Juliette Lewis: Juliette of the Spirit

First she caused a sensation in Martin Scorcese's Cape Fear. Then Woody Allen grabbed her for his work in progress. But a big career isn't all 18-year-old Juliette Lewis has happened on lately--as she explains, she's also found her "mate for life."


The itsy bitsy spider has been here. Above me, filaments of cobweb crisscross the arms of a chandelier as though daddy-longlegs were more interested in getting a better view of below than in bagging a decent meal. Down at my eye level things are not exactly moving in the fast lane either. A large-screen, high-tech television set, one of the few objects in the room not covered with a thin film of dust, sits blankly in the throat of the fireplace. A grey cat with the kind of fur that looks like a cartoon explosion poises with a sullen stare, then dances off to the kitchen. I follow it and find Juliette Lewis there, waiting with an apology. "I don't have any sugar, but trust me, this really works," she assures me in a voice that suggests apathy where none probably exists. She pours a quantity of maple syrup into my coffee then motions for me to drink.

It tastes just fine, although I didn't ask for sugar in the first place. Juliette's improvisational hospitality has a certain nutty charm to it, as though she had done a hasty mental run-through of where I should sit, how warm we would be--am I allergic to cats?--how I should have sweetened coffee. The science of making someone comfortable occasionally calls for a few minor assumptions. Right or wrong, it's the thought that counts. "Now, you're Gary, right?" she wonders, leading me back into the chandelier room.

Okay. Sitting Indian-style before me is 18 years hung on 105 pounds, a body that's all elbows and knees and a forehead that's a wide bandage of daylight over eyebrows an architect could use as a straightedge. Someone's been playing Deal-a-Meal with half a deck. "I need some hips--but I should be reaching a filling out stage at any moment," Juliette promises. And when she does, look out.

So often in life, the distinctive grillwork of our glorious intentions gets hammered into a fender for channeling off mud. Then there are people like Juliette. The notion of acting professionally took hold of her at an age when most children are using bad derivations of it to stay up late. At 12 she landed her first role in the Showtime movie Home Fixes. She isn't the first to have decided at a very early age to become an actress and succeeded in doing so, but the casting call for those who have pursued this path with more resolve would yield an uncrowded room.

"I wanted to work," she shrugs. "But that's the thing today. Teenagers aren't allowed to be productive and creative. What they're allowed to do--what's acknowledged--is that they sneak around, they have sex, they do drugs. And they're pretty much looked at as being stupid, like, 'Oh, you've got a lot to learn, kid.' Which might be fine for some people, but..."

Not Juliette. With the blessing of her parents, Juliette obtained a court ruling declaring her emancipated, exempting her from labor laws governing child actors, when she was 14. The following year, her father, actor Geoffrey Lewis (the likable screwup in a handful of Clint Eastwood films), helped her rent her own apartment. If living on her own presented her with a whole new cluster of insecurities, she wasn't conned into indulging them.

"Truth is, I was insecure way before that. The decision to move out and make my life better had a lot to do not with my family, but with the world of teenagers I was living in. I was like, abused, because I wanted to be an actress and make something of myself. Yet I behaved and acted stupid along with everyone else."

Whereas the bulk of her age group spent upwards of four years in the high school fermentation process, Juliette lasted exactly three weeks. There are those who are quick to itemize the nurturing adolescent experiences Juliette allegedly missed out on. "When they talk about that stuff," says Juliette, in a tone that houses as much indulgence for nonsense as an 18-year-old could possibly be expected to muster, "they always mention innocence, how I grew up too fast, how I missed the prom." In view of the contentedness with which she assesses her lot, it appears that all she missed out on was a nickname. And whereas children afforded more extensive parental guidance obsess on the ruin visited upon them by the blunders of their parents, Juliette (whose mom and dad divorced when she was two) has only kind words for her own.

"Well, my parents raised me in a really unique way. They didn't fill me with self-doubt. People have this whole thing with how you're supposed to raise children. You raise them, train them, keep them guarded, you think of them sort of like animals, like the way you raise a dog and train it. On top of that, they're really scared. They don't want to think of their kids as having sex or experiencing really awful relationships--a guy named Buck who completely destroys your little girl's heart. The thing is, kids gotta experience these things sooner or later--if not at 13, 14 then 20 or 25 or even 30--I suppose it depends on how long you keep them in your grasp.

"My parents, just from age two, made me feel priceless, made me feel as though I was always worth something, that I had something to give."

If Juliette did get short-sheeted in the world of conventional domestic gaiety as some would like to believe, Faust his own bad self couldn't have conjured up a more suitable irony than this: Having been delivered from the angst of pep rallies and social studies, Juliette found regular work as an actress playing the very teens she'd left behind at Taft High School in the San Fernando Valley. Just thinking about this, I have a sudden new appreciation for the way Juliette has stationed her television in the fireplace.

"Imagine me doing sitcoms! It gave me money and security, but I was miserable every day. When I had blonde hair, I was the pretty airhead daughter. When I had brown hair I was the homely, awkward, loner daughter. I even did 'A Family for Joe' with Robert Mitchum. Can you see him doing sitcom? People say, 'Oh, God, you've got a great career,' but it took four years worth of sitcoms to get it going. But that's great too--most people have a 20-year career and they never get to work."

Juliette wants to know what "smorgasbord" means. I come up with a definition and while she mulls it over I try to picture what Woody Allen saw when he decided to replace Emily Lloyd with Juliette in his untitled fall project. It may well have been her now-legendary thumb-sucking scene with Robert De Niro in Cape Fear. Sure, Fear's Max Cady is a long way from Manhattan's Isaac Davis, but in the synchronicity of all things large and small, perhaps Woody felt some vague, ineffable connection between eating Chinese in bed with jailbait and counseling jailbait over the phone while hanging upside-down, who can say? Face it, Woody, Mariel's wholesome Manhattan palooka might've produced greater REM in the wet dream, but she couldn't hold a candle to this girl's dharma--one part Lou Reed, one part Punky Brewster, all disenfranchised razzmatazz as cool as sorbet. Then again, maybe Woody just liked Juliette's hands. While the rest of her rivals the poundage of a marionette, she has the hands of a steamfitter. "My hands are androgynous," she says. "I'm so happy to learn that word."

Still assessing her androgynous parts, she rhapsodizes over working with the meister of mortality. "Woody makes movies the way people should make movies. There's no stress, no paranoia, which is great because there's always an element of paranoia when you're making movies. We'd get off at three in the afternoon sometimes, which was unheard of, especially when you don't work the typical 12-hour day, you know? His way of doing things is, well, if we don't get it today, we'll get it tomorrow--so you're not stressed, like, this is my only one try. All my scenes are with Woody--he's so fun, so perfect, I can't even tell ya. I told him, 'It's getting more and more funner.' And he said, 'Juliette, I don't think there's such a word.'"

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