TORONTO — Sitting in her chair off-camera on the Ontario set of the new Canadian film “Jump, Darling,” Cloris Leachman could often be found studiously reading her lines and preparing.
Phil Connell, writer-director of the LGBTQ family drama, says the then-93-year-old acclaimed actor still took her craft seriously and was willing to perform any scene — even a vulnerable shower one.
Though she was frail and needed physical assistance between takes, she sprung into action in scenes for the film, which marks Leachman’s final starring role before her death in January at age 94.
“As soon as you call ‘action,’ it’s like suddenly she’s doing stairs and she yells if you need her to, or she’s walking at a clipped pace across the room,” says Connell.
Available Tuesday on Apple, Google Play, and video-on-demand through levelFILM, “Jump, Darling” stars Leachman as Margaret, the ailing grandmother of Russell, a rookie drag queen played by newcomer Thomas Duplessie.
Russell, fresh off a breakup, moves into Margaret’s country house to help her avoid having to go to a long-term care home. He also ends up becoming a part of the local college bar scene, performing under his alter ego, Fishy Falters.
Other cast members include Linda Kash, Jayne Eastwood and drag queens Tynomi Banks, Fay Slift and Miss Fiercalicious.
The story marks Connell’s debut feature film. The Toronto-based filmmaker says he wrote it around 2013 while having end-of-life-type conversations with his grandmother at her country home in Middlebury, Vt.
That was also when he’d recommitted himself to making movies, after taking a break from it for a few years.
“I was coming to terms with this idea of, if you’re going to make movies as a queer person, you’re probably going to make queer movies, which wasn’t something I knew going into it,” says Connell, 42.
“It was something that I realized to be the case, because I was going to obviously be working on things that were personal. And I was confronting the vulnerability that was required. And so that became part of the story as well, this idea of choosing life as an artist and choosing life as a queer artist.”
“Jump, Darling” isn’t autobiographical but rather a look at two characters facing a significant directional choice in life and wanting to be in control of it, Connell says.
It’s also an exploration of the duality of family life and nightlife for a queer person, and what it means to choose the life of “the ultimate queer artist,” which is the art of drag, he adds.
Connell interviewed drag queens as he wrote the film and incorporated some of their personal stories into it.
California-based Leachman came onboard just a couple of months before cameras started rolling in 2019 in Prince Edward County, Ont., where Connell’s grandmother also had a home.
The Oscar-winning star of “The Last Picture Show” was aided on set by her daughter, Dinah.
Connell says Leachman would study her lines right up until the last moment and warm up before scenes.
He was willing to tame down some of her scenes, such as one in which she’s in the shower.
“But with Cloris’s team, it was just a non-issue. There was no concern,” he says. “For her, it was ‘She will do what’s required, she will do anything, it’s all about the work for her.'”
Connell recalls asking Leachman to do a couple more takes of a scene, to which she replied: “As many as you need, darling.”
When he told her a scene she’d done wasn’t quite right tonally, she took the feedback to heart.
“This kind of moment of shame just came over her: ‘I know, I had it all wrong. I don’t know what I was doing,'” Connell says. “And I was like, ‘Cloris, no big deal. We’ll just do it this way.’
“But I was just like, ‘Wow, 93 years of age, this decorated actor who’s been working for her entire life, and she still takes her craft so seriously.”
When filming wrapped in Prince Edward County, Leachman and her daughter went with the rest of the cast and crew to Toronto, where some scenes were also shot.
They also attended the Pride Toronto parade.
“Dinah wheeled Cloris up through Church Street and there were people who discovered that Cloris Leachman was out, got photos of her and everything else,” says Connell, noting Leachman was also the Celebrity Grand Marshal at the 2009 gay pride parade in San Francisco, Calif.
“She’s been considered an ally. She was on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ in one of the early scenes as a judge.”
Before “Jump, Darling” screened at a drive-in event hosted by Inside Out LGBTQ Film Festival in October, Connell sent Leachman a link to the film so she could watch it at home.
But he wishes she could have seen it with an audience.
“You just know, based on her performance in the film, that the audience would have been on their feet,” he says. “I’m just really sad that she didn’t get that, because we are just so proud of her performance in this film.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2021.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press