There are radicals, and then there is Juliette Lewis, the wildly unpredictable, Oscar-nominated actress-turned-musician, whose rich life story runs the gamut from emancipation and aliens to chemical dependency and Brad Pitt. (See more of Juliette in BlackBook here!) After a three-year absence from the silver screen, the stunning provocateur cracks the whip with four new films and her most assured album yet.
Those wild eyes of hers go all cat’s-tail-in-the-light-socket electric and Juliette Lewis lets out a howling “Whoooaaa!”—to nobody, apparently, but herself. Lewis is what you might call a self-motivator. Whenever the energy begins to dip on set during the daylong shoot for this rebels-inspired story, which sees her step into the many-storied heels and platform boots of such diverse firebrands as Bettie Page, Coco Chanel, Bonnie Parker and Mick Jagger, Lewis flips her inner switch and ramps it up a notch or 10.
That special wildfire in her eyes is a familiar sight for fans of her incendiary on-screen performances—the crazed pupils of, say, Mallory Knox in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers—or her on-stage presence, as the frontwoman for the (now-disbanded) rock group, Juliette and the Licks.
“She summons it,” says actor Mark Ruffalo, who directed her in Sympathy for Delicious, one of the four upcoming fi lms heralding her return to the big screen this year. “She’s like a sorcerer.”
Lewis, 36, first rose to international fame with her Oscar-nominated role as a provocative wild child in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear, her spectacular cornrow-sporting red carpet arrival earning her nearly as much notoriety. Hey, she was 19 at the time and a free spirit living in a galaxy far away from the Rachel Zoe-ification of young Hollywood—not that the contrarian would have ever followed suit, no matter when she came of age.
Lewis is here today to celebrate the act of creative rebellion, a dangling carrot that convinced her to board a plane to New York from Paris days earlier than planned. “You’re talking to the number one renegade here,” she says in her raspy Southern California drawl, when we sit down for a post-shoot talk at Industria Studios in Manhattan’s West Village over a round of Guinness. “I don’t want to blow my own horn, but I am the queen of defiance—stupid, silly shit like having hairy armpits at the age of 16, or rocking cornrows at the Oscars. These things weren’t done out of anger. It was more about, Th is is me; I’m going to own me and be me.”
Th is uncompromising self-expression has been her divining principle as an artist from the start, and it’s only intensified over the years. After 2006’s forgettable romantic comedy Catch and Release, Lewis took a three-year hiatus from Hollywood, heeding the long-simmering call of her inner rocker. Actor-turned-musician rolls of the eyes be damned: Far from some vanity project, her three albums, each a step above the last, have artistic merit of their own accord, regardless of her film career fame (or Brad Pitt-affiliated past). To hear her talk about it, rock was a calling: “This creative desire was brewing inside me and turning into a lion’s roar, and it was not going down as I got older,” she says. “Th e desire grew so strong, stronger than the fear of how to do it… if you love it, need it and have something to say, you can make it happen.”
Lewis’ greatest strength as a musician is “her intuition—and the fact that she listens to it,” says Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, frontman for indie kingpins the Mars Volta, who produced Lewis’ upcoming album Terra Incognita, her first without the Licks. “A lot of people in the arts have been taught not to listen to it. But she fully listens to her intuition.” He was sold on the project before he even signed on, purely on the strength of her raw demos: “It was just Juliette and her melodies, maybe a couple of notes on the piano. I told her as far as I was concerned, it was the best thing she’d ever done.”
The two began recording tracks in New York and then hunkered down at his studio compound in Mexico. Rodriguez-Lopez describes the overall feel of this album as “her version of the blues—I don’t mean blues as a genre. What she’s singing about is really her: her life, all the insecurities, triumphs, strong points, weak points—she puts it all out there. I only want to work with people who are really trying to get to the emotional core of things,” he says. “And that’s how she lives her life.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by her recent film collaborators. “Juliette is not just incredibly talented—she is so remarkably present that I am constantly inspired by her,” says Juno star Ellen Page, who squares off against Lewis’ awesome roller derby baddie “Iron Maven” in the upcoming Drew Barrymore-directed Whip It!, Lewis’ return to the screen this October. “Juliette’s passion, her open heart and her honesty make working with her, and knowing her, a gift .”
Ruffalo was also bowled over by her ability to bring it. In his film, Lewis inhabits the role of a bass player with a drug problem, the reality of which hit close to home for Lewis, a recovered addict. “The character is sort of the anti-chick, the opposite of these lightweight chicklets we’re seeing so much of these days in movies,” Ruffalo says. “Not a lot of young girls could play that part. I just kept coming back to Juliette as we were writing the part. I think Hollywood has this perception of her as having been difficult in the past. But I knew she would give a gutsy, full-on performance in the short amount of time I had her on screen—and that’s exactly what she did.”
