Juliette Lewis is the Coolest

Movies Features Juliette Lewis
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Paste is at SXSW this week, and we just completed two days of interviews in our Paste Interactive Studio & Lounge, where Paste‘s founding editor-in-chief Josh Jackson and movies editor Michael Dunaway talked to filmmakers, actors, musicians and comedians. One of our favorite conversations was with Juliette Lewis, who was in Austin, Texas, for a pair of films she’s in—Hellion and Kelly and Cal. The full interview will appear in an episode of the soon-to-be-launched Paste podcast.

Josh Jackson: Everybody welcome back to the Paste 2014 interview lounge with Blue Sound. Thank you for joining us live in the audience here. Thank you for joining us through your iPod or computer at home through the podcast. We’re here with the very powerful, microphone-wielding Juliette Lewis.

Juliette Lewis: Woooo! Hi. I can hear people behind their computers like “Yeah!”

Michael Dunaway: The applause is overloading the inter webs as we speak. So Juliette is here at SXSW with two films that we really enjoyed, Hellion and Kelly and Cal.

Jackson: Music is a huge part of what we do at Paste, as is, of course, movies, so it’s great to have you here to talk about both.

Lewis: Yeah, because for the longest time I was a closeted songwriter. I was in the closet, for real, because music is so personal. It’s guttural. Even if it’s a song about sexual frustration, it’s just a fun rah-rah-rah song, it’s still all me. So I kept it really close to my chest and guarded for a long time and I ended up coming out. It was actually at my 30th birthday party—I had my first band and played. Yeah, it was funny. And then my first official gig was a gay night in Silver Lake, a little groovy party in Los Angeles. It was sweltering heat, and I remember it well.

Jackson: And there is a little bit of a stigma when actors and actresses decide to do music, and you overcame that straight out of the gate.

Lewis: Here’s the thing: I am so dialed in. This business is so cuckoo and not that friendly, although superficially it could appear to be. “You’re plain! You’re fat! She’s weird! She’s ugly. Blah, blah, blah. Whatever.” I’m so used to naysayers. So for example, when I came out and did Cape Fear, everyone’s like—where did Scorsese find this girl, this ingénue? She must just be just like this girl. I was nothing like that girl. Then Natural Born Killer was all over. It’s like, “Can you play a killer? It’s not possible.” So I had to brainwash him that I could strangle you with my bare hands. Which I didn’t say to him. But, no I mean he made me do like pull-ups.

Jackson: Wait, this is at the casting hour?

Lewis: He’d make me come in weekly and he’d put up a bar where I had to do chin ups. He’s like—if you can do 14 chin-ups, you can have the part. I don’t know. I never made it to 14, but I think he honored my spirit.

Dunaway: He saw that you were willing to actually…

Lewis: I was willing to go the distance! But so my point is now people are like, of course she’s Mallory. She lives in primal energies. Whatever. So it just goes on and on. So I’m used to people doubting you. And so with the music, all the things that are your weirdness, your pain, your weakness—it’s now my banner; it’s like my strength. So for instance, I used to get panic attacks in crowds because when you lose your anonymity at 19 and you’re an introvert, it might fuck up your head, which it did, and so I used to not go in crowded places. And then my rock band became this, this thing to face all my fears. But that was the least of my fears—judgment—I don’t give a shit. Here’s my whole point was like, I’m going to find the 40 people in any room and I’m going to take you with me. And we’re going to go on this journey together. And it started multiplying. And I also knew because music is so personal—there are a lot of shitty bands that are successful, and there are a lot of brilliant bands that not enough people know of. So I know music is just that personal relationship with your audience. And it also wasn’t gonna—there’s no future in it if it’s just for that curiosity factor. My first tour I did was the Warped tour, and I was likening myself to the bearded lady at the circus, because not only was I an actor touring, doing rock ’n’ roll, but I was also a female front person making really muscular male dominated rock music.

Jackson: And on that tour, there weren’t many women.

Lewis: There were 60 bands and three had females in them. So I worked for that, and I worked over every crowd. Now I’m slightly cocky about my live show. What I’m saying is that you may not like the music, but you’ll never be bored at one of my shows.

Jackson: Which is rare in music today. And it’s been five years now since Terra Incognito, but you did music for this movie. What are you doing musically right now?

