Jennifer Jason Leigh plays perhaps the most savage role of her long, diverse career in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. She inhabits the role of Daisy Domergue, a criminal who is being delivered to the town of Red Rock by bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) for hanging in post-Civil War Wyoming. Along the way, the pair and two other travelers are waylaid by a blizzard and take shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery — where four other strangers are waiting and where it becomes slowly evident that perhaps no one there is who or what they seem.
Daisy is one of Tarantino’s most indelible characters, a woman who will survive at any cost despite finding herself at the receiving end of some of the three-hour movie’s sharpest violence. We sat down with Leigh — who was in the audience when Tarantino staged a reading of the Hateful Eight script last year, long before she got the part — in Los Angeles recently to discuss this film as well as her voice role in Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant new stop-motion romance, Anomalisa.
Den of Geek: Congratulations on this very, I would say, primal performance.
Jennifer Jason Leigh: Thank you! That’s a great way of putting it.
You were in the audience for the reading that Quentin did of this, right?
Do you remember anything from that night?
I just remember it being like a great, great night in the theater. I loved it. I was entranced. First of all, Quentin read all the stage directions. There were a few times where he stopped the performance and directed the actors. I can’t remember who it was exactly, but he would say, “OK. Let’s go back. Let’s do that again,” and give a direction that was so…In the audience you thought, “Oh, it was all going great,” but then the direction he gave just changed the whole dynamic. It changed the room.
So it was magnificent as an actor to be able to watch him in action and also to see it as a staged reading where people are just basically sitting at a table. And it was riveting. I loved it. I just loved every second of it. I would say it was one of…I’ve seen a lot of theater. It was one of the great nights of theater for me.
How did this role end up coming to you?
When he decided to make the movie, I was one of a handful of…or maybe more than a handful. But I think there were a few actresses he was interested in for the role and I was one of them. So I went to (casting director) Victoria Thomas’s office and got the script, but not the whole script, and was allowed to take that home and read it. Then I went to his house and then I got the last chapter. And then we read together from that for my audition.
After watching him direct that reading, how is it to work with him directly?
It’s really amazing. I mean he has so much enthusiasm that infects everyone. He’s kind of a genius in the way he works with actors. He demands the best of you and he gets it. And he gets it in very different ways. He’s so smart. Obviously you know he has a brain like no other. But he’s so smart in the way he wanted very much for Daisy to come from inside. He didn’t want to go for any kind of result that was on the page. He wanted it to be an organic process and for us to…because he didn’t really know who he wanted to cast as Daisy. He didn’t know. He just knew he had to find her with whoever the actress was that he hired. So it was a slow evolving process.
At one point, I flew up to Telluride to do some hair and makeup tests. I got there and I went to set and was like practicing some gunplay and things like that, then went to Quentin’s house. He said, “You know, I don’t really need to do a hair and makeup test with you. I want to play a piece of music.” And he played me a piece of music. He said, “I’d like you to play the guitar and sing that song. Do you play guitar?” I said, “No. I’ve never picked up a guitar in my life.” He said, “Well, I have faith that you’ll be able to do it and you’ll learn it. I’ll get you a teacher. You can do it.”
That’s one of the most striking moments in the movie. Daisy is very savage in many ways, but she has these little grace notes and I think that’s definitely one of them. Was that your way into the character?
That’s what I’m saying. I knew he wanted me to find it organically. I knew he wanted it to come from inside. How do you get that from an actor? You give them something that is insurmountable that seems impossible and you tell them, “I know you can do it.” I spent every free moment I had on that guitar. And it got me so internalized.
Daisy will do anything to survive. I would do anything to be able to play this piece for Quentin because he put his faith in me. It just locked me in, in that way. And it gave a life to her, an internal life to her. I used to write diaries all the time for characters. This was so much better because it physicalized it. And in physicalizing it, it brought it inside me and it made it part of my life in a way that I didn’t even know. So he made me Daisy without ever doing it in words. It wasn’t a thought process. It was a physical, emotional…the guitar is like a living thing when you play it, with the struggle, and the frustration, and the desire, and all of that.
So it was just brilliant. It was such a smart thing. She has to do so much also without dialogue. There’s a lot in playing Daisy you do without speaking. But I always had that song to go to.
Do you still play guitar?
You know, he gave me a guitar from like the 1890s, a Martin, which I have. I love it so much. And I do want to continue playing. My teacher on the movie is playing with Cirque du Soleil right now in Mexico. So he is not here. But I want to continue playing. And I actually want to learn classical guitar.
Daisy goes through some pretty brutal stuff in this movie. Is there any way to prepare for that on the set in a way that it doesn’t freak you out too much when you are having brains and blood spatter constantly all over you?
I think there is no way — I mean, yes, I worked with the stuntman and I did whatever practicing I could do. But the real way to do it is to work with someone that knows what they’re doing so that you have no fear and so you never anticipate. And that’s Kurt Russell. Never for a second was I afraid he would actually touch my face, was I afraid he would yank me too hard, was I afraid I would slip in the blood. He was always there for me.
So I could actually play the scene and forget that he was going to land a blow to my face and just play the moment. That is a luxury that I don’t think many actors are afforded, because I don’t think there are too many Kurt Russells around. He’s been doing it so long and he’s so caring and thoughtful and just so damn good at what he does, and funny. And he never breaks. He’s also hilarious.
