Saturday, November 20, 2010

Juliette Lewis Interview: From "Cape Fear" to "Conviction"

In her music video "Uh Huh" Juliette Lewis sashays around with a bouquet of colorful balloons, smiling radiantly. Her mood seems lighter than air. It's an incongruous musical moment in her rock grrrl career -- in the newest video "Terra Incognito" she's back to her old in-your-face provocations -- but the softer side was lovely to see.

And why shouldn't Juliette's mood be lighter these days? After years of touring to build a music career while doing thankless cameos in mainstream comedies, could it be that filmmakers are finally on the verge of rediscovering her unique gift?

Juliette Lewis has taken up more than her share of my actressy headspace ever since I first heard her inimitable voice in the opening frames of Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991). I don't even like narration -- in anything -- and I was instantly enamored.

I met with Juliette Lewis in October at the stylish Crosby Street Hotel in Soho, where she was holding court promoting the Oscar hopeful Conviction. The film is still playing around the country (check the listing for yours) and speaking of holding court, Juliette's role is minor but attention grabbing.

Juliette Takes the Stand.

You meet her character Roseanna Perry first as she takes the witness stand. Roseanna's testimony will make things hopeless for soon to be life-sentenced Terry (Sam Rockwell). Later his sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) will come calling hoping that she'll recant that damning testimony.

When you only have two scenes, you have to make them count. I wondered if she prepared any differently knowing it was such a minor role. "NO." Juliette replied emphatically, explaining that the smaller the role, the bigger the acting challenge in a way.

Juliette the day we met.
Juliette: How do I tell what's been going on with this character in two scenes? I think with all my roles, I want them to be visceral sort of a live experience. I've been doing live shows for the last five years so I carry that with me but I always want you to get a sense of this personality. It's not necessarily in the words. When she's on the witness stand you see that she's troubled, she's damaged, she's not a very joyful creature. And then the exciting thing is to meet her 18 years later and telling a story of what she's been doing. I hope that you get the sense that she never leaves her trailer, she's been drinking for 18 years and doing drugs --we don't know what kind.  If you just took those two elements and had a conversation with that person that would be incredibly complicated and interesting. But then you pile on that she's created a world of her own fiction through guilt and lying and then she's being confronted by the person she's wronged. It's intense and amazing and that's why she bounces off the walls emotionally.

Short answer: I had all these details and all these ingredients that I had to then put together and make an organic person. To me, I was like 'Oh, I get to play one of these characters,' a person that you walk the other direction when you see them on the street. These people who have a very upsetting unsettling energy. I wanted people to feel uncomfortable because she's uncomfortable.

We continued talking about her research. Despite what some would deem a loud performance, Roseanna Perry offscreen sounds like an even bigger nightmare than the one Juliette dreamt up for us. I told Juliette that as a fan I'm always hoping she'll get bigger parts. "Someday," she replied with mock dreaminess. "We'll build it together!"

Nathaniel: One of the reasons I love your second scene is that you are suddenly the star of the movie. If you think about it all the characters are surrounding you and they're living or dying based on what you're about to do. Plus, the punchline is so great. It's like your holding court in the scene.

Juliette: That's amazing. That makes total sense, I love that; it's her show. At the same time there's this oddity that she's receiving guests. 'Oh, guests are at my place. Would you like some wine?'

Nathaniel: She probably doesn't get guests that often.

Juliette: That's what I'm thinking. I'm thinking she talks to her TV.

Juliette went on to describe Roseanna's psyche, sounding almost sad in the process, indicating that as an actress she'd really dug down into the contradictions of someone who is self-serving, who feels a lot of guilt yet won't make amends.

Nathaniel: I imagine as an actor you have to always believe in the truth of your character,  even if they're a born liar?

Juliette: ABSOLUTELY. Human beings are so contradictory and colorful and a blend of so many things. She [Roseanna] turns up her own emotions to get affect but she also feels what she feels. 

Juliette Lewis as Roseanna Perry
As the conversation shifted away from Conviction, Juliette talked about her year's away from the movies touring to building her music career but despite the devotion to her music career she seemed genuinely happy to be back in the mix of the movies. "I don't know if I've changed or the movies have changed," she explained "but everything has been this sort of delicious experience." Yes, even small roles in Jennifer Aniston movies are deemed delicious  so you know Juliette Lewis means it when she says she's glad to be acting again.

When I asked if we could discuss the 90s, Juliette didn't hesitate though she did get a little contemplative about a retrospective "It's so funny when you don't have perspective at the time. You don't know what you're necessarily doing that's relevant or whatever. You sort of learn in hindsight." Nearly twenty years have passed since she first made a big mark on the screen, but her memory of the films seemed razor sharp.

