At least three times in her life, Juliette Lewis has been unable to breathe. It happened once in 2001, in a cramped hotel elevator with her idol, Bob Dylan. She’d been staying in New York, where she and Uma Thurman were shooting Hysterical Blindness, an HBO film about a pair of emotionally stunted Jersey girls that earned her Emmy and Independent Spirit Award nominations. It had been roughly six years since Lewis had overcome “the darkest chapter of my life,” an addiction to drugs from which she emerged with help from Narconon and the musical poetry of the folk-singing chronicler of social unrest—specifically “She Belongs to Me,” an anti-love song he’d written about a woman (Joan Baez or Nico, according to speculation) who’s “got everything she needs. She’s an artist, she don’t look back.” On her way to work, Lewis stepped into the elevator, caught a glimpse of the man she worshipped, found a corner of the floor on which to focus, and stared at it in winded silence. She felt the blood pulsing through her veins, and a wave of red-hot heat flooded her cheeks.
“You’re an actress, aren’t you?” he said to Lewis, who rose to fame at the age of 18 with her Oscar-nominated turn as Danielle Bowden, an impressionable Lolita-manqué who gets seduced by a homicidal Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake. Paralyzed by nerves, she blurted out, “And you! You’re Bob Dylan!” When the elevator doors opened on the ground floor of the hotel, she hurried outside and unleashed a flood of uncontrollable tears. “I thought I was going to pass out,” she says from a makeup chair on the set of her new television series, The Firm, where curlers are being applied to her newly dyed red hair. “I literally obsessed over that song and those lyrics, which helped me realize that I had a future—because there was a point when I thought it was gone.”
The 38-year-old actor and musician, who, since 2004, has been exorcising her demons by releasing her own records, first as part of Juliette Lewis and the Licks and now on her own, has always been portrayed as a loose cannon. That’s in part due to her rocker rebellion, but mostly because of her unhinged on-screen performances: as Mallory Knox, an on-the-lam serial killer in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers; Adele Corners, an infantilized rape victim opposite Brad Pitt in Kalifornia; Carla Tate, a developmentally-challenged free spirit in Garry Marshall’s The Other Sister, among many others.
In real life, she’s been a constant source of unscripted candor, especially as a teenage ingénue who “knew nothing about the business,” which she recalls with an unusual mix of pride and embarrassment. “I knew how to internalize a character and create a world of color and life through someone else, but I couldn’t even carry a conversation at a Hollywood party. When I got nominated for Cape Fear, my agents wanted me to do talk shows and stuff, and I was like, What for?” When, in 2010, she generated Oscar buzz for her performance as a heavy-drinking false witness in the legal drama Conviction, she says, “I was thrust into doing all of this networking, which I’m terrible at. It felt so weird going to, like, Dallas to eat finger sandwiches with critics.”
More recently, Lewis’ outsider spirit has birthed an entertaining barrage of micro-missives on Twitter. “I’m a relatively responsible tweeter,” she says. “I don’t vomit out deeply personal family drama, and I try to keep it PG, for the most part.” Every now and again, however, her internal filter takes a break, resulting in tweets about the best song to play while having rough sex (Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”), the biggest jerk in Hollywood (Brett Ratner, who Lewis referred to as a “douchbag” [sic] following the homophobic slurs that forced him to step down as this year’s Oscars producer), and the most lecherous compliment she’s ever received from a fan (“I used to masterbate [sic] to u”).
On January 5, Lewis revealed, also via Twitter, that she’d been planning a move to London when she got offered the part of Tammy Hemphill, the chain-smoking law-office receptionist in NBC’s serial adaptation of John Grisham’s The Firm (which was first turned into a 1993 film starring Holly Hunter in the same role). “Before the show, I’d had a turning point in my life,” she says. “My dad [actor Geoffrey Lewis] had a heart attack last year. He’s okay now, but it forced me to consider another type of lifestyle, one that’s a bit more stationary.” If consistency is what she’s after, then Lewis—who spent much of her youth in transit (she lived with her mom in Florida from the ages of 6 to 9, and then in an apartment in Los Angeles until moving in with her father on a ranch “with horses and chickens” in Tarzana, California)—has been granted her wish.