What does the idea of rebellion mean to you? Rebellion, to me, is about finding out where you feel safe, and then stepping outside of that space. I never got into acting to be safe. I get the most out of myself right before I start a project, when I’m scared to death. That’s the revolt, that’s the rebellion.
What sort of fears do you face? Starting a rock ’n’ roll band at the age of 30 and pursuing my love of musical expression, not knowing how the fuck I was going to do it, where I would begin, what kind of music I would even do. It’s like renegade filmmakers who never went to art school. It’s really about finding your voice.
Did you have any sort of formal acting training? I took three little classes when I was 11 with this lady in her backyard. The third time I went to her door, a person told me she died. So I never went back to class after that.
From whom did you learn the most? I learned from Oliver Stone that I am my own worst enemy. One time, I was putting myself down on set, saying stuff like, Why should we do the take again? I suck. And then he said, “Juliette, nobody wants to hear that shit.” He basically told me to knock it off, and from that day forth, I’ve never again voiced that kind of negativity.
You started out early as a rebel by emancipating from your parents at the age of 14. Everyone takes that the wrong way. We were co-conspirators, my parents and I, working together to emancipate myself from child labor laws. It seems like some radical thing, but it was done because I was more apt to be hired as an emancipated minor.
How old were you when you stole their car? I was 13. It was actually my stepmom’s car. My girlfriend and I went to Hollywood, and hung out with our boyfriends and friends at a club. And then it broke down in a liquor store parking lot. I hung around with some seedy kids for a while, had criminal boyfriends—tested the boundaries. There are destructive ways to test the boundaries, to rebel, and then there are constructive ways to do so, which to me, at my age, seem more radical. Doing a rock show, for example, in Budapest in front of 20,000 people stone-cold sober is radical.
The transition from actress to rocker must have been daunting. I had been writing for the past 15 years, and it had a lot to do with—I don’t often share this—when I quit drugs. I did hard drugs. I never name them because it gets too sensational, but you can imagine. It was hard. All of my life lessons were very short but very intense. When I was a teenager, I smoked tons of pot. And my relationship to chemicals was very specifically tied to my inability to connect with people. It’s almost as if the drugs—disconnection—helped me connect. It doesn’t make sense. But people thought I was on drugs when I wasn’t on drugs, because I guess I’ve always been a strange bird. I wasn’t fun on drugs, so I quit at 22.
How did you quit? I’m a Scientologist. I did this program called Narconon—it’s secular—that uses technologies to help addicts get off drugs, like this brilliant sauna program that involves sweating out the toxins and vitamins. It’s all about questioning why you took drugs in the first place and rehabilitating your sense of self-worth.
Is that what led you to Scientology, or were you a Scientologist before? I was always aware of it, but I took it for granted. There are all kinds of things in Scientology that are really simple and interesting, and people only talk about the folklore—the aliens.
Do you believe in aliens? I, Juliette, believe in aliens. I don’t know any other Scientologists who do. I also believe in fairies, you know, the real ones that live in the forest. Like most Scientologists, I’m really antidrug, especially in our anaesthetized, consumerist culture. The idea of taking a pill when you’re unhappy or uneven to even out, to consume, to be perfect little robots—it all fucking relates. I think it’s a really radical thing to be present, to own your shit—your lust, your anger, your joy, your fear. That’s hard, but in the long run, it’s the better road to take.
Let’s talk about today’s photo shoot. How did it feel to dress up like Bettie Page in her S&M phase? One of the things that struck me about Bettie Page, like Marilyn Monroe, is that even though there’s an obvious sexuality to her pictures, there’s also joy and insouciance—a lot of life force in her. You could have 10 different girls doing the same bondage shit, but when Bettie does it, it’s got that extra-special viva verve.
Coco Chanel’s verve is of a different breed altogether. She was the first of her kind in a male-dominated scene, and I’m all for that, in the sense of breaking through that kind of wall. Fuck, she must have made a few people mad. But that’s talent, isn’t it?
How would describe your personal fashion aesthetic? When I’m out on a date with a man that I feel very soft around, I like wearing a dress or heels because they change the shape of my legs—but my own fashion? I’m always changing. I describe my look onstage as The Little Prince in a Mad Max world. He wears deep blue. There’s another one, a little pixie who lives in the forest, who befriended all of the animals there and owns a pet bull. It’s a little bit of magic and shimmer and glam, but with earth elements like feathers and things that replicate animals.
Have you been dating? I did date someone recently, but we’re not dating now. It’s really nice when you’re okay alone, but I realize, for me, that it’s all or nothing. I can’t really casually date. When you want to experience anything worth experiencing, the stakes get higher. And to open your heart, even a little bit, well, I don’t want someone stepping in there kicking me around.