Lewis: Yeah, I went through this whole soul-searching thing and had the Licks and my main partner in that, we split up. And then I did my solo endeavor and what that meant was getting all—I wanted to break the structure of what the Licks were—it was pretty much guitar-driven rock music and high energy and big choruses. And so I wanted to do more meandering songs—songs that break the verse-chorus-bridge structure and so it’s a weird record. It’s an acquired taste. But for me, I grew as a songwriter. So that was the last thing I did. And then I’m not done yet with cinema. So I was like, “Let me return to this pool and see what I can find, what I can contribute to it.” And it causes a little bit of split personality. It drives me crazy. I did August: Osage County—which was huge for me. It’s a Tracy Letts play. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor—a beautiful cast. I did that a year and a half ago. And then, so this movie is the first time I’m actually writing music for a movie. So I’m cross-mating the two together. Now, it’s not my music. I’m writing in character, through my character—what she played in her high-school years. Which is all that ’90s kind of riot-grrrl style music that was so incredible at that time. So it’s sort of a niche sound, and I wrote this song. I had to use the lyrics that the screenwriter wrote, and also I wanted to write a decent sounding song. So the director, she gave me a Sleater Kinney song and PJ Harvey To Bring Me My Love. And I called up my first guitar player, Clint Walsh, and he beautifully translated it into this like bluesy, sludgy, seductive rift. And then we wrote the triply song that’s in there, that’s in the scene.

Dunaway: All you’ve gotta do is write a song as good as Sleater and PJ Harvey. That’s all.

Lewis: Well, let me go on record and say it is not. But you can be inspired by your heroes.

Jackson: But that’s really an interesting intersection between music and what you do as an actress, because you’re getting in the head of your character—which songwriters do when they’re writing a third person song. They’re getting in the head of their character. But you’ve now made a career of doing that on both ends of the spectrum.

Dunaway: And you also do it in Mark Ruffalo’s amazing film Sympathy for Delicious which I never pass up a chance to plug. Everyone on the podcast should go rent.

Lewis: Yeah, I want to do that more and more. All my musician friends—we all want to have our songs in film and television. It’s a great medium. It also gives you a chance, like I said, to write in different styles and stretch yourself. So in Kelly & Cal, the character, she was a bass player and they unearth a first cassette of hers. So we wrote that first song and then there’s the last song that closes out the movie was just inspired by how much feeling I had toward the film. The film, the girl goes through and she says there’s an existential crisis, and I felt like I had just passed through such a thing in my own life. I think I’m still kind of—now I say I’m on the other side of an existential crisis, so hopefully smooth weather up ahead.

Dunaway: An existential calm, maybe?

Lewis: It’s never gonna happen. I finally, I was laying in bed the other night and I said, “Juliette, you like suffering. Just enjoy it. You love suffering. You never like anything easy.” Because you’re like, “Why can’t life be easier!”

Dunaway: Sounds like a song to me. Sounds like you need to get writing.

Lewis: Well, I wrote a song that will be on my new EP! “I Know Trouble.” This one song is called “I know Trouble” and I wrote it with Cage The Elephant. I sort of kidnapped that and got the drummer, Brad Schultz, who is the cofounder of Cage, produced it. And we recorded it in Nashville, where I got this hat. You all at home who can’t see.

Dunaway: That’s great.

Lewis: I don’t drink Pabst, but it’s a new trucker hat. I’m wearing it.

Jackson: It’s a great hat.

Lewis: Thanks.

Dunaway: When is that EP dropping?

Lewis: In the next couple of months, but you’ve gotta understand, I miss it so much. When I don’t play live—because I’ll go through these real stages of melancholia, I mean ever since I was a kid, so I try to embrace it. But and then I go, “Oh my God, oh right, because you’re not singing. You’re not playing with people. You have to do that.” So this year, I decided not to do a full length because I’ve been gone for awhile. It’s a new sound. We were inspired a lot by The Kinks, The Zombies, the kind of early garage-y ’60s psychedelic music and the sounds in that. It’s just groovy. It’s cool. And Brad was instrumental in producing the sound, so that will come out in the next couple of months, I’ll put it all on social media and let people know about it. But I do have a few shows I’m opening for Page, just on the West Coast in April.

