Juliette Lewis: Juliette of the Spirit

Juliette Lewis had an unconventional upbringing.  When you read this interview with the actress from the May 1992 issue of Movieline, you will realize what an understatement that is.  Flush off an Oscar nomination for Cape Fear, Lewis was dating a pre-fame Brad Pitt and working with Woody Allen.  At the age of 18, the possibilities were endless for Lewis.  Interviewer Michael Angeli is both impressed and bemused by her eccentricities, her hospitality and her house-keeping.

The itsy bitsy spider has been here. Above me, filaments of cobweb crisscross the arms of a chandelier as though daddy-longlegs were more interested in getting a better view of below than in bagging a decent meal. Down at my eye level things are not exactly moving in the fast lane either. A large-screen, high-tech television set, one of the few objects in the room not covered with a thin film of dust, sits blankly in the throat of the fireplace. A grey cat with the kind of fur that looks like a cartoon explosion poises with a sullen stare, then dances off to the kitchen. I follow it and find Juliette Lewis there, waiting with an apology. “I don’t have any sugar, but trust me, this really works,” she assures me in a voice that suggests apathy where none probably exists. She pours a quantity of maple syrup into my coffee then motions for me to drink.

It tastes just fine, although I didn’t ask for sugar in the first place. Juliette’s improvisational hospitality has a certain nutty charm to it, as though she had done a hasty mental run-through of where I should sit, how warm we would be–am I allergic to cats?–how I should have sweetened coffee. The science of making someone comfortable occasionally calls for a few minor assumptions. Right or wrong, it’s the thought that counts. “Now, you’re Gary, right?” she wonders, leading me back into the chandelier room.

Okay. Sitting Indian-style before me is 18 years hung on 105 pounds, a body that’s all elbows and knees and a forehead that’s a wide bandage of daylight over eyebrows an architect could use as a straightedge. Someone’s been playing Deal-a-Meal with half a deck. “I need some hips–but I should be reaching a filling out stage at any moment,” Juliette promises. And when she does, look out.

So often in life, the distinctive grillwork of our glorious intentions gets hammered into a fender for channeling off mud. Then there are people like Juliette. The notion of acting professionally took hold of her at an age when most children are using bad derivations of it to stay up late. At 12 she landed her first role in the Showtime movie Home Fixes. She isn’t the first to have decided at a very early age to become an actress and succeeded in doing so, but the casting call for those who have pursued this path with more resolve would yield an uncrowded room.

“I wanted to work,” she shrugs. “But that’s the thing today. Teenagers aren’t allowed to be productive and creative. What they’re allowed to do–what’s acknowledged–is that they sneak around, they have sex, they do drugs. And they’re pretty much looked at as being stupid, like, ‘Oh, you’ve got a lot to learn, kid.’ Which might be fine for some people, but…”

Not Juliette. With the blessing of her parents, Juliette obtained a court ruling declaring her emancipated, exempting her from labor laws governing child actors, when she was 14. The following year, her father, actor Geoffrey Lewis (the likable screwup in a handful of Clint Eastwood films), helped her rent her own apartment. If living on her own presented her with a whole new cluster of insecurities, she wasn’t conned into indulging them.

“Truth is, I was insecure way before that. The decision to move out and make my life better had a lot to do not with my family, but with the world of teenagers I was living in. I was like, abused, because I wanted to be an actress and make something of myself. Yet I behaved and acted stupid along with everyone else.”

Whereas the bulk of her age group spent upwards of four years in the high school fermentation process, Juliette lasted exactly three weeks. There are those who are quick to itemize the nurturing adolescent experiences Juliette allegedly missed out on. “When they talk about that stuff,” says Juliette, in a tone that houses as much indulgence for nonsense as an 18-year-old could possibly be expected to muster, “they always mention innocence, how I grew up too fast, how I missed the prom.” In view of the contentedness with which she assesses her lot, it appears that all she missed out on was a nickname. And whereas children afforded more extensive parental guidance obsess on the ruin visited upon them by the blunders of their parents, Juliette (whose mom and dad divorced when she was two) has only kind words for her own.

“Well, my parents raised me in a really unique way. They didn’t fill me with self-doubt. People have this whole thing with how you’re supposed to raise children. You raise them, train them, keep them guarded, you think of them sort of like animals, like the way you raise a dog and train it. On top of that, they’re really scared. They don’t want to think of their kids as having sex or experiencing really awful relationships–a guy named Buck who completely destroys your little girl’s heart. The thing is, kids gotta experience these things sooner or later–if not at 13, 14 then 20 or 25 or even 30–I suppose it depends on how long you keep them in your grasp.

“My parents, just from age two, made me feel priceless, made me feel as though I was always worth something, that I had something to give.”

