If you’ve spent any time with professional comedians, you know that the best ones are surprisingly unfunny in their private lives. So why shouldn’t the same thing be true of actors with a reputation for cinematic psychopathy? Take Juliette Lewis, whose film resume — from Cape Fear to Natural Born Killers to Whip It — reads like a rap sheet for antisocial behavior. And then there’s her music, first with the Licks (a name that sounds like the best post-punk band that Ari Up never fronted) and more recently with the New Romantiques (which, despite how it sounds, isn’t a tribute band that plays only covers of “What I Like About You”). Watching Lewis perform on stage, even if it’s just a YouTube video, can be legitimately frightening. You can practically feel your jaw dislocating from her sucker punches. She’s like a female Iggy Pop, always seemingly on the verge of doing something explosive or self-destructive. It may just be an act, but like any of her movie roles, it’s a really, really convincing act.
Leading up to my interview with Lewis, everybody I know, every friend and family member and casual acquaintance, all asked me the same thing. “Aren’t you nervous? She seems kind of crazy.” Their only evidence was a “gut feeling,” based on intuition and too many late nights watching Natural Born Killers on basic cable. But the warnings happened so often that I actually did start to feel nervous. It didn’t help that I watched her latest films, Due Date (a screwball comedy) and Conviction (an Oscar-baiting courtroom drama), two very different movies in which she’s utterly believable as somebody you wouldn’t want to be left alone in the same room with. I also checked out her recent appearance on The Late Late Show, where Craig Ferguson admitted to Lewis, possibly with his tongue in cheek, “You scare me.”
Lewis called me from Miami, as she was leaving the airport for her hotel. (I have no idea why she was in Florida, and she didn’t volunteer any details.) She was friendly and outgoing, far from the high-strung nut-job I’d been bracing myself for. Maybe if we’d been in the same room, she would’ve tried to bite me just to see the look on my face. But I kind of doubt it.
Eric Spitznagel: I just saw Conviction, and your character — and I guess you by extension — scared the shit out of me.
Juliette Lewis: Oh, good.
That was your intention?
Well, no, not exactly. In my work, I’m always striving to be as honest as possible. The woman I play in Conviction, she’s based on a real person, and she was very complicated. She just tells lies upon lies upon lies. But they’re all true to her, all her contradictory feelings. It was fun to play one of those people that you intuitively try to avoid on the street. Whatever I do, I’m always struggling to create a visceral experience. With my music, I’m more of a live performer these days. And film is such a different thing. It’s where people sit in a dark theater. I want them to feel me as viscerally as if they were at a live show.
I definitely had a visceral reaction, if only to your character’s oral hygiene.
(Laughs.) Yeah, her teeth are pretty gnarly.
When you were getting fitted for those chompers, were you thinking, “Yeah, baby, it’s Oscar time?”
Not in the slightest! You’ve got to understand, in this industry you’re conditioned for loss. So you learn never to have high expectations, because inevitably you’re going to be let down. I tend to follow that mantra, “Live in the moment, enjoy the experience.” I’ve never done anything this intense in the last decade. I was scared and excited, and that’s always what brings the best out of you.
But it’s got to at least be in the back of your mind. You’re playing a woman with spectacularly bad teeth and skin that’s got a hepatitisy glow. Isn’t that a sure-fire way to get an Oscar nomination?
I don’t know, is it?
Well, Charlize Theron didn’t get an Oscar for being easy on the eyes.
(Laughs.) But the flip side is, if your performance is just what you’re doing externally, you can look like a clown. You might as well just be wearing a suit. So you have to try to embody something intangible. It’s really about capturing essence before anything else.
Just promise me that if you get nominated for an Oscar this year, you’ll show up for the ceremony wearing cornrows.
(Laughs.) That’s funny. Yeah, I’d like to.
Unless you think they’re bad luck. You did lose the Oscar for Cape Fear back in ’92 while wearing cornrows.
I don’t think the two things are related. I love looking at those old pictures. I had such a natural and innocent rebellion. For me, that hairdo just made me feel raw and strong and cool. And that’s very much in my nature, even today. So sure, I could do cornrows again. It might be fun.
