At 53 years old, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh is riding high with two of her most rewarding roles to date — and they could not be more strikingly different. In Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” she stars as foul-mouthed, vicious gang member Daisy Domergue. In Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s animated “Anomalisa,” she offers a tender voice performance as shrinking violet Lisa. And both have already received awards recognition: she won the National Board of Review’s prize for “Hateful” while she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for “Anomalisa” (a first for a voice performance).
You’re the only female in a sea of men in “The Hateful Eight.” What was that dynamic like on set, particularly given that this is such rowdy and raunchy material?
I felt like gender didn’t come into it that much. I felt in some ways very protected, but I also felt like they didn’t change for me. They didn’t behave differently for me. Like, they still told the same stories they would tell if a woman was not present. I felt like one of the guys — I really did — and I loved that. At the same time, I felt like they definitely cared about me and my well-being. So it was kind of the perfect mix of how you would want to feel on that kind of a set where you’re just working with all these men. It was like being a fly on the wall in many respects, because I’ve never been just the lone woman with a bunch of guys, and I really got to hear their anecdotes and stories.
It’s such a tight-knit ensemble. How did everyone get on? Did you hang out or go out at night?
Yeah, we did. And we all still stay in contact. We call ourselves “The Haters” and we just text each other all the time. So we’ve remained really close. It’s really sweet. I don’t think any of us have had an experience quite like this, so we are reluctant to let go of it. And hopefully we never will. Hopefully these bonds and ties that have begun because of this film will remain, because it just feels like such a unique experience that we all shared. We feel like we were at the pinnacle, that we were a part of something truly remarkable.
Your character is on the receiving end of quite a lot of violence in the film. Were you at all concerned that it would come across as misogynistic?
No. I wasn’t at all. Because she’s a leader. And she’s tough. And she’s hateful and a survivor and scrappy. I thought it was funny, but I didn’t think it was misogynistic for a second. He doesn’t have an ounce of misogyny in him. It’s not in his writing. It’s not in his being.
Yeah, you look at “Kill Bill,” you look at “Jackie Brown,” the heroine of “Inglourious Basterds” — he has a history of writing strong female roles.
He writes the best parts for women out there. He really does. He writes very brave, bold, insane, fabulous women. Nobody writes women like he does.
Did you know Quentin well prior to this?
Yes, we’ve known each other over the years and I’ve always wanted to work with him, but never had. And I never thought I would. You just get to a certain point where it’s like, “Oh, well, I’ve had a good run. That was nice.” So this happening now in my life is really amazing.
It seems like a collaboration that was bound to happen. How did you like it?
I loved it. I really, really loved it. I didn’t want it to end. I think he’s remarkable with actors, and he’s so smart and so caring. He demands the best of you. He really does. And you want to give him all that you have and all that you can possibly offer. And he also makes you feel kind of free enough to make bold, insane choices. You know he’ll rein you in if necessary, and you know he’ll push you when he wants more. But he does it in the most loving way, and in the smartest ways, too. He brought me up to Telluride at one point for a hair and makeup test and I got there to his house and he’s like, “I don’t really need to do a hair and makeup test with you. I just want to play you a piece of music.” And he played me a piece of music and he said, “I want you to play this on the guitar. Do you play guitar? I want you to sing in this.” And I was like, “No, I’ve never played guitar in my life!” [laughs] He said, “Well, I think that you can learn it. I have faith that you can do it.”
I’m glad you brought that up. I was curious if that was an original tune or some old folk thing he dug up.
Yeah, it’s an old Irish song and it’s about going to a penal colony in Australia.
How do you like the guitar? You think you’ll keep playing?
I love it, yeah. My teacher on the movie works for the Cirque du Soleil, so he’s been in Mexico recently. But yeah, I really want to keep playing. And Quentin gave me a guitar from like the 1890s. I was really moved by that.
I’m curious, with a role like this that is so defined on the page and so sort of its own thing, do you get into much research at all?
Well, it’s a little bit of both. Quentin’s whole thing is you need to know these lines backwards and forwards so you aren’t thinking about them for even half a second. He wants that moment that only comes if you know it so well that life just happens inside them. His dialogue is so brilliant that you can’t really go wrong if you know it.
He also very much wanted me to find Daisy from the inside out. He didn’t want me to “act” the results of what happens in a scene. He wanted her to be very organic and real and he just wanted me to breathe and sort of find her as you would in life. And having me learn the guitar and learn a song that is actually quite difficult — at least for someone who’s never played guitar before, this picking with both hands — there was something about learning that that I think was just so smart of him, because it forced me to become very, very focused and very internal. I didn’t have a second to second guess myself. I was just in her world. In a really weird way it put me right in the mindset of it. Obviously playing guitar isn’t life or death, but if Quentin Tarantino asks you to learn a piece of music, you’re going to learn that f—ing piece of music! So I think in some strange way that really tied me in and locked me into this character and it was just so smart.
Did being up there in the elements assist the realism of your performance?
Yeah, absolutely. The truth is that on the stage in Hollywood was a lot of times colder than Telluride. Sometimes in Telluride there were 58-degree days and we were just waiting and waiting and we would have to drink this very hot tea to get the breath going, because Quentin doesn’t like to use any CGI stuff. It was cold, but it all worked for the character. There were one or two days where you were like, “I can’t feel my feet.” Courtney Hoffman, the costumer, made sure we were all very, very warm.
You looked cozy in all those clothes.
Yeah, that jacket was heavy as hell!
I’d like to switch gears over to “Anomalisa” for a bit. It’s such a beautiful piece of work and your performance is so touching. What was this experience like with Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson?
We did it as a radio play 10 years ago and we rehearsed for a week with Charlie, but we only performed it for two nights. So when it was over I was sad, because I loved playing her. She’s such a beautifully written character, and he wrote it for me, he wrote it for David [Thewlis], he wrote it for Tom [Noonan], so you really feel seen in some strange way. Because it’s just your voice. There’s something very intimate and private about it. And then 10 years or eight years later when he said he wanted to do it as a stop-motion animated movie, we were all excited because it seemed like the perfect medium for the material. You could never do it live action. It would be kind of destroyed in that way. And then when I finally saw the film, I felt like I was seeing it for the first time.
I feel like it’s groundbreaking. I couldn’t believe how affected I was by it and how I kept forgetting they were puppets. I kept forgetting that it was me. And then I would be reminded that it was me and I would be reminded that they were puppets, and then I would forget again. There’s something about the fact of them being puppets where you project yourself into what they’re going through in a much deeper way. And the material is so powerful. We can all relate to all those things about feeling that isolated and lonely, and also the mundanity of checking into a hotel. I think anyone who sees that movie, the next time they check into a hotel, will be reminded of just how perfect it is. Most of the movie is done in real time, and it just feels it. And the awkwardness of that sex scene. Parts of it are excruciating in terms of the honesty and the awkwardness, and it’s so beautiful. It’s a very sad movie on some level, but on another level it has tremendous hope. There’s all this humanity, but yet they’re puppets. I really love Lisa and I love the movie. In a funny way I feel like two of the best roles of my life happened right now.
And they couldn’t be more different.
Yeah, they could not be more different. So that’s exciting for me as an actress. It’s always what you want, in a way. I’m sort of shocked that it’s happening to me now, but it’s really lovely.