Back in March, Paste’s Josh Jackson and Michael Dunaway sat down with Juliette Lewis at SXSW. She’s barreled back on the indie scene this year with Hellion and Kelly & Cal, the latter of which opened in theaters recently. It’s wildly impressive that she not only still selects small, intimate projects, but she pursues them with a passion. This is the chick who’s worked with Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days), Martin Scorsese (Cape Fear) and Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers), after all.
With Kelly & Cal, though, Lewis works with Jen McGowan, in her feature directorial debut. Lewis plays Kelly, a young mother and ex-rocker. During a midlife crisis, she meets Cal (Jonny Weston), a kid who lives in the neighborhood. He’s only 17 and in a wheelchair, but their relationship blossoms into something that helps her preserve her past and confront her present.
Now Lewis talks in depth about joining the project, identifying with the script and the parallels between Kelly’s life and her own—she may not have babies, but she does live in the ‘burbs. Who knew?
Paste: Jen McGowan has said that she and screenwriter Amy Lowe Starbin wrote Kelly & Cal for you. Did you see yourself in the character just as clearly when you first read it?
Juliette Lewis: It’s so funny because they said they did that, and little did they know there were certain themes I connected with so much—just how Kelly finds herself in a certain plateau in life. She’s in a relationship, she’s accomplished things, she should be happy and she’s not. I sort of had similar themes in the sense of what midlife brings that you don’t have when you’re in your 20s, taking care of your parents or you’re running out of time to do certain things. Ultimately, it is about nurturing relationships. The fundamentals to a happy life are the relationships you keep. When I saw the script, it was like receiving a little diamond.
Paste: You’re single and live in L.A., unlike Kelly who’s married in suburbia. How did you tap into the feelings that come along with her different lifestyle?
Lewis: I do live in the suburbs! Yeah! I come from such a dichotomy of a background, like no money, a crappy apartment in Hollywood. I lived on a ranch. But now I love the suburbs, [the] super quiet, family-oriented lifestyle. All my girlfriends have kids. But I related to her insomnia. I love doing a whole film where someone isn’t sleeping well. I didn’t alter the way I talk, which I normally do for characters where I change my behavior.
Paste: What’s your experience with babies? Your child in the film is always crying. Do you and Kelly have similar luck with children?
Lewis: So many of my friends are new moms, [have] second kids. I love the honesty, the unsentimentality, uncertainty of new motherhood. I have friends who’ve gone through that—when to wean the baby off the bottle, how they’re sobbing because they haven’t slept in a week. You ask questions.
Paste: It’s interesting that a woman experiencing such hardship with a child ends up really connecting with another child, Cal, although years older. In what ways does this age difference liberate Kelly?
Lewis: I love that relationship because she’s, like, looking through a time machine. She sees in Cal things that she’s searching to find again in herself. It’s written so well. It was really important to cast an actor to give Cal all the life he deserves. I love that she sort of sees this liberation in Cal, falsely. She’s just avoiding her present-day relationship. I love that it’s not a morality tale. She’s fucking up.
Paste: You and Jonny Weston have stunning chemistry. Tell me about when you first met.
Lewis: First of all, I told Jen, “If I’m going to do this movie, I have to be involved in the casting process.” I can’t define chemistry; it’s an odd thing. Jonny in real life reminded me of aspects of myself. He also has such a passion for acting and this lust for life that’s really intoxicating. He’s his own thing and he’s really present, and he reminded me a lot of the guys I came up with who were their own thing.
Paste: You had a band for seven years. Do you relate to memories of that in the same way Kelly does? It’s really what keeps her feeling young.
Lewis: I’m really touchy about anything musically related in movies. I love the idea that she was just a bass player and lyricist. I got to write songs in a character. Her type of music was not my style. It was really fun to be a songwriter and submit to Jen. “Moist Towelette,” I wrote with my guitar player, Clint Walsh. We produced it and I recorded it in L.A. The difference between [Kelly] and I is she had [the band] in her high school days. I had it in my adult years.
Paste: Why did you stop music and go back to acting?
Lewis: It’s a struggle to find a balance. I was making a living as an independent musician. I’m not on a label. I made a few records, accomplished a lot, developing a strong live show. In music, I do a hundred different things, [from] leading the band to the schedule. It was a luxury to go back to acting and take a load off and concentrate on one part. I went back to acting because I wasn’t done! Reversely, I’ll go back to music next.
Paste: You’ve had an amazing career, but unlike Kelly, you’re not married or with kids. Was this a conscious choice? Kelly is very trapped by her decision to pursue domesticity.
Lewis: The grass is always greener. I think more than feeling claustrophobic she feels disconnected from it all. That I understand. I’ve been married, so! And I understand what it’s like to have best friendships.
Paste: You do have a Chihuahua Terrier named Teddy. Is he your baby in a way?
Lewis: I guess I’ve become a total dog person! Before, when I was on the road for years, he’d stay with my mom. When I did August Osage County, he came [with me]! I just posted a video of him [on Instagram]! I’m not obnoxious. I love being an aunt and I love my friends’ kids.
Paste: You’ve worked with Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Oliver Stone. What did you take from working with Jen? She’s very sweet but also incredibly headstrong.
Lewis: That’s exactly what I love! She’s going to make a great movie because she is headstrong and she does know what she wants. I had to trust her a lot because my character is really subtle. At moments she’s unlikable. It’s this tricky little tightrope to walk. Should I be more this or be more that? She calls the shots. I was so game to do a little indie. Sixteen-hour days! We all got paid, like, $5!
Paste: You have a line, “I’m supposed to be a grown-up,” in the film. It’s really the crux of Kelly’s struggle. As an actress in the industry with a job that means always being willing to play, how do you grow up?
Lewis: There are many things in life that you’re present for and you know this, any human being, there’s just struggles that are put in your lap whether you want them or not. I’ve had friends dying young. My dad has Alzheimer’s. They’re brutal. But on the flip side of it, I am a creative personality; I live in this other dimension of non-normalcy. I grew up with two artists. Everyone has a different version of normal. With my band, the great irony is [that] I ran a tight ship. I didn’t party! I was a boss! For me, it was a mission.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.