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Oscars 2016: To play that 'Hateful' woman Daisy, Jennifer Jason Leigh learned a new skill

Oscars 2016: To play that 'Hateful' woman Daisy, Jennifer Jason Leigh learned a new skill
Actress Jennifer Jason Leigh says her first Oscar nomination is "phenomenal." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

To suggest that after almost 40 years as a professional actor Jennifer Jason Leigh is excited about her first Oscar nomination for her role as Daisy Domergue in "The Hateful Eight" is something of an understatement.

"The nomination from something that is so lovely to happen in my life, especially this time in my life. It's kind of phenomenal," Leigh says. "It also keeps the movie alive for me and it keeps all of those connections still happening like it's not over yet. That's nice because I'm really not ready to let go of the movie."

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The Hollywood native has earned critical acclaim over her career for roles in films such as "Short Cuts," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," "Georgia" and "Margot at the Wedding," but when she received an email that Quentin Tarantino was interested in having her audition for his latest western, she knew just how big an opportunity it was. After reading the script — which was purposely missing its third, twisty chapter — she wasn't exactly clear on what Tarantino was looking for in Daisy, but she thought the character was "somewhat feral." It turned out Tarantino wasn't so sure about who Daisy was either.

The Times' Rebecca Keegan and Mark Olsen sit down with the stars of this year's awards season, including Isabella Rossellini, Jane Fonda, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Joan Allen.

"He knew that I could, in his words, 'act the … out of it' and I'm not afraid to take a risk in terms of acting," Leigh recalls. "He wanted us to find her very slowly and so really there was no reaching, but that I would own Daisy in such a way, know her so well that I could do sort of anything."

That was a slow process but Leigh appreciated that Daisy doesn't speak very much until the bloody third act. "That's something that's easy for me because I don't like talking that much. I like talking with my friends, obviously, and my family, but I play things very close to the chest and I'm very private."

Tarantino continuously demonstrated his confidence in Leigh's ability, including playing guitar for the first time in her life during one of the film's key scenes. She notes, "I think it's one of the most brilliant things he did for me as an actress was to give me this task that was kind of insurmountable. I mean I'd never even held a guitar before."

Leigh studied diligently and eventually performed for her friend Mare Winningham, who Leigh says "plays guitar like nobody's business and can sing beautifully." Winningham said the song she was playing, which required picking with both hands, wasn't easy.

"I remember Mare taking a long pause and she must have just felt the dread in my voice over the phone," Leigh recalls. "She said, 'But you can do it.' I was scared and I did not want to disappoint Quentin. Quentin gave me the role of a lifetime. This was something that was important to him."

Leigh also had the good fortune of having Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's "Anomalisa" hit theaters this last year. The stop-motion animated drama was a critical darling and earned an Academy Award nomination for animated feature film. Many critics suggested Leigh deserved Oscar attention for her vocal performance in the film, which might have been a surprise benefit for her "Hateful Eight" candidacy.

She'd played the endearing Lisa 10 years prior to making the feature during a live reading at UCLA's Royce Hall, but watching the actual film for the first time was a surprisingly emotional experience.

"I voiced it but I had never seen it; I'd only had the experience of playing Lisa, I never had to see her," Leigh says. "It's groundbreaking, I think in a way, that movie."

And yet it's the experience of making "Hateful Eight" that seems to resonate with her the most.

"There was one day I was in a stagecoach for literally four hours and the stagecoach was not heated," she says. "It just seemed like a lot [of effort] to get out and walk to the heating tent. I just stayed there. I remember one day, I can't feel my feet and I was thinking maybe this wasn't the best decision, but it is the decision I made nonetheless."

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