Juliette Lewis, an ‘Imagination Freak Fairy,’ Knows Her Worth

NEW ORLEANS — Lately, Juliette Lewis has been thinking about being invincible. She’s not, of course — witness the soft knee brace encircling her right, faux-leather clad leg. Coming off a challenging shoot for the breakout Showtime psychological thriller “Yellowjackets” amid Covid isolation in Canada, Lewis made a beeline for a sunny getaway and promptly overdid it physically. She tore her A.C.L. and meniscus, injuries common in athletes but in her case stemming from the years she spent doing exuberant stage dives and high kicks with her rock band Juliette and the Licks.

Invincibility was one of the theme words she gave to Cubs the Poet, a family member serving as the artist in residence at the Ace Hotel here; he writes poems on the spot. “Too much vigor and enthusiasm,” she told him, describing why she was now limping around New Orleans, where she was filming the reboot of “Queer as Folk.”

“And then not enough stretching. Although that doesn’t sound as cool.” She laughed, and he typed up her poem.

Lewis is 48 and has been working since she was a teenager, making her mark in films like “Cape Fear” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” “I find myself, at midlife, where I can come into a space and I know my worth,” she said. Her boundaries, though, have needed fine-tuning. “Only recently, I was like, life-work balance? That’s an amazing concept. I didn’t even know there was a name for it. I thought it was just like, work your ass off until you crash and burn, and then take some time off to heal your body and mind.”

But, she added, she wasn’t complaining about the job. “This industry has fed me. There’s no other place for me, as a little imagination freak fairy.”

That “Yellowjackets” is set partly in the ’90s, the decade in which Lewis ascended in Hollywood, at a moment when the culture seems to be getting frank about how women were (mis)treated then, has given the show an added dimension. The mechanics of celebrity and the limits imposed on young women — “If you had brown hair, you’re a moody, sarcastic teen. If you have blonde hair, you’re an airhead, pretty girl,” as Lewis put it — nearly drove her out of the business. (Martin Scorsese, who cast her in “Cape Fear,” saved her.) It’s only now, in her 40s, that she’s found a part that smartly interrogates what expectations were placed on teenagers then, and how they must recuperate as adults.

Karyn Kusama, an executive producer of “Yellowjackets,” said she wasn’t looking to hold up a ’90s rearview mirror with her cast, which includes Christina Ricci and Melanie Lynskey, but when it happened, it clicked with audiences. “Somehow we felt we owned their image,” she said of her stars’ early days, “and we didn’t, we didn’t own anything about that. Maybe that’s what drove us crazy as a culture — we could never possess them in the way we wanted.”

That may be especially true of Lewis, who resisted categorization. “A director always wants someone who can go to the extreme, perhaps even in one scene — she has every box checked to do that,” said the filmmaker Tate Taylor, who cast her in his 2019 horror film “Ma.” “She can scare the [expletive] out of you at the beginning of the scene and you think you’re going to be killed, and then at the end, she’s breaking your heart.”

“The way she wears vulnerability is unlike anybody I’ve ever seen as an actress,” he added. “You feel like a voyeur, observing her vulnerability.” He had wanted her for “The Help,” his 2011 Oscar-nominated period piece, he said, but she was busy touring Europe with her band.

As a performer, Lewis has also had her share of invincible moments: youthful characters who traded in adolescent bravado until things came crashing down, often brutally. She’s back mining that territory now, from the other side, in “Yellowjackets,” in which her character Natalie, a high school soccer star, survives a plane crash in a remote wilderness with some teammates. The show toggles between the violent aftermath of the crash, following the teenagers in flashbacks to the ’90s, and the present day, with Lewis and co-stars Ricci, Lynskey and Tawny Cypress unpacking the trauma as adults. (Sophie Thatcher plays Natalie as a teenager.)

“Natalie is written as that, I guess, toxic strength,” Lewis said. “But she completely devolves to where she goes into weakness and propitiation around the girls, and it’s strange where she ends up. I didn’t see it coming.”

In long, late night chats, the 40-something co-stars talked about the gendered power dynamics of the ’90s.

“We were all sharing horror stories about that time — the sexism, misogyny,” said Lynskey, 44, who made her debut with “Heavenly Creatures” in 1994.

“When we all started out, I think we were sold this story, about ‘you have until you’re 40,’” she added. “I didn’t see very many older women who were having magnificent careers.” Streaming has changed that to some degree, but, Lynskey said, “it does take a lot of tenacity to keep hanging in and believe that you don’t have a finite amount of time.”

Lewis earned an Oscar nomination at 19, holding the screen opposite Robert De Niro in “Cape Fear,” and soon followed it with a genre-busting performance as a wild murderess in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.” “It’s become a Halloween cute-costume thing,” she said. “Every Halloween, people on social media send me ‘Natural Born Killers’ pictures.”

