Juliette Lewis: Natural born oddball

After a four-year break from film, the actress who emanates a misfit's primal energy is back in a glut of new screen projects, while also touring as a solo singer. Charlotte Cripps meets Juliette Lewis

Friday 02 October 2009 00:00 BST

The Natural Born Killers star Juliette Lewis, 36, is sitting by the window of a London café and a stranger is taking her photograph through the pane of glass. "Oh my God! Life in the fish bowl," she says in a low LA drawl, with an intense look in her eyes, and then she laughs out loud.

Lewis took a four-year break from making movies to focus on her rock'n'roll career, butHollywood has called her back. She has just made four films in six months, including the sperm donor comedy The Baster with Jennifer Aniston.

Wearing an electric-blue leather jacket and supertight, silver leather trousers, Lewis has a strange and dreamy manner that comes across in so many of her on-screen misfit characters. "I had to give up movies. That's what I had to do. All I wanted was a future that allowed me to make records," explains Lewis. "All this primal energy people respond to in me and my characters is in my music, 10 times more."

But last winter as she was writing her just-released solo album Terra Incognita, the first-time director Drew Barrymore rang her up to cast her in her roller-derby movie. "I had been on the road for two years and my band was breaking up. The spirit of the band was over and I also wanted to make a different-sounding music. This was a very intense period. There I was re-evaluating my future. It was like 'Ah ha! Now is the perfect time to do a movie!'"

In The Baster, Lewis plays the best friend of an unmarried 40-year-old woman, played by Aniston, who gets duped into having a child by a friend (Jason Bateman), when he secretly swaps donor sperm with his own. "It's a ridiculously funny film," says Lewis. "Jennifer has a lot of say in who gets cast in a movie, and she was keen to have me in it. She is super down-to-earth. She's a woman's woman. With all the stuff she has to deal with, of being in the papers – none of it of her own choosing – she really handles it with grace and humour."

In Whip It she co-stars alongside Ellen Page, who plays a rebellious Texan teen who swaps her beauty pageant crown for the world of roller derby. The film opens next week in the US. "It was a big deal when Drew cast me in this movie as Iron Maiden, the wacky star of a top roller-derby team. I hadn't been in a film for four years. It is the longest break I'd had since I started 15 years ago."

Then Mark Ruffalo convinced her to play Ariel, a bass player with a drug problem, in his directorial debut about faith healing, Sympathy for Delicious, alongside Orlando Bloom and Laura Linney. "That was a really scary part that I wanted to run to the hills from. But anything that scares you, in a good way, is usually worth doing."

She also joins the cast of the indie-drama Betty Anne Waters, starring Hilary Swank, in the true story of a single mother, who manages to free her brother, played by Sam Rockwell, from a life sentence in jail. "This cameo part was really fun for me. I wrongly accuse her brother of a murder. It's the ugliest I've ever been on screen in terms of personality. I wanted her to be so disturbing that you could actually smell her."

Lewis shot to fame at the age of 18 in Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear, playing the teenaged Danielle Bowden, a role for which she received a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

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Since then she has starred in dozens of films, including the serial-killer road movie Kalifornia, with her ex-boyfriend Brad Pitt, and in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, playing another free spirit.

Lewis, who was born in Hollywood in 1973, was so desperate to become an actress that, at 14, she sought legal emancipation from her parents, to get around a law stating that teenagers were only allowed to work for a maximum of five hours a week. "It's common ... Uma Thurman did it. You get jobs more easily."

Her father, the actor Geoffrey Lewis, and her mother, Glenis Batley, a graphic designer, who had divorced when Lewis was two years old, had always encouraged her to be "a dreamer". "My dad was lackadaisical on the discipline front. I dropped out of everything at school. It's odd because I'm so relentless these days. He never gave me that lecture you hear in the movies from dads, when they say, 'Don't be a quitter!'"

Having landed her first big TV role in 1987 on Home Fires, and her first film role in the sci-fi comedy Meet the Hollowheads in 1989, by the time of her big break in Cape Fear, she was already in a high-profile relationship with Pitt.

She met him on the set of the TV movie Too Young to Die? and dated him for over three years. "When I run into him, it's like running into an old comrade. Good vibes. He's grown into a fine man and father. A total, super father. Their family unit is inspiring."

Cape Fear was an important film for Lewis because Scorsese gave her a lot of confidence. "He basically validated my instincts and he validated my process and the way I work," says Lewis. "I don't approach anything I do like an academic. I'm not trained and I work with intuition a great deal. It is really important you have a teacher or mentor who validates you early on, so that you don't give up, because I was always the odd one out. I always felt like that all my life. Even in my own community in film I approach things a little bit differently. I'm a bit rough round the edges, and I'm anti well-groomed."

When Lewis and Pitt broke up in 1993, she spiralled into drug addiction and eventually wound up in rehab in 1996. It was nearly two years before she returned to work. She also turned to Scientology, but the door had always been open; her father was one of its most prominent early members in Hollywood.

She went on to marry the professional skateboarder Steve Berra in 1999 – they divorced in 2005 – and, although she is currently in a new relationship, she still lives in LA with her step-brother, Beau. "I love LA," she says. "I fall more in love with it as I get older."

She formed Juliette and the Licks five years ago – "I'd got complacent in the movie industry, and I needed to write songs". Apart from a brief foray on to the West End stage, starring in Sam Shepard's 2006 revival of Fool for Love, alongside Martin Henderson and directed by Lindsay Posner, she has stuck to her guns and focused on music.

Her solo album, Terra Incognita, a collection of ethereal rock songs with more of a psychedelic edge than her previous two albums with her band has been given seven out of 10 by NME – "Our favourite holiday hellraiser is back ... She's unpredictably fearsome and ... we're left wanting to hear more".

But movies go on the backburner again as Lewis goes on the road for the next year. She has just finished a tour in the US, with The Pretenders and Cat Power, and next she heads to Europe, before beginning the UK leg of her tour.

"I've laid the groundwork for a really searching album and I've toured the world three or four times over," she says. "In the beginning, I wasn't secure, because you don't know if people are going to show up or if you are going to sell out venues. Initially there is a curiosity factor because of Natural Born Killers or Cape Fear which pulls in an audience – but that's not what keeps people coming back."

The new Juliette Lewis films will be released in the UK next year

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