We didn't peruse the films chronologically but jumped around in conversation beginning with Natural Born Killers (1994). It was the first time I'd heard her sing as she paced her prison cell singing "Naturally Born Bad." I theorized on what made that particular performance so special.

Nathaniel: Watching Mallory --- it's like she's hearing music in her head that you can't hear. A radio station that's JUST her frequency. So then when you start singing in that scene it's a natural fit, like the part is coalescing.

Juliette: I love that. That makes sense. That's funny -- for different parts I use music for brainwashing if that's what you want to call it. I was listening to Jimmy Hendrix. It's not so much his voice but the guitar playing. It had so much danger despair torment chaos if you listen to "Voodoo Child" it's everything of that journey, that character. I would listen to that over and over before filming so that was living inside.

We moved from talking about Oliver Stone who she called "brilliant" to Husbands and Wives (1992). One of my personal favorite scenes in Woody's filmography is her scene in the taxicab when her character Rain admits that she's lost Woody's book --- "his manuscript," Juliette corrected me, recalling the scene just as I'd begun to describe it. She had loved working with Woody Allen because he encouraged improvisation. I asked her if she was aware that he was going to leave the camera on her for practically the whole scene. He has most of the dialogue and yet we're watching her.

Juliette: That's crazy that he did that. What a nice director.

Nathaniel: Rain seems so amused by how much she's upset him.

Juliette as the precocious Rain in Husbands and Wives (1992)

Juliette: She is! Young girls... they just drive you nuts, that youthful arrogance, that superiority. I've had a 22 year old call me "honey" and I was just like 'WHAT? I don't think so!' Honestly she likes the attention of her mistake and she likes seeing him get all riled up. It's very flattering for her that he's asking her opinion. The more insecure he gets the more superior she feels -- classic younger girl and older guy. All those things I discover when playing it.

Nathaniel: But did you know it was your scene, that you would hold the camera?

Juliette: I had no idea, no. I thought we were shooting my take and than we shoot his take. I never even thought about that. I didn't really think of it in a heady way. I don't contrive these things so much before hand. I just sort of understand the scene and the character. My goal always is to surrender and be in the moment -- ultimately you're just surrendering and seeing what happens.

One of Juliette's favorite directors is of course her own brother Lightfield Lewis who she has worked with numerous times. Juliette raved about their new collaboration (the video is below, it had just come out a couple of days before the interview) for "Terra Incognito". "It's really visual and has a lot of fighting in it -- for taking your licks and getting back up."

Terra Incognito

"Terra Incognito" is the most recent single from her latest record but I had to tell her how amused I was to see a subliminal insert of the famous thumbsucking scene from Cape Fear in the previous video to "Uh Huh." Did she know that was going to be there?

Juliette: No, I didn't know it. That's my brother. He loves all things pop culture. He's very cinematic. My brother is the movie buff, the filmmaker. All the things that influenced me were all musicals: All That Jazz, Hair, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grease.  No, I didn't know he was going to do that.

She had actually asked him to remove it, fearing that the music fans would be confused. Not all of them knew she was an actress. The conversation about these movie referencing videos sent her into thinking about her different worlds and where they did and did not merge comfortably "It's funny that i'm used to being this underdog in different dimensions." But she believed she was finally finding the balance and merging the two. Does this mean she'd be willing to make a musical?

Juliette: I'd love it. I want it to be super strange though like Terry Gilliam style or Bob Fosse.

Nathaniel: John Cameron Mitchell, maybe. Like a Hedwig sort of energy?

Juliette: YES. I actually met with him. He wanted me to play Hedwig somewhere.  Wouldn't that be neat? In the play. Wouldn't that be interesting?

When my time was up -- promotional rounds have tight time frames -- Juliette offered to keep chatting, holding the clockwatcher (i.e. publicist) at bay. "He has a million great questions!" We ended by chatting for a few minutes about Kathyrn Bigelow's Strange Days, her recent Oscar win (Juliette was "over the moon" about it) and the birth of Juliette's own music career by way of P.J. Harvey's songs.

I told her about the first time I saw Strange Days and being as thunderstruck watching her as Ralph Fiennes was from his crosswalk overlook. It was hard not to think of her as a fully formed rock star. This wasn't pretend. At first Juliette rejected the Faith/Juliette comparison and amusingly described her vision of her self with sing-song wit.

