Juliette Lewis: Playing the chirpy suburban girl was torturous!

THE EXPRESS Jan 26, 2014

Meryl Streep may have scooped an Oscar nomination for her showy performance as a pill-popping matriarch in August: Osage Country, along with co-star Julia Roberts, but the most engaging character by a stretch is played by Juliette Lewis.

If you recall Lewis’s work in serial killer movies Natural Born Killers and Kalifornia this is quite a surprise; almost as much as it is to see the actress (Oscar-nominated herself aged 18 for Cape Fear) punching her weight in a heavyweight awards contender.

August: Osage Country is an adaption of Tracy Letts’s acclaimed play about a family gathering from hell. The Westons, the world’s most vituperative, back-biting clan, assemble at their desolate Oklahoma homestead for a funeral. Fireworks and Oscar-bait grandstanding ensue.

Lewis, 40, also shares the screen with Benedict Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor and comfortably holds her own, proving that several years devoted to a parallel music career and some ropey movies have not dimmed her acting chops.

She wanted the part badly. “Everybody auditioned for it, people whose names you would know, lots of my peers, so it was quite a thing to get,” she says, open and friendly, as we chat in a London hotel room.

“It was great to have such quality material again.”

Lewis plays one of Streep’s three daughters (Julia Roberts and Julianne Nicholson play the others), the only character who does not bear some kind of monster grudge.

So was it refreshing, I venture, to be playing the chirpy one for once? “Refreshing? It was tortuous!” says Lewis who, it emerges, has something of a love-hate relationship with her profession.

“Every movie I ever do I think I should quit. It’s so masochistic.” My surprise shows. “I know what you are saying,” she continues, “I am the sunshine in the film but that is all masking pain and anxiety. She [her character Karen] is trying to appear together but she might fall apart at any given moment.”

Oh dear, my gratitude for the one happy character appears to have been misplaced.

“To quote Meryl: ‘This is the house of pain’. Acting is not heavy lifting as a line of work but it’s just brutal internally and that is where the masochism comes in. I actually hope for an experience like this and I have found it with every single project, apart from a couple of comedies I’ve done.”

I mention National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the Chevy Chase vehicle she starred in aged 15. “That is a different kind of brutality,” she jokes. Angst aside, Lewis did covet her character’s ability to look on the bright side of life.

Just months before receiving the script for August, which revolves around the funeral of Karen’s father, the actor Geoffrey Lewis, Lewis’s own father nearly died. It made her turn inwards.

“My dad had a heart attack and we did not know if he was going to live. Going through that tragic experience of being faced with a parent’s mortality, a cynicism started to develop. I lost my ability to look at the world with a rosy disposition. So even though Karen is delusional about life I liked those shoes. If I could be delusional again that would be awesome.”

Life has thrown a fair bit at Lewis to shatter her innocence over the years, an innocence captured so memorably by Martin Scorsese in Cape Fear when we see her wide-eyed teen sucking the thumb of De Niro’s convicted rapist.

After nabbing her Oscar nomination she experienced several years of drug addiction and went to rehab. “It was tough for me, it was overwhelming,” she says of all the attention she received at the time. “I was an introvert.”

She found support in Scientology, the controversial religion founded by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard and beloved by certain Hollywood celebrities including Tom Cruise.

I ask her about it, aware the interview could get shut down (followers are notoriously reluctant to talk about it). “It is seen in such a weird light in the media,” she says. “It is so bizarre to even talk about because I have never seen one word written about it that was true.”

I ask why that is. “I do not know,” she replies, silence descending.Happily, those troubled times are well behind her and August heralds a significant comeback for Lewis, although she would more likely term it a “rebirth” (“I like the idea of rebirth and regeneration,” she says, apropos the New Year).

“I feel this is the beginning of a whole new chapter and I look to Meryl as an inspiration in that way because she has had so many different peaks and valleys. She is also a lovely person and in this business that is testament to many things. The film industry can breed ‘crazy’. I know it drives me crazy.”

As well as August, Lewis has a role in upcoming drama Hellion opposite Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame which has just screened to acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival. She is also recording a new album in Nashville.

“It has been four years since I recorded an album and I really miss it,” she says. She formed her rock band Juliette And The Licks when she was 30 and then went solo. Does her music get the attention it deserves? “All I am ever looking for is to sell tickets to the show,” she replies. “I had a nice healthy touring run for about eight years where I made a living. It’s crazy to make a living as an independent musician so that was awesome.”

What kind of movie roles would she like now she is back keeping A-list company? “I covet the strange,” she says.

However, before conjuring up an image of Lewis back in serial killer mode, think again. “I could play a suburban housewife. That would be strange to me,” she says, “and interesting.”