She’s not sure “revoltist” is even a word, but the actress-slash-rocker doesn’t mind coining a new one to represent the anxious forward motion she displays on screen and in front of her rock band, Juliette and the Licks. In 2003, Lewis’s decision to put a high-profile acting career on hold to lead that band as its explosive, wild-eyed singer confounded many in and out of Hollywood. It was a choice even she acknowledges was “totally insane”. But there was method to the madness, too. For Lewis, it was a passion she had to explore.
Now 42, Lewis was still a teenager when she first entered the pop culture consciousness in her Oscar-nominated role in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake in 1991. Three years later, she was riding shotgun with Woody Harrelson on a romantic murder spree in Oliver Stone’s frenetic Natural Born Killers, and her reputation for daring, dangerous roles was secure. She worked steadily on camera for years after. Then came the abrupt halt to become a rock star.
Lewis hasn’t looked back since. Though she went solo in 2009, Lewis recently reunited with the Licks, and has reengaged her acting career in film and television, too. Currently, she’s shooting season two of sci-fi series Wayward Pines in the US, and she’s working on new music.
But balancing these two careers isn’t always easy, and that struggle is the focus of a new documentary short directed by her friend and fellow actor Michael Rapaport, available on Red Bull TV.
Lewis, the daughter of the late character actor Geoffrey Lewis, is between Licks rehearsals when she sits down to talk about her life, work and seemingly insane decisions. Seated at a table in a Los Angeles café, Lewis is a fast talker and a slow eater, showing the same nervous energy that continues to propel all of her performances.
THE RED BULLETIN: So did you feel like you had unfinished business with the Licks?
JULIETTE LEWIS: Yes. Have you lost a parent? Everything from this point on is informed by the loss of my dad a year ago. Time is precious, and I’m blasting through to commit hard to the things I love and can make me grow. One of those is being a songwriter and a live performer.
My greatest loves are the stage, rock ’n’ roll and connectivity with an audience. The Licks was my strongest outfit. After that I went solo – I had to grow musically. I did a different kind of music. Then I felt the heat again. I got the band back together: hey, let’s see what this feels like! We patched up a couple of our differences. Some of the old songs held up and they felt good. I felt dangerous. I felt like I wanted to express that kind of energy again.
From an outsider’s perspective, putting a successful acting career on hold to do something totally different seems a bit mad…
It’s totally insane. But I want to try the untried, which is how I’ve always been as an actor and it’s how I approach music. When I was a kid I played piano and did musical theatre. Then I got successful doing one thing. Part of my rebellion against acting was because I refused to have other people mandate what it is I’m supposed to do or think. Turning 30 was also a big deal. I was like, “Oh sh-t, I haven’t made music. What the f–k!” I started songwriting with different people and then I put a band together.
Did you find your acting work informed your music?
I always liken myself to a bass player when I’m working on a movie set. When you work for other people, you have to make do, no matter what the situation. You can’t quit. But with music, I’m the director, writer and performer, and I’m collaborating with some special people that I love. Being in an independent band has been a learning curve – learning the business and how to be a leader.
What do you get out of music that you don’t get out of acting? Why is it worth the risks?
Immediate expression. You could be sitting in traffic or flying on a plane and feel a feeling. That feeling could start with a sentence or maybe you hear a bassline in your head. You could then go home, write down more lyrics with a friend, record it or play it live.
I’ve done all of the above, and it’s out of necessity. I’m spiritually incomplete if I’m not making music. From music I get total liberation and total expression of whatever my truth is at that time.
You seem to have a particular energy as an actress. There’s that opening diner scene in Natural Born Killers, which is very dangerous and very rock ’n’ roll, for example.
That movie did so much for me in unleashing an improvisational quality and unleashing all my wildness. Oliver Stone wanted every idea you had. In hindsight, I realise not every actress would strangle Woody with her legs. That wasn’t in the script!
Is what you have onstage as a musician connected to that same kind of energy?
It’s primal. On stage I sometimes feel animalistic. But it’s earth and sky energy. It’s awesome.
Why did you stop doing the band for a while?
I had all the things that every band goes through: imploding, unhappy people, feeling burnt out, how rough it is to be disconnected from home for a long period of time. Everybody did other projects. And I wasn’t done with acting. Now I’m trying to do both. I wrote a script and I want to get that made and write all the music for it. I’ll try to live within all my creative mediums – if it doesn’t break me first.
Did getting on a stage unleash something that was always there?
Yes, 1,000 per cent. It’s transformative. It’s a gift and a curse to unleash that energy because you also need it – you miss it if you don’t explode or become a cyclone. I love that feeling! I feel a fuller sense of self. I live for feedback from other people. Life is hard, and I don’t think art is everything, but you can really empower people, even if it only means they thought differently for 10 minutes.
Several successful actors originally came to Los Angeles to pursue music, including Harry Dean Stanton and Johnny Depp…
I ran into Johnny recently and all he wanted to talk about was the music and the band. There are some actors that look at me like, ‘Sh-t, you did it!’ I cut my umbilical cord to the film industry. It’s a huge machine, especially when it’s all you know. Now it’s all about how to persevere, maintain your sanity and a healthy sense of self. And to keep it creative – but also get your rocks off.