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The Transformation of Jennifer Jason Leigh : Dark, problem-ridden characters have always held the most appeal--from ‘Ridgemont High’ to ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’

Throughout the 14-week production of “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” a raw and brutal examination of a violent, hopeless and rotting waterfront community in the 1950s, Jennifer Jason Leigh never dared to look in the mirror. If she had seen herself dressed up and walking and talking like Tralala, the pitiable, foul-mouthed prostitute she portrays in the film, she might not have been able to maintain the illusion.

“I had to keep Tralala’s reality alive, which is that she has this great life. She’s the queen of her block,” explained Leigh, 27, who, with the recent release of “Miami Blues” and Friday’s opening of “Last Exit,” has graduated from the anxious-to-please teen-ager in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to a genuine Hollywood leading lady.

“Yet if you look at it, she lives in a sewer. She’s eating and being eaten by everyone around her. It’s likes rats in a shoe box, but she has no awareness of it. She’s completely confident and unfeeling so that when she looks in a mirror she sees a beauty queen. I was afraid I would see a chubby pathetic creature. And I didn’t want to risk that.”

To the average person, it might seem risky to so thoroughly suppress one’s own personality in favor of the life, fictional memories and personality of a movie character. But for the introverted Leigh, who chats animatedly about her characters but falls into a hush when asked to speak about herself, that is the thrill of acting.

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For the role of Susie, the naive hooker saving her earnings to buy a Burger World franchise in “Miami Blues,” she cut her hair golf-grass short and isolated herself from the rest of the crew to indulge the loneliness that drives her character’s life. She traveled to Okeechobee, Fla., went to her first football game and hung out with local high school girls to learn the dialect, attitudes and aspirations of the young people who live there.

“She’s such a student of her craft and she’s constantly working on her different characters,” said George Armitage, director of “Miami Blues.” “She has the type of observer’s intelligence that makes great actors or great writers or great directors. We met every actress in the world in that age group when we were casting the film, and after Jennifer left I remember writing down the word, ‘Bingo.’ She absolutely understood the character, her needs and ambitions. And working with her was an utter joy.”

Leigh, who takes the physicality of her roles seriously, once lost 18 pounds off her 5-foot-3 frame to play a teen-age anorexic in the 1981 TV movie “The Best Little Girl in the World.” She also trained herself to eat without ever letting the food touch her lips for that film, a habit that she still has not been able to shake completely. She also writes and saves diaries in the voice of every character she portrays, making up the woman’s life as a child, the food she ate, the dances she did, her dreams, her first sexual experience and anything else that comes to her.

For “Last Exit,” she gained 10 pounds to portray the semi-voluptuous and rounded Tralala. Uli Edel, the film’s director, eventually had to tell her to stop eating because “she was starting to explode right out” of the rather risque costumes. She also adopted an aggressive, hostile walk and a vulgar, Brooklyn back-alley dialect that she maintained at all times on the set and quite frequently in the privacy of her life off the set as well.

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“I was a little worried at first because Jennifer came from California and this takes place in the dark streets of Brooklyn,” said Edel, the German-born filmmaker best known for “Christiane F.” “It was really astonishing how far she was able to change. She did a kind of complete absorption of Tral’s part. Her whole middle-class upbringing vanished. Her whole language changed completely. Her movement was all of a sudden completely different and she took on this real vulgar expression. She got rid of Jennifer and literally became the character.”

“I noticed that she was quiet and wanted her privacy and that she was thinking about her character the whole time,” said Armitage of his experience with Leigh on the set of “Miami Blues.” “But I didn’t realize how into character she was until I saw her recently and she was an entirely different person.”

“Last Exit to Brooklyn,” with its unrelenting depictions of beatings, rapes and other humiliations, is rough on its audience; watching the completed film was even rougher on Leigh. She said that during the filming of a scene where Tralala reacts to a trick’s sincere affection by making herself the subject of a gang orgy in a local tavern, everyone on the set was overly concerned and overly careful with her, but she kept saying, “I’m fine, don’t worry about me.”