So it was really…it was kind of amazing. Thank God, because can you imagine having to play this part with someone you didn’t trust?
Actors say that all the time in interviews how they have to trust each other and it seems like being handcuffed to somebody, and doing the stuff that you and he do, you need an extra level of trust there.
I couldn’t have had a better dance partner. There’s just no one like him, I think. I’m really so grateful, because I could never have been Daisy without him. It was kind of like a marriage. For better or worse, they’re stuck together. It was really, really something to play with him, and really fun.
Quentin get criticized for his movies because of the violence and sometimes because of the racist language that people use. In the case of Daisy, there is so much that she goes through that it seems inevitable in the culture that we live in that people are going to call that out. How would you respond to that?
I don’t like a lot of violence in movies. A lot of the times it’s too hard for me to watch. I could never watch that show about the serial killer. Dexter. I couldn’t watch it. It turned my stomach and I just was too queasy for it. But I love Quentin’s movies and I can watch them over and over. There’s something about his violence that is…it’s explosive and cartoonish. And it’s not real to me. And the writing is so much fun. It’s fun to watch. It’s not real. It doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t impact me in a way that upsets me. It’s like a ride. And it’s a ride that I want to go on.
It’s not like watching Straw Dogs. I find his movies such pure joy to watch. And I find his violence hilarious. So it was never a concern. And Daisy is one of the guys. She really is. She’s tough. The flower in the group is Mannix (Walton Goggins). It ain’t Daisy. She’s tough.
I just caught Anomalisa a couple weeks ago. Really great film. Can you talk about working with Charlie Kaufman on that and if you and David Thewlis recorded the voices together?
We did. Originally it was called Theater for the New Year with Carter Burwell. And it was these staged readings to his music. I had originally seen them at BAM. Charlie did a different play and it was paired with a Coen Brothers play. Then they wanted to do it at Royce Hall, but the Coens were not participating. So Charlie needed to write another play to take up the other section of the evening. And it had to be three characters. So he wrote it. And he wrote it for me and David and Tom Noonan.
When he called me about it…I mean I had been wanting to work with him for so very, very long. And it was such a beautiful role. And David and I had been wanting to work together since 25, 30 years ago or something. We had become friends, and we had been in Cannes together, coincidentally. When he came to L.A. sometimes he would stay with me. We always wanted to work together and we never had the opportunity.
Then here is this piece that is so powerful, and emotional, and beautiful. We only did it two nights at Royce Hall, so I was very sad when it was over because it was too short. It was too brief. I kept in contact with Charlie and I was always asking him if there was any prayer of doing it again. There were rumors of going to Australia with it, etc. And then he finally called two years ago and said, “We’re going to do it as a stop-motion animated movie.” And I was thrilled because I thought, “That’s just a perfect marriage between the subject matter and that kind of artistry.”
I love the movie. When I saw it felt really like I was a part of something groundbreaking. A film has never affected me like that. I felt like I was watching a film for the first time, in a way. I was experiencing a new medium. It was really exciting. I’m really proud to be a part of it. Also, in my family I was the person who didn’t have a nice voice. I don’t have a beautiful voice. A lot of people in my family can sing beautifully. And I was always the one that was like…I remember a friend of my mom’s saying to me, “You are a very good actress, but you need to work on your voice.”
So to be cast by Charlie in this role really touched me, because I’ve never thought I had a beautiful voice. And I never thought that would happen for me in any way. Lisa is very, very ordinary, but it is all about her voice. So for me it has a lot of personal resonance.
You are doing Twin Peaks, too, right?
I’m not allowed to talk about if I’m doing it or if I even know about it.
What roles do you get asked about the most?
It depends on the person’s age. I’ve done all kinds of movies. A lot of people will come to me and talk about Georgia, which is very personal to me, which I love. A lot of acting students will come and talk to me about The Anniversary Party because that’s actually been used in colleges and in schools, which I didn’t know. Like they use those scenes and they use them in acting classes now, which feels good since Alan (Cumming) and I wrote that together. Then there are the people who love Dolores Claiborne. And there are the people who love Single White Female because they had a roommate…
You know, it really depends. There are the eXistenZ fans. Lately it’s been Georgia. Maybe it’s on TV or in the zeitgeist in some way. It’s been mentioned a lot lately, people coming up to me and talking about it. I don’t know why exactly, but I would say that’s the one right now. And that pleases me tremendously because my mom wrote that movie and I really love it.
You mentioned Dolores Claiborne. I think that’s kind of an underrated movie in some ways. What do you remember working on that with Kathy (Bates) and Taylor (Hackford, director)?
Kathy is just a phenomenal, phenomenal actress. It was really exciting to work with her. She’s a powerhouse. I loved Taylor. And I had a great time. It was freezing. I mean people talk about this movie being cold. This movie is nothing next to Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia. They call it Blue Rocks for a reason. It was soooo cold. So I remember that.
And it was such a small town that everyone was staying in people’s houses. There were days where we couldn’t shoot a frame of film because the weather kept changing every 10 minutes. John C. Reilly and I played a lot of poker. We’d have Risk games that went on forever. I have a lot of really fond memories.
The Hateful Eight opens on Christmas Day in 70mm road show presentations before expanding in January.