Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh have been married for a little over two years. And they were an item for a while before that.
When Baumbach had “The Squid and the Whale” screenplay ready - a screenplay that won him an Oscar nomination in 2006, by the way - Leigh offered counsel. The actress was also instrumental in the casting of Owen Kline, who played the younger of Squid’s two luckless, parents-are-divorcing sibs.
Margot at the Wedding
Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Zane Pais, Jack Black, Ciarán Hinds, John Turturro
(Paramount Vantage; US theatrical: 16 Nov 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 8 Feb 2008 (General release); 2007)
But in “Margot at the Wedding,” which Baumbach likewise wrote and directed, he’s taken his collaboration with Leigh a step further: He gave her one of the key roles, as Pauline, a messed-up grown-up about to marry an adrift and dopey songwriter (played, sublimely, by Jack Black). Nicole Kidman is Pauline’s sister, Margot - and she has her own issues. Self-loathing, for one. A deadly passive-aggressive streak, for another.
“Margot at the Wedding” is a comedy of sorts, but a razor-wire comedy rife with uncomfortable business about marriage, relationships, family.
So, what was it like, directing his wife in such a thorny affair?
“Really, it was very easy,” says Baumbach, 38. “It was only a positive. I was interested in her playing something that felt closer to how she is, who she is.
“And I don’t mean that Pauline is like Jennifer in any literal way. It is very much a performance. But I think she draws on things that are closer to her personality. ... And because I knew her as well as I did, I think I could guide that in a way that maybe if I didn’t know her, I couldn’t have.”
Baumbach expects to work with Leigh again, although he doesn’t have a specific project in mind.
“Even if I’m writing something that doesn’t necessarily have a part for her, Jennifer’s just a very great reader and contributor and editor.”
Baumbach won’t go into details on the screenplay he’s just finished up, and which he hopes to make next year. He even hesitates to confirm that it deals with the functions, and dysfunctions, of family life.
“I don’t know,” he says, pausing, assessing. “I mean, I suppose that if you get into the psychology of your characters, it’s hard to avoid family, isn’t it?”
In a separate interview, the titular star of Baumbach’s pic talked about the other movie coming to theaters with her name on it: “The Golden Compass.” The much-anticipated adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, “The Golden Compass” promises to draw the same crowd of fantasy enthusiasts that made “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” humongous cinema events.
At least, that’s the hope, because Nicole Kidman would very much like to see her role - the beautiful, villainous Mrs. Coulter - through to its rightful conclusion. In “The Golden Compass,” she is seen befriending young heroine Lyra Belacqua (terrific newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) at the same time she oversees a project that separates children from their animal spirits, their “daemons.” In Pullman’s universe, everybody has a daemon - Kidman’s, or Coulter’s, is a golden monkey.
“I hope I get to make the three films,” says the actress, on the phone from New York. “Because this is just a little snippet of Mrs. Coulter. ... Obviously, in the second and third books, that’s when she really comes to life, and the full arc of the character is explored. But it all will depend on how this first one does.”
Kidman says that she’s not sure what’s next on her plate. Possibly “The Reader” - an adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel, set in postwar Germany, that her “The Hours” director, Stephen Daldry, has been pegged to do. “If schedules will allow it, that might happen. We’ll wait and see.”
And what about the rumors that she and her longtime Down Under friend Naomi Watts are planning a project together?
“Yeah, no. I mean, we would love to do something together, but we haven’t found anything. So we would. It’s nice when you get to use what you’ve cultivated in terms of a friendship - and we’d love to play sisters, actually.”