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From James White to Billy Lynn, Richardson Native’s Star is Rising

A role as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader in the big-screen adaptation of the Ben Fountain novel certainly is the highest profile project yet for Leigh.

Playing a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk should have been a homecoming for Richardson native Makenzie Leigh.

It kind of was, except filming took place in Georgia. And Leigh even had to take lessons from an accent coach, since her Texas drawl isn’t as pronounced as the filmmakers wanted.

“It’s not a specific person, but it’s a conglomeration of girls and women that I grew up with in Dallas,” Leigh said of her role as the romantic interest of a soldier who finds out during a football game that he will be redeployed to Iraq. “It was fun to come home, in a way.”

The film adaptation of a Ben Fountain novel from director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) will be released next year. And it certainly is the highest profile project yet for Leigh, who currently can be seen in a key supporting role in the low-budget drama James White, which has earned acclaim on the festival circuit.

Leigh, 25, went to high school at Plano West, then moved to New York, where she enrolled in a writing class at NYU.

“I quickly discovered that long-form writing wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do anymore,” Leigh said. “The criticism was that my characters were quite flat and one-dimensional. So I went to an acting class to see how actors treated their characters.”

That class turned her career aspirations in a new direction. She landed a couple of roles in television series and independent films. Leigh’s breakthrough came last year with a recurring role on “Gotham,” a series that gained her a modest fan following as part of the Batman legacy.

“It’s interesting to be in the crossfire of fandom,” Leigh said. “I find it amusing, but I haven’t been exposed at any crazy level.”

In James White, Leigh plays a teenager named Jayne, who befriends and later falls in love with the title character (Christopher Abbott), a slacker trying to cope with a variety of personal issues including the terminal cancer diagnosis of his mother. Leigh said she drew inspiration for her performance in part from a period of insecurity in her own past.

“For a few months of my life, I found it very difficult to not know things, and I was afraid to ask questions. I felt like everyone around me was smarter, and I should sit in the corner,” Leigh said. “I tried to relate to this period of my life, but I feel quite lucky that I don’t feel like her every day.”