Juliette Lewis reveals the secret to scene-stealing: Risk failure 'on a huge scale'

Lorraine Ali
Juliette Lewis, right, with Mark Ruffalo in HBO's "I Know This Much Is True."  (Atsushi Nishijima/HBO)

Juliette Lewis first turned heads when she garnered Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, at age 18, for her role as a naive teen in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 film “Cape Fear.” Since then, the 46-year-old actress has portrayed a multitude of memorable characters in film and TV, from the stone-cold psychopath of Oliver Stone’s 1994 film “Natural Born Killers” to an eccentric reiki healer in HBO’s 2018 series “Camping.”

Now she’s playing troubled grad student Nedra Frank in HBO’s limited drama “I Know This Much is True.” The miniseries, which follows the parallel lives of identical twins Dominick and Thomas Birdsey (both played by Mark Ruffalo), is a heartbreaking story of fierce brotherly love and crippling family secrets. The unstable Frank rattles Dominick when she’s hired to translate his Italian grandfather’s story, changing his life and that of his brother, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. Lewis, of course, embraces her supporting role as eccentric disrupter. Expect to see her next as a “Fox News-like” anchor in the film “Breaking News in Yuba County.”

Lewis discussed acting, acting out and when to shift one’s focus away from all the drama, as well as what’s up with her band, Juliette and the Licks. The following interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

Juliette Lewis: I speak in long rambling sentences that I hope you will make work.

I will do my best. Thank God for digital recorders.

Lewis: I remember being younger and reading interviews people had done with me and being like, "I don't speak that way!" But don’t worry. I was married to the way I said things back then. Not now.

You’ve been in dozens of films and TV shows dating back to the 1980s, yet you always manage to choose unique roles.

Lewis: My hope is that I'm never playing the same person, but you're always left with the same feeling like, "Oh, that was a Juliette Lewis role. Only she could play that!" Not so [laughs], but I'm glad if you read it that way. It’s about making daring choices or art. When you choose something that’s potentially disastrous or humiliating, that's when you're striving for greatness. It's the potential to succeed or fail on a huge scale.

Juliette Lewis gives a frantic performance of "Stand Back" during Fleetwood Mac Fest at the Fonda Theater on Feb. 10, 2016. Read the review.  (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Nedra is certainly a memorable character. She’s a game-changer and an unholy mess.

Lewis: It’s a smaller part, but it serves as a bigger piece [in] the story. Dominick is trying to uncover his family history and mythology, then has a bizarre occurrence with Nedra. She comes into the story at a really stressful point. I wanted to give it that energy of meeting someone at the worst time; like during the most disastrous week you’ve had in the last five years. Here it is! She’s an academic who tries to be highbrow but also has a chip on her shoulder. They meet under professional circumstances, but then we watch her slowly explode all her neurosis onto him.

It’s phenomenal when Nedra shows up at his home, unannounced, high, ends up dancing in his living room, tries to seduce him, then accuses him of coming on to her. She's so convincingly out of control.

Lewis: Well, that's the best art, right? You want to make it seem like they just made all that stuff up on the fly. Like it just happened. We had happy moments of discovery and happy accidents like that on set. Like Nedra goes into the bathroom, but the door locked by accident. And so that became a thing, like "You locked the door!" That wasn’t written [in the script]. The dancing, though, you lean on your director. It's like, "How buzzed do you want me to be?" Derek [Cianfrance] said, "Give it to me, then we'll decide."

The series, which based on a Wally Lamb novel, is beautifully written and directed by Cianfrance. It rolls out like a film.

Lewis: It’s really rare today to come on to a set and work with people that are into the process of discovery, because everything is now a machine. Time is money and all of that. Derek was into discovering things that you couldn't premeditate. It was really reinvigorating. It reminded me of jobs when I was coming up, when there's so much joy in the [risk] of, 'Oh, yeah! Let’s just try that!

Which productions are you referring to? Because you’ve been in so many — “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “August: Osage County.”

Lewis: It reminded me of a Scorsese set or Oliver Stone or Lasse Hallström. Kathryn Bigelow, who was very structured, but in a different way. Mira Nair, where you're just you're going to roll with the emotionality of the scene and let the cameras follow. Derek said, "Just know, we are making a six-hour movie." Which means it has all the flavor and feeling of cinema. Normally you don't have one director for all the episodes. But with Derek, it was just radical. One of his directions was, "OK, now let's [mess] it up.' He's rock and roll. He's punk. And he’s intelligent. If most people did that, it’d be a disaster.

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in 'Natural Born Killers', 1994. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)  (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Tackling mental illness on screen is difficult, but the series manages it with respect and empathy.

Lewis: It's so great the way Dominick, who's the more "functioning" brother, understands his brother's plight, his mental illness. He gives his brother such compassion and understands what's upsetting him. Even the gift of understanding in and of itself can quiet someone in a [volatile] moment, rather than judging them, like, "What are you talking about? No, that's not real." Offering someone the idea that what they’re feeling, seeing and hearing is valid is everything. And Mark playing twins? It's just so ambitious.

What is it like trying to work right now while sheltering at home?

Lewis: At first we we're all shell-shocked. Hunker down! And then you realize what can be managed from home. I’m doing a lot of things through technology, which is, well ... I always took breaks from my phone, from news, from all this stuff before this happened. Health-wise, I don't like to be married to a device. I’m married now, but I still try to take breaks...

There's a lot of animated series work and podcast series work, dramatic stories. I just booked something that'll be a dramatic podcast story. She's a real character, Southern. And it's a true Hollywood murder story.

It sounds like you're coping with lockdown fairly well. But do you worry about what comes next?

Lewis: I learned this phrase the other day: "Don't future surf." So I try not to go down a rabbit hole like, "In a year we're going to be social distancing and it's all over for us, and me, and movie theaters. This is the nail in the coffin!" I try not to get too doom and gloom because I think we will readjust and figure it out.

In general though, are you picky about the roles you choose?

Lewis: There are lots of things I say no to because it's an imitation of something I've already done. I don't want to do that again. And as you get older, you're really looking for an experience rather than an outcome, like "If I do this, it'll give me that." Now it’s about trying to enjoy the process.

Meryl Streep, left, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis star in "August: Osage County."  (Claire Folger / The Weinstein Co.)

Juliette and the Licks obviously can’t perform right now. What are you doing for music?

Lewis: Argh. I'm trying. I got to play with my friend. We just did a cover and it was like "Ah, this feeling! I remember this feeling." We did a cover of "House of the Rising Sun." I'm so out of practice so I didn't post it. I want it to be better. But it felt good to do. Before all this happened I was just trying to write some songs. Someday I will get back on stage to do live music.

What else do you have on the horizon?

Lewis: I did a film with Tate Taylor called “Breaking News in Yuba County.” It has a cast of incredible women: Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Awkwafina. I play a Southern Fox News-ish anchor. Brace yourself for this visual: a blond bob, brightly colored, form-fitting dresses. Allison plays a low-self-esteem, meek woman who aspires to be a news anchor. So that that'll come out... soon. Yay for streaming services.

I can't wait to see you as a Megyn Kelly type.

Lewis: The hair alone is worth it.