PHOTOS BY JACK SIEGEL
Growing up on the outskirts of Los Angeles with an actor father and an illustrator mother, Juliette Lewis vicariously experienced the ups and downs of an artist's life before she began her acting career at age 14. She worked alongside Robert De Niro and Woody Allen in her teenage years, has appeared in dozens of roles, and is currently in the second incarnation of her band Terra Incognita, formerly Juliette and the Licks. We sat down with Lewis during a recent trip to New York in between the releases of her two most recent film roles: the biographical drama Conviction and the comedy Due Date.
KRISTINA BENNS: So what was your childhood like? I know you started acting really early. What were you like as a kid?
JULIETTE LEWIS: I was really outdoorsy and playful. Some of my greatest memories are of sleep-away camp; I did that three summers in a row when I was like 9,10, and 11. It was the precursor to my teenage self kicking in. And I was an equestrian because my stepmother was a polo player, we had like eight horses in my backyard. When you say you grew up in Los Angeles, a lot of people think the west side, they think the glitz and all this stuff that I actually had no relationship to growing up. I lived on like a mini-ranch in the valley. That was a lot of my upbringing, being around animals and hot, hot summers.
I started acting in my teenage years, which was actually great because it gave me somewhere to channel my creative misfit energy. When you're younger and you start something that early, you're just looking at discovery. I was ready to give it up at 16 because I was doing late 80's sitcoms and I was like, "Oh, well, this isn't what I wanted to do." Then Scorsese found me and I was able to act naturally—that was my forte, naturalism. You start working with other people who are maybe your kindred creative soul mates, and you get encouraged by people who validate your instincts. Essentially, Scorsese was a huge part of my life because it was the first time someone really—someone of his magnitude, of course—validated my instincts and let me know what I was doing was good, and that maybe I was on to something.
BENNS: Is there anyone else you worked with that surprised you in that way? Did you have an initial impression of someone that ended up changing?
LEWIS: I hold Robert De Niro in the highest regard because he had so much class. When you're young, you work with all these young actors, they always hear these urban legends about Method acting and how so-and-so showed up, stayed up all night, and he's supposed to be wrecked for the scene, so he stayed wrecked for the scene. When I worked with De Niro [in Cape Fear] I saw simple and utter professionalism: somebody who knows what they're doing. I don't know what he did to prepare, I heard a few things, I mean, he's playing a psychopath, but he didn't let me know about that. He was always on time, always considerate of me, open to discussion and practice, and treated me with respect and kindness. He completely blew me away.
BENNS: It feels like there's this return to artists branching out into new mediums. The way you started out as an actress and became a musician—how do you feel about that?
LEWIS: If you can do it and you're good and you mean it and love it, then more power to you, you know? I think there's room for it all, it's just how much love and work do you have to give? The thing is, I'm not married and don't have a family. I sort of made this conscious decision at the age of 30 that I could give everything to my art and really cultivate my artistic expression in these different mediums. To do that I first focused on music, that's what I was doing for five years. Now I'm returning to films, so that's really exciting. Eventually, you're sort of limited to your resources or economics. That is the sucky part, and you have to get crafty. Eventually I'd like to broaden my horizons with mixing visual art with music.
BENNS: In Conviction, you're not onscreen for that long, but there's something very human about how you play the character. It's almost laughable and the audience had a really good time with her, with the way that she acted, then it hits you that she is a real person and her actions had a very profound effect on someone's life. How did you connect to that character?
LEWIS: I am fascinated by people and things that I don't understand and that are not me. I wanted to get into that person's head, to know what is she seeing and feeling and not seeing and not facing, and what does she put up that helps her confront what she can't confront, and how far removed is she from the things that pain her? It's like a Rubik's cube of human behavior. This was a dream part because she's one of those extreme people on the fringe that is so cut off from the current state of things. She's a compulsive liar, so she lives in a world of her own fiction, in a world of contradiction. Couple that with alcoholism, drug addiction, which fucks up your behavior and your energy, and then never leaving your house... I just love the idea of how to make and organize all of these contradictions and conflicts and real human emotions, and to pin it in something really real, human, and honest, because at the end of the day she feels everything she feels. She feels vindictive, she feels justified, she feels remorseful and she feels completely cold and manipulative and self-preserving. It's probably the most intense thing I've done dramatically in the last ten years, even though it is small. It's given me this incredible fulfillment and excitement because the way people have been responding to it is pretty amazing, not just dismissing it.
BENNS: You're in Due Date, which is coming out soon. That's a complete 180 from this movie.
LEWIS: Yeah, man. It's just luck or what the universe presents you or provides, I don't know! Todd Phillips offered me a day's work for this cameo in Due Date and you know anything he does is going to be good, and then of course with Downey and Zach Galifianakis, my favorite comedian, I was so thrilled.
BENNS: Do you have any funny stories of them on set? Was it hard to work with them?
LEWIS: No, not at all. Robert Downey, Jr. is just, he's always been this amazing, complex character and a really good soul. I mean he's a dream, a dream talent. And then all of us who did Natural Born Killers all have this sense of history together. You know, me and Woody Allen, it's the same, it's this sense that you sort of went to boot camp together. Which is always really neat. Todd makes it really easy and he's always in the scene with me with this hilarious Afro. Oh, and Zach, it was the first time in my little professional life that I almost ruined somebody else's take from laughing because he was so funny without trying to be...
BENNS: He's so deadpan.
LEWIS: That's exactly right, because he's not trying at all, and he doesn't know that he was sitting there with one of his biggest fans, so it was kind of funny, it was really cute.
BENNS: Do you approach acting differently now than you think you did when you first started?
LEWIS: I think my range has broadened, that comes with life experience. I could play things now that I wouldn't be able to play at 19. I feel like I have more experience, more ability and more depth because of coming from an entire other career where I'm extremely fulfilled.
CONVICTION IS OUT NOW IN THEATERS. DUE DATE WILL BE RELEASED NOVEMBER 5. FOR MORE ABOUT JULIETTE LEWIS, VISIT JULIETTELEWIS.COM.