Jennifer Jason Leigh has a career spanning five decades and 90 credits, but she's at the top of her game in The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino's gargantuan new Golden Globe–nominated Western. As Daisy Domergue, the lone woman in the film and captive of Kurt Russell's John “the Hangman” Ruth, Leigh's role requires physical and verbal acrobatics as well as a deft touch, and she handles the challenge perfectly, giving one of the best performances of the year. Vulture caught up with Leigh to talk about the glory of Kurt Russell, what makes Tarantino such a great director, and why she's never seen as many grown men weep as she did while filming The Hateful Eight.
What were your first impressions of the Hateful script?
It’s such a fabulous role. The funny thing is, I picked up the script from [casting director] Victoria Thomas’s office and went home and read it — and it was missing the last chapter. Intentionally, because Quentin didn’t want anyone to know. A day or two later, I was to go to his house and audition. So I worked on all the moments and scenes that she had — not a lot of dialogue, but I worked on it, I read it over and over again. It’s such a great script: I just loved every second of reading it. Then I got there, and we talked for a while, and he handed me the last chapter and he said, “Take your time and read it. I’ll go out, and then I’ll come back, and we’ll read from that.” I said, “Great!”
I started reading it, and suddenly I was like, “Holy shit.” Because that’s where Daisy, who has not said very much up until this point, cuts loose. I wanted the part so badly — I’ve wanted to be in a Tarantino movie forever — and needed to give it my all, but it was quite a task set before me, and I was nervous. I knew I just had to sort of throw myself into it. He came in, and usually, when you read for a director, you either read with a casting director or you read with a reader, and the director sits and watches you. Quentin doesn’t do that. He came in, and he sat beside me, and he opened the script, and we read off of one script, sitting side-by-side. What that does is it just takes 80 percent of your nerves away immediately because he’s not watching you — he’s participating in the reading with you.
He’s reading all the other parts and everything?
Yeah! He’s in it with you. You feel the world slip away, and it’s just you and him, and it’s so easy to give your all because he’s giving his all. You don’t feel like you’re being judged or watched or under a microscope; you feel like you’re engaged with someone in this incredible writing. So it was so freeing and so much fun, and we worked for about an hour, and I just thought, Fuck, man, if that’s the closest I get, I just had such an amazingly brilliant afternoon. I had no idea if I got it or didn’t get it. I knew I was hoarse. And I was happy.
I remember calling my mom afterward, because she had asked me to, and she said, “How’d it go?” And I said, “I had an incredible, incredible experience, but I have no idea how it went because I was in it.” I wasn’t watching myself either. I was just engaged with him. Later on I found out he wanted to have a dinner and discuss it, and that was a good sign. He had seen a bunch of my movies, and we had talked about that, but at the dinner he said he’d had a whole Jennifer Jason Leigh film-festival weekend, and it was so nice, to feel so seen and appreciated. He has this kind of intensity and enthusiasm that just feels very loving and very supportive. I think he gets the best out of everyone.
How did you and Kurt develop your rapport? You’re chained together for most of the movie, so you’re physically interacting in this really intense way.
Oh, yeah. It’s incredible. I don’t think ... actually, I know I could never have given the performance I did if it hadn’t been with Kurt Russell. He’s just the best dance partner on the planet. I’ve done some stunt stuff, but not a lot, and he’s done a lot, and he really knows what he’s doing. I never had to anticipate anything because he’s so good. So I actually could play whatever the moment was, and pretty much forget that a fist was going to be coming into my face. That is really a luxury. You can work with great actors who are lovely, lovely people, but sometimes, when they get caught up in the moment, watch out. Kurt makes it seem so easy, and it’s not easy. But I also felt — and this is a little bit of the Stockholm syndrome — really protected and cared for. He helped me become Daisy.
There's a lot of violence against Daisy — mostly from Kurt's character — but it's seemingly justified by the fact that she's this murderous criminal. What’s your perspective on that dynamic?
My thing is that Daisy is one of the toughest people in the room. I never felt like I was the woman in this group. Nobody cleaned up their language or their stories around me. There was never any sexualizing anything. It was a great experience, and Daisy is in no way a victim. She’s the prisoner, but she’s not a victim. And she won’t let anyone get the best of her. She’s so steely and so tough, and I love that because I am not that at all. But because of who I was working with, and knowing I would never get hurt, I could be that way.
How did you find the experience of working with Quentin?
Quentin is very loving and caring about people — about every single person working on the movie, everyone on the crew. He will stop everyone on the set and say, “Guys, do you see the blood there, do you see how long it takes Darren to lay that down? Let’s respect his work. He’s doing an amazing job.” Or, for another example — when we’re on the stagecoach, which was on a flatbed truck, he’d say, “Can I talk to [the driver] on the walkie?” And once he's been handed the walkie, he'd say, “I just want to tell you you’re doing an amazing job. I don’t know how the hell you’re doing it, but we’re getting these shots, and hats off to you, buddy.” He’s that guy. That’s unheard of.
One thing that’s so unique about the movie is that you’re all on set at the same time. But despite the intensity and grim dynamic, everyone seems like they’re really having fun as actors.
That’s so true. That’s also Quentin. He not only sets the tone, he is the set. He’s so brilliant, but he’s also so dynamic, and he’s so much a part of everything. He makes it fun. There’s great music playing between setups, and the set is freezing, but still the actors are hanging out because you just want to be there. You want to watch the brilliant acting. To get a chance to watch Sam Jackson do that stuff — you'd pay for that. Then you get to actually be in scenes with these people, with your heroes, and just act with them. We still all text each other nearly every day. It was like doing a play in the way that it was all pretty much on one set. We were working on it for about six months, and we became very close. Everyone was sad when it ended.
Everyone involved seems genuinely excited to talk about it.
I have never in my life seen so many grown men weep as on the day they were wrapped. Like, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a wrap on Samuel L. Jackson.” Weeping. I’ve never seen it in my life, and it’s because nobody wanted the experience to end. We all felt like we were at the pinnacle of something.