Throughout her career, 36-year old Jennifer Jason Leigh has
played indomitable, tragic figures with an intensity few screen
performers have matched, but when she walks into the room, she
seems more vulnerable than her screen characters suggest. Petite,
pale and gentle, Leigh is an actress who relishes seeping into
the skin of a character. Such is the case of her latest character
in Polish director Agnieszka Holland's take on Henry James'
novel, Washington Square.
The film tells the story of Catherine Sloper (Leigh), an
heiress who lives in the titular New York estate in the
mid-1850s. Catherine's birth killed her mother, and she has spent
her entire life listening to resentful remarks from her wealthy
physician father (Albert Finney) that she has none of his late
wife's beauty, charm or elegance.
"I use a lot of myself
Catherine's whimsical Aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith) dismisses
her brother-in-law's harsh criticism and tries to encourage her
aloof, shy niece. At a party, Catherine attracts the attention of
alluring playboy Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin). Overcome with the
prospect of a loving relationship, she wholeheartedly commits
herself to Morris. Father, however, believes that the young,
penniless man has ulterior motives -- that instead of wanting
her, he might want her money -- and threatens to cut Catherine
off financially if she marries him.
Leigh confesses that she relates strongly to her latest screen
incarnation. "I use a lot of myself in Catherine. She's
probably closest to me, closer to me than the other characters
I've played in terms of her introversion and shyness and
awkwardness. Her inability to articulate, being out of place - I
often feel that way. Her wanting to please; I understand that.
There's a lot about Catherine that I understand, certainly the
way she is at a party: awkward at the table, that's me.
Everything is slightly off. That's why I don't go to parties. I
can't try to make conversation with people I don't know. I don't
know why; it's just impossible unless I really know someone.
Yeah, like party dialogue, I'm not gifted at that, and neither is
I then heard they were doing it again, so I really pursued it.
"I met with Agnieszka
[Holland], pleaded with her to let me do it.."
Washington Square was previously filmed in 1949 as The
Heiress, starring Olivia De Havilland, who went on to win an
Oscar for that performance. Though the two versions are starkly
different, the earlier film was what partly drew Leigh to this
project. "I saw the film 10 years ago and just loved it. I
then heard they were doing it again, so I really pursued it. I
loved the novel and was pleased when I heard that this film was
going to be a lot closer to the James novel than The Heiress was.
I met with Agnieszka [Holland], pleaded with her to let me do it,
and that was that."
The character, as written, was described as being very plain,
a quality one could hardly ascribe to Jason Leigh. To get round
the problem, Leigh wore little or no make up throughout the film.
"That helped me a lot in terms of this character, and also
in terms of the way people feel about themselves, I think. You
can do a lot with lighting, you can do a lot with camera angles,
but the fact remains, nobody wore make-up during that period,
except prostitutes." Such immersion into a character is
nothing new to the actress, who views acting "as a means to
escape from my own shyness and insecurities."
As successful as Leigh has become, she has always been drawn
to the outer of Hollywood's mainstream, never seeking
acceptability from within the powerful industry, despite her
background. She is the daughter of the late actor Vic Morrow and
screenwriter Barbara Turner.
"The one thing they
have in common, is that I care about them"
She won a 1994 Golden Globe for her performance in Robert
Altman's ensemble film Short Cuts. More recently, Jennifer Jason
Leigh has exhibited a fondness for flamboyant, curiously accented
characterisations, notably her maniacal "roommate from
hell" in Single White Female (1991), her Katharine
Hepburn-style comic turn in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and her
deliberately artifice-laden portrayal of writer Dorothy Parker in
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994).
Leigh again worked with Altman in his tribute to jazz music,
Kansas City (1996), and helped produce and later star in her
mother's screenplay, Georgia.
In an industry in which women consistently complain about the
lack of strong roles fore women, Leigh has delivered some
shattering performances playing strong, yet vulnerable
characters. "They're all different, this hotchpotch of
characters I've played; the one thing they have in common, is
that I care about them. That's what attracts me to a part."
"I am still most happy
when I'm working"
Leigh is selective about the films she elects to do, but also
admits that "I am still most happy when I'm working; I
really love it so much." That is when she's not taking her
dogs on a hike. Leigh is fiercely protective about her private
life and refuses to comment on anything not connected to her
work. "I've been lucky in that I HAVE been able to keep my
private life private, and for me, the roles that I'm playing are
just that, a part. So I'll do anything to help the movie, but
dealing with the press is still difficult for me and doesn't come
naturally. It's just weird to talk about yourself."