FILMS

Acting on the edge

Jennifer Jason Leigh likes to play the extremes

Brian D. Johnson January 15 1996
FILMS

Acting on the edge

Jennifer Jason Leigh likes to play the extremes

Brian D. Johnson January 15 1996

Acting on the edge

FILMS

Jennifer Jason Leigh likes to play the extremes

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Do you mind?” she asks, lighting a cigarette and looking around for an ashtray. Of course not. One would expect Jennifer Jason Leigh to smoke. In fact, it is somehow reassuring that she does. She is sitting up straight in her chair, looking demure and girlish, bare legs and bobby socks offsetting the powder-blue elegance of a pleated skirt and matching jacket.

The cigarette, and a wary darkness in her eyes, are all that connect this small, pale, delicate woman to the visceral characters she portrays on-screen.

Leigh specializes in self-destructive souls. Drunks, junkies and prostitutes.

Most recently, she has portrayed an alcoholic, pill-popping journalist in Dolores Claiborne, a drunken literary diva in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle—and in her new movie, Georgia, a liquor-loving, heroin-cranking singer with reckless delusions of pitch.

All these women drink with a vengeance. “But I can’t drink to save my life,” says Leigh, interviewed in a Toronto hotel room. “I’ll have a glass of wine occasionally, maybe a margarita.”

But when fdming scenes of drinking, she likes a measure of realism. “I’ll have them put in this much of the real stuff in the glass,” says Leigh, measuring a thimbleful with her fingers, a homeopathic dose, “and the rest is colored water or whatever. I just need to have the taste of it, and a slight feeling of the warmth.” Then she adds: “I don’t really think of these characters as alcoholics.

It’s just something they use. They’re all very different women—I never want to — play the same character twice.”

She never does. Among Hollywood character actresses, Leigh is a virtuoso. At the age of 33, she has made 24 movies. And no actress rivals Leigh for consistently taking risks, for cutting to the quick of raw experience. In Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), she played Tralala, a streetwalker seeking oblivion who, in one harrowing scene, gives her body to every passing stranger. She was a hooker at the mercy of a psycho killer in Miami Blues (1990), a narcotics cop strung out on drugs in Rush (1991) and a homicidal sociopath in Single White Female (1992).

Asked why she has such an affinity for disturbed characters, Leigh says, “they’re the

most fun roles to act. You get to go to the deepest places and come to some kind of understanding of a woman’s life that is very removed from your own, and really step inside that skin.” She adds: “The majority of women’s roles in Hollywood are just there to show you that the lead character is heterosexual. And they are so generic. When you try to appeal to everybody, you actually appeal to no one.” Laughing, she catches herself: “But then I think, what do I know? These movies are blockbusters.”

Georgia is no blockbuster. But the movie, which won the grand prize at the Montreal World Film Festival in the fall, features the finest, and most audacious, performance of

Leigh’s career. (She was also voted best actress at the festival and, recently, by the New York Film Critics Circle.) Leigh plays Sadie, a substance-abusing singer with an exaggerated sense of her own talent. Sadie is desperately in awe of her older sister, Georgia (Mare Winningham), a successful folksinger who plays big concerts and raises a family in a stone farmhouse. Sadie struggles for a piece of the spotlight in a Seattle bar band. And as she tries to hitch a free ride on Georgia’s coattails, the resentment between the punk wanna-be and the welladjusted star intensifies.

From the opening scenes—Sadie weeping through raccoon eye shadow as she watches her sister perform, then anxiously fiddling with the hem of her dress backstage—Leigh conveys a heartbreaking vulnerability. Throughout the movie, her body language is a study in delinquent eloquence: catlike one minute, gawky the next and forever restless, as if every cell of her body is dying to get into the act.

