The most striking thing about actress and rocker Juliette Lewis is that she’s so wonderfully herself, whether she’s calling an audience her own “band of misfits” or describing her affinity for empathy – a trait that shows up in all her onscreen work. Lewis was eighteen when she turned in an Oscar nominated performance opposite Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear. Since then she’s played a spectrum of innocence to insanity: from Woody Allen’s muse (Husbands and Wives) to Oliver Stone’s young killer (Natural Born Killers), from a mildly retarded girl falling in love in The Other Sister to the dreamy, sensible, saving grace in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
“I’ve just been in a constant evolution as an artist,” says Lewis, who recently left one band (Juliette Lewis and the Licks) for another (Juliette Lewis and the New Romantiques). She’s spent the past year returning to movies, writing an album, promoting Drew Barrymore’s roller derby movie hit Whip It, and taking the Romantiques on an international tour that included opening for the Pretenders and Cat Power. She was getting over jetlag when we spoke.
JENNY HALPER: You’ve had success as a musician – why go back to movies now?
JULIETTE LEWIS: After touring for five years and laying the ground work, I could look back and go, “I have an audience, I can be creative in other ways.” I hadn’t done movies in five years and Drew Barrymore offered me this role in Whip It, playing a roller derby icon to Ellen Page. I was her nemesis and hero. I’m always looking for the duality in human nature. A record I just wrote, Terra Incognita, had all of that duality in it – there’s a song called Suicide Dive Bombers which is all about suicide and hope. And there’s a song called Fantasy Bar where the lyrics are a bit more sinister but the music is driving and celebratory. Whip It is simple, but it’s very profound in this day and age. You don’t see many movies about a young girl finding her independence and her courage. Drew was carrying the torch of films we grew up with – Foxes, Little Darlings, all the John Hughes movies. I have a small part, but it was a trip for me because I’m not really a baddy. I can be very intense but I’m not a bully.
HALPER: Has leading a band changed the kind of roles you’re looking for?
LEWIS: Well, the band’s been my main livelihood, so it gave me tremendous artistic and creative freedom in that I only do movies for really the love of it. One of the most profound acting experiences I had in my whole career happened in Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut, Sympathy for Delicious, and initially I didn’t want to do it.
HALPER: Because you play a musician?
LEWIS: I play a base player. I didn’t want to do anything that had a band in the movie to not trivialize what I’ve been doing. But after my first meeting with Mark, I walked out going “well, I have to do this movie.” First of all, the character scared me because it had clichés. The band was deconstructing and was filled with debauchery and stuff and I didn’t have any story in my own band like that except for fractured communication. That’s the dynamic that’s gonna happen in any band. But I was attracted to the project because it had to do with healing. It’s a wild, inventive, strange story. It’s really about the DJ, Christopher Thornton, who wrote it. He’s Mark’s friend, and he’s paraplegic, he had an accident when he was really young. The movie asks a question about healing – if you had the power to heal, but you couldn’t heal yourself, would you heal others? They’ve been working to get this movie made for more than ten years. And that’s why I make movies. To take chances and support people’s journeys – to me it’s a bigger experience than a part and who you are working with. I’m not in the game of career maintenance. I never was very good at going to parties, wearing dresses people talked about.
HALPER: When you were younger, were you asked to be someone you didn’t feel you were, at least in the public eye?
LEWIS: Nobody asked. It’s sort of unspoken. When I first got nominated, I didn’t have a stylist. It was sort of a natural rebellion. Now I like having a stylist just cause it saves time. I don’t have time to be spending hours in dress shops. I was never focused on my looks or beauty. But even in the 90s, things never came easy for me. I was only ever hired by creative types, people who vouched for me. I had this run of working with incredible directors like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Oliver Stone, but studio heads never wanted to hire me. I have a dream that sometime in the future I’ll be a motivational speaker for actors. I never minded rejection, I never took it personally. And artists are so fragile, and when I see plastic surgery, I’m like, “what are you people doing?” I never fit into prototypes. For me it would be a trip to do a love story, because I’ve never done anything traditional.