Juliette: It was very much Kathyrn's vision of what she was so it wasn't me per se. Faith is really damaged. I'm a much different creature on stage -- I like to think a superhero or a magical pixie -- but, yes, that was amazing. That's when P.J. Harvey entered my life as a musician. I just drank her up. There's nothing like her.

Nathaniel: Well, to me Strange Days was your debut as a rock star; it was the start of the music career before the music career actually started. 

Juliette: [Suddenly excited] What I'm not telling you is that it did! I was a closeted songwriters/singer. I was keeping it in because it was the most personal -- too vulnerable. Having to sing for a role made me step out and go 'remember this? You're a singer.' But I still wasn't ready because I was so self critical. I had to go through some changes in my life. I finally did it when I was approaching age 30. A little bit late but i'm making up for lost time.

Nathaniel: Hey, late bloomers... that's fine. I started writing when I was approaching 30 and now I don't love anything else more.

Juliette: Isn't that amazing? It's like 'This is who I was all along and now I finally let it out.'

Uh Huh

Let it out, Juliette. Keep letting that magic out.


Dylan said...

Well what a bloody beautiful interview! Her performance in Kalifornia is actually one of my all-time favourites.

NicksFlickPicks said...

So so so so great. I love that she recognized how much more interesting your questions are than the ones a lot of interviewers manage, and so specific to each role, even individual scenes. Have been looking forward to this, as you know, and it was worth the wait!

James T said...

How amazing! I am so not surprised you charmed her. She doesn't seem like a difficult person but it's obvious she had a lot of fun being interviewed by you because you just "get" movies and actors.

But how is her voice "inimitable"?
Doesn't Nick "do" her? :p

Thanks so much!

/3rtfu11 said...

Something tells me the two of you could become real life friends. There was hero worship but she didn’t coddle you like a baby the way Julianne “Maternal” Moore did. Of course I’m sure your body language was quite different for both women. Juliette seems like so much fun. I’ve been frighten of her for years. Even now that she’s a lot more smiley-friendly I still have reservations that she’ll turn into one of her unglued characters.

Volvagia said...

The only time I love narration is if the story demands it: See Kind Hearts and Coronets as an example of narration as necessity (it serves as a reminder that he's bleeped if the book is found.) Otherwise: I like it for affording an auditory focus, but often wonder why they couldn't do without.

par3182 said...

what a relief you must be to actors on the promotional circuit; you're like a life raft in a sea of other interviewer's vacuous questions

no wonder she didn't want to let you go

Unknown said...

I Love Juliette Lewis all my life, i think she deserve what Kate Winslet have right now, for me she's like winslet in indie movie looks alike haha.


James T -- it's the secret meaning of "inimitable". It actually means -- so unique that people are constantly imitating you ;)

Dylan- "i like yer hair. cuz... it's short" -- haha. she's such a freak in that movie. love it.


Nick -- thank you. I do feel my questions are TOO specific for the type of interviews I get. I need like a Charlie Rose time frame for actresses. I have too much to ask.

Deborah said...

Great interview!

I've had the same experience, with the interviewee going overtime because I had great questions. And I think this is an experience that bloggers have, because the media people, they ask the same six questions over and over and over, and people like us, we dig in deep, and actors rarely get the chance to do that.


Bia said...

Scott Feinberg did an interview with Michelle Williams recently where he basically went through every film she had ever done. It was pretty incredible...I think actors do love talking about the work with people who genuinely seem to love films. I always love reading interviews like this because you get so many little nuggets that wouldn't normally be found.


Bia -- ooh i need to read that. I did that a few years ago with both Famke Janssen and Marisa Tomei and had so much fun. I love the in depth interviews but it's often hard to get the 30-40 minute interviews (those yield such good stuff). Usually they only wanna give you 15.

Peggy Sue said...

She's fantastic! Love the Husbands and Wives' car scene.
Please Keep being specific in your interviews... I love them!

7Bis said...

Thanks so much for a GREAT interview - love Juliette, loved your questions. I wish she had her pick of any film project she wanted, but I also totally admire her for taking the maverick approach - I hope she'll be around for the long-haul.

Nate Tyson said...

Nat, having followed you for ten years, I know that your combination of personal cinematic passion and objective critical insight is something special. That said, I am so happy that Juliette seems to have enjoyed her time with you as much as I have. Her comment about the quality of your questions was just awesome.

Ryan said...

i recently re-watched "Husbands & Wives". OMG... she's kills me in that. nowhere as good as Judy but still utter perfection!

Mary said...

Great interview. I loved it. It was awesome that you mentioned Strange Days. I've always loved that film. I'm a big fan of her music too.