Jennifer Jason Leigh Isn't Afraid of Anything
On a career high heading toward 60, the actress stars in a new Stephen King adaptation
En español l After four decades of acting, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to The Hateful Eight, Jennifer Jason Leigh knows a hit script when she sees one: Stephen King's best-selling novel turned original limited series, Lisey's Story (coming June 4 to Apple TV+).
"I thought it was kind of rare to have three great parts for women over 40,” says Leigh, who plays Darla, a sister of Lisey (Julianne Moore, 60), who is grieving her late husband, a Stephen King-like writer (Clive Owen, 56). A third sister, Amanda (Joan Allen, 64), lives in a parallel world full of scary secrets.
"It was not a tough decision,” says Leigh, 59. “I knew this was a very personal project for Stephen King [who adapted the series, inspired by his own marriage and near-death experiences, and wrote all six episodes himself] and that was very exciting. I've always loved his books.”
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Who — and what — inspires her work
For Leigh, showbiz was the family business. Her father was actor Vic Morrow, who died while filming The Twilight Zone in 1982. Her mother was actress and writer Barbara Turner, whose work included screenplays for the biopic Pollock, HBO's Hemingway & Gellhorn, and 1995's Georgia, which starred Leigh and Mare Winningham.
Beyond her parents’ legacy, Leigh says the touchstone movie of her life was Dog Day Afternoon. “I was 14 when I saw it, and that movie had the biggest impact on me as an actor,” she says. “It just showed me what acting could be and what films could be and how alive they could be and how real."
Hometown: Hollywood, California
Personal: One son, Rohmer Emmanuel, 11, whose father is ex-husband Noah Baumbach, writer-director of Marriage Story
Current Projects: Lisey’s Story, Apple TV+, June 4; Atypical, Netflix, three seasons streaming now (fourth and final season due this summer)
Greatest Hits: Film: Amityville: The Awakening; LBJ; The Hateful Eight; Margot at the Wedding; Road to Perdition; Washington Square; Georgia; Dolores Claiborne; Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle; The Hudsucker Proxy; Short Cuts; Single White Female; Rush; Miami Blues; Fast Times at Ridgemont High. TV: Annihilation; Twin Peaks: The Return; Patrick Melrose; Weeds; The Best Little Girl in the World.
Camp Future Famous: Attended famed upstate New York theater camp Stagedoor Manor, where fellow alum campers include Natalie Portman, Zach Braff, Jon Cryer, Felicity Huffman, Robert Downey Jr. and Mandy Moore.
Why she loves acting for television
Leigh thinks the small screen can be realer than the big screen — a more intimate place for a story to unfold, especially a spooky one like Lisey's. “There's something very immersive about watching something scary from your own living room that's different than watching it in a theater with a lot of other people,” she says. “It feels more personal in a way. It feels like it's in your house."
Scary movie night at Jennifer Jason Leigh's house
If Leigh were going to have friends’ scary movie night at her house, she knows exactly what would — and wouldn't — be on the bill. “I'm proud of a lot of movies I made, but I would not have a bunch of friends over and have a little film festival of myself.” Instead, she'd go for The Shining and The Exorcist. “That would be a great double bill. Then there's Dead Ringers, add Rosemary's Baby in there. Those movies frighten me in a fun way, where something like Zodiac frightens me in a way I feel really unsafe. It's a different thing. They just get your brain working in this whole other way. They're opening these worlds you hadn't known existed — where Zodiac feels random and real and dangerous and part of our society."
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The Netflix binge that got her through quarantine
Leigh found TV [and exercise] “a lifesaver” during lockdown. She and her 11-year-old son, Rohmer, “binged everything,” she admits. “Six seasons of Schitt's Creek, and it felt way too short. We were watching Mythic Quest, a pandemic episode that I found to be really inspiring and just so beautifully done. To see a show that was actually reflecting what we were all going through, I really appreciated that."
Speaking of Netflix ...
This summer, Leigh returns to the fourth and final season of Netflix's Atypical, as the mom of a teenager with autism. What's next? “I've just never been a careerist,” she says. “I've always just hoped to keep working, and I have."
Gayle Jo Carter, the former entertainment editor at USA WEEKEND magazine, has interviewed newsmakers for AARP, USA WEEKEND, USA Today, Parade, Aspire and Washington Jewish Week.