So chameleonlike is Jennifer Jason Leigh, so thoroughly does she immerse herself in her film roles, that most folks don’t have a clear sense of what she’s like. “Isn’t she kind of quiet?” people will ask, or, “Bit of a weirdo, right?” When she walks into the Hana Lounge at Los Angeles’ Hotel Nikko (“Enjoy the tranquil setting of our lobby fountain!”), she looks incomplete without a knife or a drink or a heroin needle in her hand.
The reason for this is twofold: For one thing, the intensely private Leigh is rarely seen at Hollywood functions, nor will she reveal anything beyond the tiniest crumb of her personal life (she has two dogs). Thus it’s hard to get an idea of what her offscreen persona is. Secondly, Leigh has unflinchingly gone for out-there roles that would stretch any sane actress to the breaking point and thrown herself headlong into them. Let’s have a career rundown, shall we? She played a precocious virgin in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a tragically numb prostitute in Last Exit to Brooklyn (other prostitute roles: Miami Blues, The Men’s Club), a cocaine-snorting narc in Rush, a nut-job roommate in Single White Female and a house wife who does phone sex as she changes her kid’s diapers in Short Cuts. Throughout she was always brilliant (Short Cuts) or irritating (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle) but always provocative.
In fact, the 33-year-old Leigh, who showed up an unheard-of 15 minutes early, is soft-spoken, cordial and less guarded than she has been in the past. Petite, pale and clad in designer threads, she seems uncomfortable about being interviewed not so much because she jealously guards her privacy but because interviews are so … impolite. (After every other question that she was asked, she would say, “How about you?”)
Leigh’s latest role is that of a ravaged, heroin-addicted wanna-be singer who lives in the shadow of her successful older sister in Georgia, and her portrayal is a stunner. (As usual, she plunged into the part so thoroughly that she weighed in at 89 pounds for the heroin scenes.) Her character, Sadie, is heartbreakingly needy and desperate for an identity; Leigh plays it so believably, there’s talk of an Oscar nomination, particularly for one devastating scene in which she sings a Van Morrison song, “Take Me Back,” for a painful eight and a half minutes, during which time she pours out her guts so nakedly that it’s difficult to watch.
Leigh’s mother, Barbara Turner, of all people, penned the Georgia script (Leigh’s father is the late actor Vic Morrow). Turner obsessively researched the film by bopping around Seattle, hanging out in clubs and interviewing musicians. Although Turner was a constant presence on the set and the two are close, Leigh says that “the only thing I couldn’t have my mom watch was a scene where I’m having sex with my boyfriend. That was a little much.”
Settling into a chair with a pack of smokes, Leigh chatted unnoticed as hotel guests came and went. At one point a gaggle of a hundred name-tagged conventioneers shuffled past her, and not one looked her way. “I’m telling you, I never get recognized,” says Leigh, one of the most critically hailed actresses of her generation, not unhappily. Leigh is an actress in the truest sense: Unlike so many other I-just-want-to-act-I-don’t-care-about-the-limos Hollywood folk, it seems that she just wants to act.
Who do people mistake you for?
I’ve only had that happen twice. Once I was at the White House because they had a screening of The Hudsucker Proxy, which we thought was absolutely hysterical. We made this movie, and now we meet the president of the United States. He says, “What’s that movie you did where you play the assassin and the government hires you?” I said, “Oh, you’re thinking of Bridget Fonda.” And he came back after a brief pause and said, “Yeah, but she was in that other movie with you, too!” I said, “Yeah,” and then just asked about Chelsea.
Tell me about researching your role in “Georgia.” What did you think of the vibe in the film’s locale, Seattle?
I hadn’t really spent much time there before the movie, but I’d always liked my notion of it — that it rains all the time, and there’s great music there, and I know people that are successful and have the option to leave but don’t because they love it so much. Like Peter Buck, the sisters from Heart — they still live there. People just really love it. So I read everything that I could find on singers that seemed right. I mean, mostly Janis Joplin, really. I watched a lot of music stuff, a lot of Van Morrison and Chet Baker, that great documentary Let’s Get Lost. And I talked to people in rehab. It wasn’t like I was living there, but I was to some extent. The band was so great to be with, and we had two weeks of rehearsal, so we were singing for 12 hours every day. I’m not much of a singer, as you know from seeing the movie, but I never lost my voice.
Have you sung before in any sort of public situation?
[Laughs] Oh, no, my dear. But I always loved to sing. Growing up, we used to sing all the time as a family.
Like the Von Trapps.
