LOS ANGELES – Jennifer Jason Leigh didn’t have to spend hours trying to figure out how to play her character in the miniseries “Patrick Melrose.”
For advice, she just looked to the book upon which it is based.
“The novels are so well-written they give you so much insight,” she says. “He’ll describe her walking down the street and the way she waves – it’s like cleaning off a windshield. All these little details inform you – the way she walks, the way she talks, the way she tries not to stumble.
“I don’t know how he remembers everything so accurately,” Leigh says of author Edward St. Aubyn, “but you can really feel his childhood and his experience all the way through life.”
Considered semi-autobiographical, the five novels that prompted the five-part miniseries talk about a man’s life with an abusive father and the mother who condoned the behavior. Hugo Weaving plays the father, Leigh plays the mother, and Benedict Cumberbatch plays Melrose.
For the Emmy-winning actor, it was one of the two parts of a lifetime. “I sat on some fan forum for another project and (said) that (‘Patrick Melrose’) and ‘Hamlet’ were on my bucket list. So I can retire after all this,” Cumberbatch says with a smile.
Like Leigh, he loved the detail St. Aubyn’s books provided.
Because the Showtime series covers more than 40 years, both Leigh and Cumberbatch had ample opportunity to see their characters through key periods of life.
“It’s not just the aging, it’s all that she goes through,” Leigh says. “When we see her (in the 2000s), she’s very sick and almost childlike.”
Because the character has a number of moods, Leigh says it’s impossible to peg her as any one thing. “I feel very defensive when people try to describe her. There’s so much about her that’s lovable and there’s so much that’s a victim.”
A drug addict and alcoholic, Leigh’s character “is kind of a terrible failure as a mother and also very, very wealthy. So it’s sort of an indictment of having all that money and how crippling that can be.
“I felt she loved her son so much but she was terrified to ever be alone in a room with him because the husband was so incredibly abusive.”
Cumberbatch says Leigh’s performance is transformative. “Without giving too much away, she’s in pretty ill health,” he says. “She’s suffering a pretty severe onset of dementia and yet, somehow, manages in one scene to be heartbreakingly pained, infuriating, angry, terrifying and incredibly funny, all in a heartbeat.”
While Leigh has played characters over a span of time (notably in “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle”), she didn’t rely on makeup in this to do much of the work. “There’s obviously aging makeup,” she says. “But a lot of it is just sort of acting it.”
Leigh says playing a role with a lot of intensity is like having an illness. ‘When the filming is over, you come back to yourself slowly and, within two weeks, you’re like, ‘Wait, I don’t really move that way. I don’t talk that way. I don’t have those thoughts.’
“You can’t help but live with a character while you’re making a film but this is one I’d like to revisit. The material is so rich and so funny without being jokey, so sincere and painful and yet so biting. I could do more on her.”
An Oscar nominee for “The Hateful Eight,” Leigh has frequently been hailed for disappearing into roles she plays. Much of that, she says, is from trying to “inhabit” a character.
The real Jennifer, however, is much more likely to reach for a comedy than something dramatic.
“I love comedy,” she says. “I also have become a big fan of Seth Meyers. I sort of YouTube him and he makes me laugh so hard.”