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Jennifer Jason Leigh—Margot at the Wedding—10/13/07

Jennifer Jason Leigh started out as the child-actress daughter of a character actor (Vic Morrow) and a screenwriter (Barbara Turner), but before long she made her own name as an artist to be reckoned with. 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High propelled Leigh to the top stratum of young Hollywood, but Leigh quickly determined she'd rather play in edgy fare (Last Exit to Brooklyn, Miami Blues) than populist mainstream flicks (Backdraft, Single White Female, Road to Perdition). Among Leigh's many notable films are Rush, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Dolores Claiborne, Georgia, Bastard Out of Carolina, Washington Square, A Thousand Acres, eXistenZ, In the Cut, The Machinist, Palindromes, and The Jacket. She made two films with Robert Altman (Short Cuts and Kansas City) and two with the Coen Brothers (The Hudsucker Proxy and The Man Who Wasn't There). With friend Alan Cumming, she co-directed and co-starred in The Anniversary Party, and now she's collaborated for the first time with her husband, writer-director Noah Baumbach. Their film is Margot at the Wedding, and I spoke with the couple at San Francisco's St. Regis Hotel.

Groucho: Well, it seems to me that you're a true believer in the power of drama to enrich personal understanding and understanding of relationships. Is that something that you got just from experiencing drama or did you get that from your mother? Did she instill that in you? What were your formative experiences with it?

Jennifer Jason Leigh: Umm, yeah, I mean, definitely my mom has been a huge sort of inspiration in my life. I mean, she's an incredibly talented writer. She does a tremendous amount of research. She's really passionate about what she likes. She's passionate about what she doesn't like. And I grew up going to movies. So certainly, I formed a lot by my mom. Sure.

G: Were there particular actors or performances that inspired you to want to act one day yourself?

JJL: Me, yeah. For me it was—I mean one of the big ones was Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. You know, that was like—it made a huge impression on me. I had just never seen a performance that affected me in such a visceral way—or filmmaking like that. You know, it was just so alive, and there were these fringe characters that you just came to care so much about. You know, people that you would never look at twice walking down the street you suddenly couldn't take your eyes off of. I just thought it was remarkable that a movie could affect me that way and I wanted to make movies like that—

G: Pauline and Margot have these ways of belittling each other or so strongly being envious of each other that they do hurt—intentionally or not—

JJL: Mm-hm.

G: But is there any upside to this relationship that they're spending time together or would it be better if Margot never came?

JJL: No, I think they really love each other. I mean, obviously in this particular instance, Margot is going through a crisis—she's going through a breakdown. She's decided basically whether she's going to abandon her husband and her children. So this is not maybe the best time to come for a visit. (They laugh.) But I do think they love each other. I really do. I just don't think they know each other all that well anymore—[but] I just feel like I knew these women so well.

G: Having lived with the script?

JJL: Having lived with the script and all these different drafts. Like I knew so many things that maybe didn't end up in the final, final—

G: I want to talk a little bit about the process of making a film and your process as an actor. I know, as you said, you came to live with the script for so long that—this is probably a different process than you are used to—but once you got to rehearsal, on the set with the other actors, was there a sort of mutual process that everybody agreed upon, or were there different styles, would you say?

JJL: I don't think there were different styles, actually. I feel like we were all pretty similar in a weird way. I mean, even like Jack, who you wouldn't necessarily think would be similar, was similar. I think there was a kind of just openness and a willingness to sort of embrace these characters and make everything very real and very simple, and—you know, Noah does a lot of takes but not a lot of angles. So, for an actor, it's great because you get a lot of chances but you're not going to have to do it from a million different points of view. And so you feel like he's going to do it until he gets it. And then, you know, maybe it's going to be all in one. A lot of times it is, with Noah, you know. And so, it's great. And the set is very intimate and it's very focused. And we're all pretty focused people.

G: And you guys rehearsed in the sets, right?

JJL: We had two weeks of rehearsal, yeah. It began in New York, but then very shortly we moved onto the set. And then we had the whole house to work in, which was great.

G: Is it a legend, though, that you and Nicole Kidman and Jack Black spent time living together? Or is that true?

JJL: We all lived, like, next door. We all lived in the house. There was the house we shot in. Then there was our holding house, which was like our dressing room house, where we all had our things. And then we all lived like (indicating a small space) this far away from each other. So we were always in each other's homes. We didn't share a house to actually live live in. But we lived, like, next door-like—

G: You said that one of the great things about working with Noah is that he knows how to push you and how to talk to you. So how does one push you, and how does one talk to you on a set? What's useful, from a director, to your process?

JJL: Well, it's hard to say in a general way—it's because Noah knows me so well. So Noah knows what's real and what isn't with me, you know?

G: Right.

JJL: And I respect Noah a lot. And I trust him. So for me—it means a lot for me to trust someone. I mean, I take a lot of risks as an actress. So it's great to have a director who you know will catch you if you fall, you know? But with Noah, it's a different kind of risk-taking. It's—it's smaller in a way—

G: On other films, do you watch dailies, to test yourself—or do you trust yourself as a judge of —like you say, when you're taking a big risk?

JJL: Yeah, it depends on the movie. Sometimes—you know, in the old days we used to like—on Altman movies, everyone would go to dailies, you know? It was like a requirement.

G: That was the culture of the film.

JJL: Yeah. It was like a party, you know? A lot of directors don't like actors to see dailies. And now dailies are on DVD. So the communal, familial kind of wonderful thing about going to dailies doesn't exist anymore, really. And maybe someone still does it, but I don't think they do really so much anymore. It's not the norm. So watching dailies on a DVD on the TV is not so nice.

G: It doesn't tell you as much, either.

JJL: Uh, it gives you a bit of a feeling—I'll watch them occasionally, but it's not that—it's not the same—

G: I don't know if you ever think of it this way, but do you have an acting philosophy? There's a line in the film—"Do all people have to be one thing?"

JJL: Mm-hm.

G: And that struck me as sort of an actor's perspective.

JJL: Mm-hm.

G: Do you have a particular way of—when you approach a role, approach a script—getting to the heart of the character?

JJL: I mean, it changes—it's always evolving. So it's always changing. Sometimes I do character journals. And sometimes I do a lot of research. It can be practical, or it can more just sort of meeting people that are like the character or have a job like the character. But it's always different. So I just do whatever I think it takes. Sort of.

G: For that particular role?

JJL: Yes.

G: You're known for disappearing into your roles. But of course actors all put themselves out there—there's this great vulnerability. Is there a time when you're in a role and you feel vulnerable that you know that's a good sign—you know you're closer to the truth?

JJL: Yeah. That's a good sign.

G: Are there films of yours or roles of yours that felt particularly and personally revealing to you?

JJL: Umm, well the nice thing about acting is that you can be very revealing but only you know what it is that's being revealed, you know? So you can still be introverted and all that stuff. But you can communicate all the stuff about you that nobody knows what's what—

G: I have to ask about the "I spent the night with Arsenio Hall" T-Shirt.

JJL: Oh, yeah.

G: What's the story behind that?

JJL: Umm, I don't know. It's just a funny—

G: Did you choose that for the character?

JJL: No, it was in the script.

[For Groucho's interview with Noah Baumbach, click here.]

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