If Juliette did get short-sheeted in the world of conventional domestic gaiety as some would like to believe, Faust his own bad self couldn’t have conjured up a more suitable irony than this: Having been delivered from the angst of pep rallies and social studies, Juliette found regular work as an actress playing the very teens she’d left behind at Taft High School in the San Fernando Valley. Just thinking about this, I have a sudden new appreciation for the way Juliette has stationed her television in the fireplace.

“Imagine me doing sitcoms! It gave me money and security, but I was miserable every day. When I had blonde hair, I was the pretty airhead daughter. When I had brown hair I was the homely, awkward, loner daughter. I even did ‘A Family for Joe’ with Robert Mitchum. Can you see him doing sitcom? People say, ‘Oh, God, you’ve got a great career,’ but it took four years worth of sitcoms to get it going. But that’s great too–most people have a 20-year career and they never get to work.”

Juliette wants to know what “smorgasbord” means. I come up with a definition and while she mulls it over I try to picture what Woody Allen saw when he decided to replace Emily Lloyd with Juliette in his untitled fall project. It may well have been her now-legendary thumb-sucking scene with Robert De Niro in Cape Fear. Sure, Fear‘s Max Cady is a long way from Manhattan‘s Isaac Davis, but in the synchronicity of all things large and small, perhaps Woody felt some vague, ineffable connection between eating Chinese in bed with jailbait and counseling jailbait over the phone while hanging upside-down, who can say? Face it, Woody, Mariel’s wholesome Manhattan palooka might’ve produced greater REM in the wet dream, but she couldn’t hold a candle to this girl’s dharma–one part Lou Reed, one part Punky Brewster, all disenfranchised razzmatazz as cool as sorbet. Then again, maybe Woody just liked Juliette’s hands. While the rest of her rivals the poundage of a marionette, she has the hands of a steamfitter. “My hands are androgynous,” she says. “I’m so happy to learn that word.”

Still assessing her androgynous parts, she rhapsodizes over working with the meister of mortality. “Woody makes movies the way people should make movies. There’s no stress, no paranoia, which is great because there’s always an element of paranoia when you’re making movies. We’d get off at three in the afternoon sometimes, which was unheard of, especially when you don’t work the typical 12-hour day, you know? His way of doing things is, well, if we don’t get it today, we’ll get it tomorrow–so you’re not stressed, like, this is my only one try. All my scenes are with Woody–he’s so fun, so perfect, I can’t even tell ya. I told him, ‘It’s getting more and more funner.’ And he said, ‘Juliette, I don’t think there’s such a word.'”

I can see Woody standing there with his glasses fogging, getting an earful of Juliette’s vocabulary. What she does manage to get across, however, belies the fractured diction and the exasperation of trolling for the right word. Tired of hearing the same questions about the likelihood of being intimidated by A-list stars and big name directors, she recently slam-dunked The New York Times by responding: “I’m not scared of people who are excellent at what they do.”

To me she admits, “Yeah, people look at me as cocky and arrogant when I make a statement like that.” Then she offers me some water instead of more maple-syrup coffee. Water in a coffee cup. “I’m supposed to be all scared and frigid and not be able to do my job because these people are so great and I’m nothing. That’s the viewpoint that people can relate to.”

Elevating Juliette to the level of bitch-goddess, however, is missing the point. What’s infinitely more intriguing is the subtext in her New York Times zinger: If you’re gonna be scared enough to swallow your retainer, it may as well be of something really bad. Not long ago, Juliette completed a film that she’d just as soon forget about. When she recalls the experience, it sounds like she’d rather spend an hour and a half in that little doll house with Max Cady than screen this picture.

“Just to sum up the director: He would forget to say ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ Even in looping this guy was fucking up. My acting at times has been raw–no direction. And I hate to have to fall back on the director. I’d like to be totally independent to where I don’t have to depend on the director or anybody to help me get there into the role. See, when you’re working with a bad director, you have to do what they say and you end up with really, really bad acting. The only consolation, after looking bad up on screen, looking terrible, is to do more, a lot more, to cancel it out. The people that you care about, the smart people, will hopefully recognize bad directing as the cause–they’ll see the blocking is wrong.”

During the filming of this dreaded movie, Juliette got a call from the producer (“a cool guy, someone I really enjoyed working with”), imploring her to warm up to the director, who said he felt intimidated by her. “You intimidate them because they expect a social relationship–which is fine, but these aren’t people I’d be friends with in my life. So why should I, like, pretend? I’m not cold. And I’m not like a trouble girl who plays all these mind games, either. I’m just coming there to do my job, not, like, all this hanging out.”

