Jennifer Jason Leigh is not having it. When the subject of some criticism toward the violence suffered by Leigh’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is broached, she is not on defense. She is on offense. In Leigh’s opinion, if you think that, you are a sexist and you are, as she puts it, “off.” Again, she is not having it.
In The Hateful Eight, Leigh plays Daisy Domergue, a woman being held prisoner by John Ruth (Kurt Russell) – a bounty hunter notable for always bringing in his captives alive. In transit, trapped by a blizzard, Ruth and Domergue meet a host of nefarious characters with unknown motivations. Are they who they say they are? Do they want to take Daisy for their own and cash in on $10,000? Are they there to help Daisy?
But, yes, this is a Quentin Tarantino movie and there’s a whole host of violence and bloodshed toward everyone, including Daisy Domergue. Tarantino has written some of the best roles for women in the past 20 years with Jackie Brown and Kill Bill, but there are still some rumblings about how Daisy is treated in The Hateful Eight. So, again, as we spoke to Jennifer Jason Leigh about her role in the three-hour-long Western epic… she is not having it.
You’ve already won an acting award from the National Board of Review and The Hateful Eight hasn’t even come out yet.
[Laughs.] Sweet stuff. Yeah, that was really nice. I guess they saw it? But, yeah, it feels really nice.
This is your first Tarantino movie. Had you known him awhile?
Yeah, I’ve known him through the years. I’ve wanted to work with him forever. I remember one year I had two movies at Cannes and Pulp Fiction was at Cannes. And someone said to me, “Well, you’re in every American movie at the festival.” I was like, “Well, I’m not in Tarantino’s.” But, even then, I was really wanting to work with him. I just loved his writing. I loved Reservoir Dogs so, so much. He’s one of our great, great filmmakers.
He has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything.
You’ve worked with some of the best directors in the world. What makes him different?
Well, his brain. Let’s just start there. Come on. He can tell you every episode of The Virginian. He can tell you who guest-starred in it. He can tell you what commercials played during that episode. I’ve never met anyone like him in my life. He knew every movie I’d ever made.
He once challenged me to debate a specific Django Unchained plot point I called “harebrained.” Then we did. I only bring that up because I can’t imagine any other director doing that.
He’s so different. He writes these hateful, hateful characters, but he writes them with so much love. Everyone of them is flawed and everyone of them has a moment where you find yourself not hating them. There’s one redeeming moment – one second of redemption. There’s just no one that does what he does.
You looked like you were having the time of your life in The Hateful Eight.
The truth is I was. I truly was. Honestly, I have to tell you, I’ve never seen so many grown men weep as when it was like, “And that’s a wrap on Samuel L. Jackson.” And Sam weeps and gives a speech. And it was the same for every single actor. Nobody wanted the filming to end. Everyone knew they were part of something remarkable and precious. And we didn’t take it for granted for half a second.
People will have strong feelings about this movie.
It’s really been fun. I’ve seen it a few times because we’ve been doing Q&As with audiences, so I’ve been able to come in at the end and see the response for the last couple of chapters. It’s so much fun to watch this movie with an audience. It’s big laughs and big surprises. They are so with it. It’s really exciting. And there’s so much to talk about after the movie. And that’s what’s fun about the intermission, people can have a chance to sort of catch up.
I didn’t think I’d like an intermission, but I really enjoyed it. You can ask your friends questions about the characters’ motivations.
I know! And then once you know, it’s really fun to see the movie again.
I did not expect to want to see a three-hour movie again right after it ended.
That’s how I felt, too. And obviously I knew everything! I don’t want to give anything away, but you can just watch everybody from a different way, knowing what you know now.
Was it hard to keep a straight face? This movie has deadly serious moments while some of the funniest things are being said.
Well, Daisy can laugh whenever she wants. So, I didn’t have the same restrictions that other people had.
So when we see you laughing, sometimes that’s just you laughing?
Oh, yeah. Kurt Russell made me laugh all the time. I love this cast so much. We all still communicate. We all still text each other.
