Juliette Lewis: The trouble with Juliette

A decade ago, she had Hollywood at her feet - and Brad Pitt on her arm. Then came a spectacular fall from grace. Now Juliette Lewis is back - and she's got something to sing about, as she tells Nick Duerden
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Here was a time when Juliette Lewis had it all. The natural heir to Jodie Foster's crown, she was a former child actress who acted nothing like a child actress should. She was all spice, no sugar, and determinedly so, delivering a string of performances that exuded daring, danger and an incipient promiscuity. Lewis was never exactly beautiful, but she was attractive in a prohibitive way that made her seem lethal, a bad girl whose badness ran deep. At 18, she'd been nominated for an Oscar for her role in Cape Fear, the film in which she very nearly acted Robert de Niro off the screen.

Here was a time when Juliette Lewis had it all. The natural heir to Jodie Foster's crown, she was a former child actress who acted nothing like a child actress should. She was all spice, no sugar, and determinedly so, delivering a string of performances that exuded daring, danger and an incipient promiscuity. Lewis was never exactly beautiful, but she was attractive in a prohibitive way that made her seem lethal, a bad girl whose badness ran deep. At 18, she'd been nominated for an Oscar for her role in Cape Fear, the film in which she very nearly acted Robert de Niro off the screen.

Afterwards, for a while at least, all was milk and honey: Woody Allen directed her in Husbands and Wives, and the memorable roles continued to follow, alongside Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?), and Gary Oldman (Romeo is Bleeding). After making Kalifornia in 1993 - a blip in her CV because it was, admittedly, rather krap - she began dating her co-star, Brad Pitt. Within a matter of months, they did what all famous couples must do when dating in the public arena: they got engaged.

A year later, Lewis established herself as one of the most arresting actresses of her generation when she played the tyrannically maladjusted Mallory Knox in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. Stone's assertions that she had "tremendous instinct" and that she was "young, mean and hungry" were entirely correct. Her performance was so intense that it would overshadow all her future work. But if her career was progressing in leaps and bounds, then her personal life was beginning to unravel and, with it, any claim she may have had to mental stability. Pitt left her, and she quickly slid into a downward spiral of drink and drugs. Rehab followed, and she was forced to quit the film industry. Suddenly, Juliette Lewis no longer had it all. She was off the radar, and out of view. End of story - or almost.

After bingeing, mostly on cocaine, she promptly did something else famous people tend to do when things crumble: she turned to religion. In late 1996, she checked herself into Narconon, a rehabilitation centre with links to the Church of Scientology, the celebrity religion with which she rapidly became obsessed. Detox was as painful as detox always is, and for Lewis the process was an interminable one. Three years later, now finally clean and sober, she began the slow resumption of her day job. In 2001, she recalled those darkest days, saying: "There were times when I felt I was dying. For whatever reason, I felt so conflicted about myself. I had an incredible confidence about my talent on the one hand, but on the other, I felt really insecure about who I was as a person, and I didn't know how to articulate myself."

At 31, Juliette Lewis now says that all her "little tragedies and war stories" are behind her. "This industry can be full of heartbreak," she tells me, "but you just have to pull on through. In this business, there is always the road to sell out. You can do shitty-ass work and get paid a whole bunch of money, but I'm just not interested in that. I've achieved a certain level of credibility, and I want to maintain that. Sure, I've done some stupid popcorn movies recently ..." and here, you have to wonder whether she's referring to her role as the villain's girlfriend, Kitty, in the fun but ultimately fluffy Starsky & Hutch remake, "... but I've tried not to do too many of those. I've always been left-of-centre, and sometimes casting directors don't know what to do with me, but I do get respect for my talent." She begins to nod her head, and nod it vigorously. "That's the ... yeah, it is ... the important thing."