Juliette is showing me what it’s like when there are no forgetful directors to blame for her lousy performance, when she’s just plain bad all on her own. Her body goes rigid with artificial good posture; her pupils dilate with self-consciousness, the way people on the street look when they have a minicam stuck in their face. “It’s like, you’re totally watching yourself. It ends up being the worst bad-acting there is. The beauty actors–the women and guys just being beautiful–they actually are just watching themselves. But sometimes you’re just bad. You’re like this–” She puts up an imaginary wall between us. “You don’t really connect. I did a little of it during Cape Fear.”

“Like when?”

“Well, he obviously didn’t use those takes.”

Of her performance in the 1990 TV movie “Too Young to Die?” director Robert Markowitz said, “Juliette has no vanity.” When you watch her in Cape Fear, it’s hard not to agree. Okay, she shows more shoulder than a Victoria’s Secret catalog and winds up in her panties with papa bear Nick Nolte groping for a hug (Scorsese resurrects kitsch!). But look at her when she’s crying.

“You see a lot of girls cry and they look beautiful,” says Juliette. “You could have sex with them while they’re crying.” You would not be inclined to snuggle up to Juliette shedding tears in Cape Fear. She works her face into unflattering contortions and grimaces that offset the verboten sexual allure of her character. All of the coquettishness dissolves into unarrayed agony.

I think it’s an ability to be ugly and unattractive. I think I can be beautiful, with all the little [she does a bit of makeup and preening pantomime] stuff. And I can be ugly. Michelle Pfeiffer can’t be ugly. The thing is, I want to do characters. And not all girls are pretty. But it’s not just outside pretty anyway, because all people are attractive–but that’s another story. I wanna play characters. The rest is really boring. It’s either the confident girl, or the girl-girl. The thing is, you get people who say, ‘I’m a character actor.’ Then you see it and nothing’s really changed but the outfit.”

It’s been well chronicled how the thumb-sucking scene in Fear was De Niro brainstorming while Scorsese rolled cameras. Juliette insists she wasn’t fazed when she suddenly found De Niro’s thumb between her lips. “If it would’ve, I would’ve stopped him. Nothing really surprised me. For that scene, it worked and that’s what counts. If he would’ve punched her in the face, I guess that would’ve fit, too…

“It’s weird, because when I was working on Cape Fear–you’re playing terror every day for a month–I didn’t think it would do anything to me. But you’re doing these little segments of fear every day, where you can get fucked in front of your father and your mom and you’re gonna be made to do all these sexual things and then you’re gonna die. When I came home I kept thinking that people were following me for about a month. Now I have a gun next to the bed.”

Juliette’s performance in Cape Fear earned her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, and at this juncture in her career the line on this actress is that she’s a bullet. She, for the record, does not share that view: “My performance is awful,” she says of her latest work in That Night. Not only that, she thinks there’s a better than even chance that, however temporarily, the current rave over her will change when this new picture is released. “How will I handle it when people say I suck? I won’t care, because they’ll never think I was as bad as I think I am. Look at Cape Fear. I’m really happy about the response I got, but I didn’t think it was as good as some people said it was. The truth is, I’m not at the level of acting that I’d like to be at… at all. It’s on-the-job training. And I’ll use where I’m at in real life to improve. When I have more structure–hey, I have more than some people, but certainly not enough–once I have that in my real life, it’ll go over into my work.”

On a mutinous quest of their own, my eyes drift to the pile of abused laundry–it looks like it’s been kicked–lying dormant in the way of the half-closed bathroom door. Scores of videocassettes spill out of a bookcase as if they’d been stacked by the one-armed man from “The Fugitive.” And then, of course, there are the spider webs. I’m trying to get another glimpse of these spider webs above me without being too obvious about it. My strategy of combining a fake yawn with a fake stretch is going off without a hitch when I suddenly discover that what I thought was an armrest on my side of the couch is actually a pillow. Picking myself up off of the floor, I’m thinking this has to be a first for me, yodeling during an interview.

“Cobwebs–how terrible,” Juliette says, apparently judging both my curiosity about her cobwebs and my dive off her couch to be within the boundaries of unremarkable behavior. “Well, they’re high up,” I offer, settling back into the couch.

Juliette lives in her cobweb kingdom with actor Brad Pitt, the devastating hitchhiker of Thelma & Louise, the pompadoured Johnny of Johnny Suede, and the star of next fall’s Robert Redford film, A River Runs Through It. Perhaps inevitably, the combination of a high-profile real-life romance and a high-profile on-screen sexual performance has led to intense tabloid coverage of Juliette’s more private existence.

“It went something like, ‘Hot to Trot Lewis!’ Plus they didn’t start out on a gradient, they didn’t start low and build it up. It was like, blam, I couldn’t get enough action. And it was like, ‘Stud-actor Brad Pitt, soon she’ll be leaving him because she can’t get enough.’ It said I had sexual fantasies–they twisted that scene with De Niro to make it like it was soooo exciting for me.”

