"Yellowjackets" star Juliette Lewis on never losing "a certain kind of fire"
The only predictable thing about interviewing Juliette Lewis, as she sits behind the wheel of a Dodge Challenger muscle car ("It comes from the midlife thing of enjoying the fruits of your labor"), is that there's no predicting where things might go. "I'm not gonna dump all my issues, like, driving through the rain coming from the mountains and in-between projects," she said. "No. I'm actually honored that you're picking me to do a profile on. That's cool!"
Cool, and unpredictable: two words that could accurately describe both Lewis AND her Hollywood career over the years, where she's played characters who are menaced ("Cape Fear"), characters who are doing the menacing ("Natural Born Killers"), and just about everyone in-between. "It's really interesting that, to this day, the handful of movies I did when I first started still resonate and are still being seen by new generations," she said.
Lewis grew up in L.A. watching her father, Geoffrey Lewis, act in countless movies and TV shows, often opposite Clint Eastwood. "I've been thinking about this a lot recently," she said, "because I'm in a cowboy-ish movie, for lack of a better word. (It's a weird Western.) But I feel like my dad. I'm in the gear and the boots and I gotta ride horses. And my first sets are those kinds of sets. That was my first time on this playground."
But Lewis says the acting bug didn't actually bite her until her teenage years, when – with no formal training – she started going out on auditions. "I did sitcoms which, they like everything straight and really high-energy, where I almost got fired from a sitcom early on."
For what? "For behaving naturally!"
"You're basically being too good at acting, essentially?" asked Burbank.
"I mean, Marty said so later, but they did not like my style."
"Marty" is, of course, Martin Scorsese, who cast a teenaged Juliette Lewis in the movie "Cape Fear," and changed the trajectory of her life. The performance earned an 18-year-old Lewis an Oscar nomination, and launched a run of memorable '90s films, including "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" opposite Johnny Depp; "Strange Days"; and Oliver Stone's hyperviolent satire, "Natural Born Killers," with Woody Harrelson.
"I think I scared a lot of people who make business decisions," she said. "People didn't walk around thinking Woody was crazy. But they did of me. Isn't that funny?"
The tabloids branded Lewis a "wild child," and breathlessly covered her high-profile relationships, with Leo and Brad. "I'm wondering what it's been like for you to live, like, such a public life?" asked Burbank.
"I mean, to be a celebrity, to have people kind of know who you are? Did you know what you were signing up for?"
"No. I'm laughing 'cause, what if I just started weeping and I fell apart?" Lewis said.
"That would make this a really good special!"
At 22 Lewis got sober, she says, through the Church of Scientology, and then started pursuing a quieter life off-screen. "I made a decision early on to reclaim my existence on my own terms," she said. "I've taken time off from moviemaking. I started my band when I was 30."
Her punk band Juliette and The Licks toured extensively, giving her a chance to live out a different childhood fantasy (she'd always wanted to be a singer when she was a kid).
"The things that inspired me were 'Rocky Horror Picture Show,' 'Fame,' 'Flashdance,' the musical 'Hair,'" she said. "These were everything to me. They had all the things – drama, you weep, the music, dance."
Five years ago, the band announced they were recording new music together once again. But any future projects with the band will have to split time with Lewis' busy acting schedule, including starring as Natalie in the hit "Yellowjackets," airing on Showtime (part of our parent company, Paramount Global). The show is about a high school soccer team from New Jersey that gets stranded in the wilderness.
To watch a trailer for Season 2 of "Yellowjackets" click on the video player below:
Lewis said, "I love the idea of when you think someone is one thing and they're another, what you reveal and what you conceal, and that dance is what's interesting to play."
And as we neared the end of the interview, something else I wouldn't have predicted: the moment, the one moment, Juliette Lewis grew visibly emotional in a conversation spanning life, love, family, addiction and acting. It was the mention of one of her very first movie roles, in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."
Burbank asked, "I'm curious if you had a sense, what a cultural touchstone this would be. It's obviously required viewing over Christmas."
"It is so moving to me that … to do something that, when I was 15, no, I had no idea, that every year families talk to me, people who've lost their parents, who tell me this was a tradition, that my little 15-year-old sarcastic self is in their lives every year? That's really remarkable and a blessing, and just getting lucky."
If luck is the residue of design, then Juliette Lewis' career appears to the result of taking chances, staying true to yourself, and never, ever being predictable.
"Yeah, it's weird, middle age is weird," she said, " 'cause what sustains you in your 20s is not necessarily what sustains you in midlife. However, I don't ever want to lose it, lose a certain kind of fire. Seizing the day, you know, all that good stuff. But, no, I'm not a maniac. Like, meaning if we weren't doing this, I would just be at home. I would just look at the mountains and listen to the birds, and throw a ball with my dogs. You know, stuff like that."
For more info:
- Follow Juliette Lewis on Instagram
- "Yellowjackets" on Showtime
- Juliette and the Licks (Facebook)
Story produced by Julie Kracov. Editor: Steven Tyler.
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