Juliette Lewis Interview

Giddy in love and gung-ho on 'Way of the Gun,' the actress sheds her characters' dark coil

Giddy in love and gung-ho on 'Way of the Gun,' the actress sheds her characters' dark coil

Juliette Lewis has been starring in feature films since she was 15 years old. She has worked with the likes of Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Oliver Stone, Harvey Keitel, Quentin Tarantino and Jack Nicholson. She's been nominated for an Oscar (for "Cape Fear") and she's been Brad Pitt's girlfriend. But Juliette Lewis has definitely not gone Hollywood.

Pay her a compliment and she blushes. Ask her about preparing for a role and she perks up, excited about every question that requires more than a sound bite response. Ask to take her picture and she looks up from under her hair like a little girl learning to flirt.

"I don't know what else to do with still cameras but be coy," she laughs with a throaty girlishness.

Nothing about her dress or demeanor says "movie star" either. Her hair is washed but not styled, her makeup is applied a bit haphazardly and she's wearing a vintage little blue T-shirt that says "Los Angeles 1981" in faded and cracking letters. It looks like it's been washed about 500 times.

But for all her unbridled enthusiasm and sincerity, Lewis takes her craft seriously. "I didn't have formal acting training and I don't believe acting should be like a painful, unpleasant process," she says in a serious moment while visiting San Francisco last month. "The bottom line is, it's magic. Art of all forms, there's a part of it you can't be taught, you don't know where it comes from, and you just surrender to it."

Lewis often punctuates such statements with ardent gestures that include not only her hands, but all of her fingers, almost like a child does when stretching her arms out to say "I love you t-h-i-s much!"

Yet, this effervescent actress is often drawn to dark roles like the unstable, pregnant surrogate mother and kidnap victim she plays in "The Way of the Gun," the dusky action caper that is the directorial debut of screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects"). She stars opposite Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro as two petty criminals who nab her in her ninth month, planning to ransom the baby, which she's become reluctant to hand over to its purchasing parents, a crooked developer and his frosty, disinterested trophy wife.

How such a buoyant, unaffected star winds up in such roles was a question I was itching to ask her. But when we sat down to talk, we started on the topic of her recent marriage to professional skateboarder Steve Berra.

Rob Blackwelder: Have you been learning to skateboard?

Juliette Lewis: Ha-ha! You would think! But one has to have a, uh, talent for this kind of thing. All I've done in stand on a skateboard and roll a little bit.

Q: And wobble and fall down?

A: I didn't even get to that point because I wanted to avoid that. I have this whole appreciation for it as, like, an art form now, just from being married to my husband. When I watch him do what he does, I'm in awe. It's a sport. He comes home dripping in sweat, his clothes, his socks. People don't know I'm domestic. I wash the laundry...

Q: Playing the housewife?

A: That's right! I like it actually.

Q: I'm not the kind of interviewer who likes to probe deeply into personal lives, but you've had some very public tough times (most notably after her breakup with Pitt), so let me just ask: How's life?

A: Oh, that's sweet. Well, the tough times were five years ago and I'm liking being on the flip side -- like a productive, somewhat content, strong person. It's nice to feel that way, because I wasn't like that before. I think it's just part of growing and changing. I look at everything before 22 and after 22. I'm 27 now.

Q: Was 22 when...

A: I was self-destructive?

Q: When you were having (drug) problems? When you moved home with mom?

A: Yeah. When I just took time off. But it wasn't my whole young life that I was screwed up. It was just a brief period of time. You get out, you make permanent changes and never look back.

Q: And that's what you did?

A: And that's what I did.

Q: The roles you chose, many of them seem to have a dysfunctional element to them. You often play child-like women with a steamer trunk full of emotional baggage...

A: Oh, man! That's good! That's descriptive. (Although) you say dysfunctional, I say complicated. I always look to play complicated characters. I like to emote. When I play a part, I like to portray what the inside of a character is, and often it's in conflict with the outside. I like that challenge.

Q: What I'm wondering is if you're exorcising any of your own demons with these kinds of characters.

A: People tend to think I'm really intense as a person. People think in life I'm going to be really intense. But a lot of the movies I've done are in what I call "high stakes" genres, or they take place under incredible circumstances -- and they generate high levels of emotions...what the hell was the question?

Q: ...exorcising any demons...?