Series regulars have the closest thing to a 9-to-5 job in Hollywood, but in accepting the part, Lewis chose not to renew the lease on her rental home in Los Angeles, said goodbye to her close friends and family, and moved to Canada. “I made a joke to my sister the other day: I don’t know what’s more nerve-racking: job security or job insecurity. But I’m a big girl. I took this job for very specific reasons. I’d been gone from movies for a few years, and then, not too long ago, I started tiptoeing my way back in.” Lewis, who appeared briefly in four films in 2010—Sympathy for Delicious, Conviction, The Switch, and Due Date—says, “I have a beautiful currency with my audience and the people who receive my work, but that doesn’t add up to dollars and cents for industry executives. I took this TV show to remind everyone—in a really loud way—of what I do and why they were interested in me in the first place.” She adds, with peals of laughter, “I am done with cameos, thank you very much!”
Instead, she’ll clock serious screen time in BAFTA Scotland Award–winning filmmaker Justin Molotnikov’s Blood or Water, a largely improvised film noir scheduled to begin shooting this summer. Also in the works is a still-untitled documentary directed by Jeff Feuerzeig that chronicles Lewis’ musical career using more than 400 hours of footage culled from hundreds of live performances. “Say what you like about me,” she says, “but I never turn out the same thing twice.”
Three years after Lewis almost threw up on Bob Dylan, once again she found herself on the verge of blacking out. It was a sweltering night in the summer of 2004, at El Cid, a flamenco bar in Silver Lake, during its weekly lesbian night. Lewis was a knot of nervous energy before taking the stage for one of her first official performances as Juliette and the Licks (before that, she’d sung jazz standards with a friend’s band). As a child, she endured what she refers to as “crippling panic attacks,” which were often made worse by crowds. They got so bad for a time that she avoided concerts altogether. “I couldn’t stop these violent images that I would be shot,” she says. “I’ve always been hypersensitive to energy. Performing on stage became about me facing those fears. It was about finding power through my own voice.”
She has since headlined sold-out shows and major music festivals across the world, and opened for rocks legends like the Pretenders and the Who, but on that AC-less evening at El Cid, in front of a packed room of sweating partiers, she fully expected to faint. (She didn’t.) Although she’s a red-blooded heterosexual, Lewis compares her first concert to coming out of the closet. “It’s about the big reveal! I don’t mean to make light of it, but it was comparable in that I, too, had been hiding this thing inside me for so long.” She was so overcome with nerves that she couldn’t remember the lyrics to her own songs. “It was like there’d been a glitch in the matrix,” she says. “But because of my acting background, I knew that I had to commit even though my brain was screaming, Oh my god! I don’t know any of the words! I kept going, and I put myself out there, because I was so set on having every single person leave that room with something. Mediocrity is death to any artist.”
Her commitment to her craft astonished Chloë Grace Moretz, Lewis’ costar in the upcoming independent drama (and the last of her slew of cameos) Hick, in which she plays the 15-year-old actor’s negligent, alcoholic mother. “When you think of Juliette, you think of all the amazing movies she’s done,” says Moretz, who, prior to meeting Lewis, spent every holiday watching her as the hilariously sardonic Audrey Griswold in Christmas Vacation. “In one scene, she fights over me with the actor who plays my father [Anson Mount], and she starts throwing herself on the pavement. I honestly can’t think of another actress who would be strong enough to throw herself on the floor without getting so much as a scratch on her knee, and have the willpower to become that awful person. She was digging her knees into the pavement, and everyone was like, ‘Oh my god! She’s cuckoo—but amazing!’”
