High (1982) but she has never been the sort of star actress about whom the public knew too much. She was never a tabloid fixture, always an actor first, star second. I was curious to know, then, if she had experienced in this time of junkies and whores any confusion from others about where her characters ended and where she began? She admitted that it had come up romantically at the time ... "sometimes you would go on a date and you could tell that someone was expecting you to be very dramatic or very high strong or wild... all these things that I'm not at all." So she is not her characters at all? "I'd much rather play those things than be those things" she added. Terrific answer... especially when you stop to consider the things she'd be if she were the things she played.

When asked how she had chosen her roles, Jennifer rattled through her answer to a question she'd obviously been asked a million times. She humored me anyway. For her it's not an intellectual approach so much as a "do I connect to the character?" decision. She hastened to add that "the director will come into play too. I might not see it in the page but if I like the person..." When it comes to roles she's turned down she added with honest amusement "I've made mistakes... [long pause in which I swear I did not ask but in which time Jennifer Jason Leigh read my nosey mind] I won't tell you what they are." Defeated before I'd begun I tried anyway, asking for one tiny morsel, one secret could-have-been because I have no shame. She said "I just can't do it. I would really come off like a..." her voice trailing off more in thought than annoyance I think, for she then gave a measured response about loving certain movies that she didn't think would be right for her and wishing she had made them -- at the same time fully aware that they would have been different if she had and she often respected what the other actress had done.

We talked about the directors she had worked with in the past. For those unfamiliar with her filmography, a JJL viewing frenzy is rewarding in the auteur arena...

READ THE REST for more on her enduring career, the long line of Oscar snubs, working with David Cronenberg and Robert Altman. Plus: Nicole Kidman's generosity and "willingness to believe"


Michael B. said...

Great interview. She seemed pretty laid back and real. And SAG will tell us if she will be nominated at the Oscars. Loved the article.

lawyer tony fernando said...

oh Nathaniel I loved your interview with her, she seems an amazing human being, and I´d love to breath the same air that she´s (did you meet her or it was by the fone?).
The question about Bale was perfect, the Will and Grace, hum, you have to ask that to SJP and SMG and JLH too!
Congrats!!! Amazing interview!

Cinesnatch said...

Great interview. Hah! I just realized one of my favorite episodes of "W&G" is called "Last Ex to Brooklyn" (the one where Grace prepares Thanksgiving for everyone and her and Leo's place and Mira Sorvino plays the only woman Will has ever slept with ... classic!)

Boyd said...

Sorry to sound repetitive, but, yeah, great interview!!

Anonymous said...

Great interview !!

Now can you do the same with La Kidman ?


that's pretty funny. Well according to so many readers here, Nicole is OVER. so maybe! before long she'll be appearing on late night cable access -ha ha ;) JOKING obviously. I imagine the waiting list for the second most famous actress on the planet (well according to famousr at least) is years long and requires a national magazine or highly rated talk show to qualify

Anonymous said...

Peter, Paul & Mary! Great interview!


oh and I hope y'all appreciated that I actually asked a few questions from the readers. If the interviews keep up maybe i'll make that a regular thing. ya dig?

SusanP said...

Very insightful interview, Nat.

I especially liked the tidbit about how some of her more "out there" parts crept their way into the expectations people had of her in her personal life. It was intriguing without being gossipy.

Great job and hope to read more Film Experience interviews soon.

Anonymous said...


Thanks .
JJL is truly one of the greats ... uncompromising, true to her art, and - yes - extreemly undervalued by Oscar. I first saw JJL in 'The Hitcher' when I was about 14. Ever since then I have felt rather protective of her, in true admiration of her craft, and daring ability to take risks that most Hollywoog actors never do - to go to one's edge. Unfortunately, in this day in age of so much material 'star' pampering, going to one's edge seems to be feared rather than celebrated.( The days of Stanislovski's method seems very numbered ) JJL is an artist who ranks up there with Brando - and even ( if I dare say ) James Dean. I hope to see her in many more performances, and new shadings to her gallery of interesting characters in film projects to come ...
Say, wouldn't be terrific to see her play a Silent film star, akin to Lillian Gish ? She crtainly is anachronistic enough material for any place in time. Long live the career of JJL !