Jennifer Jason Leigh: Quick Change Artist

Making the Southern Gothic horror movie Sister, Sister, Leigh liaised with Eric Stoltz, who's now involved with Leigh's Single White Female co-star Bridget Fonda. Any comment? "I want to spend my entire life staying out of those 'Who Fucked Who' maps of the world," she says, adding that she and Fonda "loved working together so much and were so ingrained in our roles, it wasn't an issue at all." After a moment she admits, "Actually, I've hoped the press never finds out about any of this because they could have a field day with it and, ultimately, it's just so meaningless, you know?"

Now involved in a relationship with "someone in the business, but not an actor," Leigh suggests that the scars left by the divorces of her screenwriter mother, Barbara Turner (The War Between the Tates), first from Leigh's father, the late Vic Morrow, and later from an Iranian-born television director, haven't decreased her wariness. "Divorce," says Leigh, "is a horrible, horrible thing and any child of a divorce has a really tough time believing in marriage. I don't think I would ever get married on a whim or if it didn't feel truly grounded, like a life commitment."

I wonder whether Leigh was as offbeat and private as a kid as she is as a grownup. She grew up in the high-end, conservative L.A. suburb of Pacific Palisades, and, after attending the tony, private Oakwood School, did two years at Pali High. "Ask anybody I went to school with," she says, "and they probably wouldn't remember me because I was bored out of my skull and ditched every day I didn't have play production. I just lived to go to acting classes, which were after school. I got sick a lot with stomach flu, so I would just stay home and watch old movies like My Man Godfrey and Mildred Pierce all day."

A former ace at school-skipping myself, I ask the middle girl of three daughters how she managed to pull off the trick so often. "I signed my own notes," she says, proudly, "and I'd say horrible things to get out of school. I know you're going to ask, so let's see, oh, yeah, my stepfather was Iranian and I once said that I was just a mess because he was trapped over there when the whole thing with the Shah was going on."

Leigh dropped out of high school to act full-time, apprenticing one summer at the prestigious program at Williamstown, Massachusetts, where her glibness for cheap excuses paced her acting skills. "I remember chatting on the phone for 45 minutes and being late for crew, which was grounds for being kicked out. So, I said, 'My parents are getting a divorce and I'm just really a mess about it,' and they gave me two days off. When I got home, I found out that my mother and stepfather were getting a divorce."

But even a reclusive, certified acting diva with a penchant for privacy must sometimes cut loose, no? "I'm not comfortable with people looking at me," she says, and I don't doubt it for an instant, "but once in a while, I think, 'It would be fun to go out dancing.' I never do it, but the idea is there. You know when I like going dancing? When I'm in a really small town on vacation, and you go to a horrible divey place where the choices of music are really bad, but you can completely let go." When I ask the name of the song she last let go to, she answers with great seriousness, "Well, the last time I did that was 11 years ago. But I remember having a really good time."

No, really, she insists, "this shyness stuff is awful and the more in touch I am with my feelings, the harder those things are for me." Leigh recalls winning the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Miami Blues and Last Exit to Brooklyn: "All I had to do was get up and accept and I thought I was going to throw up or pass out. Acting is my lifeline, my only way of communicating outside myself. I completely embody a character if she feels alive and free in a way that I can't in my own life, for whatever reason. To get up in front of people as me is terrifying." I suggest to her that she'd better get over it because, somewhere deep down, she has to know that sooner or later, she's bound to be onstage at an Oscar ceremony. The mere mention of the possibility makes her shrivel into the couch like a centipede.

"The joy would be in the huge honor and in first finding out that I was nominated," she says, hoarsely. "People tell me, 'Why don't you pretend you're a character who has won this award?' or, 'Why don't you pretend you're a presenter?' I took a course at UCLA, and when we had to go around the room and say our names and what we hoped to derive from the class, my palms were sweating. I am just not a public person at all."

Public or not, it looks like we're about to see more of Leigh in mainstream movies, though perhaps in offbeat roles. "The nice thing now is getting an opportunity to make movies that I would go to see," she enthuses, "as opposed to taking what I think are great parts in not-great movies." Among her current obsessions is trying to scare up a director and backers for a comedy-drama about sibling rivalry written by her mother. "It sucks that it's such a lengthy process to get something into production, especially when you look through the newspaper and discover that you don't want to see half the shit movies that are being made." Single White Female may make it easier for Leigh to shorten the process. "It would be fantastic to find a role that I could connect with in a movie that did well financially. I try to just sort of let it go after the movie's done because you don't have any control over it anyway."

Leigh's got to run; she's already late for a meeting on another movie.


Stephen Rebello interviewed Ellen Barkin for our May cover story.

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