Leigh arrives at the restaurant before Baumbach, tucking her petite, 5-foot-3 frame into a booth near a pair of open windows. It's after three in the afternoon, but she orders fried eggs, sunny-side up, with a side of bacon, plus some English Breakfast tea with honey to soothe a sore throat. As of yesterday morning, she's been fighting off a cold. It hasn't been easy, considering she's juggling her most demanding press schedule since her last big role, in 2001's The Anniversary Party. (She co-wrote, co-directed, and costarred in that movie with her friend Alan Cumming.) Since then, Leigh has worked on Broadway, taking over for Mary-Louise Parker in Proof in 2001, and has accepted supporting roles in both Hollywood films (Road to Perdition, Hey Arnold! The Movie) and more obscure indies (The Machinist, Palindromes). Keeping a lower-than-usual profile was her choice. ''I met Noah,'' she says, ''and then I didn't really want to go away and work.''
Until, of course, Baumbach started sketching out Margot. As a rule, he never writes with specific actors in mind, preferring, he says, to let his characters be ''as true as they can be'' on the page. (The practice worked well on Squid, which earned him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination as well as the support of critics in awe of his ability to capture the thorniness of family dynamics.) Still, he knew early on that he wanted Leigh to bring Pauline to life. For once, she wouldn't be playing the most tortured soul. ''Jennifer's done stuff in the Margot tradition before, so it seemed more inspired for her to take on Pauline,'' says Baumbach, 38. ''I liked the idea of writing something that was closer to her in a way.'' Leigh was delighted. ''I would have been pretty bummed if I wasn't in it,'' she says, with a laugh.
According to Kidman, working with the couple was ''exquisite.'' ''Jen and Noah are so in sync. They're both so smart and creative that they feed each other beautifully,'' she says. ''And also, they were just very kind to me. We'd eat meals together, we'd hang out together. I enjoyed their company.'' It's not hard to imagine. Despite feeling under the weather today, Leigh is remarkably easygoing and open especially for someone who has always described herself as shy. The youngest daughter of screenwriter Barbara Turner and actor Vic Morrow, she chats freely about growing up in a showbiz family. (''I used to play on Hollywood Boulevard!'' she says, shuddering at how terrifying that would be today.) Though her parents divorced when she was 2 and Leigh became estranged from her father, who died tragically on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982 she speaks fondly of her childhood. And when the conversation turns to how youth-obsessed the film industry has become, Leigh displays a dry sense of humor, promising that she's going to start lying about her age. ''I will remain 35,'' she says. ''That's on the record.''
NEXT PAGE: ''I'm always gonna be interested in what makes people say horrible, scathing things to each other under the guise of love.''