Leigh's gutsy performances in films like Last Exit to Brooklyn, Georgia, Short Cuts and The Hudsucker Proxy have offered audiences a catalog of personalities whose distance from the norm only highlights our own failures, idiosyncrasies and inabilities to "fit."
She has played a bitter incest survivor, a discontented American writer and a masochistic hooker, but she has invested all with a spine of dignity and intelligence. Rage internalized into self-destruction is a leitmotif of her work, whether through the drug-fueled dissolution of slacker-musician Sadie Flood in Georgia or the swampy mire of mother-hatred cloaking the truth about daddy in Dolores Claiborne. Her insight into the emotional mechanics behind her characters' facades has transformed mediocre films and made great films brilliant.
In Anniversary Party, Leigh continues to mine dignity, compassion and a difficult truthfulness from deceptively erratic female behavior with her portrait of a neurotic, thirtysomething actress, Sally, in the film she co-wrote, co-directed and stars in with Alan Cumming.
Seemingly down-to-earth and non-neurotic, Leigh offered her insights into writing and directing for the first time, the nature of acting and the best food to serve for charades during a publicity tour for The Anniversary Party.
CL: I know you're probably sick to death of answering this question, but how close to Sally are you?
JJL: In certain ways I'm close to Sally, Obviously it was fun to play on things that I know so well are true [about myself]. I'm a bit neurotic in certain ways. And in the past I've gotten possessive in relationships, and things like that. But in other ways I'm very different than Sally. Sally has pictures of herself all over her house because she needs the constant reminder of who she is, because she can't hold onto it. Sally's pretty insecure in many ways. But I do throw a mean game of charades [laughs]. And I do basically serve that food exactly at parties: rumaki and frittata.
Ambivalence or outright fear of motherhood seemed like a really important, groundbreaking theme in Anniversary. Do you think these are issues unique to this particular generation of women?
Yeah I do. I think it's unique to not only my generation but probably this new generation. Because the generation I grew up in really was [about] women working and having careers that they felt passionately about, and birth control became -- well, everyone uses birth control -- so it became a choice to have children. And that, I think, did come in with my generation's coming-of-age.
You seem to have a real following among women who strongly identify with the idiosyncratic, troubled women you've played onscreen and your history of risk-taking in choice of roles. Do you ever get the sense that you fill a niche for women who don't see a lot of accuracy in Hollywood's treatment of women?
That would be nice. It's so funny, because I don't think of myself like that, you know? I do think that I choose offbeat characters, and I do think my aim and what I try to do is communicate that these [are] people that we like to box and put a label on and move outside of our existence, somewhere far away. What I like to do in playing those roles is communicate that you're not so dissimilar from them. That there, but for the grace of God, really ...
But have you not gotten the sense that you're like the indie rock goddess of actresses?
That's great. I love that whole notion. I just really don't have that kind of outer awareness of how the world thinks of me, or if the world thinks of me.
Did your mother [screenwriter Barbara Turner] help you or give you any advice on writing Anniversary?
Oh, yeah, she was an enormous help. She was our harshest critic, our best critic. She read every draft of the script. She gave us tremendous notes. Made the script smarter and funnier and sharper.
Had you ever tried writing before? Do you keep a diary?
No, I would never keep a journal because I have too much self-hatred. I've enjoyed very much writing screenplays, and I've enjoyed in the past writing short stories and things like that. But with a journal, you're really faced with how pathetic you are! And also I would probably ... that's the other thing I love about acting, is that in acting with characters you play, you have no one to please except the integrity of that character. And if I were to keep a journal, I know I would lie in it because I would never want to say anything negative about anyone, perchance in case someone might read it someday, or in case I might read it a week later and think, 'What a schmuck I was.' I just can't bear the idea of a journal at all.
You've definitely deliberated about it.
I have. Because I think it's probably a really healthy, good thing to do. But I even once tried to do it on my computer because you can put this intensive security system on your computer. And of course I immediately forgot the password [laughs].
There seems to be a definite Robert Altman feel in Anniversary, and you've talked about how influenced the film is by the Dogma view ... :
It's certainly been influenced by working with Altman and Alan Rudolph and the Coens and Ulu Grossbard, too, and also Sam Mendes [director of the stage revival of Cabaret], which is how I met Alan [Cumming]. Altman and Rudolph create an environment on a set that is so fantastic. You just feel such a sense of trust and safety and joy from them that you really do your best work, because you're not afraid. You really can fall on your face because you know they're going to catch you before your face smashes into the concrete. And that's really what you want. As an actor what you're aiming for is to just be alive.
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