Lewis was equally smitten by Moretz, whom she likens to a younger version of herself, along with Ellen Page (her costar in Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It). “I love when I see fresh new voices who aren’t falling into some coquettish thing,” she says. “I’m impressed by young women when they don’t lead with sex or fall back on being pretty. I’ve never understood why women, when they have this beautiful instrument of emotion and texture and color, fall into this poor, silly straitjacket.” Although she oozes defiant sexuality in Natural Born Killers, Todd Phillips’ Old School, and even in Cape Fear, her characters have always been eccentric enough to avoid feeling exploited. They don’t just seduce; they wield seduction like a weapon. “I didn’t get into movies so I could be cool or to have people talk about my cheekbones,” she says.
In the eighth grade, long before running into Dylan or belting out her first rock ballad to a room full of lesbians, Lewis interrupted science class to ask her teacher, “Um, why do we need to learn this? I’m never going to use this.” Incensed, the teacher responded, “Really, Juliette? What are you going to be?” Lewis beamed: “I’m going to be an actress,” to which her instructor replied, “Oh, good! Juliette, the ignorant actress.” She was
mortified at the time—the wind had been taken entirely out of her sails—but looking back, she says laughing, “Why did I say that to begin with? Oh, right! Because I was a fucking asshole, that’s why!”
At 14, Lewis legally emancipated from her father and mother, a graphic designer, who divorced when Lewis was still young. (Despite enduring rumors to the contrary, she did so with the help of her parents in order to sidestep child labor laws.) She got into her fair share of trouble, stealing her dad’s car at the age of 13 and getting arrested at 16 while partying at a nightclub. Looking back on that period, she admits that she didn’t know “how to love the moment, which isn’t to say that I know how to love it now, but at least I realize how fleeting it is.”
Nowhere is this evanescence more prominent than in her romantic life, which has been a rocky path of exploration and heartache. She first fell in love with Boy George, the memory of which makes her chuckle. “God bless us young girls who want to care for a lovely soul without even a thought about sexuality,” she says. “It didn’t even occur to me that, you know, he wasn’t for me.” Her first relationship lasted for four years, and when it ended, she thought she’d never love again. “You know how it is,” she says. “French-kissing for nine hours.”
As a teenager living in Los Angeles, she fell for a gang member fresh out of juvenile hall. Following their split, he was arrested for shooting his next girlfriend. “Let me be clear,” she says. “I was into destructive love at that point in my life. I haven’t walked that road in years—I just don’t have time to indulge people who aren’t into making me feel loved—but back then I didn’t know how to be treated well.” While working on a made-for-television movie called Too Young to Die?, she befriended a young actor named Brad Pitt (with whom she would later star in Kalifornia). Romance blossomed and together they lived for three years in a small bungalow in Los Angeles, two struggling actors unaffected by the Hollywood machine. In 1999, she married professional skateboarder Steve Berra; they divorced in 2003. Since then, she’s been searching for the connection she finds in film and music. “It’s always about connection,” she says. “And yeah, I guess you could say I’ve had obsessive love affairs with people, but to be honest, that’s just the way I love. I’ve always had an obsession toward melancholy and love.”
She smiles with more than a touch of sadness, and says, “I was a little lost last year, love-wise, and just a little disheartened, asking myself stuff like, Does everlasting love even exist? This year, I hope to be renewed again. As a growing human being, you have to stop, consider, feel, and live. And breathe. You have to breathe.” She explodes into a fit of laughter. “Or some fucking shit like that.”
The cluster of opposing elements that comprise Lewis’ DNA is responsible for her enduring career, which has seen her collaborating with some of the greatest filmmakers (Woody Allen, Kathryn Bigelow) and musicians (Dave Grohl, Linda Perry) of our time, getting nominated for an Oscar and then trampling the red carpet with “gangster braids,” getting swallowed up by the excesses of New York nightlife (where she christened herself Sylvia Demure and ran with a hard- partying pack of female impersonators), embracing Scientology, overcoming addiction, quitting film for a time to front an internationally successful rock band, and then returning to acting via, of all things, a legal thriller on network television. Although she’s nearing 40, there’s a youthful spark in Lewis that most people lose much earlier in life. “I refuse to lose the fearlessness of youth, and when I feel it disappearing, when I get scared or shifty, I remind myself of what life is about: the hunger and the search.”
Photography by Yu Tsai