You’ve been single for several years now. I was married eight years ago for three-and-a-half years. Me and Steve [Berra, Lewis’ ex-husband, an actor and professional skateboarder] got married when we were both 26. Incidentally, we’re still best friends and that’s real.
Let’s talk for a minute about Mick Jagger, since we had a Mick Jagger moment earlier today. Here’s a profound moment: I went to a Rolling Stones show in ’98 at Dodger Stadium, where there was a lot of energy, which made me a little freaky, scared. I used to get panic attacks, probably from getting famous too young and also doing drugs, which fucks up your nervous system. Then the Rolling Stones started playing. I was completely transformed. I understood in that moment what it meant to be a fan, in the most glorious sense, where you have a release of affection and an affinity for an artist—togetherness.
Was your break from acting intentional? I wanted to get off the hamster wheel. Movies are so omnipresent, so omnipotent. But, at the end of the day, they’re just movies. I had to rediscover my purpose. I was able to realign my priorities—family, friends, life and the trees. But it was also very scary because I was thinking of doing something else, but I wasn’t sure what that would be. I wanted to live a simple life. But that’s an illusion, just like living an artist’s life. I wanted to be married and have a little child—isn’t that funny? I was living in Clearwater, Florida, so I thought I might work at the post office.
What brought you back? It’s what I’m good at.
How was it being back on set for Whip It! after this break? It was my first film in a few years, and it was a really special experience. We would all wake up at 9:00 a.m. and do yoga, strength training for an hour and then six hours of roller derby. We trained extensively for a month. I’d never been so physical for a role. For Natural Born Killers, I did fight training, but here, we all felt like athletes.
What was Ellen Page like to work with? She’s awesome, an uncompromising one-of-a-kind renegade. She’s very young but has somehow managed not to get warped priorities by all that Hollywoodland attention.
Does she remind you at all of yourself at that age? I didn’t want to say that, but yes she does. When I was 19 and I showed up to a photo shoot, I honestly thought that I would take pictures with no makeup on, as myself. I came off as this unpolished, off-kilter girl—for better or for worse. She’s going through the same thing: trying to maintain a sense of self in all the hoopla.
You also had the added pressure, early on, of being with Brad Pitt. I can only imagine the amount of attention you received because of that relationship. I was just thinking about that today, actually. It was such a lovely time in my life—well, in both of our lives—because we were anonymous. We were both struggling actors and Brad blew up after we were together, when Legends of the Fall came out. We both had our turning points—there were six months between the release of Thelma & Louise and Cape Fear—but for half of our relationship, we were just unknown young actors in L.A. I even remember his little bungalow that we lived in off Melrose that we’d smoke lots of pot in. Then we split and he became Brad Pitt, and I became whoever I am now.
Can you image what it would have been like a few years on? I know! I worked with Jennifer Aniston on the last movie I did, The Baster. It’s so hard but she handles it with such grace and humor.
How do you feel about acting now? At 36, I can look back and see the through-line of some of the things I’ve done. Ever since I was very young, I’ve had this relationship of empathy to the disenfranchised, the emotionally sick, the depraved and the impoverished. I don’t know why, but I feel like the strength of my work comes from being the voice of outsiders, of people who don’t fit into that perfect square.
What role is most dear to your heart? The most important thing I’ve ever done was The Other Sister. I had taken a few years o at that point, changed my life and had a rebirth of sorts. This part was the most difficult thing I’d ever done, because she’s mentally handicapped and those roles so easily become clichés, but also because, on a deeper level, I related to her tireless persistence and her gift to constantly find joy in the mundane. I also love Adele from Kalifornia, because that was the first time where I played with my voice—the way she talks in this little baby voice. In her mind, she’s like a nine year old. I used to talk to my love at the time like that.
You spoke to Brad Pitt using the voice of a nine-year-old girl? Oh, come on! [laughs] Oh, this is horrible. Whatever that sentence was, please don’t make it horrible. Anyway, it came from a voice, some little baby voice that people have.
You have four films coming up soon. After having your hiatus, how did you choose these projects? They chose me. I’ve gained a sense of confidence because I’m now making a living through music. I don’t have to make movies to pay rent. I don’t need to make movies for any other reason but the love of the project and the people I’m working with. I also have no interest in the maintenance program: maintaining visibility and currency and all that star stuff, which I’ve never been good at nor have I given a hit about. Whereas other girls are really good at it, my laugh was always too loud, I’m too spastic and if I’m bored you’ll see it. I’m not socially groomed in that way. I wasn’t cut out to be a debutante.
Photography by Mary Ellen Matthews. Styling by Ting Ting Lin.