In the end, Jennifer Jason Leigh had to be Daisy Domergue
Credit: Andrew Cooper; Lloyd Bishop/NBC

To Quentin Tarantino, casting his films is an art in itself. And he loves to partner with huge movie stars, especially those willing to tackle roles that play against their glamorous public persona. Think of Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds and Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained. In The Hateful Eight, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Daisy Domergue, the bruised and battered fugitive whose capture brings a swarm of dangerous men to Minnie’s Haberdashery mountain stopover in the midst of a whiteout blizzard. The 53-year-old actress might be the best thing in a film packed with fascinating, on the edge performances, but Tarantino was originally tempted to go in a very different direction. He was tempted to cast arguably the biggest star in the world right now: Jennifer Lawrence.

“I’m a huge Jennifer Lawrence fan,” he says. “I think I’ve been on record of saying that her and David O. Russell’s relationship is very William Wyler-Bette Davis like, and that’s a good thing to be like. And I can see her doing a good job with this role, so we went to talk about it and everything. She was just doing me a courtesy to see me, I think. She was doing Joy. She had to do all this publicity on the Hunger Games movies. There was just no f—ing way in the world that she was available. Having said that, I’m glad I didn’t cast somebody that young. I think I absolutely positively made the right choice, as far as the ages of the characters.”

Daisy was one of only two characters in the Western that Tarantino didn’t write for a specific actor. (The other is Bob, played by Demian Bichir.) But starting with a blank slate about who would play Daisy allowed her to evolve into a more vivid three-dimensional character, unshackled by the persona of a pre-ordained actress. “I’m not worrying about an actor’s limitations or their pluses [when I write this way] — it only is the character,” says Tarantino. “That character can really go and find itself any way it can, and hopefully, it completely exists on the page. Now you have to find somebody that can take it from the page and take it even further.”

The only problem with that kind of wide-open creative process is that sometimes the writer’s imagination eliminates scores of talented actresses. (WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW) “Daisy Domergue was almost an impossible role to cast in a conventional way — i.e., an actress coming in the room and knocking your socks off, and us saying, ‘Oh wow, that’s Daisy.’ Because if you’ve seen the movie, you know that the way she is in the last chapter is not necessarily the way she is in the chapters building up to it,” says Tarantino.

Though he flirted with the idea of Lawrence, Tarantino quickly zeroed in on actresses who’d made their bones around the same time Tarantino emerged as a cinematic force in the early 1990s. “There was a throwback to Reservoir Dogs quality to this whole [movie] so there was this kind of full circle quality going on,” says Tarantino. “So I was like, the actress should be from that same boat as the [other] actors, and there were about three actresses from that period that really kind of made an indelible mark on me. I started going on little film festivals of the three, and frankly, it was the Jennifer Jason Leigh film festival that I enjoyed the most.”

He watched everything: Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Georgia, Miami Blues, The Hitcher, Heart of Midnight, The Men’s Club, eXistenZ, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Single White Female (“I watched that one on my laser disc!”).

“Another big one that helped was a Paul Verhoeven movie she did, Flesh+Blood, with Rutger Hauer,” Tarantino says. “She’s terrific in it. So I literally was just having a ball with this Jennifer Jason Leigh film festival. It was a nice little reminder that in the ‘90s, she was like a female Sean Penn. You didn’t just cast her in girlfriend roles; you cast her in movies where the whole movie was about her performance. So it got me very, very excited about seeing a performance-dominated Jennifer Jason Leigh movie.”

Reading that list of eclectic films with memorable performances, it’s difficult to believe that Leigh has never been nominated for an Academy Award. With Daisy, she’s in the hunt this year for Best Supporting Actress. Some prognosticators think she should be a double-threat: her performance as the voice of Lisa in Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion comedy, Anomalisa, has sparked some buzz to reward her with the first-ever nomination for a voice-only role (similar to the 2013 campaign for Scarlett Johansson in Her).

The idea of Jennifer Lawrence playing Daisy isn’t ridiculous, especially if you’ve recently watched Winter’s Bone. There’s even a scene in The Hateful Eight where Channing Tatum shows up and you can almost imagine how the scene would play slightly different with him opposite Lawrence. But Leigh makes Daisy something else — something more — and when she sings a tune in the middle of the movie and shrieks like a Valkyrie at the end, she instills it with three decades of cinematic experience. It’s tender and delicious and terrifying and pure Jennifer Jason Leigh.

The Hateful Eight
  • Movie
  • 187 minutes