Veteran director Ulu Grosbard {The Subject Was Roses, True Confessions) shepherds the narrative along at a gradual pace. And the script marks time towards the end—refusing to wrap things up with a neat conclusion, either happy or tragic. But the scenes play with a seamless documentary realism. The road-weary frontman in Sadie’s band is played by musician John Doe of the group X. Winningham is a real folksinger. And all the musical performances were recorded live.

Morrison's Take Me Back to a packed concert hail, while her sister cringes on the sidelines. Imitating Morrison's stut tering style, she delivers what would be a devastating parody, were it not in earnest. Her singing is so transparently bad, yet so passionately committed, that the pain of watching her in the spotlight, emotionally naked and blind to her own embarrassment, is almost unbearable-and incredibly moving. But when it is suggested to Leigh that her bad singing is a brave bit of

acting, she says, “I’m really singing the

best that I can. It was never, like, a wink to the audience. I don’t have a great voice, but I always loved to sing.” Leigh has an older and younger sister, and both are excellent singers, she adds. “I grew up surrounded by beautiful sounds, and when you have that, you don’t really hear your own voice.”

Leigh is a child of Hollywood. Her father was actor Vic Morrow (who was killed in a helicopter crash on the set of The Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982) and her mother is screenwriter Barbara Turner, who wrote Georgia and co-produced it with her. (Jason and Leigh are stage names.) Although her parents did not push her, Leigh says she always wanted to act. “I was always really shy and self-conscious, and when I’d act in a play I was suddenly free. I had no inhibitions.” From her first starring role at age 19, in a thriller called Eyes of a Stranger, Leigh showed scrupulous dedication. She played a girl who has been rendered blind, deaf and dumb by the trauma of rape. “I learned braille,” she recalls, “and I learned to do my laundry without sight.” In researching her grittier roles, however, Leigh says she knows where to draw the line. To play a phone-sex operator in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1994), she observed the business firsthand, but remained an observer. “I spent days with these women. And they all invited me to do a phone call—I never did a phone call.” Adds Leigh: “When I played prostitutes when I was much younger, I had boyfriends say, ‘Maybe I should pay you tonight.’ No. You can’t. There are just lines I don’t cross.”

Mainlining is one of them. “I’ve never done heroin,” she says. “What I do is talk to as many people as I can about their experience. A lot of them talk about this womb-like feeling where everything is so safe and all your muscles and bones melt and your eyelids get heavy and you just feel so good and so warm.

Heroin must feel f-g great. That’s why

people get addicted.”

Leigh is fiercely protective of her personal life, and declines to discuss it. But acting clearly allows her to explore the netherworld with a kind of diplomatic immunity. “There’s always a fascination with the dark side, with people who live on the edge,” she says. “And yet, we would never want to go there.”

Playing pain, meanwhile, does not have to be painful. One of Leigh’s most brutalized characters, the hooker in Last Exit, was “a joy to shoot,” she recalls, “because she’s the most innocent character I’ve ever played. But when I watched the movie, I realized why people were so upset.” One of them was her mother, who finds it hard to watch her suffer on-screen. “It’s a wonder to me,” says Turner, “that out of that frail body she can dredge up wisdom that’s hundreds of years old.” Hollywood has yet to catch up to Leigh’s talent. Critics were shocked when, with so little competition, she failed to get an Oscar nomination last February for her portrayal of Dorothy Parker. “I try not to think about that stuff,” says Leigh, “but so many journalists told me I would get nominated that a part of me thought I would. I even had designers asking me to wear their clothes.” Leigh decided not to wake up for the 5:30 a.m. TV announcement of the nominations. “I set my alarm for 9,” she recalls. “But I had this nightmare that my mother and little sister came into my room and shook me and said, ‘Jenny, wake up, you didn’t get nominated!’ I woke up and it was 5:30, and I turned on the TV. The thing is, you can never tell with awards.” Although she has stiffer competition this year, Leigh certainly deserves a nomination for Georgia. As an actress, she has found her voice on the dark side. But unlike Sadie, the desperate singer she plays so well, Jennifer Jason Leigh stands in no one’s shadow. □