JENNIFER JASON LEIGH INTERVIEW
In recent years she’s had them all: William Baldwin on top of a fire engine (‘Backdraft’), Alec Baldwin on a kitchen table (‘Miami Blues’), and Jason Patric from behind (‘Rush’). It would seem that Jennifer Jason Leigh has notched up more steamy sex scenes in the last few years than many actresses groan through in a career – the stills of her erotic frolic with Rutger Hauer in ‘Flesh And Blood’ even made the pages of ‘Playboy’.
She may be prepared to bare all in the cause of art, but her much-in-demand acting talents have pushed her into the elite $1million per film bracket. She’s a couple of movies away from becoming a household name, but the good money has it happening sooner rather than later.
With a portfolio that boasts an array of finely drawn city low life characters (she’s played her fair share of prostitutes, rape victims and psychotics), her most applauded role to date was that of Tralala in ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’, the victim of the most harrowing gang rape scene in cinema history. But the Jennifer Jason Leigh now sitting in front of the tape recorder has neither the in-yer-face peroxide attitude of Tralala or the giggling naivety of hooker Susie Waggoner from ‘Miami Blues’. Having just seen Leigh go through two hours of drug hell as an undercover narcotics cop in her latest movie, ‘Rush’, it’s hard to make the slightest connection between the characters she chooses to play and the petit, mousy 30-year-old actress. “I’m so shy that I am never identified with my roles,” she laughs. “I’m just not like my roles – that’s why I play them!”
While most film stars live their lives on the pages of People magazine, Jennifer chooses never to discuss her personal life. Of course, she will discuss her art at length, using words like “true”, “worthwhile” and “respect” a great deal. But sex? That’s just something she does on the silver screen!
“A sex scene is no harder than a scene walking down a street,” she says, analysing the metaphorical statement she makes by getting her kit off. “In every scene you’re supposed to be ‘naked’ in a certain sense – and in a sex scene you actually are naked… But I wouldn’t do a scene that didn’t have a purpose in the film,” she insists. “If I thought it was just for sheer exploitation, I just wouldn’t do it.”
Intensely guarded of her personal life, Jennifer won’t get drawn on the subject. She doesn’t go to Hollywood parties, never discusses who’s keep keeping her bed warm, and generally gives the limelight a polite but adamant wide birth. “I live a very quiet life,” she says, firmly closing the door on any questions not relating to her work. “I choose not to publicise my private life because I think that you have to have something that’s your own.”
While she does love to talk about her job, it’s not all tales of extensive character research and methods of acting – she does tease us with some fascinating insights into her personality: she likes to read (!); she enjoys going to the movies quite (!); and she’s got a dog named Bessy (!).
With her guard momentarily down, she has been known to let fly with the occasional headline-grabbing quote. But having recently said that ‘Pretty Woman’ was no more than “a recruitment film for prostitutes”, it is a surprise that she leaps to the defence of Jason Patric’s latest flame. “I think Julia Roberts is enormously talented,” insists Leigh. “I think she’s incredibly charismatic and true to herself. I love watching her act and I have nothing but good to say about her.”
Of course, Julia Roberts is plagued by the kind of attention that Leigh goes to great lengths to avoid. “I think her life must be rather difficult,” she admits. “To be that successful and that followed… That would be really hard for me to deal with. I haven’t experienced that yet, so I’m lucky. But you can do things to protect yourself from it, like not go to a lot of big public parties. If you’re not seen as much, you keep out of the limelight. There are some actresses who just don’t have a private life and there are others who manage. I think it’s just how you define your life.”
It is very hard to draw anything other than a professional opinion from Ms Leigh, and while she will admit that ‘Rush’ co-star Jason Patric is “very good looking”, she will always qualify such an obviously personal statements with some more of those professional words: “dynamic”, “charismatic”, “intense” and “serious”. Sure, he has the lot – but was he easy to work with?
“Well it wasn’t an easy shoot,” she hedges. “Nothing about the film was easy. The emotions that we were dealing with weren’t easy, so that wouldn’t be my description. But he’s an incredibly fine actor… and talented… and true… we both care about the same things… so in that way there was a real connection.”
Like many of her Hollywood contemporaries, Jennifer is from an established movie family – “in the business” as she puts it. Like Jason Patric, her surname is her middle name, conveniently used to disguise her ancestry. And while Patric is the grandson of veteran Hollywood entertainer Jackie Gleason, Leigh is the daughter of screenwriter Barbara Turner and actor Vic Morrow. Her father was horiffically killed in a freak Helicopter accident during the filming of Stephen Spielberg’s ‘The Twilight Zone’, but like so many other aspects of her personal life, this is something she never talks about.
Unlike the second and third generation movie stars of the brat pack fraternity, Jennifer has never been a wild child, despite her sometimes feisty characters. Acting was simply an antidote to innate shyness. “It was a means for me to come outside myself and to communicate and to express myself in a way that I can’t naturally,” admits Jennifer. “It was a lifeline for me, the only way I could reach outside myself and be extroverted and have friends.”
Beginning to act in Kindergarten, her first role came as a child actress when her step father cast her for a small part in the TV series ‘Baretta’. “Do you remember that?” She laughs at the memory. “It was just a tiny role. I was terrified and I loved it. There wasn’t anywhere I’d rather have been and I was scared out of my mind.”
Currently enjoying a welcome respite from 18 months of solid work, Jennifer continues to carefully pick and choose her movie projects, fighting for the best and meatiest parts rather than the biggest commercial blockbusters. “There aren’t tons of films that appeal to me every year,” she says. “But if I can find one or two I will be very happy.”
Aside from ‘Rush’, she can also be seen in ‘Single White Female’, playing a seemingly demure flatmate, who gradually shares not only Bridget Fonda’s apartment, but her friends, her hairstyle, and, ultimately, her boyfriend! “I play a border-line psychotic,” she says. “It was a lot of fun.”
Another character to shock and outrage?
“I’m not out to shock anyone. When you see me in a movie, I just want you to believe that person exists,” she says. “That’s all I care about.”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007