Yeah, we have this group texting thing called “The Haters.”
Is that normal?
No. That’s completely abnormal.
So nothing close to that has happened to you before?
Not with an entire cast like this. Never.
So you might make a friend or two…
When you do an ensemble film, there’s always one or two people when you’re like, “Ugh,” you know? “Bad egg, bad egg.” [Laughs.] But no bad eggs in this!
It would be great if you said, “Well, except for Channing Tatum, that guy…”
[Laughs.] “Yeah, that guy needs to buck up.”
So the set was loose? It looks intense.
It was a fun set. I mean, that’s how Quentin is. He really makes the set the best party happening in town. So, between setups, there’s music playing — great music playing between lighting setups. It’s not heavy at all. “If people aren’t having fun, what’s the point?” I think is Quentin’s attitude. And yet everything is so detailed and so rich.
There’s a scene when you’re miming everything Kurt Russell is saying.
Well, I love that. From growing up and being kind of a shy kid, introverted, a camera for me was a great way to communicate. And where I could communicate without speaking. And acting is a great way, obviously, you can disappear inside a role and communicate something that’s true of yourself, but nobody knows what’s you or what’s the character or what you’re really saying with your performance or what you’re trying to communicate. So, to have a character that’s pivotal and on screen so much of the time, but not talking for a lot of it, that’s for a natural place to be. Sorry, I’m eating some cheese.
I’m eating cheese!
You do not have to apologize for eating cheese. I’d be upset if you were not.
I’d feel bad if I kept you from your cheese.
Oh, you’re not keeping me from it.
There have been rumblings I don’t agree with about The Hateful Eight being misogynistic with violence toward women, which has a lot to do with what happens to your character. But there’s violence toward everyone and after Jackie Brown and Kill Bill, I think Tarantino has earned a benefit of the doubt.
I think it’s the opposite of that. I really do. I feel he’s the most female-centric director around. And he writes parts for women that are just the best parts there are to be had. He’s not sexist. He doesn’t write her as some delicate victim flower. She’s a killer. She’s gutsy and her whole identity is, “Yeah, give me what you’ve got, it doesn’t mean anything to me. Hit me again, I don’t give a fucking shit.” You know? She’s not going to show any vulnerability and that’s a tactic she is using and it tells you a lot about her childhood. Quentin loves people and he loves men and he loves women and he’s not – there’s just no misogyny in him. There just isn’t. And if you don’t get that from his roles, then there’s something off.
Kill Bill and Jackie Brown are two of the best roles written for women in the last 20 years.
Absolutely. But I do think an interesting argument back is that’s a sexist thing to say. Why should a man get beat up and not…? It’s the whole hangman’s thing, if you’re going to hang a man, you’re going to hang a woman.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t being up Anomalisa. What a fantastic thing.
Oh, thank you. I love that movie so much.
You were also in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. When he calls, is that just an automatic “yes”?
We did it as a radio play initially 10 years go – and I was really sad because it was only two nights and I loved playing Lisa so much. And then eight years later he calls and says, “Okay, we’re going to do it as an animated stop-motion feature.” And I was thrilled! And then we had dinner in the middle of that and he said, “Oh, we ran out of money. I don’t know if it’s going to come out.” Then they did a Kickstarter campaign and then we’re at Venice together and it wins the Grand Jury Prize. To me, it’s such a beautiful film, when I saw it I really thought I was seeing something groundbreaking.
It’s one of the most intimate movies I’ve seen this year, even though it’s animated with puppets. Did that even surprise you?
Yeah, I was surprised. I’m telling you, I really thought – and it sounds like a silly expression – but, honestly, I can say, truly, if you see this movie and haven’t seen it, it will blow your mind. Because it does. Because when I’m watching it, I’m in the thing, and I forget they are puppets.
Exactly. You start to think they are real.
Yeah! And then you remember. And then you forget. And then you remember. It’s a weird game of Ping-Pong with your brain. And it’s so beautiful and it touches on so many things that we all experience in life, you know?
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.