Jennifer Jason Leigh: Fearless Leigh

Jennifer Jason Leigh has made an art of exploring her own dark places through the dark characters she plays on-screen. Here she goes again in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ.

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For an actress whose screen work is a study in extremes, Jennifer Jason Leigh is extremely good at blending into the woodwork when you meet her in person. No one looking at the porcelain-skinned wisp of a woman sipping tea in the corner of a downtown Manhattan restaurant would guess that this is the feisty, deluded hooker from Last Exit to Brooklyn or the heroin-addicted screecher from Georgia.

At 37, Leigh has spent her entire career engaged in fearless adventures with disturbed, damaged, or at the very least, strange characters. For her first big role, in the telefilm The Best Little Girl in the World, she played an anorexic student. In the 1982 comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High her character was the only one who had to face a problem as big as teen pregnancy. In Rush she played a narcotics officer hooked on junk. In Single White Female she was a homicidal roommate. Her writer in Dolores Claiborne was so disturbed she had to soothe herself with alcohol and cigarettes around the clock. In Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle she portrayed the drunken, heartbroken title character. In Washington Square she was an ugly duckling heiress who falls for a gold digger. In A Thousand Acres she played the favorite daughter of a molesting father. And these are only some of the dark, troubled souls she's inhabited in her 19-year career.

Unlike most stars, Leigh doesn't seem to worry too much about where she stands in Hollywood. Critics tagged her as one of the most gifted actresses of her generation, but even critical approval seems vaguely irrelevant to her. Perhaps Leigh has been able to make her "actor's choices" without agonizing over their limited box-office appeal because she regards acting more as a way of life than a career. She was born in Hollywood, the daughter of writer Barbara Turner and the late actor Vic Morrow, and she's never been interested in doing anything else.

Leigh's preference for playing characters who are rich in complications continues with David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, in which she stars as a strangely shy recluse who loses herself in the computer game she has created, a game so complex it involves a lifelike pod which connects to a player's spinal column for total interactive reality.

MICHAEL FLEMING: We'll talk about your new film eXistenZ, but first I want to ask you about Eyes Wide Shut, in which people may have forgotten you once had a role opposite Tom Cruise. Under other circumstances it would have been your next film, but after you finished working on it you were replaced and your scenes were filmed over again with another actress. What happened?

JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: Stanley Kubrick needed to add some footage, but I was already working on eXistenZ. He said he needed two weeks, which with him ends up being four weeks, and I had no time--there was no way. I couldn't leave eXistenZ in the middle of the shoot.

Q: How much time had you spent shooting with Kubrick?

A: Ten days--it was just a cameo. I would love to have been there a whole year. I loved doing it, and I loved working with Stanley and Tom. Obviously I'm sad that I won't be in it, but I still have the experience of doing it.

Q: What's Kubrick like?

A: He's a mensch. He's smart, interesting and open. You could ask him about anything.

Q: It's a shame to have been cut out of a movie everyone's dying to see. You probably wait your whole career to work with Kubrick, and...

A: But I did work with him! That's the thing--I did. Unfortunately I won't ultimately get to be in the movie, but I did do it, and I'm glad about that.

Q: In eXistenZ, you play a genius who loses her inhibitions when she's immersed in her work. She sounds a bit like you, this reticent woman who lets loose on-screen in wild, daring roles.

A: In certain ways, she's something like me. She's a bit introverted in life and her release is in what she creates. She doesn't have to talk about it, but she expresses herself through these games. That's what I love about acting. I get to use other people's words to express myself. I get to explore all these things that are not safe, that I wouldn't otherwise get to do in real life. For me, a shy person, it's the most perfect thing in the whole world.

Q: What do you admire about Cronenberg?

A: I love his mind. His movies have been so out-there, so completely his own, but as crazy as they are, he is sane. He's loving, easygoing, low-key and smart.

Q: Was Cronenberg's Dead Ringers a resource for you when you played a woman trying to replace her lost twin in Single White Female?

A: When Dead Ringers came out, I saw it twice in a row. I loved it. But I didn't think of it for Single White Female. In that I was playing someone who didn't feel whole unless she was merged. I found that a painful psychology to get into, but also fascinating. It was a great character, because she was very dark but she wanted to be loved so much. Plus, I loved working with Bridget Fonda.

Q: You don't seem like the kind of actress who chooses roles for what they can do for you down the road.

A: No. When I find a role I want to play, I just go after it.

Q: Is that what happened when you read Alan Rudolph's script for Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle?

A: I really loved playing Dorothy Parker--it was one of the favorite times of my life. We were a great ensemble, and really liked each other. We had these huge dinners together and hysterical charades parties. It was fun just believing for a little while that we were these geniuses.

Q: A number of critics complained about the accent you created for that role.

A: That was Dorothy Parker's voice. The accent was pretty spot-on.

Q: Did it bother you to go to the trouble of replicating your character's exact speech patterns and then get criticized for it?

A: No, because to me it's absurd. If you're playing a person and you have recordings of their voice, it would seem a little stupid not to use them. I had a lot of tape on her. I went to bed with her voice and woke up with it. I studied it like it was an instrument. I had it down, so the criticism didn't really bother me.

Q: How much time do you spend getting the voices for your characters down?

A: Oh, forever. On voice alone I'd spend three hours a day. Especially for Parker, because we had about three months' prep before we shot that film--I had time to do a lot of research.

Q: In The Hudsucker Proxy, your voice sounded a lot like Katharine Hepburn's in Bringing Up Baby. Was she the inspiration for that aspect of your character?

A: What I tried to do was a mix of Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell. I put their comedies on tape and listened to them.

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