A Punk's Life
Date: October 1, 2006
by Nick Duerden
It is an unseasonably warm late September day when we meet, next door to what she pithily describes as her "budget" hotel (average roomrate: pounds 90), and Juliette Lewis, sometime actress and increasingly full-time punk rock singer, is feeling the incipient drag towards total exhaustion. It has been a busy year for her, in which she has recorded her second album, Four On The Floor, made her West End debut, and is now halfway through touring the just- released record. She is, in the manner of all overly zealous theatrical types, constantly on, but despite the self-inflicted workload, she isn't complaining.
"I have the sensibility of an athlete," she explains, flagging down a waiter and asking for a cup of hot water into which she will drop two camomile tea bags and a dollop of honey. "I like to torture myself: no pain, no gain. I like to push push push myself until I've nothing left to give."
She sips at her convalescing drink and closes her eyes. A moment later, one of them pops open, and she grins, her face the very picture of schoolgirl mischievousness.
"Excuse me while I centre myself," she says, perhaps joking but just as likely not.
Fifteen years ago, an undeniably precocious Juliette Lewis, then 18, was at the very top of her game. She had just landed an Oscar nomination for her Lolita-like performance in Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of Cape Fear. Three years later, she was terrifyingly believable as the lunatic Mallory Knox in Oliver Stone's Natural BornKillers, and she was dating Hollywood's prettiest Ken doll, Brad Pitt. But by 1996 Pitt had left her and Lewis quickly revisited a childhood propensity for drugs. Later that same year, she checked herself into rehab for the slow, three-year pathbackto sobriety. Her career suffered inexorably.
"It's true that I stopped getting offered such great roles," she concedes, "but then I'm hardly the first actress to complain about that, am I? And anyway, acting was starting to leave me cold. Basically, it just doesn't fulfil all the creative juices I have."
And so, in 2004, she formed Juliette Lewis and the Licks, and released Like A Bolt Of Lightning, a loud and proudly antagonistic punk rock record, Lewis sounding like Courtney Love in a pair of Iggy Pop's leather trousers. The next two years were spent touring, mostly in Europe, in the back of a grotty van because the band were unable to afford a tourbus. "Music money," she points out, "is not the same as movie money. But that's OK, I've never been particularly financially driven."
Juliette Lewis was born in Los Angeles in 1973. Her father, Geoffrey Lewis, was a character actor, her mother, Glenys Batley a graphic artist. Her parents had both been married before, he four times, she three. They divorced when Lewis was just two (she has an awful lot of step siblings). By the time she turned 12, she was acting on a TV soap called Homefires. Two years later, she divorced her parents - not acrimoniously, she insists, but merely to sidestep childhood labour laws: "Everybody did it; it was no big deal" - and was now acting full-time. At 15, she went to live with her father's actress girlfriend Karen Black, and within months of freedom from her fractured family home, she was arrested for underage drinking. She'd been smoking pot since 13; by now, she was also using cocaine.
"Certain drugs had become too regular a part of my life," she has said. "It was getting out of hand, and I was no longer enjoying myself away from the films [or] the parts I was playing."
Nevertheless, she was becoming a prodigious talent, and after bargain bin efforts like My Stepmother Is An Alien and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, she landed the role of Nick Nolte's thumb-sucking daughter in Cape Fear. This scintillating performance promptly established her as the new Jodie Foster, a sinister yet seductive femme fatale in whose marble-like eyes shone the profound knowledge of all things illicit. She cornered the market in psychotics, and became much in demand from some of Hollywood's top directors.
"I remember being 18, 19, and people warning me that I'd already been spoiled," she recalls. "I'd done these great films, and so anything not on that same level would feel like a big step backwards, right? How could I do cheesy TV-dinner movies when I'd already acted for Scorsese, for Oliver Stone?"
She does continue to act, though, making on average a film a year, but few of her recent efforts - Gaudi Afternoon, Blueberry, Aurora Borealis - have troubled the box-office. Earlier this year, the 33 year-old decided she wanted to do a play. In her own wonderfully Californian way of speaking, she says she wanted to "cultivate just what I like about drama in the first place, you know? And I was so lucky. Just as I was planning to come over to Europe to play some live dates, I get offered to do [Sam Shepherd's 1983 play] Fool For Love in London! Kismet, right? A sign from above!"
Life these days, says Juliette Lewis, is mostly good. Free from the wilful anger that dominated her personality at 19, and free from drugs for a full decade now, she may be three years divorced from professional skateboarder Steve Berra and currently single - "and occasionally lonely as all hell" - but this is the path she has chosen and she will follow it faithfully through. And if ever she feels particularly weak and downtrodden, Scientology is on hand to pick her back up again.
"OK, but look," she warns. "Don't talk to me about it the way the rest of the media do, understood? Scientology keeps me rooted and grounded - it's been an amazing force in my life - but I hate the way it's perceived by a very stupid and ignorant, low-brow media. Why are people so damn suspicious about it?"
Perhaps, I suggest, because of Tom Cruise's recent antics in the name of it? "The treatment of Tom is the worst!" she shouts. "Tell me, does a guy who smiles maybe too much but speaks passionately about what he believes in deserve to be torn apart by the newspapers day after day? I don't think so. Tom is a good and a positive guy, and he is as good an advert for Scientology as anybody else. OK? And of subject."
Lewis will spend the rest of this year touring Four On The Floor throughout Europe and, she hopes, America (where her music is currently all but ignored), but she admits to still requiring an occasional fix of celluloid fulfilment.
"Oh, I've not retired from movies, not at all. If anything, I think I'll probably come into my own in my 30s - at least I hope I do. There are so many directors out there I want to work with: Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), Alexander Payne (About Schmidt), and that guy who did 21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Irritu). And Quentin (Tarantino) of course! I think it's a crime and a shame that we haven't worked together yet. I could be great in one of his films!"
This, inexplicably but joyously, prompts more crazy lady laughter, but she quickly catches herself in this room otherwise dominated by quiet and servitude.
"People think I really am like my character in Natural Born Killers," she says, whispering now, "but that's just not true. I am not a volatile person." She scoops out another teaspoon of honey and holds it in front of those pink bubblegum lips of hers. "I'm a good girl. Really I am."