Q&A: Hollywood has changed — hashtags and ‘watching dailies on their phones’ — but not Jennifer Jason Leigh

Actress Jennifer Jason Leigh stars in the new Netflix comedy "Atypical," as the mother of a son with autism.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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Jennifer Jason Leigh, as she tells it, isn’t much of a planner when it comes to her career — adhering to the practice of taking each role as it comes. But she had been looking for a project with some sense of lightness to it.

Since her 1982 breakthrough in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Leigh has mostly gravitated toward dark, tortured characters (e.g. the stalker in “Single White Female” or the racist murderer in “The Hateful Eight”). Even now, viewers have been catching her performance as a mysterious accomplice to Evil Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in Showtime's "Twin Peaks” revival.

“Atypical” is a bit of an antidote to it all. At least on paper.

The Netflix family comedy series, which is now available to stream, is a coming-of-age story about a teenager (played by Keir Gilchrist) on the autism spectrum. Leigh plays Elsa, a mother trying to cope with stepping back as her son seeks independence and romance.

It joins a growing list of projects occupying her time. Her film “Good Time,” in which she plays Robert Pattinson’s flaky girlfriend, just opened in limited release. And she’ll soon start production on Showtime’s Benedict Cumberbatch-led limited series, "Melrose," based on the “Patrick Melrose” series of semi-autobiographical novels written by Edward St. Aubyn.

Jennifer Jason Leigh (Charles Sykes / Invision /AP)
(Charles Sykes / Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Had you been looking to do a TV series?

Yeah. TV has gotten so, so interesting and it just kind of fascinated me, the idea of taking a character and really going for a long period of time ... I've done a little bit here and there, but nothing to this extent. I wanted to experience that and also, [“Aytpical”] is light. It's touching, but it's also funny and sweet. So, there was something very appealing about that and, also, really examining the family and all those dynamics.

Your character, Elsa, is confronted with this journey of self-discovery — and self-destruction, as her son is seeking some independence.

That’s what I loved. It seemed like a really interesting character to play — someone that's been holding on so tight, then finds herself kind of unraveling as her son starts to come into his own independence and the terror of that, for her.

Also, realizing that a lot of her life she hasn't really experienced, because she's really given herself over to taking care of him. All mothers have that instinct to protect and nurture—with Sam there's all these other issues that come into play as well. He can get overloaded sensorially, very easily. He can hurt himself. He can hurt someone else. He can walk across the street with his eyes closed. Things like that, which are just ... It's a lot. So, she's felt very, very needed, as all mothers do. So, as Sam comes more into his own independence, she starts to realize that loss, which is a scary feeling, right?

A still of Jennifer Jason Leigh in Netflix's "Atypical." (Jordin Althaus / Netflix)
A still of Jennifer Jason Leigh in Netflix’s “Atypical.” (Jordin Althaus / Netflix)
(Jordin Althaus/Netflix / Netflix)

All mothers have that instinct to protect and nurture

— Jennifer Jason Leigh

Is that something you worry about in your own life — the letting go as your child grows into an adult?

Luckily, my son is still really excited to hang out with me and play and do things together. He’s 7. So I think I've got at least a few more years. So I haven’t thought about that much yet.

What was it like having Michael Rapaport play your husband? How often did he talk about his obsession: the “Real Housewives” franchise?

He's hilarious. He's really bright and really funny and outspoken. And he really, really loves those shows! I have not watched them yet. He talks about “Real Housewives” a lot. He says it's some of the most inspiring acting you'll see.

I think it’s safe to say working on “Atypical” was a different experience than working on “Twin Peaks.” How would you describe what it’s like playing in the David Lynch world?

We’d shoot in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. And David's incredibly lovely and kind and sweet and his imagination is just surreal, but very specific. I can't generalize because I only worked with him this little bit, but he's specific and there's freedom within the specificity, and he doesn't do a lot of takes. I think my first scene we did like one or two takes and that was it. He's David Lynch, so, when David Lynch calls and asks you to do something, you just say yes. You don't need to read it, you just want to be there. And he's really open to your ideas as an actor. Like I wanted to change my eye color and he was like: "Oh, that's interesting, let's see that!"

Keir Gilchrist, left, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport in a scene from "Atypical." (Greg Gayne/Netflix)
Keir Gilchrist, left, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport in a scene from “Atypical.” (Greg Gayne/Netflix)
(Greg Gayne/Netflix /)

How is the Hollywood of today different than the one you knew growing up?

Oh, it's completely different. I don't feel like the way I approach it is different, but I'm not in a bubble so I know it's different and I know social media platforms exist. And I know that actually has an impact. It’s bizarre to me because I don't relate to it at all. It doesn't really worry me. I mean, I worry about people's posture and spines changing, being hunched over on their bums looking at their iPads all day.… I didn't know what a hashtag was. I didn't understand, what is that word "hashtag" and why is there a number symbol and why do I need to be concerned about it?

Growing up you went to dailies. Every day, after work, you'd go to see the rushes of the prior day’s work, and it was really nice because all the crew would be there and all the actors and it was a sort of a familial thing, and you'd have this experience together of seeing what you had just shot. And Quentin [Tarantino] does that, so when we were in "Hateful Eight" he turned this building into a screening room, and it was amazing to have that experience again. I haven't had it probably since [working with director David] Cronenberg.

Now people are watching dailies on their phones. So it's really different and it's not the same thing as having that shared experience in a dark room.

Speaking of yesteryear — “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year —

God, how is that even possible?!

When was the last time you watched it?

I haven't watched it in a really long time, and I really like the movie, it's not because I don't like it. It's crazy, because I feel like we just did a reunion shoot for Vanity Fair. I don't know how it could be 35 years already.

We all loved the movie and we all really cared about it. I actually got a job at, not at Perry's Pizza, but whatever the name of the joint was where we actually shot it. For years and years I had my first paycheck from that place, and I kept it. Now I've lost it.

Had you heard that David Lynch was originally offered the chance to direct it? Is that true?

I didn’t know that! Wow, that would have definitely been a very different movie.



I just got back from London, so I haven't been watching anything. I've been watching the news a lot. Wait. I did watched “The Handmaid's Tale.” I loved it. I loved the story telling. I read the book, of course, a long time ago, but I thought it was brilliantly directed and acted and I was just kind of riveted. It was fun. It was a fun sort of binge. That's what it's called right, "binge"?

I've been watching this documentary over and over again too, which I love, which is “The Man Who Bought Mustique.” It's just great. It's about Colin Tennant, who actually did buy Mustique [a Caribbean island], and he's very much like a character out of the Patrick Melrose novels.


I'm just reading the “Patrick Melrose” novels over and over and over again right now.


Because of “Melrose,” I'm listening to a lot of music from the ’60s, and I listen to a lot of French pop because it's set in the French Riviera. The character likes musicals, so I'm also listening to “Guys and Dolls” — musicals that were big in that period

Actress Jennifer Jason Leigh stars in the new Netflix comedy, "Atypical," as the mother of a son with autism. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)