Have you ever heard the old saying, “Peter Stormare’s a great actor, but I wouldn’t want him to babysit my kids?”
No. Is that a real thing?
I actually just made it up. But you get what I’m saying, right?
(Laughs.) Not really.
There are a handful of actors, like Peter Stormare and Crispin Glover and you, where the line between what’s fictional and what’s real is a little blurry. People love your movies, but if they ever met you, they might want to know where the nearest exits are.
You mean because of Natural Born Killers? It’s funny, because sometimes you get known just for the movies that are successful. I’ve been around the world so many times, touring with my band, and I’m always curious to find out what film of mine really hit for people. Usually it’s Cape Fear or Natural Born Killers or Old School. It depends on the demographic. When I did the Warped tour, where the demographic is generally 12 to 18 years old, they didn’t know anything about my earlier body of work. They knew me from Old School.
I’m sure it’s all about context. If you’re at a gas station off interstate 10, the people who recognize you probably aren’t thinking about Old School. They’re thinking, “Holy shit, it’s Mallory Knox. We’re all going to die!”
Yeah, sure. But again, it’s about what was successful. After Natural Born Killers, I did a Nora Ephron comedy with Steve Martin that didn’t go anywhere. Nobody recognizes me for that. And then I did The Other Sister, which was the complete antithesis of a Mallory Knox. I’m always exploring duality, I guess. In my own nature and in that of my characters.
Speaking of The Other Sister, has your opinion about it changed with hindsight? Are you like, “Come on guys, it wasn’t that bad,” or “Jesus, I should have stabbed my agent in the face just for giving me the script?”
(Long pause.) I don’t know what you’re talking about.
You… didn’t read the reviews?
I don’t really read reviews.
Did you at least hear it was nominated for a Razzie?
I know it didn’t get seen in a lot of theaters because there was a problem with the release. But I have gotten some of the best compliments from people who’ve rented it. Our hearts were in that movie. It’s all because of Garry Marshall. The Other Sister represents everything that Garry Marshall is.
No, no! He likes to make people feel good. That’s always what he’s aiming for. He’s such a beautiful person.
I finally saw the video for “Terra Incognita,” a song from your last album, and it’s got a lot of punching. I’m sure it was choreographed, but a part of me wants to believe that it’s all real, and it’s just a documentary of you beating the shit out of people.
Well great, that’s the illusion! I love fighting as a metaphor. It represents the artistic struggle, or woman playing muscular rock n’ roll. It’s about getting knocked down, taking your hits, and getting back up. It’s a timeless thing. I guess because I’m very small and fragile and extremely vulnerable, I enjoy manifesting the opposite of that sometimes, showing off a Herculean strength that isn’t really there. Being strong is sometimes just about protecting what’s vulnerable.
You have a framed mug shot hanging in your living room, which apparently your dad gave to you.
That’s right, yeah. I love it.
That blows my mind. What does it mean when your dad gives you your own mug shot as decorative art? Is he being ironic? Is it a warning? “This is how bad it can be if you’re not careful?” What’s the motivation?
You have to know the whole story behind the mugshot. I was arrested for being underage at a dance club. So on the surface it gives me some street cred, but the crime is literally Footloose. Me and a girlfriend were at a club that didn’t have its liquor license, and when the place got busted, I said to one of the cops, “Can I have my mugshot? I want to hang it on my wall.” He didn’t think it was funny at all. But my dad heard about it, and somehow he got a hold of it. Years later, he had it blown up and gave it to me.
But isn’t that weird? Don’t most fathers want to believe their daughters are innocent and incorruptible?
Well, my parents are both extremely supportive and artistic and funny and bohemian. So I definitely didn’t live a conventional lifestyle. It was conventional in that I had love and support, but I guess that’s not always conventional.
You’re an actress-turned-rock star, which is a difficult transition to pull off. But you’re actually pretty badass.
Thank you. It’s been exciting to prove myself in the live arena. In this day and age, anybody can go into a studio and with a little technology make something that sounds good. But performing live is the last untouchable medium. Particularly in Europe, they’re all about the live experience. They go to see live concerts, live theater, everything is live. They see live theater like we see movies.
Rock legends are built on mythology. What’s your Hammer of the Gods moment?