A: Oh, yeah. The answer is no. The way I work is very in the present moment and of that story. It's very rare that I've found a piece of material that parallels any of my experience. I mean, at the end of "Cape Fear" we're all on the boat and Robert De Niro is holding us all hostage -- I've no experience in my life where I think I'm about to die with my family! (Laughs) You can only make believe at that point.

Q: Are you the type that does research? Did you shadow a surrogate mother for your role in "The Way of the Gun"?

A: Well what I did is have my sister handy, because she's had two kids. I just talked to her about everything she felt physically, what it feels like in the ninth month, the weight you carry. I wanted to represent that correctly. I know that moms watch movies and go, "that's not what childbirth is like!"

Q: I noticed that in the movie. You had the waddle down pat.

A: (Laughs) I really wanted to get that down! But have it come from inside, not an imitation. I would call my sister in between takes and go, "OK, you're nine months pregnant, you're walking down a hall, someone walks up, grabs you and throws you in a car! What do you do? What are you feeling?" (She laughs as if to acknowledge how absurd that sounds.) And she would say, "Well, you're adrenaline shoots up, but you hold everything still and your main focus is for the safety of your child." So I really got into the pillar of strength that (my character) is. I've never played a part where their singular motivation is for the survival of a child. I mean, you see in the film she has a complex struggle because of the bizarre backstory you find out about. But her singular purpose is that she bring this child into the world and that he stay alive.

Q: So did you call your sister and say, "I'm nine months pregnant and I'm in a shootout in a Mexican whorehouse! What do I do?"

A: Noooo. (Laughs) But I asked her all about the C-section (during the shootout, Lewis gives birth surgically and under squalid conditions). That's a whole, unnatural amount of pain. But let's talk about Chris McQuarrie!

Q: OK, let's do. He's known for building layers of intrigue into his scripts. How do you keep track of all the complexities as an actor?

A: This is what's exciting and juicy about working for Chris McQuarrie! We rehearsed for hours. We have to try to figure out what the hidden intentions are, and then not reveal them, but reveal them at the same time -- you know, all that complex stuff that makes acting fun. I was so intrigued to work with Chris McQuarrie because of the writing he did for "The Usual Suspects." And I think as brilliant he is as a writer, he's also very visual as a director, and this movie is really authentic-looking. People who like filmmaking, I think they would like this movie. Had it been done with a big studio, they would have messed it up with like explosions or tacky music. But it's pure. It's pretty cool.

Q: So what was the atmosphere on the set like? This cast and McQuarrie all strike me as a bunch of jokers.

A: That's right! They are! (Big smile and reminiscent laugh.) Benicio is funny in a strange, strange way. He's just cooler than cool, Benicio. He's a rare, rare breed. Chris is really funny. His humor knows no boundaries. He'd talk to me sometimes in a German voice, imitating some German director: "Gurl!" he would say, "Git on jour mark now, gurl!" (Laughing.) It was really fun and cool. I think directors create the atmosphere on their sets, and their personality creates what the mood is like, and this was a really fun and cool set to be on.

Q: Something else I wanted to ask you about this character: She's fully aware that these parents she's carrying the child for see her as nothing but a vessel and she feels dehumanized by them. Where did you go in your head to get a grip on that?

A: That's great feedback you're giving me! It's a conscious decision I'll make about something I want to achieve. Yes, she feels like a vessel. She has bodyguards around her all the time...

Q: ...who don't even talk to her...

A: Yeah. And she was originally doing it for one motive -- which I can't reveal without spoiling something -- but she changes. So she feels imprisoned. You have all those things. The weird thing about acting is you have to understand all those dynamics and then somehow put it together and just be. It's in the way she sits, the way she holds herself, the fact that she doesn't smile a lot.

Q: Are you your own worse critic? I read an interview in which you ripped your own performance in "Natural Born Killers."

A: I've learned to cut that out. It doesn't serve a purpose. If you're gonna criticize yourself, boy, you'd better validate what you're good at, too. Because to only criticize is not beneficial. With "Natural Born Killers," I respect that movie. I think it's incredible. But it took a few times watching it to appreciate what I'd done. As an actor, there was no continuity on the set. Oliver would say, "We're going to have demons run by the car, OK? Just react!" But is it real or not real or...? "Well they're gonna be kind of their imagination." So you don't know if you're being silly or real, or...(trails off)

Q: When you saw that film finished, I'll bet whatever you had in your head, that wasn't what you saw on the screen.

A: Oh, yes! That movie was created in editing. But it was a satire. As soon as I realized that, it was a fun performance.



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