Today she is clean and healthy, and, like a reformed smoker, possesses the kind of zeal that suggests she has been to hell and back. Scientology seems to have been a crucial factor in her rehabilitation, so much so that she offers it nothing but praise: "It has made me more of an individual [and] revitalised everything good in me." And she happily returns the favour - regularly lining up on the endorsement podium alongside Cruise and Travolta at starry Scientologist events.

But there's another reason for her salvation, and it is one that she readily admits comes cloaked in cliché: rock'n'roll. "It saved my life!" is her succinct reading of the situation. Like Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe and, well, like Jason Donovan before her, the actress has turned singer, with a band that goes by the name of Juliette Lewis And The Licks.

"My whole life I've wanted to be a rock star."

She says this, appropriately enough, while on board her tour bus which is right now pulling into an anonymous truck stop in Texas. Outside it's just endless dust and the occasional cactus. She and her band have been on the road for a week, playing a different city every night. The reception has been buoyant.

"I used to do musical workshops when I was little," she says, "and I was really drawn to jazz. My heroes were people like Billie Holiday, Rickie Lee Jones ... "

This is a somewhat surprising claim given that her début album, Like A Bolt Of Lightning, owes absolutely nothing to jazz. It is punk rock incarnate, and Lewis equal parts Iggy Pop and Courtney Love. She looks the part, too: tiny and taut, with raisins for eyes, her waif-like figure squeezed into barely a rumour of a vest, while the pallid complexion, framed by clearly un-Timotei'd hair, is all very reminiscent of that brief Nineties obsession with heroin chic. When she screams into the microphone, saliva flies in all directions and the veins on her neck protrude like a viper's nest. Her conviction is terrifying - almost, you could say, unhinged. But while the album is commendably authentic, it's going to take some time before she can even hope for credibility.

"You know what?" she begins. "I love the problem of whether or not we will be taken seriously. That's good, it plays into our hands because, let me tell you, there has never been an actor like me doing a band like this. Never! I've had to prove myself my whole life, I've never had anything easy, and I've always been the underdog. So I'm perfectly happy if people are suspicious of us. Bring it on! If the expectations are so super fricking low, then that makes it all the more easy to impress everyone." Here, she raises herself to her full height, nostrils flared. "This band is urgent, hungry, energetic. And the album is amazing. It's a punch in a face. I love it. I absolutely love it!"

Of this, I tell her, there is little doubt.

She laughs. "Oh, I'm cocky about it, I'm f cocky as hell! But then I have to be, because I have so much to prove!" She's shouting now, every word italised with its own exclamation mark. "When I perform live," she continues, "my entire goal is to inspire them [the audience]. I want people to leave the venue with some of my energy, I want them to feel elated. And if that means that ... that ... you know - if that means I have to roll around on the floor and give people the unexpected, then that is EXACTLY WHAT I'LL DO! I LOVE BEING UNPREDICTABLE!"

It is at this point that her manager, Jay, intervenes. He tells her that she is yelling, that she should lower her voice for the sake of her vocal chords. They've a show tonight, after all. Lewis's response to this paternal concern is near hysteria. She kicks back her head and laughs like a hyena, teeth everywhere.

"Jay is always telling me I yell when I talk!" she says. "Maybe I should whisper instead...?"

Inexplicably whispering myself now, I remind her of something she says on her band's website: "I live for the sweat I drip on-stage."

Immediately, the laughing hyena returns.

"I sure do!" she says, beginning again to holler. "I SWEAT A WHOLE LOT!"

This voluble actress's first taste of a film set came in 1975, just two years after her birth. Her father, the character actor Geoffrey Lewis, would take her to work with him, while mother Glenys Batley, a graphic artist, remained at their LA home to tend their youngest daughter's seven half-siblings. Her parents were clearly fond of wedlock: by the time Juliette came along, Lewis had already vowed to have and to hold four times, Batley three.