(Long pause.) I don’t totally know what you mean.
Have you ever done anything inappropriate to a fan with a mudshark?
(Laughs.) You’re talking about the Led Zeppelin story? I’ve never done anything like that. But that stuff is just silliness if you’re not into the music. Other fans would talk about the shows that moved them, or the writing of “Stairway to Heaven,” or Bonham’s playing on “Whole Lotta Love.” I’ve had some amazing highlights. I played for 50,000 people in Brazil. That was pretty huge for me. I started making music at 30. If I tried doing it at 18, I might be coming at it from a different perspective. It might be more about being wild. It’s so hard to live on the road, to lead a band, to forge ahead. There’s a million things to discourage you. But it can be gratifying, and I know no other way.
You sometimes stage dive during your shows, but only occasionally. How do you decide whether to make the leap? Do you check out the crowd first, just to make sure there aren’t any Cape Fear fans out there?
Yeah, I try to feel out the vibe first. It’s a case by case kinda thing. The only time I was ever scared or felt physically threatened was when we did a show in Japan. It wasn’t even that big, it was 5000 people. I’d jumped into a crowd in Budapest and it was 20,000 people. But the crowd in Japan, I guess because it’s a different culture and they’re not used to… expressing excitement. Culturally, they’re more about keeping their emotions inside. So when they have an opportunity to let loose, they really let loose. I jumped into the crowd, and they just descended on me, totally leaped forward. It was a bit suffocating.
My instinct is to ask you if you worry about getting groped, but that seems vaguely sexist.
Why is it sexist?
I’m guessing nobody ever asks Iggy Pop, “Are you worried about somebody grabbing your cock?”
I’m sure he’s asked that. And if not, it’s probably something he thinks about. I’m guessing it happens to him. It happens to male performers as much as female ones. It can’t be that unusual.
Yeah, but if you grab Iggy Pop’s cock, you’re the one going to therapy, not him.
(Laughs.) Maybe, I don’t know. At my shows, people are mostly delightful and amazing and fun. And if they’re not, if there’s a vibe killer out there, I have no problem setting them straight.
How do you do that?
I have a microphone, so when I get back on stage, I’ll point him out and the audience will take care of it. Your audience is like your gang. It’s a profound connection.
I’m not sure how to segue into this, so I’ll just come out and ask. You’re a Scientologist, right?
I am, yeah.
Do you celebrate Christmas? I’ve never been sure about that. Does Christmas count as a Scientology holiday?
Oh yeah. We absolutely celebrate Christmas.
So you have a tree with ornaments and egg nog and presents and Christmas carols that aren’t about Xenu?
I’m a Christian! I think there’s so much confusion because people don’t understand a religion where you can be another religion but you can still practice Scientology. That’s why it’s completely progressive. It’s just tools for living. It’s about understanding one’s self and others and compassion and how to communicate better and how to live in this troubled society. It’s really basic, common sense stuff. It has nothing to do with all this funny folklore that surrounds it. You could be a Jewish Scientologist or a Buddhist Scientologist or a Christian Scientologist or anything else.
Do you believe your ancestors were reincarnated aliens?
That’s not been a part of my experience, no. (Laughs.)
So… you don’t believe you came from aliens?
I was thinking about where that idea came from, and I was like, “Oh, maybe it’s because (L. Ron) Hubbard was a successful science fiction writer, so they’re confusing his science fiction with his other studies that have nothing to do with science fiction.” It’s like you thinking I might punch somebody in the face because I played somebody who punched somebody in the face in a movie.
That’s actually a pretty good analogy. I wasn’t expecting that.
I’m used to misconceptions. And honestly, I don’t care to explain Scientology to people. You can investigate it on your own. It’s not that difficult. There are websites and all sorts of resources. The one thing that troubles me is when rumor becomes hatred and prejudice towards a group of people. That’s when it becomes scary, when you have people trying to take away other people’s right to practice a religion of your own choosing.
You’re taking all the fun out of mocking Scientology.
My experience is, there’s nothing alarming or inhibitive about Scientology for me. I don’t find it judgmental. I can’t speak for somebody else’s experience. It’s just my own.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)