Jennifer Jason Leigh

One of America's best actors discusses her directorial debut, "The Anniversary Party," and the joy of working.

Topics:

Jennifer Jason Leigh

Jennifer Jason Leigh is a celluloid changeling, able to morph herself into a gun moll, a heroin addict or Dorothy Parker with aplomb. Now, Leigh, 39, hankers after the role of auteur. And if her freshman effort “The Anniversary Party” is any indication of what she’s capable of, then the critics might as well pony up that particular laurel on bended knee.

“The Anniversary Party,” which Leigh wrote, produced and directed with Scottish man-child Alan Cumming, flows before us with great economy of movement — as if the two have performed this dance countless times before. They play a successful Hollywood husband and wife on the occasion of their sixth wedding anniversary. The party’s on, and their pals are all invited. But Sally (Leigh) and Joe (Cumming) have just reunited after a painful separation, and their soiree’s pregnant with a bellyful of disaster.

The film, cast with Leigh and Cumming’s friends and shot in a glass house (metaphor alert) in the Hollywood Hills, is trenchant, sexy and tragic all at the same time — a movie for grown-ups. Recently, Leigh discussed “The Anniversary Party” over a glass of iced tea.

“The Anniversary Party” reminded me of a good Robert Altman film. You’ve worked with Altman before — has he been an influence on you?

He’s been a huge influence my whole life, my whole career — and [John] Cassavetes and Woody Allen. They’ve all made a mark. But certainly Altman in terms of how to make actors feel safe and welcomed. When you’re working on an Altman film or an Alan Rudolph film, there’s no place you’d rather be. There’s so much trust and freedom that it’s an absolute pleasure. So that’s something that I understood firsthand, those experiences.

What did you do to put the cast at ease?



I cast friends. Everyone’s playing friends, but they actually are all friends. I think on a certain level the film works because there’s this real familiarity between people. We had no motor homes. Everyone would come to work and get made up at the same makeup tables. We had really good food. The women who played America and Rosa (the housekeepers) cooked these incredible gourmet breakfasts every morning. Then we’d go to the set and work all day. When they weren’t working, people were hanging out on the lawn or sleeping in hammocks. Kevin Kline would play piano, and Michael Panes would accompany him on violin. It was an extraordinary experience.

Was everything scripted in the film?

Yes, but there was a little improvisation in the scene where Alan and I are toasted. I sat down with all the actors and talked about the characters’ relationships to each other and things that they might know about us and want to talk about. We asked them to go off and write it so we’d have the experience of being surprised, and hearing it for the first time. And they would have the experience of giving it to us for the first time.

In the segment where everyone’s doing charades, that was scripted, but to get to that state of heightened frenzy and aggression we had each actor go through the entire charade, and everyone was allowed to throw things in and go through the clue to its completion. Then in the editing room, we edited it back down to exactly what we had scripted. That gave it a life force it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

The film also made me think of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Yes, that’s our kind of humor, that’s what we love. In fact, [John Benjamin] Hickey and I once read through “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” together when we were doing “Cabaret.” It’s such great writing. I love that kind of brutal, scathing humor. That’s something I’m definitely drawn to.

How did the collaboration with Alan Cumming come about?

Alan and I were hanging out with each other after our time in “Cabaret.” I had just finished being in “The King Is Alive,” which was shot using digital video, and I told him how exhilarating it was, as an actor, to work like that. And how cheap it was. We were both talking about how we wanted to direct, and we thought we’d do it together — write about something we care about, and write for our friends.

We started with who we wanted to be in it, and began to play with it. It just kept growing and growing. Then we started pitching it. We sold it to Fine Line, and then we had to write a script. By that time we had talked about it so much that we knew every scene very well. Then it was just a matter of writing and rewriting.

How did you make that work, co-directing with Cumming?

Alan and I were really on the same wavelength. I guess we were lucky in that we share a lot of the same tastes and opinions, and we had this incredible intuitive understanding of each other. That helped a great deal.

