BY GENE TRIPLETT
Juliette Lewis has come by her Hollywood rock ‘n’ roll wild child image honestly, picking film roles and playing music that are dangerous and different.
Since stunning movie audiences when she was barely 18 as Danielle Bowden in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of “Cape Fear” (earning a supporting Oscar nomination), the Los Angeles native has tackled some of the edgiest characters out there, including a serial slayer in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” a psycho-killer’s girlfriend in Dominic Sena’s “Kalifornia,” a corrupt cop’s mistress in Peter Medak’s cult favorite “Romeo is Bleeding,” a worldly-wise young drifter in Lasse Hallstrom’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” a mentally challenged woman in Garry Marshall’s “The Other Sister,” and a nine-months-pregnant kidnap victim in Christopher McQuarrie’s “The Way of the Gun.”
In 2003, Lewis took a break from acting to satisfy her musical urges, which were just as exotic as her dramatic appetites, forming a band called Juliette and the Licks, shaking up a punk-pop concoction that was equal parts Iggy Pop, P.J. Harvey and ’90s alt-rock, and filling two full-length albums with it (“You’re Speaking My Language,” “Four On the Floor”) in 2005-06.
In 2009, she went solo, expanding the colors of her musical palette — with a touch here and there of the blues — on “Terra Incognita,” before turning back to acting in earnest.
And earnest she is in Tony Goldwyn’s “Conviction,” the true story of working-class Massachusetts woman Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) who put herself through law school and spent 18 years proving her imprisoned brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) innocent of murder.
Lewis is already drawing critical raves for her brief but indelible performance as an unprincipled, low-living woman whose testimony puts Kenny in jail.
She kicked off our recent phone interview by complimenting my “nice accent,” of all things, making me self-conscious about my Okie drawl. So, I asked about our mutual Oklahoma City acquaintance, Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips.
A: Well, you know, I met him a couple of times at his shows so I don’t know him past that, other than I’m a big fan of his, and he seems like a real good guy.
Q: The reason I asked is because you actually appear in the Flaming Lips documentary “The Fearless Freaks.”
A: I know, I remember that show. Me and my sister went there, and we had our own animal suits that we rented. We didn’t know that they gave you suits, so we came with our own. And I got to be an animal onstage.
Q: What kind of animal were you?
A: I think I was a mouse.
Q: When was that?
A: Oh, that was like six years ago. It was before I was touring with my own band.
Q: Bet that was fun. Well, let’s talk about “Conviction.” You were fantastic in this film. With the little time that you were in it, you made more of an impression on me than anyone else in the cast.
A: Oh wow, I appreciate that. Yeah it’s been really wild because I didn’t make movies for about five years because I was just making records and touring, and that became my main bread and butter. So I turned stuff down because I just wanted to give everything to my music. So it was only last year I started doing films again. So it’s been really exciting for me to just play all kinds of different roles.
No matter how big or small the part is … this is a perfect movie that gave me the opportunity to do something I’d never done in film before, which was to completely transform. I didn’t want you to see me anywhere, any of my mannerisms. And also I never played a part where in one scene I had to go through so many transitions or emotions, you know, like between feeling guilty and grief-stricken to vengeful and then being totally disconnected. And then at the end being manipulative.
So yeah, it was a really wild thing to be a part of.
Q: Did you pursue this role, or did they come to you with it?
A: Oh no, Tony (Goldwyn) just offered it to me, Tony the director. And I just make a decision based on “does this give me something new to do in film?” And I felt it did, but I’m also slowly finding my way back into movies again, and I feel like this is a new chapter in my career, or it’s the beginning of one, you know, in my 30s now. This is the most dramatic thing I’ve done in the last 10 years. I was out on “The Switch” earlier this year, which is a comedy, and I’ll be in “Due Date” which is another comedy in November.
Q: What kind of preparation or research process did you go through for this role in “Conviction”?
A: This movie was really interesting because there was a world of research. Because it’s a true story and this person is a real person. I never met her, but I had all the ingredients there, that she lied and she kept lying, and I knew she was an alcoholic. I studied with a dialect coach, a woman named Liz Himelstein, to get her accent together.
But with that said, every personality is different. And a lot of the essence of the part is something that I have to sort of channel and come up with.
