Jennifer Jason Leigh Talks ‘The Hateful Eight’: The Violence, the Controversies, and the Surprising Female Power
Is the violence in The Hateful Eight gratuitous? Is Quentin Tarantino a misogynist? Golden Globe-nominated Leigh talks the film’s controversies and her character’s feminist power.
One of the more fun things about reading all the coverage of Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming bloody western epic The Hateful Eight—and there is oh-so-much coverage—is seeing the different ways writers have come up with to describe Jennifer Jason Leigh’s spitfire character, outlaw-turned-hostage Daisy Domergue.
Hearing all of this, Leigh, who has received a Golden Globe and Critics Choice nomination for her work in the film, starts laughing.
“Well, I described her when I first met with Quentin as being quite feral, like an animal,” she tells The Daily Beast. “So all the ‘wild’ and ‘feral’ are on point—and ‘rabid’ is excellent. Let’s add that one right on in there.”
But she’s quick to make a caveat: “I also think she’s very, very smart.”
When the audience is first introduced to Daisy in The Hateful Eight, she is literally chained to Kurt Russell’s John “The Hangman” Ruth. They’re traveling through post-Civil War Wyoming. Ruth is a bounty hunter and Daisy is wanted for multiple murders. His calling card: He always brings his bounties back alive, earning his nickname because of the fate that awaits them once he does.
En route, the attached-at-the-wrists duo get snowed-in at a haberdashery, where they wait out the storm with an eclectic group of similarly stranded strangers—played by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, and Walton Goggins—each with their own curious personalities, and each with their own mysterious reasons for being there.
The film unfolds in that room over more than three hours. At first a tense mind thriller—Who are these people? What are they after?—The Hateful Eight eventually explodes into a classically Tarantino-esque blood ballet, a shoot-’em-up opera that’s at once brutal, hilarious, and surprisingly touching.
At the center of it all, yelping and instigating and scheming and bruising, is Leigh’s Daisy, grinning through layers of blood dripping down her face, cackling as she takes a punch, and coming into her own as the most disgusting and despicable, but also smartest, person in the room.
“She plays it crazy for a lot of it, but there’s a lot that she’s wanting, too,” Leigh says. “At first she just wants everyone to think she’s this crazy wildcat that will do everything and just has nothing to lose. And she doesn’t have anything to lose!” Then that caveat again: “But ultimately she’s very, very smart.”
For some, Leigh’s performance may seem less something the actress accomplishes than perhaps endures.
The first time you see Daisy, her eye is black and blue from a startling shiner. Moments later, she oversteps her bounds and her captor John Ruth, without hesitation, forcefully elbows her in the face. She squeals, but barely flinches.
By the film’s end, Daisy will have been kicked, punched, and pummeled. Her face will be stained red—by her blood as well as others’—and her hair soaked and matted by bile, food, and even remnants of someone’s brains. At one point, she is vomited on.
The violence in Tarantino’s films is always a hot-button issue. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that Leigh has been grilled constantly about whether the violence committed to Daisy is misogynistic. She’s certainly not the only character in the film to be brutalized, but she receives the overwhelming brunt of it. Daisy gets beat up.
Passionately and routinely, Leigh has responded to such allegations by saying that Tarantino is “about the most un-misogynistic person I’ve ever met.” Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter about his past film work, she elaborates, “He loves women. He writes the best parts for women around, really.”
But if that’s true, then why is the kneejerk reaction—and an overwhelming reaction, at that—to call the film, its depiction of violence against Daisy, and even Tarantino misogynistic?
“I think it’s actually more of a sexist response [to say that],” Leigh says. “I think it’s easy to have a sexist response. ‘Hitting a woman? Sexist.’ It’s a natural go-to place for people. But he’s actually taking the sexism out of it.”
Daisy pushes buttons. She knows the rules of her captivity, and she breaks them—and she knows what breaking them means but does it anyway.