Yeah. Both my sisters have really glorious voices. So I grew up with this wall of sound around me that was incredible, and I couldn’t hear my own voice, so I always sang so loud and felt just great about it. I always sort of knew I wasn’t a great singer, but on this I was working with my little karaoke cheapo machine that I bought. I would carry it around and see my dog running for cover [makes yelping noises]. John Doe was great. He played in Seattle while we were up there rehearsing, and he invited me onstage, which was the first time I ever sang publicly. Can you imagine? I was terrified. I was standing in the audience at the Crocodile. So he called me up, and after two seconds I was fine. I was having the time of my life. We sang “Buckets of Rain” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and a song I wrote when I was 17. One of those angry-girl songs. He thought it was very, very funny.
A lyric, please.
Well, it’s called “Eat Shit and Die.”
When you talk to heroin addicts, do they give you full access?
I’ve been really lucky, because the people I’ve talked to have been really open and generous with me. I just want to do a good job, so I want to know everything I could possibly know. I’ve come to some kind of understanding of the feelings, of what it feels like: how heavy your eyes are and how warm you feel and how womblike it is. It scares me because it sounds so good. No anxiety, no pain. Unfortunately that happens the first couple of times you do it, and then when it becomes a habit, you have to do it just to feel OK. I’ve talked to people who have had amazing sex on heroin where they’ve come like nine times, and then after a while, they don’t even need to have sex anymore. I talked to one guy who said that nothing else becomes important any more. Your fix or buying groceries. What does he need groceries for? Nobody really needs to eat. Things like that. Nothing becomes as important. What I do is, I tape it when I talk to someone, and then I transcribe it. So I have great collections of people talking to me.
Have you seen someone try to kick the habit?
Well, my sister Carrie was a heroin addict. She was on the set a lot with me helping us do stuff. Where the pain hits in the legs and the calves? That’s why it’s called kicking, because you literally are kicking at things to stop the spasming in your calves because it’s so painful. And you get cold and hot; nothing can be on your skin; your skin is incredibly sensitive; you’re puking; you’re having diarrhea because your body can’t handle anything. The reason they call it cold turkey is because the skin on your arms looks like turkey flesh. And you’re coughing; all this stuff is sort of coming up; you look really yellow. The pain is unimaginable, and if you have a habit, you can get into that pain; you just don’t do it in the morning when you wake up. That’s why they call it a wake-up.
So Carrie was a makeshift consultant on the set?
Yeah. She’s helped me throughout on so many things. She’s about to have her fourth year sober. Now she’s the most grounded of all of us. She’s the most amazing woman I know. She lives in Minnesota; she’s going to become a drug counselor.
How long was she on heroin?
A long time. I think off and on for about 13 years.
Did she keep it hidden from you for a while?
Yeah. I didn’t know about it for a really long time, and then she went into rehab for the first time. And I flew up; it was in Oregon. I had a feeling about it, but I didn’t really know. So that was the first time. The first week someone’s in detox, they’re really out of it. She doesn’t remember anything. I remember everything of that week.
Were you scared?
What scared me was how close to death she was. You have so much hope because they’re in rehab. And that’s scary because hope is a scary thing, you know? I just love her so much. Anyway, she went somewhere else, and it didn’t take, either. Then she went to Hazelden, and it was the real thing.
How would she help you?
I asked from the most banal to the most personal questions. Like junkies don’t like to shower because you don’t want to dilute what’s in your system. You want to hold on to it as long as possible.
I have a feeling that in that scene in the airport in “Georgia” when you’re strung out, that was your own grime.
Uh, yeah. I hadn’t bathed in five days.
So how did Carrie inspire you?
She was all gut instinct. No bullshit. And I was always monitoring. I think she was born that way. I was born already introverted. It’s just my nature. My other sister, Mina, is nine years younger [than me]. She’s coming over tonight, and we’re going to watch animal documentaries.
She’s doing a play, and she’s basing her character on an animal. I recommended hyenas because they’re so despicable. We’re watching hyenas and lions. Hyenas are a matriarchal society, and they have penises that don’t function.
In “Georgia,” you and Mare Winningham, who plays your sister, have a love-hate relationship. How about offscreen?
I’ve known Mare since I was 14. We went to the same arts camp. She was 17. She was the best actress at the camp, and she had this voice from God, and at night she would sing these songs that she had written. I still remember the words and melodies to those songs.
How many takes did you do on the song “Take Me Back?”
Two. I would have liked to have done it six times, but we didn’t have the time or the money.
Is it difficult to watch?
No. It’s only difficult if I think my performance is bad. I’ve seen movies that I haven’t liked my performance in, and I’ve left. I’ve walked out on myself. Pretty much the earlier stuff.