Dunaway: I pray you open the album saying, “Don’t call it a comeback.” Give LL a little shout-out. All right, so we could sit here and talk music all day long but we really need to talk about a little bit of movie stuff. Let’s briefly hit Kelly & Cal and then we’re going to bring in another special guest onstage to talk about Hellion. A little unannounced surprise for those of you here. So Kelly & Cal I really enjoyed. It’s a movie that when I heard the set up and heard the premise of, I was like, “Well okay, we’ll see. I love Juliette’s work.” I think you’re one of the most naturalistic actors around. You never see the strings. You never see you acting, so I’ll see pretty much anything that you’ve got a big part in. But I saw the film and it was so well executed. It didn’t fall into the many pitfalls it could have fallen into.

Lewis: Yeah, because for you all at home, I love saying that. We’re all together in this. But the story, it could have clichés about it, but it’s, but that’s life. Do you know what I mean? The clichéd older guy getting with a younger girl. Whatever. But what drives that story, that’s what’s behind it. So this one—she’s a new mother and she’s riddled with like, insomnia, but also with kind of not knowing where she’s going and how did she get here? And I related to that feeling, because the things that drove you when you were 25 don’t drive you when you’re 40. It starts changing, and you kind of miss it. You’re like, “But wait, remember that punk, that rebel spirit?” It’s a good thing to have. It changes. And she’s trying to navigate poorly this new stage in her life. She creates this unlikely friendship with a boy across the street, and it was a challenging thing on many levels. One—the most important thing was finding the kid. And so, I needed an of-age actor, first of all. And it’s played incredibly by Jonny Weston. He was 24 at the time, and he’s playing 17. Cal dominates these scenes. He has an angsty punk-rock spirit, and that’s really real and beautiful. And I was in love with Cal on the page, and then it was quite easy to be in love as Kelly and with John playing it. We had an incredible chemistry, and that was from the second we were in the room across from each other. So I needed a young actor that, because the director looked and guys and he sent in their great tapes, but what is it when they’re sitting across from me? I need them to really dominate the energy and not to give myself “Agh, ahhh!” Not many can. No I’m just kidding. Totally kidding, guys. Sorry I have low self-esteem that matches his cockiness, too.

Dunaway: It’s just the microphone! It’s giving you power.

Lewis: It is! Alright, but this was the first time I was in every single scene. We shot 16-hour days. And then, I went on to another labor of love. I mean, these independent films are so beautiful because it reminds you: This is why we make movies. We make them for the experience. We make them because we’re crazy. We want to create fantasy and real life so people can transcend and learn or just escape. So you’re doing it for all of the right reasons, and it was a really special experience. We shot in New York. We had wild Saturday nights and then worked real hard the rest of the week. My wild Saturday nights now are just dancing.

Dunaway: In your living room, or out in the world?

Lewis: No, out in the world!

Dunaway: Well, speaking of wild experiences, I think now it’s about time to bring to the stage the great and wonderful Kat Candler.

Lewis: Kat Candler! My director from Hellions!

Jackson: So Hellions was one of my favorite films from Sundance this year, and you’re here at SXSW as well and more people get to see this movie with Juliette Lewis and Aaron Paul and a couple of kids who just did phenomenal jobs in that movie.

Kat Candler: Yeah, I was so proud of those kids.

Jackson: So Juliette, in this one, you play the concerned sister-in-law of Aaron Paul, and your sister is deceased and these kids are in kind of a tough situation. But it’s this weird combination of the concern and being there for these children but also being alone as the antagonist in the film.

Lewis: You’re hitting the nail on the head. It’s such a trip because she’s such a good soul, but we have that confrontation scene with me and Aaron, and I’m like, “Oh, she’s fucking him over. It’s all for the right reasons, but then I love the complexity.” And Kat helped with all of this. A: She wrote the film. Also the layers, there’s a little selfish streak, and there’s a selfish streak in all of us—our own agenda. But there’s also what’s best for the kids, so I hope that all those colors came off.

Jackson: They did. And the audience goes back and forth, you know, as events sort of unfold in this movie—not knowing what to pull for. And Kat, that’s a feat in itself to pull off, to be honest.