We were also very disciplined. We only had 19 days to shoot, and ended up with 40 hours of footage. On “The King Is Alive,” which also used digital video equipment, they had 120 hours of footage. It took them a month just to make the selects of the dailies. We had a budget of $3.5 million, so that forced us to be sparing in how many takes we did. Usually we did three, working with three of these state-of-the-art digital video cameras.

You thank your mom, screenwriter Barbara Turner, in the credits. How did she help you?

Oh, she was enormously helpful. She was our harshest critic on the script and helped us make it sharper, funnier and smarter. That’s why it says “A big ‘less words’ thanks to Barbara Turner,” because she kept saying to us, “Less words. Less words.”

I know you’re a private person, and you’ve expressed your distaste in the past with publicity. Did that make exposing your personal life as you do in this film painful?

It’s like what Alan’s character says in the movie about his book: “It’s a novel.” You draw on stuff that’s personal. But that’s the great thing about it. As an actor you’re always doing that, you’re just doing it with someone else’s words. To do it as a filmmaker is really incredible. The only time you feel exposed at all is talking about it –like right now. But actually creating the work is the most enlivening, enjoyable and gratifying thing. There’s nothing else like it.

Where’s the line between your character, Sally, and yourself?

There are many things that are similar, but many things that are different. When this first came about I was going through a breakup and trying to recover from that. All my creative energy went into things that had to do with breakups, getting back together or both. You become the most creative during the saddest times. It’s also a time where you reach out to friends a lot. So it was such a perfect thing, this film — and it came together easily because of that.

What appealed to you about a party being the catalyst for an investigation of relationships?

I like the idea of something taking place within a 24-hour period and all that can happen in that 24-hour period. A party symbolizes life and fun and hope and joy. The fact that it can completely derail and undermine this relationship it’s supposed to be celebrating is inherently funny and truthful to me.

Your character has a lot of issues with marriage and with the possibility of having children.

She’s in total denial about it because she’s so hopeful. She’s willing to completely efface herself for this marriage. She’s willing to uproot herself and move to London because that’s where her husband is happiest. She wants to be anything he needs her to be, so she can hold on to this marriage. Also, they’re both at that point, in their 30s, at which they have to decide whether they’re going to have children or not, and if they do, what that means for their work.

How does that apply to you, since you’re in your 30s?

I’d love to have children, and I think marriage is great, I really do. This movie examines all kinds of marriages. We examine so many almost microscopically. They’re all kind of flawed but they work. And there’s something beautiful about that. We know that every marriage in this movie has gone through some horrific nights and somehow managed. So maybe Sally and Joe will make it. I wanted to leave that as a question in the viewer’s mind.

Your film addresses the creeping paranoia people feel in Hollywood over the subject of aging, especially women. Why was it important for you to satirize that?

Not only are we satirizing Hollywood, we’re also indicting it. It’s a true thing about women aging in Hollywood — that suddenly there are no parts. But that’s the great thing about this movie: There are lots of great women’s roles. And that’s an exciting thing to bring to the table. I plan to write and direct more good parts for women, myself included.

Yet everyone in the film is lying about their age.

Yeah, even the youngest woman in the film lies about her age. But Kevin’s character lies about his age too. It’s the nature of the business. People equate success with youth. And if you haven’t had a certain amount of success by a certain time in your life, it’s never going to happen. There’s a fear about that. So people start lying about their age really young. I’ve never done that because I think it’s so insignificant. You are the age that you are, no matter what you say, and you look the age that you look. That’s why I can poke fun at it, because I don’t feel threatened by it.

Do you and Cumming plan to direct together again?

Oh, yes. I think Alan will do one on his own and I’ll do one on my own, then we’ll come back and do one together.

What draws you to the darker roles you’re known for?

Happier characters are usually pretty dull, unless they’re very funny and well written. The darker ones — like in “Georgia” or “Mrs. Parker” — are better parts. They’re more dynamic and challenging. I care more about them because their lives are so hard. But they’re really courageous in the way that they live. There’s something vulnerable and naked and daring about them. That’s what makes playing them more satisfying.

Some reviewers have said, “Oh, Leigh will never get an Oscar because what she does is too edgy.” Do those sorts of comments piss you off?

No, we joke about that in the film. For me it’s, like, can I keep working? That’s where my joy is.

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>