Jennifer Jason Leigh caps off 2015 with major roles in two vastly different films. In Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa,” she voices the title character, a fidgeting woman approaching middle age with no confidence and little life experience. But Leigh’s character in Quentin Tarantino‘s “The Hateful Eight” couldn’t be more different. Daisy Domergue, a killer caught by bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), is mean, spiteful and defiant. Chained to Ruth en route to her day of reckoning at the hands of the law, Daisy needles her captor with flashing eyes filled with murderous cunning.
The Playlist spoke to Leigh about the challenges of performing for Tarantino in the film, given that she spends much of her time onscreen chained to Russell, as well as dealing with fkae blood and prosthetics.
I spoke to Kurt Russell yesterday, and we talked about performing in this film while chained to another actor. He said you were a great dance partner.
I say he’s the great dance partner! He’s the better partner —I’m just following his lead.
Is there a challenge to this kind of performance?
I think there would have been a challenge if I was working with anyone else. He’s so good at what he does, making it look so effortless and seamless, like it’s not really him doing it. But he’s doing it.
Did you spend a lot of time working out your movements?
We did, but I would forget about it, because I knew I was in such safe hands. I could be totally in the moment, talking to someone else or making a wisecrack and his expense, and really, truly forget that a blow was coming [Russell’s character heaps physical abuse upon Leigh’s]. Then I could just react to it, because I knew Kurt would never hurt me. I knew I was safe. There are not many people I would feel that way about. He’s been doing it so long and he’s so conscientious and good at it that it allowed me to play and be in the moment. He’s also just an incredibly supportive, great man. He’s so supportive of every actor on the movie. I felt it in spades because we were chained to one another.
So much of this performance is composed by expressions and movements rather than dialogue. Is that mode good for you?
I really love all that. I’m fairly shy and I was sort of introverted as a kid. When I was growing up, my stepfather would take pictures of me and my sisters, and I loved being able to communicate without speaking. And I always loved that about acting too. I could have my own secrets, thoughts and experiences, but I can communicate through this character. It’s great being able to work in probably the best movie of my career, and to have a character who communicates through silence for much of the film, through very little dialogue, and has so many secrets. The whole experience has been amazing.
There’s a lot of blood. Were you conscious of how much goop there would be?
I don’t think I’ve done a movie with a lot of blood before. I never had an experience with… oh, “Rush”! There’s a big bloody scene in that. I hadn’t had a lot of experience as such, and Quentin has his own blood, like a formula. Other people use it in other films, but it’s his blood. It’s the consistency and the color that he likes, and he likes a lot of it. I get pretty covered. The hardest part is the stickiness. There are a couple of kinds, and the stuff that stays looking wet sticks. It’s hard to open your hands, and if it gets on your eyelid it’s hard to open or close your eyes. That’s hard to work around.
But I was so happy to be part of this ensemble. I read the script, so I knew what happens to her and what I was getting into. And I was in great hands. Every day I went to work I was happy, and we were all sad when it ended.
I keep hearing about the text message group the cast has, which seems unusual.
Yeah, the Haters. We all felt that we were part of something exceptional, and it may never happen again. It became like a very happy, loving family. None of us wanted to let it go, so we haven’t and hopefully won’t.
That all sounds like a huge contrast to the tone of the film —does that camaraderie enhance your work?
I think it does. When you watch the film, you can tell everyone is having a great time. You can feel it. Quentin is so enthusiastic, and you feel so supported and part of his vision.
Do you talk to Quentin about themes?
I don’t do that so much, no.
There have been strong reaction to the abuse that Daisy takes. Some commentators have called it misogynistic.
I don’t feel that at all. Daisy is a killer. What’s nice about the film is there’s no sexism. She’s tough as nails, and Daisy gets a lot of her identity from proving how tough she is. She eggs Ruth on, because she wants him to land a punch and she wants to show him it doesn’t mean shit to her. You could break her nose three times —she could give a fuck.
It’s her way of putting him in his place. She’s cuffed and doesn’t have a lot to work with. What she does have is that she’s unafraid and will say or do anything and there’s not much he can do. She’s not afraid of him or of anyone. Secretly, of course, she’s vulnerable. But if you see it, you see it for a second and then she covers it. In terms of misogyny, he’s the least misogynistic director out there. He writes roles for women like nobody else. If you look at the last ten or twenty years of filmmaking, and you think of roles for women, you’re going to think of Quentin Tarantino. Come on! We’re not dealing with a misogynist: we’re dealing with someone who loves women and wants to see them have a chance to embrace a role as great as any guy could play.
There’s a point where it seems like Daisy lures John Ruth into thinking they have a relationship.
He has a fondness for her! A little bit of Stockholm Syndrome sets in for her, too.
Does that go both ways?
Yeah, I think so.
Quentin writes very dense dialogue and speeches —here, when you finally do start to speak a lot, you’re kind of on your own.
Memorization has always come fairly naturally to me. I’ll read something over and over and then know it. And it’s your character, so it works. What I had to focus on was the guitar. I had never played guitar before. I practiced every waking hour that I wasn’t on set, and often while I was on set. I had a great guitar teacher, and that was also a great move on Quentin’s part. He wanted to find Daisy internally, and he didn’t want me to come at it with any specific result in mind. Giving me an instrument that I’ve never played and asking me to learn that song was an enormous undertaking and slightly terrifying. So it became Daisy’s journey.
I wanted to be able to play that song for Quentin like she wants to survive. I didn’t know that I would be able to master it; I’m picking with both hands —it’s not a beginner’s strumming thing— and singing at the same time. You grow up watching people sing and play and it looks natural, but it’s not easy to do those two things at once. So it really focused me inward and gave me Daisy. So when I was playing Daisy, I was never thinking about anything, it was just moment to moment. That’s what you always want, and you don’t always get it. And you get so much from these actors, working with Sam Jackson and Kurt and Walton [Goggins]and Tim Roth.
Were you surprised by anyone in the cast?
I was surprised by everyone in a strange way. It’s a thing about Quentin’s writing. You can read it so many times, but when an actor does it, the script comes alive in a kind of firecracker way, like you’ve never read it before. Sam Jackson can do five takes in a row, and every time you’re doing a take with him, it feels like it’s completely fresh. And there’s one point with Kurt where it’s all funny, funny, and then it gets very dark. When his paranoia takes over, he goes from being kind of a bombastic fool to someone who isn’t funny any more and a bully. That change startled me on the day. I felt like I had this guy in my back pocket, and then I was like, “shit.”
“The Hateful Eight” 70mm roadshow opens on Christmas Day, and the film goes wide on January 1st.