It’s a key to understanding who Daisy is, Leigh says. “The way that Daisy can take a punch I think tells you a lot about her upbringing and childhood. You just get a sense that that’s where she gets her sense of self.”
She has agency and is, in a way, even in control of everything bad that happens to her. “She’s as far away from a victim…” Leigh starts, her voice getting excited. “If there’s any victim in this, it’s Chris Mannix [Goggins’s character]. He’s the delicate flower. It ain’t Daisy.”
The reason Daisy is in chains when we meet her is because she is a murderer. It’s unclear if she even has any remorse for that; in fact she seems to have a wily sense of braggadocio about it all, less resigned to her fate as she is defiant about it.
“Of course I do,” Leigh says when I ask if, despite all that, she thinks of Daisy as a hero. She goes so far as to call her “beloved.”
“Yeah, she’s scary,” Leigh says. “But women really like her. I’ve talked to a lot of women who saw the movie who feel somewhat empowered by her. There’s something about Quentin’s female characters that are so gutsy and fierce and kickass that I think it’s empowering in some way. This no-holds-barred quality to Daisy is a release to women in a certain way.”
It’s curious that, for as much as Leigh relished shooting The Hateful Eight’s gory scenes, she’s actually traditionally squeamish and can’t stomach watching violence on screen. That is, unless it’s a Tarantino film—arguably the bloodiest of them all.
“I love it!” she says, laughing at her own hypocrisy. “It sounds crazy to say, but I do! There’s something non-threatening about it, because it’s over the top, because it’s cartoonish, because it’s so brilliantly executed and written.”
Still laughing, Leigh points out a very specific thing that makes Tarantino’s films different from all those other she has to look away from. “Like, he has his own blood,” she stresses. “They make it at a special effects house and it’s ‘Tarantino’s Blood.’ It’s named after him. It’s a certain color, a certain viscosity. It’s different from anyone else’s blood. There’s something unreal about it that is freeing and lets you enjoy it in a real popcorn, nachos way.”
If you can keep it down.
That she’s even talking about any of this at all is something that Leigh still has hard a time believing. At age 53, she’s been working steadily in Hollywood for nearly four decades. She’s at a point in her life and career when, if you listen to the narrative the industry has perpetuated all these years, opportunity is supposed to be scarce for an actress of her age.
Yet here she is courting an Oscar nomination for a role in a Quentin Tarantino film that had her doing stunts, spitting blood, and being an all-around badass.
“I really sort of made peace, not with it being over, but kind of with having had a good run and maybe it being time to move onto other things like writing,” she says. “This just wasn’t a big part of my life anymore. I sort of forgot how much I love acting.”
It was reported that Tarantino at one point wanted 25-year-old Hollywood It Girl Jennifer Lawrence to play Daisy. That it instead went to a 53-year-old industry veteran, and that the part lost none of its ferocity or coolness along the way, is something kind of astounding.
“He could’ve cast anyone,” Leigh says, still sort of flabbergasted about it all. “I always saw Daisy as sort of ageless, but I think we all see ourselves as being ageless no matter how old we are.”
She recounts the joy of talking about the film with reporters and fans who are younger “and you just forget,” she says. “You’re just one of them. Then you go into the bathroom and look in the mirror and you’re like, ‘Oh Jesus, what the hell is that!?’ But you never associate yourself with age.”
To that regard, it makes her giddy to talk about the “joy” of what others might rule a grueling, perhaps even torturous shoot: months in the snow, acting at below-freezing temperatures, being pummeled day in and day out, and weathering increasingly gruesome makeup sessions to dress her in fake blood and other assorted carnage.
On the first day, when all the makeup she had on as Daisy was a black eye painted on with scratches and a couple of bruises, she took a photo of herself and sent it to her mom.
“‘This is as good as it’s going to get. This is the beauty shot from the movie,’” she remembers saying. “Then it just got more and more insane as it goes on.”
You just have to relish the insanity.