Lewis landed her first television role in a soap called Homefires when she was 12 and, two years later, she divorced her parents in order to sidestep child labour laws (apparently a common practice among precocious teen thespians). By now, she was acting full-time, dropping out of high school to do so. At 15, her parents already divorced, she went to live with her father's actress girlfriend Karen Black, the emblematic Seventies star of Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, and within months of emancipation from the fractured family home, was arrested for underage drinking.

Meanwhile, her career was blossoming. After a succession of cursory roles in limp late-Eighties comedies like My Stepmother Is An Alien and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Lewis hit her stride in Cape Fear. The next few years brought a whirlwind of critical acclaim, but her method-like approach to the unhinged characters she portrayed on screen was beginning to cause concern.

Her fall from grace came in 1996, when her relationship with Pitt foundered. She doesn't talk about her former boyfriend anymore - the subject is entirely off limits - but her last public statement on the matter was this: "I have never got over him and probably never will. I am resigned to the fact that I will always be in love with Brad."

Later that same year, while filming the Terms Of Endearment sequel The Evening Star with Shirley MacLaine, she checked into rehab for the slow, three-year path back to sobriety.

Then, in 1999 and newly evangelical about life, she met and married professional skateboarder Steve Berra, and began to audition for movies again. But reputations don't die easily in Hollywood, and producers were reluctant to hire her. She only managed eventually to land her comeback role, as a mentally challenged teenager in The Other Sister, when the director Garry Marshall and co-star Diane Keaton personally took responsibility for her. Lewis has enjoyed steady work ever since, but the films she has appeared in have been independently funded and, consequently, low-key. These days, she is as far removed from the A list as she has ever been.

"But that's OK, because I'm not interested in being A list," she says. Instead, she wants to be challenged in the roles she takes. "I get lots of offers to play the crazy girl, but I've done the crazy girl to death. I'd rather not repeat myself any more." To this end, she tells me that she has recently turned down a big part in a potential blockbuster, something that would have paid her a lot of money and raised her profile exponentially. But the role didn't appeal, and so she said no.

"I want to do something completely different, something like, I don't know - maybe a romantic comedy," she says, smiling broadly. "I can do it, really I can! Trouble is, it's going to take some convincing because, you know, I'm the crazy girl from Natural Born Killers."

Meantime, she will continue to act only in those projects she deems interesting. Her latest starring role is in the new "baguette" Western, Blueberry, alongside an intriguing cast which includes Eddie Izzard, French hearthrob Vincent Cassell, Michael Madsen, Djimon Hounsou, Ernest Borgnine and her father Geoffrey Lewis, which opens in the UK this week. And she has two film performances under her belt - one called Aurora Borealis, the other Grilled - both of which she hopes will secure a release some time soon. But, for the immediate future at least, Lewis wants mostly to concentrate on her music, and concentrate hard. Last year, she filed for divorce, and now wants to fill the gaping hole it has left in her existence. She claims the divorce is an amicable one, but when was the breakdown of a marriage ever truly amicable?

"Things are good right now," she says insistently. "Being in a band is just the best thing. I can't tell you how much fun being on the road is. In many ways, I'm having the time of my life."

A week earlier, her band played in Las Vegas. While there, they went to see something called the Ultimate Fighting Championships, where two men beat the living hell out of one another inside a cage. The girl from Natural Born Killers embraced it with a passion that her character from that film would applaud.

"Oh my God, it was awesome, amazing, I loved it!" she says, bouncing up and down. "See, I'm completely obsessed with masculine strength. As a female in this world, things for us women can get pretty oppressive at times, and so I find it really cathartic - and inspiring - to watch men fight. Why? Because it's so pure. The fighting breaks down exactly what you need in this world to survive: skill, endurance, intention. I just love that, don't you?"

"To see two men fight?" she says, temporarily whispering again, and sounding palpably turned on. "That's a beautiful, beautiful thing."

'Like A Bolt Of Lightning' will be available on import from 14 September. 'Blueberry' is released at cinemas on Friday