We were sipping coffee on the hotel’s roof deck, sitting together on a circular bed, so she could better stretch out her injured leg. She had kicked off her well-worn sneakers and was pointing her toes like the dancer she trained to be in childhood. Lewis’s words spill out in kaleidoscopic fashion, accompanied by bursts of kinetic energy. She wiggled and flexed and twisted her limbs like a pretzel as she told anecdotes about Stone. “He’ll rouse you like an Army sergeant,” she said. “I found him equally insulting to the men as to the women.” She noted that when she blanched at nudity in a sex scene, telling him it felt gratuitous, he agreed with her suggestion to cover up.

On sets, she had no problem speaking up for her creative needs, though as a teenager, “I wasn’t easy,” she said. Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange, who played her parents in “Cape Fear,” offered to take her to an amusement park as “family” bonding. Headstrong, she declined. “Now, I’m like, you [expletive]. Why did you miss an opportunity to [expletive] hang with Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange? You teenage know-it-all.” Her romance at the time with Brad Pitt, whom she met on a movie of the week, coincided with their transition out of anonymity. “You’re both working out all your insecurities,” she said.

She grew up around Los Angeles; her father was a character actor, often in Westerns. “Sometimes we had money, and sometimes we didn’t,” she said. In lieu of babysitters, he’d drop her off in the makeup trailer. Her parents split and raised their children — each had more from other relationships — in fairly bohemian fashion; her mother, a graphic and fine artist, was the kind of parent who had her daughter brushing with baking soda to avoid fluoride. “My parents cultivated this rebel, meaning they cultivated the individual spirit.” (They studied Scientology, and Lewis has, too, but she doesn’t identify that way. “I’m a spiritualist,” she said.)

By the time Lewis was 14, she had an agent, and began booking sitcoms. She’d been a faltering student. “Finding this purpose of storytelling and oh, if you live in your imagination, there’s this space for it — it actually kept me out of trouble,” she said.

That came later, by her early 20s, when the demands of fame caught up with her, and she felt at odds with the image that was expected of her. “I was so into trying to do things on my own terms,” she said. “I wore a swap meet headdress I got for $15 in the Valley to the Golden Globes. But in photo shoots, that’s where I had times where I’d be crying in the bathroom because of the pressure.” She developed a drug addiction. “It was hard. I had an implosion,” she said. At 22, she took two years off and got sober. The pause damaged her career trajectory, she said.

But in her 30s, she spun away from acting again, to focus on Juliette and the Licks. She had been a closet songwriter and vocalist. When I hit 30, I was like, oh, that thing you were so in love with, you haven’t done it. You’re 30. What are you doing?” She spent nearly six years touring in grungy fashion.

“Juliette came in blazing, on fire, committed, determined to be a rock star,” said Linda Perry (4 Non Blondes, Pink’s “Get the Party Started”), who produced Lewis’s first EP. “She was not an actress becoming a singer. She was a rock star stepping into her rightful position.”

When the band first dissolved a decade ago, her screen career picked back up. Castmates and directors seem awed by her ability to conjure unpredictability, especially in the grinding business of ensemble-TV production.

“She’s like a live wire when she’s working,” said Kusama, who directed the first episode of “Yellowjackets.” “She’s one of the more instinctive and instinctual actors I’ve ever worked with. I learned pretty quickly on the pilot, I was never going to get the same take twice.”

Lynskey recalled a scene, late in the season. Their characters “have this antagonistic sort of relationship, there’s a lot of sniping back and forth,” she said. But in one take, “I made this choice to look at her and just check in if she’s OK, and the moment I looked at her, she burst into tears. That’s how present she is, how on the verge of emotion she is, at all times.”

On “Yellowjackets,” Natalie struggles with addiction and other issues. “I didn’t want Natalie to be as dark as she became, but that wasn’t my call — that’s the writers,” Lewis said. She bristled ever so slightly when I asked why she might be so good at playing people with traumatic pasts, or violent tendencies. She likes to point out that after “Killers” she did a Nora Ephron holiday comedy with Steve Martin. It just didn’t happen to be as popular.

“Staying in a place of sustained pain and apathy — to me, that’s exhausting,” Lewis said. She needs the raucous energy, too. When Taylor hosted a dance party at his Mississippi home during the shoot for “Ma,” Lewis got so amped during the hip-hop staple “Jump” that she got the crowd to leap simultaneously. “There were 45 of us in there,” Taylor said. “A painting fell off the wall, and a sculpture.” His construction crew had to reinforce the space. “The house was built in 1830 — Juliette Lewis broke the music room dancing,” he said, laughing.

There’s no invincibility. But after a nearly 35-year career, Lewis knows what sustains. “I think what you learn through time is that you have the ability to regenerate, if you put your heart and mind to it,” she said. “You have to apply discipline, and get out of your own way.”

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