Jennifer Jason Leigh Storms Quietly in Margot at the Wedding

pf_main_leigh.jpgPhotos of Jennifer Jason Leigh by Matt Jones, left.

There’s a pale woman in the corner of the West Hollywood lunch spot Orso, minding her own business, but for the fact that everyone around her is three shades darker, dipped like fondue cubes in their spray-on tans. This woman looks like somebody“somebody who’s been in a lot of movies.

You can almost hear a rippling stage whisper through the high-octane Hollywood crowd. She can’t help it’now she’s on their radar. No surprise that it is Jennifer Jason Leigh, considered to be the best actress of her generation, and known to disappear into her roles like Ted Kaczynski into the woodwork.

The late Robert Altman, who cast her in Kansas City and Short Cuts, once called her “the Meryl Streep of her time,“ and said of her talent to shape-shift: “She morphs rather than performs.“ One could ask where Leigh has been in the last couple years (doing theater and some smaller film roles). But it has not been a great moment for chameleons in American movies. They’re all on one cable series or another now. But then, even at the top of her game, Leigh was not the media darling. Talking about herself is not her forte. In fact, talking isn’t high on her list, period.

She might keep the lowest profile of any celebrity’even Meryl Streep’even though she’s married to red-hot screenwriter Noah Baumbach. How has this child of semi-celebrities (daughter of screenwriter Barbara Turner and the late Vic Morrow) stayed under the hype-measurement stick for most of her 45 years’particularly while playing more alcoholics (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Georgia), rape victims (Last Exit to Brooklyn), drug addicts (Rush), prostitutes (Miami Blues), and stalkers with ginger pixie cuts (Single White Female) than any other actress in history? (Juliette Lewis doesn’t even come close.)

The few times Leigh’s played “normal“ (and that’s relative)’Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Road to Perdition, In the Cut, and Dolores Claiborne (oops, she was an alcoholic, chain-smoking, pill popper in that one too!)’the choices were still pretty quirky. We’ll get to that.

Leigh at lunch appears to possibly have fallen out of bed. Not exactly disheveled. Presumably, though, she just hasn’t caved to the pressure to be ultra-groomed. “I could barely get out of the house today,“ she says with a tired laugh. Her sandy coif is cutely askew. What was she so engaged in? “Oh, I don’t know,“ she meanders. “Playing with the dog. Reading. I would be happy never leaving the house.“ But she’s excited about the pizza bread that has just arrived. “It’s really good here.“

She is dressed like a stereotypically hip New Yorker: a black Yohji sweater, loose black pants. She’s remarkably unaggressive, she concedes. “I don’t really go after things. Maybe I should. But the right things seem to come to me. When I really, really want something, I’m motivated. It just doesn’t happen that often.

“Some people think I have weird taste,“ she muses, aware people expect her to be flamboyant, eccentric. “But I’m nothing like my characters. Why explain that? I never wanted people to know me.“

And she would not be doing an interview’particularly one in which she could be expected to reveal aspects of her personal life’but for the fact that her new film, Margot at the Wedding, was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, her husband of two years. His family psychodrama The Squid and the Whale (based on his own Brooklyn upbringing) elevated him from independent auteur (Kicking and Screaming) to awards season pretty quickly. This is their first collaboration, and it’s meaningful enough for her to suffer the personal intrusion.

“Noah and I met at a Neil LaBute play six years ago,“ she explains. “You wouldn’t really think a relationship that began while watching The Shape of Things would have much hope, but it works. We’re both living in our heads. I’ve never been exactly what you’d call a “party girl.’ I guess I’ve never cultivated being famous,“ she says. “The only thing I like about it is getting tables at restaurants. But the fame thing, the party thing, gets old quickly.

“I wanted to get married in a very small way’quietly,“ she continues. “But I wanted it. I really wasn’t sure I’d ever get married. I’d lived with various boyfriends over the years. I didn’t see what the big deal was about marriage. But with Noah, it was different. I did want to get married. I just didn’t need anybody other than my friends and family to know about it.“ The cocooning duo own an apartment in New York City, and they hole up in Leigh’s Los Angeles house when they want to seclude, which is often. Baumbach wrote the part of Pauline in Margot at the Wedding for her. Might she turn up as resident muse in future Baumbach movies, as Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow did for Woody Allen in so many of his films? “Let’s see how this one goes over,“ she says with an uncomfortable smile. “But the great thing was that I was involved with every draft, a process I loved.“

Like The Squid and the Whale, Margot’sad, funny, and more than a little odd’seems heavily improvised. “But not one word is,“ she explains. “This is Noah’s style. It’s directed to sound colloquial.“ Nicole Kidman plays the title character, a neurotic New York writer who hasn’t talked to her sister, Pauline, in years. When Pauline, a neurotic Shelter Island teacher (yes, everyone in a Baumbach movie is neurotic) decides to marry a slacker (Jack Black), Margot drags her son to the wedding to make peace only to wreak havoc on a scenario that’s already got beaucoup de havoc.

Imagine Jack Black and Leigh kissing, copulating, arguing, crying, and smoking pot all in one scene. All the while, the sisters are compulsively drawn back into a semi-sick, sibling love-hate thing: affection, competition, closeness, fighting. But this push-pull of family drama at its most meticulous, and annoying, here feels entirely, and scarily, real.

“Noah’s really good at “intimate,’“ says Leigh. “He’s one of the few filmmakers who can get that’except maybe Mike Leigh.“ Not only did Baumbach get it made’he “got“ Kidman, still reigning at the top of the A-list. Leigh and Kidman spar like hell-bent lightning rods: Leigh is flustered, flummoxed, feral. Kidman is a Kidman we’ve never seen before: self-conscious and indecisive, she’s Woody Allen“early Woody Allen“annoying Woody Allen. With lipstick.

“Nicole is so glamorous,“ Leigh says. “But there’s a lot of depth under the beauty. She was in and out of makeup in half an hour. She was never on a cell phone; she really, really cared about the work. Amid all the hype, she still knows exactly who she is. She also knows when to be quiet.“ That is a strong attribute in Leigh’s book.

On the flip side, Leigh’s rarely played a character this “normal“ before. But then, the movie has a close quarters European quality, ���� la Ingmar Bergman, one of her culture heroes. “I worship Scenes from a Marriage,“ she says. And yes, she can excavate that Euro-actress intonation, ���� la Isabelle Huppert or Liv Ullmann, if the part’in real life or in work’calls for it.

“I have two sisters,“ she says, “and one of them [Carrie, a drug addict at 16, now a drug counselor] was wildly out of control, so I grew up very close to that. I really understand how crazy families can be. And when you have narcissistic parents, it’s really complicated’it can create very damaged people. Bergman is all about relationships in his movies. You don’t need much more drama than that. When you’re around your parents and siblings, you get sucked back into old dynamics. It’s primal, and it’s so much of who you are. Even if it’s not the healthiest thing, it’s safe, because it’s familiar.“

That said, it would make sense if she and Baumbach were a bit bipolar themselves, but, says Leigh, it’s nothing of the sort. “You keep repeating bad family patterns until one day you get bored of it. Then you go about finding something different that makes you feel better in a different way. It’s hard letting go of your past. We all could act out that jealousy, bickering, nitpicking spiral forever because that’s what our parents did. Luckily, we live in the age of therapy and psychology books. And around age 40, you feel ridiculous acting like a kid.“

Now an adult’but as hard as she tries, hardly looking her middle years’she says, “I’ll always find work that’s interesting to me. I love theater. I’m fine with character parts. I never wanted to play those normal roles’not when I was 20, and less now. They are really boring to me.“

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