Jennifer Jason Leigh’s body of work is so immense, I was tempted to poetically recite the titles of her films to her in the style of James Lipton during our interview. But we had only about 25 minutes to chat, so there wasn’t enough time. Leigh has been acting since she was in her teens, with her breakout roles happening in 1981 (the TV movie about anorexia and bulimia The Best Little Girl in the World) and 1982 (Fast Times at Ridgemont High). She’s played a stalker (Single White Female), a rocker (Georgia), a video-game designer (eXistenZ), Dorothy Parker (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle), a 19th century heiress (Washington Square), sex workers (Last Exit to Brooklyn, Short Cuts, Miami Blues), and voiced a puppet (Anomalisa). At age 55, she’s working consistently with a number of high-profile gigs, including the current season of Twin Peaks, the Netflix series Atypical and the upcoming film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s beloved novel Annihilation—Leigh credits her Oscar-nominated turn in Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 film The Hateful Eight for the recent boost her career has received.
We met Thursday in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel to discuss another recent role of hers, as Corey, the neurotic love interest of Robert Pattinson’s Connie in Josh and Benny Safdie’s thrilling Good Time, in theaters today. Though Leigh is on screen in just a few scenes, she gives the kind of arrestingly visceral performance we’ve come to expect from her over the past four decades (she credits the detailed backstory the Safdies provided as helping her commit in such a relatively brief role).
Paparazzi swarmed outside the Bowery, as well as inside—her co-star Pattinson was also in the building—as Leigh and I chatted about Good Time and her career in general. I found her to be matter of fact, down to earth, and humble; she whispered and/or qualified anything that came out of her mouth that could be read as a brag. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: I’ve been watching you all my life, but I was almost shocked going over your filmography in preparation for this interview. Does it ever strike you how vast your body of work is?
JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: I don’t think about it that much, so it’s weird when I’m confronted with it. Then I realize, “Jesus, I was a lucky girl.”
Also talented, right?
Thank you... yeah. I think both things come into play.
Totally, and luck is underrated by the successful.
There are so many good actors out there. I also got lucky with the directors I worked with. So many directors I admire.
I was wondering how existential you are about your life and career, or whether work is just work for you.
I still really love what I do, especially when you’re working with great people, like the Safdies are so crazy good, and Quentin [Tarantino]. There was almost a similar life force in the way they approached movie-making. Obviously, the Safdies are doing it on a much smaller scale, but they have the same incredible enthusiasm that Quentin has, and the same feeling that you don’t really know what’s going to happen next. Their filmmaking is so visceral and exciting. It fosters a joy on the set that is rare. Quentin was working with a huge budget—for me—you know, really expensive film, all this stuff, but it was all joyous working with him. And everybody bringing their best because it’s where you want to be. I loved working with Josh and Benny so much. It was too short.
How many days were you with them on set?
Two. Incredible, but I think they’re so brilliant.
What made you work with them in the first place?
I’d loved Daddy Longlegs and they’re friends with Owen Kline who’s my best friend’s son. He called me and told me they had written this thing for me and was it okay to give them my number and my email. I said, “Sure, of course.” They reached out. They had written this whole back story for the character with all these images. There was stuff from the film they were showing me for mood. It was incredibly beautiful, detailed work. Then they just showed me the pages, so I didn’t really know what the rest of the movie is about. That’s exciting. Obviously there’s a lot of trust involved, but when you know the people you’re working with are that talented, you can sort of go blindly into it.
When you shoot for two days, is there any difference in commitment on your end versus a role you shoot for several weeks or months?
No. Having all that information from them and all those images... a lot of times I work with photographs that help me connect. To have that back story down to, like, meeting [Robert Pattinson’s character] Connie in a drug store, really specific. My entire relationship with my mother, what medications my character was on, I mean so detailed. All the stuff that happened between my mom and Connie—all this stuff is offscreen but it informs your performance, obviously. And they did it for every single character. They love the minutiae, and I think because that’s as telling as dialogue.
It’s interesting how that ranges from actor to actor—some thrive on not knowing too much about their characters, whereas from what I’ve read about your process, at least in some movies, you immerse yourself. I read that you stayed in character the entire time you filmed Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.
Yeah, I mean, I talked like her the whole time so that I wouldn’t lose that and I wouldn’t be self-conscious because it was a very distinct accent. Certain jobs are different and you don’t have that same joy and passion and the set doesn’t feel as alive and exciting to be on, but when it happens and you have that it really makes being an actor just the best job, just so much fun. It brings you back to childhood in a really pure way. You have to, as an actor, believe that the person you’re acting with is that person. You pray that they believe that of you. Otherwise, you can’t really be free. Rob was incredible that way. Seeing him here [doing press] speaking with his natural accent, it’s so hard for me to... and he looks so different. I met him as Connie. Of course he treated my character in a certain way to get things he needed.
It’s so rare to see May-December romance on screen where the woman is older. Did that occur to you?
I didn’t think about it at all because she doesn’t think of herself that way. She’s mentally ill as well. She’s on a hoopla of concoctions and cocktails of drugs that she should probably not be on, but I think she sees him as her peer. And that’s how we came at it. There were never any conversations: “Is this weird?”
That convention bucking is true of your career in general. You have worked consistently since your teens, and your work as consistently refuted the idea that there are no good roles for women over 30, 35, 40. Given that, what do you think about ageism in Hollywood?