Candler: Thank you. Yeah. With any kind of story that you’re writing—and I love, love, love the writing process—it’s about, I know I talked about this, it’s about, going in. South West Texas, referring to my town, and that’s not a world that I know, and I was going down there spending long kind of weekends exploring and investigating and knowing people and interviewing people and just trying to get the honesty and the authenticity of these characters and this world. Down to the just, it’s such a complicated dynamic between these two adults, again just to do right by this kid and trying to protect and take care of this kid ultimately, when they’re all sort of messing up in beautiful messed-up ways left and right.

Jackson: And how you see that there’s no bad guy either. There’s no pure sort of villain. And that’s what I love about this movie—this complex situation that you’re brought into. And you immediately feel for this character, including the sort of antagonist that you play.

Lewis: Well, I’m glad. It was fun for me, because it’s followed Kelly & Cal in that I’m doing my new kick. This is what I’ve been saying. I’m on a minimalism streak. You know, meaning, these aren’t extreme characters. They’re relatively normal people. That’s what I love. I love the layers and nuances. But they’re grounded. So you’re always reaching into your own bag of experience and things about yourself and finding those elements that create a character. And Kat was instrumental in that. She’s grounded, she’s grounded. And my big thing is always in my head that I say to myself is, “Do less, do less.” So it’s this whole trip on how to do nothing but there’s an energy there. You’re still moving people. It’s a real wild thing.

Candler: To your point of villainous characters, I hope that there are no—villian is not to be human. They need to have, you know some sort of hurt, even if it’s small or whatnot, but yeah, characters for me that I love and just kind of die for are the ones that are just making beautiful mistakes, and they’re fallible. Because I think that’s what’s interesting and at the heart of who we are and why we do what we do. We’re human.

Jackson: That is a great description of those characters. There are a lot of beautiful mistakes in that movie.

Lewis: I just wanted to say one thing about Kat that was so interesting. She’s the writer as much as the director. I mean, is the writer and director. And—this was your second film, right?

Candler: It’s actually my third. But I will say—the first two I kind of feel like were like my film school, because I didn’t go to film school. So this is the one I’m like, I want as many people to see this as possible because I really am proud of all of the work of everybody that was on the film. Regardless if it was on the soundtrack or the PA. All of our hearts were in this like 150 percent, and I couldn’t be more proud.

Lewis: Now I have to finish. So it’s her third film. But my point is what I’m looking for in a filmmaker is I don’t want someone—It’s like. I worked with another writer/director, and you’re more of a writer. Because filmmaking is a visual medium, so I want to know that you’re technically proficient. I want to know that you have a vision. And so what she did that blew my mind was how she describes the environment, because it was so much a part of the script. When you read it, you visualize where they are, and you can feel the dust, the mud, the desolation, and it’s, that’s a character in the movie. And that was the first thing, she pulls out this book and was like, “here’s this.” This is what it’s going to be, and I loved that we got to shoot in that part of town.

Jackson: It shocked me to hear that it was not familiar territory to you.

Candler: No, I had never been down to Southeast Texas before. So we had shot the short film in 2011, and someone said I think the expansion of this world is in Texas. And so I said, “let’s go!” So we went down and started taking these long trips and yeah, it’s that’s the logic of what we do as filmmakers and writers, is to being able to explore and discover.

Lewis: We have to say Aaron Paul, I mean! Rules this movie. He’s going to get out of bitch on this one! He’s this tortured beautiful soul, and he’s an epic actor. And so I was really happy to see him do this part.

Jackson: And a great role. There’s some, there’s this likable—I mean, even Breaking Bad at his worst, there’s this likable quality about him that you can’t ever go. Even when he’s making his beautiful mistakes, like he does in the series and then in this movie, there’s something about that guy. You just want to give him a hug. And in this movie, he needs one.

Candler: Yeah, it’s great because you guys had Mary Elizabeth Winstead here right before us, and I had seen Smashed, and that’s what drove me to Aaron. I walked out of the theater thinking, “oh my God, the performance director was incredible with the actors.” And I was like, “oh my God, this kid Aaron Paul.” I had only seen two episodes of Breaking Bad at that point, because the box top episode is sort of the defining either you can stomach this or you can’t. And so I saw Smashed and I thought, “he’s so special.” There’s something wonderful about this guy, and that’s what, that’s when I went after him.