Jennifer Jason Leigh: Quick Change Artist

What Leigh goes through to get roles is nothing compared with what happens once she wins them. She describes in clinical detail how she developed "an anorexic mentality" and starved herself to 86 pounds to play a teenager with an eating disorder in The Best Little Girl in the World. She worked at a Sherman Oaks pizzeria to check out high-school students before doing Fast Times at Ridgemont High. She lay on the ground virtually naked for five nights in below-freezing weather to shoot a rape scene in Paul Verhoeven's Flesh + Blood. On every movie she keeps extensive diaries written in the "voice" of each character. Cripes, I'm thinking, head for the hills if Martin Scorsese asks her to play Saint Joan.

To enact a sole surviving twin in Single White Female, Leigh immersed herself in six weeks of classic psychiatric case studies, watched "Oprah" reruns about twins, and interviewed institutionalized twins and their shrinks. While shooting the movie she covered her dressing-room walls with photographs of Fonda, the object of her character's obsession.

"Something I learned from my research is how, unless Bridget's character's in the room, my character feels like a Siamese twin cut from her 'other' without being stitched up. As if her guts were spilling out. So, with the photographs I did a lot of face-splitting, where you take two photos and make one with my eyes and her mouth. I try not to suffocate people with my preparations, but Bridget's so honest, alive, funny that I loved working with her and it wasn't a problem. But I know, for instance, it frightened Lili Zanuck on Rush at first. The prep I do isn't for anyone else but me. It gives me a place of truth to draw upon. I often discover something that could inspire a scene. If the director is open to it, as Barbet was, it's great for me."

Having heard how Zanuck went to bat with the studio to get Leigh instead of box office-friendlier stars like Jodie Foster or Demi Moore for Rush, I ask Leigh if she was upset at the speculation about how a deeply research-oriented actress might have dealt with subject matter like pharmaceuticals.

"When I started shooting the movie," she recalls, "I started smoking heavily, even though Lili didn't want the character to smoke. I wanted to be addicted to something. I wasn't going to do it with drugs. I mean, I did in the past do coke a couple of times, but I wasn't like the addict who goes, 'Hello, God, I'm up there with you.' For me, it was, 'Where's the bathroom?' It gave me diarrhea and a headache. I never really liked it. When I had surgery one time, I found that Percodan was nice, but, hey, who wants to live in a coma?"

Leigh is so touchingly earnest, so clearly bucking for Streep and De Niro 'I'm suffering for my art' land that, at times, one can't help wanting to mess with her. Didn't she do any fun stuff to prepare for the movie, like check out any of the scads of movies in which stars play double roles? With prompting, she cops, "I watched The Dark Mirror where Olivia de Havilland plays both sisters who wear charm necklaces with their names spelled out on them so people can tell them apart. And, of course, I saw David Cronenberg's great Dead Ringers, and this documentary, Twinsburg, OH, about twins who gather there from all over the country. But no, Steve, sorry, not 'The Patty Duke Show.' "

I ask Leigh whether someone as career-oriented as she routinely calls directors with whom she's interested in working, as, for example, Ellen Barkin does. "I read about her doing that," Leigh says, "and thought: that's brilliant. I'm so shy that doing that would be really hard for me. I take a meeker approach. I call my agent and say, 'What are the Coen brothers doing? Is there anything for me?'" Still, she wasn't too meek to meet with Paul Verhoeven for Basic Instinct. "He thought I was way too young for it," she says, "and though Sharon Stone isn't much older, she looks like a woman." And she might have landed Pretty Woman which, when she met director Garry Marshall, was to be a tough, bleak little movie.

"The script was so dark," she recalls, "I couldn't believe that Disney was making it. And, of course they didn't, but instead turned it into a recruiting movie, the Top Gun of prostitution. One of the first things [Marshall] said was, 'The character hasn't been doing this long, she's having fun.' Fun? What can be fun about getting in a car with some 60-year-old and giving him a blow job?"