HALPER: The Other Sister is a love story.
LEWIS: I was gonna say, that’s a killer love story. That film was such a thing of beauty because it’s really the story of one’s fight for independence. And the hardest role I’ve played, without a doubt. I’d taken two years off, quit drugs, I was really reclusive and introverted…I’d had such a life-changing growth that it’s the type of role I wouldn’t of been able to do earlier. But I had to figure out how she communicated. And it was so challenging because she’s only slightly mentally retarded. She appears to think normally but she has the logic of like a ten year old. I was inspired a lot by my niece, who was just learning how to talk.
HALPER: Do you often take traits of people you know?
LEWIS: The way I work is very intuitive. Acting is made to be way over complicated. Sometimes it’s one trait you pick up from someone. For Cape Fear I met this girl in the park, she was holding a kitten and she was constantly looking up and looking down, and she looked like she always had a secret. A lot of people thought, “Oh, here’s this girl Scorsese found.” But they weren’t my mannerisms.
HALPER: Is there a role people associate you with the most?
LEWIS: I’ll get a lot of From Dusk Till Dawn. I’m always surprised with Cape Fear because it seems like it was so long ago. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Natural Born Killers.
HALPER: You were so young when you did Natural Born Killers.
LEWIS: I know! I was, like, 19. That was so great because Oliver loves actors – he just wants you to really contribute and create. That movie was challenging because there were no rules. We were jumping in and out of psychedelic reality. Also the characters were cartoon characters in a way. We’re these fictionalized killers but I try to root things in real emotion so she has this terrifying rage and despair and the darkest apathy, but to me it was great to be able to play this kind of rage because I had a real voice. A lion’s roar. As a female you don’t get many roles that let you show that. I guess I scared a lot of people because you don’t see that from a female very often. People didn’t, after the movie, think Woody was crazy. But a lot of people thought I was crazy.
HALPER: Are you drawn to characters that are extreme?
LEWIS: Sometimes it’s easier to play extremes. I like to play in the underbelly, for whatever reason I can delve into that. It’s like if you’re a painter I like playing the blues and blacks and reds. I’ve always had this empathy for the misfit, the disenfranchised. But in Kalifornia even though I’m connected to a sociopath I’m extremely innocent. I’ve only played one psychopath. The flipside of that is The Other Sister. That role was amplifying my innocence, my good will, my vulnerability, and it was probably because I was at a place in my life where I needed those things to go on. I was fresh, having lived in a dark place. But I remember being exhausted – I was acting with slowed speech, slowed motor skills for twelve, thirteen hours a day. And the Mark Ruffalo film – it was so hard to be that character. If you act like you’re on dope all day you just want to take an internal shower.
HALPER: Did Mark Ruffalo’s experience as an actor make him a better director?
LEWIS: I can only say Mark Ruffalo’s my favorite actor of the last ten years. And he as a director is just mind blowing. He comes from such a deep, honest place in acting that I could trust him. We could talk out scenes, I could add dialogue, I always wanted his take. That’s the hardest thing to do – to trust a director in that way.
HALPER: Do you have to trust your audience when you’re giving a concert?
LEWIS: Trust them? I own them. They’re my group of misfits and wild animals. I take them all to the jungle. It’s a spiritual experience, it’s communal, it’s incredible. I just play with energy. I don’t care what brings people in the room, what pretenses or lack thereof. I try to reduce people to their ten year old selves and release everybody. I didn’t get into these professions to be cool. That’s the big mistake. Some people get into it to build an alter ego. To me it’s about shedding ego. I’m in love with the music, the space, the sound. When I’m writing a song, I have the same empathy for different points of view as when I’m acting. I have this ability to believe in people.
Lewis’ upcoming films include Betty Anne Waters and The Baster. Sympathy for Delicious will premiere at Sundance 2010.