I think ageism exists everywhere. I do think it exists in Hollywood. I think all the cliches are true and that’s why they’re cliches. They’re not that interesting to me. I do think there are great, great, great parts to be had at any age, really. Obviously there are more parts when you’re in your 20s and 30s. Things start to slow down in your mid-40s, probably. But there’s such good stuff to do and so many great people to work with. I’m also fortunate. I went through a phase where I wasn’t working hardly at all. I had Rohmer in 2010 then I wanted to stop working and had the luxury of being able to be home. And then I just didn’t work for a little while after that, just taking things as they came to make money, but I couldn’t really leave town and I didn’t really want to take things that were too long. And then The Hateful Eight came. So I was very fortunate that I had that time I needed and then I got one of the best roles of my career and now it’s much easier for me.
Do you think the Oscar nomination helped with that?
I think all of it helps, yeah.
Have you cared about awards, historically? Are there days where you think about Georgia and say, “I was robbed”?
My mom thought I was robbed for Georgia. I really loved that movie. But the thing is...I loved that movie. Would it have been nice? Sure, of course. I loved being nominated for The Hateful Eight. It means a lot. I always say it quietly because I get embarrassed. It’s not only helpful, it’s nice to be acknowledged in that way, especially as a kid growing up in Hollywood, we had an Oscars party every year. It was a big deal when the Oscars were on. I grew up in Hollywood, in the business, so it was really nice to be able to tell my mom, “I’m nominated.” It was meaningful. Her response was, “It’s about time. What category?” She wasn’t even hearing that well at the time and I kind of said it just really quietly early in the morning and she heard it clear as day. I knew it was something that meant a lot to her. It was nice to be able to have that.
Yeah, it’s funny. I felt like [Tarantino] didn’t treat her differently than any other character. In fact, a lot of women love the character of Daisy in The Hateful Eight because she’s such a badass. She’s tough and she can take it and she’s very smart, so I think a lot of women really liked her character and felt empowered by it. I don’t think Quentin was thinking of Daisy as this delicate flower. I think he was thinking of her as a Manson girl.
Despite her name.
Yeah. She’s never raped, she’s never sexualized, she’s never objectified. She’s just treated like a criminal.
Do you think about the broader view of your career and how it all has come together when you choose your roles?
I’m really not a careerist. That’s probably hurt me in certain ways. I’ve turned down things that would have been great for me to have done for whatever reasons: fatigue or just wanting time off or not getting it or whatever. I don’t call my agents all the time. I just don’t do all that stuff. I’m not very extroverted. In fact I’m introverted, so I don’t do the party thing. I’m not good at all that. I’m good at acting... and not always. But that’s what I can do. Chatting and all that stuff, small talk...
I thought it was endearing that you were nervous on Conan earlier this week.
Oh yeah, I was very, very nervous. It’s one thing doing an interview like this where it’s one-on-one, there’s no cameras and there’s no audience, but put a camera and audience here, and I’d be a disaster right now. I’d be so, so nervous. One thing I love about acting is you get to reveal parts of yourself but you get to stay hidden at the same time. You’re communicating something but nobody knows what’s you and what’s the character. And that’s a really beautiful lifeline. But I don’t like talking as myself. It’s outside of my comfort zone.
It’s wild to think that you’ve been in the public eye for so long but never had a big scandal or anything like that.
No, I’ve never courted that kind of fame.
So many people who start as teens in Hollywood either melt down or fade out. You have endured, you didn’t have a major blowup. Do you have any theories as to why?
I’ve had a very undramatic life, and it’s a life I chose. My older sister, she just passed away last year, she had a really horrible, tough, tough life. I saw it young. My personality, I built it in opposition. I saw what she was going through and I was like, “I don’t want to get attention that way, I don’t want things to be that hard.” So while she was screaming or cutting her hair off or smoking cigarettes—and I’m talking five years old—I would be like cleaning the room. Or making something in the kitchen or trying to make peace. My thing was all about no drama and trying to make things better for everyone. She was like, temper tantrums and that ended up turning into drug abuse. It’s really sad. I think in acting, there’s a way of getting close to something like that, but it’s not real. I don’t want drama in my life, but it’s fun to act it. It helps me sort of understand. My sister was a mystery to me because she had such a good heart. Like, why would you court chaos?
The reason I asked about the arc of your career is because it seems like earlier in your career you tended to play characters who were embattled or victims, and as time went on the characters you’ve played have strengthened.
That’s interesting. But because I don’t plan it, I don’t know. I love playing all different kinds of women, so I don’t know if that’s something more cultural about how parts are shifting culturally for women, or if it’s just being seen differently, or if I bring something different to it. I don’t know.
It’s very surreal. The movie is very dreamy, it’s beautiful. It’s very trippy. I’m not sure that I completely understand it, but there’s also all the stuff of the marriage and the deterioration of the marriage. Natalie Portman’s amazing in it, her stuff with Oscar [Isaac] is so, so good. It really grounds the film, how things morph and change and become something other. It’s really interesting. I think [director] Alex Garland is so talented.
I do, too. You mentioned roles that would have been good for your career had you not turned them down. Can you think of any of them?
I don’t say them because first of all it makes me look like an idiot, and secondly the people who ended up doing the role were great and the movie was great. I wouldn’t have had that—and got to see that performance—if I had done it.