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“It feels incredibly sweet, it really does,” says Jennifer Jason Leigh of receiving her first Oscar nomination, in the best supporting actress category for her performance in Quentin Tarantino‘s The Hateful Eight, as we sit down to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I mean, to be recognized at this time in my life? I didn’t expect any of this, so it is absolutely lovely and I feel very happy and grateful.”
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Benicio Del Toro and Lily Tomlin.)
For much of her 40 years in the business, Leigh, 54, has been hailed by critics, as well as her peers, as one of the greatest actresses of her generation. It just took the Academy a little while to catch up. The daughter of the late actor Vic Morrow and screenwriter Barbara Turner, as well as the step-daughter of the late Reza Badiyi, she has always embodied an independent spirit of the sort that many talk about but few have the discipline or drive to maintain.
After her star-making role as “a good girl” in Amy Heckerling‘s “funny but poignant” 1982 dramedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Leigh shunned parts that might have made her an even bigger “name” in Hollywood, and instead gravitated toward quirky, eccentric, interesting outsiders. “They’re the most challenging to act and they’re the most fun to act,” she says, “because they’re the farthest away from my own experience and from who I am.”
Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and into first decade the 2000s, Leigh gave highly lauded performances on an annual basis. She played sex workers of one sort or another in 1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, 1990’s Miami Blues, 1993’s Short Cuts and 2004’s The Machinist — but not 1990’s Pretty Woman, which she passed on. She played a deranged roommate in 1992’s Single White Female, and a junkie in 1995’s Georgia, a story based on her troubled older sister that she commissioned her mother to write. And she even played Dorothy Parker in 1994’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.
Leigh became famous for her deep-dive preparation for her performances. For the 1981 TV movie The Best Little Girl in the World, in which she played an anorexic girl, and again for Georgia, she dropped massive amounts of weight. Prior to filming Last Exit to Brooklyn, she spent weeks figuring out how her character would walk. While making Single White Female, she papered her trailer with photos of her costar. And in advance of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, she stayed at the Algonquin Hotel and listened to recordings of Parker’s voice on a loop for weeks. “I love all that kind of research,” she says.
Around the end of the 21st century’s first decade, though, Leigh began to fade from the scene. In 2010, she split with her husband of five years, Noah Baumbach — for whom she starred in 2007’s Margot at the Wedding and 2010’s Greenberg, the latter of which she also co-wrote with him — just seven months after giving birth, at 48, to their son. “I love acting, but I am a mom and the roles just weren’t coming because of a mixture of things: because I’m not ambitious and because I’m older and I had a baby,” she says. She even thought about giving up acting altogether. “I really felt like I had said a graceful and completely happy goodbye to acting in a significant way,” she reflects. “And I had sort of made my peace with that.”
And then came 2015, a year in which she appeared in two of the finest roles of her career in two films that were released within a week of one another: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson‘s Anomalisa, a stop-motion animation film in which she plays Lisa, a quirky woman who experiences a weekend love affair with a famous author; and Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, in which she plays Daisy Domergue, a criminal being brought to her hanging by a bounty hunter.
Kaufman first wrote Anomalisa for a live-read performance a decade ago. “He wrote it for me and David Thewlis and Tom Noonan,” Leigh shares, “and I loved it when I read it. I mean, Lisa’s just one of the most beautiful characters I’ve ever read — so sweet and so lovely and I just couldn’t even believe that he thought of me, but I was thrilled.” Leigh “really loved playing her” and hoped that Kaufman would adapt the script for the big screen — “and then eight years ago he called me and said that we were gonna do it as a stop-motion animated movie, and I thought, ‘That’s a great marriage for this material.'” The resulting film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and has been nominated for the best animated feature Oscar. “My Lisa’s still my Lisa,” Leigh says of the film version of the character versus the stage version. “But when we started it I had just gotten married, and when we recorded it eight years later I was divorced and a single mom, so a lot had happened to me in those years. I understood the ending for Lisa in a more significant way, perhaps, but I also love how she still has so much hope.”
The opportunity to appear in The Hateful Eight was no less exciting or gratifying, especially because she’d been a fan of Tarantino since seeing his first film, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, and he had been a fan of her for even longer. (“He knows more about my career than I do,” she says.) They had crossed paths once before, at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, which hosted the world premieres of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction as well as The Hudsucker Proxy and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, both of which starred Leigh — those were the only three American films in competition — but it wasn’t until more than two decades later that Tarantino gave her a ring. “When you get called to come in and audition for Tarantino, it’s incredibly exciting,” confesses Leigh. “Honestly, I couldn’t believe it.” She continues, “I was so excited just to get the meeting and to get the audition because I really did feel kind of off the map a little bit.” She adds that Tarantino referred admiringly to specific scenes from her work dating back decades, which really touched her. “In this town, memory is short, but not with Tarantino,” she says. “It was so refreshing ’cause it reminded me that my work had meant something to someone, and to someone that I greatly, greatly admire. That’s a nice feeling.”
Leigh describes the experience of making The Hateful Eight as “probably the best time I ever had” on a set. “He demands a lot of you, but it’s so much fun to be on his sets,” she says — even in freezing Telluride, as the only woman on the set and spending much of her time chained to another actor. “As an actors’ director, he’s a genius, and he works in these very subtle, interesting, beautiful ways” she says, singling out a particular task he assigned her, involving a guitar, that proved to be the key to her character. “There was no way that I was not going to give him what he needed. I just would not fail him.”
For her performance in Anomalisa, Leigh is nominated for the best supporting actress Independent Spirit Award, and for her work in The Hateful Eight she has received even more accolades: she won the best supporting actress National Board of Review Award, was nominated for the Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA awards and is nominated the best supporting actress Oscar). “Being recognized for something that I loved so much is phenomenal,” she says. “It keeps it alive just a little bit longer.”
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