Enjoying a career revival

Jennifer Jason Leigh as outlaw Daisy Domergue.
Jennifer Jason Leigh as outlaw Daisy Domergue.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Add Jennifer Jason Leigh to the long list of actors whose careers director Quentin Tarantino has brought back from the dead.

With her Oscar-nominated turn in The Hateful Eight, she joins a club that includes John Travolta (Pulp Fiction, 1994), Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah (Kill Bill movies, 2003 and 2004), among many others.

Leigh was a bona fide leading lady in the 1990s, with memorable roles in films such as the psychological thriller Single White Female (1992) and Mrs Parker And The Vicious Circle (1994), where her portrayal of writer Dorothy Parker earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.

But that was followed by more than a decade when all she seemed to get were parts in small independent films or guest spots on television shows such as Weeds and Revenge .

Speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles, the 53-year-old says she thought her days as an actress were all but over before director Quentin Tarantino cast her in his new western, The Hateful Eight.

"Talk about a dream come true. I love Quentin's movies and always wanted to work with him, but thought it would never happen.

"I just got to a certain point in my life and I thought, 'Okay, I had a really good run, I'm content and happy and that part's kind of done for me, maybe I'll start focusing on writing, and I have a child and that's my world now,'" says the actress, who has a five-year-old son with film-maker Noah Baumbach, her ex-husband.

"And then you get a call to come in and audition. And even that - getting that phone call - was so thrilling for me, because you kind of feel sometimes like you've fallen off the map," says Leigh, who has worked with major film-makers such as David Cronenberg(eXistenZ, 1999) and the Coen brothers (The Hudsucker Proxy, 1994).

Tarantino, she adds, was one of the few film-makers who were aware of her full body of work and happy to overlook the fact that she had not had a major role in years.

"Quentin is interested in everyone and he knows everything about everyone. I mean he's an encyclopaedia, it's incredible."

Now she is up for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for The Hateful Eight and voices the title character in another Oscar-nominated film, the animated drama Anomalisa (2015). She will also play Lady Bird Johnson in an upcoming biopic of American President Lyndon B. Johnson starring Woody Harrelson, and appear in the reboot of the cult TV series Twin Peaks next year.

Tarantino and her co-star Samuel L. Jackson say they were constantly surprised by the ability of Leigh, who is often soft-spoken and retiring in person, to transform herself in front of a camera.

Jackson says: "We had rehearsed this a bunch, but the first time I walked up to that stagecoach, she suddenly blew her nose out and started gnawing on the side of the window. And I was standing there going, like, what has happened to her? And all of a sudden, I knew who her character Daisy Domergue was - she's a psychopath."

It is not the first time time Leigh's chameleon-like quality has stunned those she works with.

She recalls the making of a 1996 movie: "The quintessential story regarding that was my first day on Kansas City, a movie that Robert Altman wrote and directed and that I was starring in with Miranda Richardson.

"I came on set and he asked me to get him a cup of coffee because he thought I was a personal assistant, he had no idea who I was. And he actually said: 'When Jennifer's not working, she just disappears. I just don't see her, I don't recognise her. But when she acts, it's like she comes alive.'"

While she admits there is a part of her that loves attention ("because this is that sort of business"), what she really loves is "communicating with a camera", especially with the role in The Hateful Eight, where "there's so much of the movie where Daisy doesn't speak and I get to communicate so much".

"That's something I think I can really own because that's who I am. And I appreciated the opportunity to do that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Enjoying a career revival'. Print Edition | Subscribe