“Tralala wants it so badly,” Leigh explained. “She needs it so desperately because there is this part of her that has been opened up and it terrifies her and this is the way to kill it. The only way she knows to get back up on top is to feel that every man in the world wants her. And she thinks they do, but really they are all out to destroy her.”

Leigh said that it wasn’t until she actually saw the film that she was confronted with the self-destructive plight of the character that had inhabited her during the filming.

“It felt like I had been kicked in the stomach,” Leigh said. “I suddenly realized why everyone was so concerned about me. I felt awful for the character, but I am the character so it was horrible for me, too. You don’t say I’m not really like this, this is someone else, because then you can’t act the role. You say I am her, so when you see it, it kills you.”

But Leigh is not one to shy away from marred, sexually abused characters. She says, in fact, that she thrives on it. “I always pursue roles that are very challenging and mysterious and disturbing and exciting to me. I could never play the ingenue, the girl next door or the very successful young doctor. That would be a bore.”

With the exception of her role as a kooky performance artist in last year’s “The Big Picture,” Leigh has played a string of grim and traumatized women. She was Stacy, the awkward teen whose adolescence is replete with painful, unsatisfying sex and an abortion in the otherwise raucous “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” In “The Hitcher,” she is torn apart by a truck. She was raped in Paul Verhoeven’s “Flesh & Blood.” She played a saucy teen-age prostitute in “The Men’s Club” and in “Heart of Midnight” she depicted a psychosexually scarred woman who inherits a nightclub where weird sexual fantasies are fulfilled. She also played a peep-show performer in the Off-Broadway play “Sunshine.”

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Most of Leigh’s roles have required some nudity, often in the context of graphic sexual encounters. Leigh says she’s obviously attracted to a certain kind of role, but is taken aback by the notion that taking off her clothes onscreen could ever become a public image problem.

“Nudity has never been an issue for me,” she said. “It’s not that exciting or scary. And I can’t imagine being known for taking my clothes off. That would be a pretty sad statement. That is not why I act at all.”

The daughter of the late actor Vic Morrow and screenwriter Barbara Turner said she began pretending to be other people as a small child, partly as a way to make friends and communicate her feelings to others. She got her first film, the B horror movie “Eyes of a Stranger,” before graduating high school. “I loved it because I played a deaf, dumb and blind girl and got to learn how to read Braille. I basically just sat in the corner, didn’t look at anyone, didn’t talk to anyone, practicing my Braille. It was perfect, because I was so shy I wouldn’t have talked to anyone anyway. I’m much better now.”

She is also a much better actor--an accomplished character actress who receives good notices almost every time out. She teeters on the verge of movie stardom. But while the other alumni of “Fast Times"-- Sean Penn, Anthony Edwards, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates and Forest Whitaker--have all attained some real Hollywood celebrity, Leigh remains at least half-hidden behind all these dark, problem-riddled characters.

Which is just as she wants it. She abhors the idea of becoming a celebrity. And while she yearns to work with “top-notch directors on great films,” transforming herself into new and different gritty personas in the years ahead would be just fine with her. In June, she begins production on “Crooked Hearts,” the story of a young Arizona woman trying to recover from a disastrous Los Angeles love affair.

Both her most recent directors insist, however, that despite her reticence for stardom and regardless that some have her typed as a darkly sexual sort, Leigh can’t help but graduate to broader and bigger roles.

“She is going to be a major star,” Armitage said. “She could do anything you could possibly ask her. She’d work on it, and she’d do it.”

“She is an extraordinary actress, one of the few who really deserve to be called a real actress,” Edel raved. “Her passion is for acting and every director loves to work with someone as capable and passionate as Jennifer. The remarkable thing is that when you see her, you think she is just going to be some intellectual, Greenwich Village student. But she has an amazing aura when she is on film. When the camera touches her, she really starts to shine.”

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