Lately, it's been Leigh who's been doing the turning down. She wouldn't even read the script of A League of Their Own because, as she puts it, "The whole idea of auditioning actresses by having them play a ball game? I don't think so." On the other hand, she calls sex, lies, and videotape, which she bypassed for Miami Blues, "one of the few times I saw the finished movie and went, 'Shoot, I wish I could have done that.' But Laura San Giacomo was so rich in it, I couldn't have done it the way she did."

Landing Last Exit to Brooklyn induced Leigh to bow out of a stage production of Lulu, the role that made a legend of Louise Brooks, but her fascination for the silent film temptress stuck. "I cut and dyed my hair like her for The Big Picture," asserts Leigh, "and people said, 'God, you look so much like Louise Brooks.' I liked myself so much like that, but it's hard on your hair and you can't go any other color from black."

Brooks, she says, "isn't my icon, or anything," but just in case one of several producers wants to cast her as the star--"not in one of those awful biopics, but something strange and beautiful about her tragic life"--she's had a black wig made in the actress's unique bob.

It might be something to watch Leigh do drop-dead glamorous, but at the mention of one of the few times she did anything like that--her role as fireboy Billy Baldwin's slinky urban girlfriend in Backdraft --she studies her hands and mutters, "Painful. In a strange way, it's not even me, so I always forget I'm in that." It's not hard to understand why Leigh would have selective memory about Backdraft --she looks uncharacteristically disengaged in her scenes--but why painful? She just had to act in it, not watch it.

"Because Ron Howard was incredibly generous and patient with me. He pursued me with this role. And I failed him. Everybody had been telling me for so long that I should stop playing women who go through grueling experiences, but there was no place for me in that character. It taught me that I can't take a role I don't really connect with."

A role with which Leigh did connect, in a movie which made roughly a zillion times less than Backdraft, was the junkie cop in Rush. It's been the story of her career, so far. "When my first movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, turned out to be this big hit, I was so innocent, I thought: all movies are hits. It took a couple of years to figure out that almost every movie I made after that didn't make money. Some of them haven't made money because they're not very good movies. It's not like I look at a project and go, 'Oh, this is going to be a box-office bomb. I want it!' "

Leigh looks stricken, then, in spite of herself, amused when I ask her to recall the standout screen lovemakers among such co-stars as Eric Stoltz, Jason Patric, and the brothers Baldwin, Alec and Billy, with whom she made, respectively, Miami Blues and Backdraft. "There are a lot of good kissers," she says, laughing. "I'm worried that in interviews after this, they'll say, 'So, you really like doing love scenes with so-and-so, huh?' Oh, all right. Alec and Billy are both very, very good kissers. Working with Alec was like being on a roller coaster. He's thrilling, incredibly funny, completely free, unashamed, trustful. It was one of those rare experiences where you really believe your fellow actor is the character he's playing. We didn't screw, of course, but our love scenes felt alive.

Rutger Hauer on Flesh + Blood, too, had that great sense of make-believe that makes playing these scenes fun. Those were the freest, warmest experiences, where I felt protected by the actors I was playing with." And when it didn't work? Recalling her love scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Leigh says that actor Robert Romanus was "very cruel. He wouldn't even look at me and chewed gum when he was kissing, so we couldn't really kiss. If I stroked or touched him between takes, he'd flinch. I understood that he was scared out of his mind, too, but love scenes don't have to be this terrible thing."

I note to Leigh that since she did press for The Best Little Girl in the World, the TV movie about anorexia in which she replaced a then blimped-out Yalie named Jodie Foster, she hasn't spoken in print about her love life. Nineteen at the time, Leigh was cozily photographed for People magazine with actor David Dukes, then 35, whom she called "supportive, giving, brilliant."

"Reading that People article made me want to throw up," declares Leigh. "It also made me promise myself I would never again take away someone else's privacy or talk publicly about that aspect of my private life. I don't like knowing that stuff when I go to a movie. It gets in the way. I watched The Philadelphia Story last night grateful that I didn't know the details of the 'dark something' about Cary Grant, but even then, it was like a cloud surrounding him. I mean, I'm uncomfortable when I even read articles where people talk about their romantic life."

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