Jennifer Jason Leigh met Noah Baumbach in 2001, she tells me. Leigh was living in the West Village at the time; she had a night off from the lead role in Proof, so she’d gone out alone to catch a show. The play was Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, a tale of sexual gamesmanship among artists that might throw most ordinary folks off human relationships entirely.
Instead, Leigh ended up going to dinner with Baumbach and his friend Josh Hamilton, Leigh’s co-star in Proof, who were also attending the LaBute play. Leigh and Baumbach began dating; they married in 2005. “The world feels free to ask about it,” the actress tells me about the transition into marriage, as we eat at Les Deux Gamins, not far from the apartment the couple is renovating. “I mean, you signed the thing! You bought the house. But in a way, it’s not that weird for me, because I do love it; this was always my childhood idea of what a marriage would be.”
From accounts I’d read, I’d expected Leigh to be a lump of introversion: a null presence who flares only onscreen. Instead, she’s intimidating, with gorgeous caramel streaks in her hair and big, movie-star sunglasses. But she relaxes as she describes her notion of connubial bliss. It’s a familiar fantasy, one that animated Joan Didion’s memoir of her life with John Gregory Dunne, an ideal I remember picking up like a virus in high school, when I read about Woody Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow, back in those sweet and innocent days, before the fall. There’s another model, of course, in which love is poisoned by competition: Baumbach himself portrayed it with acid specificity in his memoir of his parents’ Park Slope divorce, The Squid and the Whale. But Leigh and Baumbach are clearly aiming for something different from their parents’ lives (she’s the child of artists who split up as well): marriage as an idyllic, never-ending brainstorm among supportive equals.
On October 7, the New York Film Festival screens the couple’s first truly shared project: Margot at the Wedding, starring Leigh, Nicole Kidman, and Jack Black. The scathing family tragicomedy is Baumbach’s symbolic, though not literal, sophomore effort as a director and writer, and it features Leigh as Pauline, a hippieish mother “less grounded than she thinks she is,” as Leigh puts it. Though both spouses are established artists—Baumbach the hot director, Leigh the indie chameleon—Margot at the Wedding is their debut film as a couple.
When it came time for filming, the duo made an agreement, one Baumbach jokingly calls “due diligence”: If they had a conflict on set, they’d never let it show. As it turns out, the precaution was unnecessary, they say. By that point, Leigh says, “I was so excited to work with him as an actress. It was wonderful, just talking about scripts and film and all of that. When he’s given me notes, they’ve always been good and specific. So I was excited to show off for him in a way—for him to see how easy I am to work with, what a pro I am, you know? I’m not a complain-y girl. I love the work, and I’m really serious, but I’m also easygoing. I couldn’t wait for him to see that side of me.”
Margot at the Wedding, in other words, is a brutal, near-LaButean vision of family dysfunction created, improbably enough, by two artists in the honeymoon phase of a happy domestic collaboration.
It’s two days after the Toronto Film Festival: Leigh and Baumbach didn’t see many movies, she tells me, or even attend the screening of their own film (they were too busy promoting it). We’re at Letterpress, a stationery shop on Christopher Street, so Leigh can purchase thank-you notes she and Baumbach can share as a couple. But although the store is filled with eccentric designs she likes—she admires a black-and-white photo of a bride and groom—she can’t decide what to buy. She’d like the cards to be small. She’d also like them to have envelopes. “This was not a good idea, with my personality,” she moans, fretting over some tiny cards without envelopes. A pink-and-blue motif of glittery eggs is too girlie. “It’s fine for me, but Noah’s not sending this card. I’ll tell you that right now. This would be more his thing,” she says, picking up a card showing a sketch of a feral-looking owl escaping from a battered cage. “My mother would love this card, too. She has a great sense of humor; she loves Edward Gorey.”
Leigh’s mother is screenwriter Barbara Turner, who wrote Pollock. Her father is actor Vic Morrow, who died when she was 20 in a tragic accident on a film set. Her parents divorced when she was 2, and her mother remarried, to TV director Reza Badiyi. Leigh became famous for her role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, then later won raves playing sexually damaged waifs; when she aged out of waifhood, she offered up a fresh set of risky, stylized performances, building a mystique as a shape-shifter with a meticulous work ethic. At 45, she’s worked with pretty much every major independent director, including the Coen brothers, Robert Altman, Mike Leigh, Todd Solondz, David Cronenberg, and Jane Campion.