Robert Altman is famous for allowing performers more creative freedom than most directors feel comfortable with, even allowing them to develop story ideas and dialogue while the movie is being made. Is this a stimulating challenge for the people who work with him, or a frightening responsibility?
Jennifer Jason Leigh found it exhilarating when she played a major role in his recent "Short Cuts." "I had a scene with Lili Taylor," she recalled at the Cannes filmfest, "and there were no marks telling you where to stand, and you didn't have to worry about overlapping the other person's dialogue. I suddenly realized I could go anywhere, I could say anything - and it was an incredible freedom. I didn't know what I'd been missing!"
She felt the same excitement filming "Kansas City," where she plays Blondie, a working-class woman trying to pull off a kidnapping scheme. "As usual," she says, "Bob told us the script was only a blueprint." Taking advantage of this, Leigh contributed major new elements to her character. These included Blondie's plain appearance and her fascination with '30s movie star Jean Harlow, whom Leigh sees as an actress "who tried to play sophisticated women but could never get rid of her working-girl roots. That really touched people like Blondie, and it certainly touches me when I watch her movies."
Working with Altman is "very in-the-moment," Leigh says. "We worked on the last scene the morning before we [filmed] it, talking our ideas out and then trying them. Everything's always alive with him - nothing gets stale, and there are no preconceived ideas because you really don't know where things are going to go. There's a life force in his movies that's really rare, and it feels true."
It can feel surprising, too, since Altman sometimes taps into capabilities Leigh didn't know she had - as when he suggested her for "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," where she played a legendary New York writer. "I wouldn't have thought of myself as Dorothy Parker in a million years," she admits, "but he saw it, and when he said it to me, I was thunderstruck. He gives you so much trust, and he sees things that make you believe in yourself in ways you wouldn't have thought possible."
All of which adds up to a working relationship that will leave Leigh with fond memories. "I really enjoy working with Bob because it's kind of like jumping into a void," she says, "and he's in there to catch you, so it's not like jumping into nothing."
And there's always the basic theme of a movie to guide everyone through the difficult spots, as the jazz background of "Kansas City" did. "When we got a scene right," Leigh remembers with a smile, "Bob would say, 'I can hear the music.' "