There are movie stars, there are screen legends, and then there are workhorse character actors who never disappoint you. Ever. Juliette Lewis is one of them. Even with projects that fail to soar, like the wife-fights-back Jennifer Lopez vehicle Enough, or the alternately moving and maudlin The Other Sister, which Lewis herself teases as merely being “a big rental,” it’s hard to think of a moment in which this actress, an eternal wild child, has been anything less than a wholly welcome presence. Which is not to say that presence is always a breeze of a thing to witness. With angry ’90s counter-classics like Kalifornia, Strange Days, and, of course, Natural Born Killers, Lewis perfected the gritty art of imbuing uncommon female characters with roaring, unnerving life, prompting some people, as she tells it, to even question her mental state. But it’s less craziness than craft commitment that defines Lewis’s work, and that goes for both her acting career and her characteristically hard-edged forays into music.
This season, Lewis hits the screen again in August: Osage County, the awards-baity adaptation of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and a film that casts the actress as someone she’s not so used to portraying: the ebullient one. Lewis is Karen, the least visibly depressed (and thus, perhaps most disturbed) daughter of Violet (Meryl Streep), an ailing pill addict whose brood corrals around her in the wake of her husband’s death. Lewis says she relished the irony of being called upon to play the “glamour girl,” just as she finds it funny that she’s equally known for playing a Bonnie-gone-berserk serial killer as she is for playing Clark Griswold’s daughter in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Chatting with me in a suite at New York’s Essex House, Lewis stays utterly true to her tradition of failing to disappoint, candidly unleashing her perspectives on everything from aging to the misconception that she once divorced her parents. An “energy”-focused person whose spirituality is coupled with sarcasm, the 40-year-old actress also gets real about when she almost quit acting, her tendency to confuse “lines” with “lyrics,” and her belief that the worst thing a woman can do is “lead with sex.”
Karen is so bubbly that, for me, even her red hair reflected this kind of rose-colored view of the world. But, obviously, there’s a lot more going on underneath that, and she’s straining so hard to stay as positive as possible. How do you relate to Karen’s dogged positivity?
Ugh. I loved it. It’s almost like, be wary of the person who’s telling you how great everything is, incessantly. Because it’s like, “Well…what was so not great that you have to push forward how great everything is?” And that’s Karen’s opening scene. I loved it so much. I related to every aspect of her, I think. I mean, nobody would view me in the same light as you would Karen. I think that generally speaking, and I’m complimented by this, people think I’m really strong and independent. And there’s an aspect of me that is, but I’m also trying, like many people, to navigate the hardships and insanity of this world with a positive outlook. Daily. And those qualities of giving oneself daily affirmations, or putting forth a positive perspective—all those things about her I related to, as well as her constant searching. But her foundation is that she comes from a house of such neglect and abuse, and [director] John Wells and I discussed during rehearsal that she was probably the most neglected, because she was the third child.
She certainly gets an icy stare at the dinner table from Violet, who basically looks through her and shuns whatever she says.
Yeah, we feel like Violet barely even acknowledged Karen’s existence, so she was probably the one who got into trouble with boys and all that stuff. So it was really fun to build the backstory. But, for some reason, when this role came along, it happened to be when I was going through this big period of disillusionment, and having things that worked for you when you were younger no longer work, personally and professionally. The ways I get by and the ways I find strength were changing. My father had gone into the hospital for a heart attack, and the possibility of losing a parent was changing my world. So I was having this existential crisis literally six months before this material came, and my two sisters and I all bonded to take care of my father. So the serendipity of getting this project where there’s three sisters brought together by a tragic event was really cosmic and amazing.
You noted that this isn’t really the type of role we’re used to seeing you play—this kind of uppity person. Karen has a darkness to her, but I think more people associate you with the forthright toughness of, say, Mallory Knox from Natural Born Killers.
Oh, yeah. I’m not known for using, like, my feminine self, or playing up looks, or being the glamour girl. So the irony that I’m the pretty one, or the put-together one, was really amazing to me. Because even in between takes, I have to worry about keeping my lipstick fresh, whereas everybody else is in next to no makeup. But it’s an important part of who Karen is—her appearance, and making appearances, and thinking that as long as you look good, and your hair’s good, then things must be going well. And that’s her whole mindset when she’s coming home. I mean, who brings her new boyfriend, or fiancé, or whatever, to a funeral?! That’s not where you meet the family! God, everything about it is so funny. Oh, and about that red hair: I had that hair for another project, but I spoke to John about keeping it. I thought it was really good Karen hair.
And have you found, in your career, that people have identified you most as certain characters, like Mallory? Which characters or movies get brought up most?
It’s interesting. It’s usually What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Cape Fear, Natural Born Killers, and From Dusk Till Dawn. Those are the ones that are always mentioned. And then I’ll get a lot of mentions of The Other Sister. So I guess that was a big rental. [Laughs] Because it didn’t do well in theaters. But I think Mallory Knox relates to why I make rock n’ roll music. For whatever reason, I can tap into these primal energies, and exorcise real primal, animalistic types of emotions. I don’t know why, but I can turn up the volume on these really low-ebb emotions. To me Mallory was apathy, rage, and hysteria, and it was kind of a free-for-all. And that really resonated with people. I was almost going to call my first album Is She Crazy?, because all these people I worked with would say that I’m down to earth, but everyone else would ask, “What’s she like? Is she crazy?” And I just took that as such a high compliment because I think people just weren’t used to seeing females display that kind of energy on screen. I usually think of acting as energy-based. I don’t know if all of that answers your question. I tend to ramble. But you’ll put it all together.
Ha! No, it’s good stuff. I wanted to talk about age, since this movie is so filled with Violet’s ruthless insistence that women get uglier as they get older, specifically picking on Karen and saying, “Karen, you’re getting there.”
I love that part.