So I added the ingredients like the facts of the case. Like the scenes I’m in, that’s all verbatim things she said in interviews.
So even the way she messes up phrases, that’s her actual language. But the way in which she conveys her feelings, that was left for my interpretation.
Q: There was one word in there that was really off-kilter, that caught everybody’s attention.
A: “Railroad?” That was in the script. And I thought it was a typo. And I told the writer, “Don’t you wanna fix this?” And she went, “Oh no, that’s what she said.” And she said “stature of limitations” (instead of) statute of limitations.
That was really fun, and then of course makeup and hair, that was a huge part. ‘Cause I wanted you to see the amount of damage that she’d been through over 18 years. When you see, you know, when you can see a person and you can go, “Wow, where have they been?” And I wanted you to feel that.
Q: I know you said the script was verbatim, but how much did you bring to this character beyond that?
A: Well, all of the behavior and where she gets emotional, where she gets angry, all of that is the way I interpret the dialogue. And then, of course, when I’m getting up to fill my drink, or if I’m being distracted, all those things are my physical language.
But as far as lines, I added a couple of lines but that’s pretty much as written. It’s just sort of the life I gave it is something else. You can’t really write a person’s interpretation of it.
Q: You mentioned “Due Date,” which stars Robert Downey Jr. Could you tell me a little bit about that film?
A: That’s a real cameo, and it’s one scene. (Director/co-writer) Todd Phillips, he just calls me up and says, “Hey, I got a part for you,” and then I come down. He’s proven himself as one of the best comedic directors out there right now, and this movie with Downey, and first of all, Zach Galifianakis is one of my favorite comedians. Downey, I played with, of course, in “Natural Born Killers.” It was a fun day at the office for me with those two.
Q: So are you doing anything at all musically, or putting it on hold for a while?
A: Yes. I just toured the states and Canada in a van, no less. And we were on a monthlong tour and we didn’t play Oklahoma, but I was out with The Pretenders last year and Cat Power was pretty incredible.
And so now I’m on my downtime. It’s the gestation period. I’m going to be writing more, and I’ll probably make another record next year. But now I’m finding the balance, because I was pretty much just making music and touring for five years, and I really feel like I found a strong, good solid audience that is gonna take the ride with me when I do it again.
Q: The music you’re making with The New Romantiques, how does that differ from the music you were making with The Licks?
A: Well, they’re not called The New Romantiques. I flirted with that name for a minute, and then it was out on the Internet, and blah, blah, blah. But “Terra Incognita” is a proper solo album in that it was written with a good friend of mine. I wrote half of it on piano and then (Omar Rodriquez-) Lopez of Mars Volta produced it and he also played instruments on it, and then I put a band together after the fact.
So, the way I approached songwriting was completely different, and I focused a lot more on melody and space and dimension in the music and the songs. Big old guitar riffs and rock drums. Because with The Licks it was proper, straight-up-and-down guitar rock, and on this new record I have a blues song called “Hard Lovin Woman,” I have this really what I hope to be or aspired to be a kind of Bowie-esque, softer song called “Suicide Dive Bombers,” and then your banging rock ‘n’ roll track, “Terra Incognita.” And so it goes all over the place, and I feel like it’s a real personal record. It’s just me and my different musical tastes.
I’m about to release a new video that’ll come out next month. But I always tell people to go on MySpace and all that jazz to hear the music.
Q: Is the next record going to be more of what we’re hearing on “Terra Incognita”?
A: No, it’s funny because I feel like every new thing musically is a reaction to the last. So my next record, I’ve already been writing the songs. It’s all really rhythmic. I’m an explorer, adding more electronic sounds to the drumbeats, and then it’s really hooky choruses. It’s just totally different. It’ll be a really fun record where “Terra Incognita” was more sort of my weird record, for lack of a better description.
It’s not gonna be too long. That’s the thing. I got into this game way too late and I have so much to say and do, so I’m not gonna wait a year.
Q: I look forward to hearing it. Well, I’ve already taken up my time allotted so I’ll turn you loose.
A: “Turn Me Loose,” that’s a Loverboy song. “Turn Me Loose.” OK, I’ll see you later. Bye.