What’s your “best” bad early career movie?
Oh, boy. The first movie I did was a real B-horror-film called Eyes of a Stranger, which I’m sure is ungodly bad.
Can you give me a bad line or two that you had to say with a straight face?
Oh, that’s easy. I had no dialogue. I was blind, deaf and dumb because I was raped when I was a little girl. And then toward the end of the movie, there’s an attempted rape, and then I get all my senses back. Mm. Not great. Of course, I was so happy because I got to learn Braille.
Of course. Do you know it now?
Back to “Take Me Back.”
I started learning that song before I went to Seattle. I’ve probably listened to that song more than 500 times because I wanted it to be as close to Van Morrison as I was capable. The night we shot it, we had the stadium and 5,000 people. And the way we got people was, we got a lot of local bands like Green Apple Quick Step to perform. The people started a mosh pit, and it got completely insane. And I was raffling off T-shirts and toaster ovens in between takes. It was so heightened and so unreal. For three days afterward, we all walked around in a semicoma.
That song is more than eight minutes long, which could make or break audience sympathy.
Well, it’s exactly what you want in a certain way. Some people think it’s an embarrassment and, “When is she going to stop and get off the stage?” And that’s exactly what it should be. It’s Sadie’s moment. Some people will think it’s great, some people will think it’s the worst thing they’ve ever heard, and two minutes of that would be more than enough.
Did you keep a journal in Sadie’s voice, as is your custom?
Yes. Some days I’d write a lot, some days I wouldn’t write anything. Two composition books.
But you yourself don’t keep one.
No. I can’t do it. Even when I was really young — this is embarrassing to admit — I couldn’t keep an honest journal. When I was 16,I would write about a girl who had snubbed me, and at the end, I would write, “But she’s so nice.”
How have you changed the most in the last five years?
When I was really young, I wouldn’t allow myself to feel a lot of things. I had no concept of jealousy. No concept of envy. These are human emotions; everybody has them, but when my friends would tell me about painful situations that they were in, it was completely alien to me. I couldn’t empathize. It’s weird, because when I saw Last Exit to Brooklyn, the character Tralala was a lot like the way I used to be. I wasn’t a prostitute, but I wouldn’t let myself feel. That was frightening to see. Now I feel those things. They don’t feel good, but that’s part of being alive.
So did your mom write this part with you in mind?
Yeah. I called her with this idea. I always wanted to play a singer because I love to sing, and I don’t have much of a voice, so I wanted to play a singer without much of a voice. I’m very close with my mom. She’s also my harshest critic.
Nobody nails you like a mother.
She’s just so fuckin’ smart. Of course, a daughter always wants to please her mother. Always. But it helps when the person you want to please is intuitive and brilliant. A lot of times she’ll help me with a script before I go to work on it.
One can’t help noticing that your character bears more than a passing resemblance to Courtney Love. Did you study up on her?
I did see similarities. They’re the same in certain ways — the way they project themselves — but Courtney Love is a great writer. I didn’t want to touch her. Maybe because she’s such a strong presence, I was afraid she’d kill me. No. I didn’t want to steal from her too directly.
So you got down to 89 pounds during the heroin scenes.
I was exhausted. You can’t play a junkie and be a normal weight. It’s just not believable. It was really easy for me to get that low. I didn’t even think about it. I was barely eating. I would have string cheese at night before I went to bed.
Is there any role that you would be uncomfortable doing?
Yeah, I have a real problem with generic female roles.
“Is something bothering you, honey?”
Right. Those kind of parts I wouldn’t go near. I would love to do more comedies.
Instead, you’re doing “Bastard Out of Carolina,” a devastating book and a grueling role.
Well, that’s what I love to do. The first thing I did after I read the book was call about the rights. Anjelica Huston is going to direct.
There’s Oscar talk about you in “Georgia.” You would like to get one, I assume?
It would be like having the best cake you ever ate, but it’s cake. It doesn’t change your life.
Is there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview?
No! Absolutely not. It’s so painful.
I smoke. I like gambling. I don’t go to Hollywood parties, I’m just not part of the scene. I’m a pretty private person and a pretty quiet person. I like to read, I like to see my friends and play with my dogs.
You were a Hollywood kid. Give me an only-in-Hollywood story.
When I was a kid, I lived about three blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. It was really safe then. So my friends would come over, and we’d go to the wax museum, and as a dare we’d get inside the booths and pose as wax figures. Sonny and Cher were in one, but there was no Chastity yet, so we’d dare each other to get in as Chastity.
What does the average Joe think you’re like now?
They go, “Who?”