Unfortunately, I point out sympathetically to Juliette, some people feel they’re entitled to know what side of the bed you sleep on, what position you like to make love in.

“See, I don’t mind if they could cover it correctly,” she tells me, lighting up a cigarette. “I could tell everything about me. I don’t care, I have no problem with it. But it’s what other people do with your information. They can turn it into such a lie in their own minds. You tell them, yeah, I had sex on Friday. Simple. But they’ll turn it into this whole scenario.” Blowing smoke towards the TV squatting in the fireplace, she stops herself. “Wait, what day is it?” This being Monday, Juliette does a quick calculation to figure out when it was she did actually last have sex. “See,” she says, having discovered it must have been Thursday or Saturday, “even that wouldn’t be accurate.”

In the immortal words of Robin Leach, whose camera lenses would’ve cracked coming through Juliette’s door, I feel as though I’ve lost control of the interview.

“There are things I can’t talk about,” Juliette continues, “because I’m 18. I mean, I hung out with gangs who shoot people–I got a street education–but I can’t elaborate on that just yet because it’ll be used against me. I suppose when I’m 30 and there’s more distance, I’ll be able to talk about it as if it were a million years away. But if I talk about it and it’s four years ago, the tabloids would have a field day, as if it happened yesterday. Hey, I play around–I dance in my living room naked… Okay, maybe I don’t dance, but I walk around naked here a lot.” If he’s observing us from his chandelier, the house spider has a view of two people at a standstill, Juliette with her cigarette, me with my coffee cup of water.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be a woman,” Juliette complains, her voice getting about as close to a whine as the voice of someone who’s been on her own since she was 14 can get. “Life has been just one big drama…” She trails off, running her palm over the cushion of her soiled couch. And then it hits her like a dentist’s drill on a cavity. “OH, THE MOST SIGNIFICANT THING IN MY LIFE!–I fell in love for the first time. And that’s not a joke, that’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m in love, me and Brad.’ I have found, like, my mate for life.”

“Wow, I hope he did, too.”

“Oh, no, no, no, that’s what I mean. You can’t have one person saying, ‘I’m in love.’ You can’t be in love with someone and not have them be in love with you. You can, but it’s a different kind of love. I had a relationship with someone I thought I was in love with.” When I ask her how old she was at the time, a howl emanates from somewhere in her solar plexus. “I was 13. But that wasn’t love. That’s like sickness. You know, you cheat on each other, all this crazy shit. You climb through your bedroom window, you know what I’m talking about.” Like it happened yesterday, Jules.

Even if I did know what it is like to be a woman–and Juliette’s right, I don’t–I still wouldn’t be able to imagine falling in love with a person named Brad. But Juliette sure can. She’s so far out there off the deep end with this guy, she’s got her heart opened wide for nothing less than Mankind. Or make that Humankind. “This is gonna sound real sappy,” she warns me, “but I’m, like, real concerned with the world. I wanna get an element of power, and I wanna make millions of dollars so that just the simple people in my life that I come across who need help, the ones that have these really basic jobs that don’t even pay them enough to just live, I just wanna get them set up. I want these people to grow. I want to inspire people and make them believe that they’re strong, you know what I mean?”

I make the mistake of thinking I know the stretch of open road Juliette’s reasoning is heading out on. You leave your phony hall pass, your fake I.D. and your lunch money at the steps of your high school to chase an acting career down. You spend what seems like an eternity in the sitcom trenches. Then things start to go your way. So the ultimate, clearly, is a starring role opposite Pacino and Nicholson with Brando as the curmudgeonly uncle, and Coppola directing a William Goldman script with Vittorio Storaro behind the camera. Right?

“The career, that’s just a little job, that’s what I’m doing. And I really like acting. But for me, what’s most important is to get organized.” I am suddenly sitting next to Travis Bickle with a sex change and a dose of requited passion.

“I want to be able to be there more for the people I love. I wanna be able to have people come over to my house, have a little social get-together, have them come over and I…cook.”

This good-girl romantic bent, grafted so improbably onto a disposition as indestructible as recyclable aluminum, is enough to make me nearly drop my coffee cup of water.

“Being with Brad,” Juliette continues, “and being in love–I’ve never experienced that womanly side of me before. You know, like wanting to cook.” Gazing up past the cobwebs somewhere, she retrieves some wickedly enjoyable fantasy and gets a look on her face that I figure must have been what got to Woody. Then she lets her eyes settle on me. “I wanna make him a pie…”


Michael Angeli interviewed Sara Gilbert, Edward Furlong and Lukas Haas for our March issue.


Posted on May 16, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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