Jennifer Jason Leigh is relishing a rare day off from rehearsals for the revival of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. She whirls expectantly into Blue Tree, the offbeat boutique that her best friend, Phoebe Cates, just opened on Madison Avenue. “Is Phoebus here yet?” she calls out in her trademark nasal drawl.
“Jenny!” shouts her former co-star from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, plopping herself down among the vintage pendants and $107 Harley Davidson T-shirts. “Who knew retail was so exhausting?” The two compare notes on a pair of shoes Leigh calls “genius.” In short order, Leigh has picked out a couple of sock monkeys and a vintage painting of two cowboys (baby-shower gifts) and a card that, Cates jokes, was created by handicapped craftspeople.
Leigh laughs and then remembers there’s a reporter in the room. “Great, you’re gonna write that I laughed about the lady in the wheelchair.”
It’s when she realizes there’s an audience, that she isn’t just among friends, that Leigh’s guard goes up. Work is the same way: Rehearsals are the fun part, and the idea of spectators filing in is, she confesses, “a little off-putting.” But in live theater, of course, that’s a fear you have to face—or maybe you don’t.
“You cannot alter your performance based on audience reaction,” she says. “Audiences respond like a sea, you know. A sea of cattle, or—a herd. So if it’s a loud audience, you’re gonna be loud. They’ve done studies on it. It’s the same thing as that girl on the bridge who was murdered, and everybody just watched her murder. No one dialed on their fucking cell phone.”
It might seem odd that a veteran of 60 movies, born into Hollywood, so obsessed with acting that she quit high school six weeks before graduation to pursue it, would chafe at attention—let alone cast herself as the victim of indifferent onlookers. Yet throughout her career, Leigh has cultivated an outsider’s ambivalence, lingering on the fringes of the red carpet. “This play is costing me a bloody fortune,” she says. “But what am I really missing out on? It really feels crappy when you’re doing shit work.”
The daughter of actor Vic Morrow and screenwriter Barbara Turner, she changed her name from Jennifer Leigh Morrow (taking her new middle name from family friend Jason Robards) to prove she could make her own name. From the very beginning, Leigh gravitated toward dark and/or slatternly roles, playing an anorexic in the 1981 TV movie The Best Little Girl in the World and a blind deaf-mute in the cheesy thriller Eyes of a Stranger. Even after her breakthrough as a deflowered virgin in Fast Times, she appeared in Flesh and Blood, a Paul Verhoeven entertainment in which she was stripped and gang-raped by a cult of medieval mercenaries.
But Leigh’s intense (and intensely researched) performances quickly brought her more challenging and varied work, playing everything from Dorothy Parker to a duped, corseted heiress in Washington Square. She names her role in Georgia, as a strung-out, awful singer envious of her celebrity sister, as her all-time favorite. Leigh went down to 89 pounds for the role. She made herself look even worse as the gang-raped hooker Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn. But she’s not interested in just any victim role. She read early on for the lead in Pretty Woman and was later asked by the Guardian why it didn’t work out. “[The director] actually said something so hysterical to me about the character,” she told the newspaper. “He said: ‘She’s only been doing this a few weeks, so it’s still a lot of fun for her.’ Yeah, it’s a lot of fun getting into a car with a 68-year-old and giving him a blow job. Really exciting.”
It’s her fidelity to her characters that convinced Mike Leigh she was right for his revival in the part of Beverly, a clueless, lethally obnoxious English suburban hostess. “She is an extraordinary character actor,” director Leigh says, “and it doesn’t mean what it means in Hollywood, which is just people put out to grass playing small parts. She is bullshit-proof. She’s got a real strong sense of the real world and of real people and the pain of existing and all that stuff.”
Today, over an egg-white omelette at the dowdy (for Madison Avenue) diner Jackson Hole, the fortysomething Leigh is candidly realistic about some of the choices she’s made. “I’ve overworked things or over-researched things. I think I’ve been too removed at times. If I had done some of the roles that I turned down stupidly, which ended up being awfully good movies—I just couldn’t see it at the time—I’d be in a position today where I had more opportunities. But, you know, the truth is there aren’t a lot of movies I want to go see.”