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TSR Exclusive: 'Conviction' interview with Juliette Lewis

Juliette Lewis is known for some great roles in great movies - What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Natural Born Killers, and Husbands and Wives, just for starters. And I would be lying if I didn't think that National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation deserves to be up there, especially as my family annually worships that movie so. With the Oscar-nominated actress' latest performance, Lewis dials down the screen time, but ups the supporting character ante in Conviction. In the film she plays Roseanna Perry, a subject in the trial who holds a key to the truth about whether Betty Anne Waters' brother, Kenny, really did commit murder in 1983. Lewis is in the movie for a total of maybe ten minutes, but her performance is memorable after the film is over.

I had the chance to discuss with the rebellious actress what it was playing this character, how this role fits into her diverse filmography, and also how movies fit with her second passion - music. Conviction opens this Friday.

You went from leading lady to character actress with this film.

I think I’ve always been a character actor. I know that has limiting connotations, but I think of it as limiting. But yes, I haven’t made movies in five years, because I started an entirely new career at the age of thirty, call me crazy. But for six years I’ve been making records and touring and that became my bread and butter. When I was starting I really meant it. It wasn’t just some flight of fancy or whatever. So after finding my audience, and really developing that as an independent musician, I started to come back with film with a whole new vigor. My first role back was in Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, last year. Then from there I worked with Mark Ruffalo on his directorial debut, a very small film that went to Sundance, it was an intense role. Then I did a couple of comedies this year, and this Conviction, and this is one [role] that was small but so integral to the story that it gave me the opportunity to do something I’ve never done in film before. I wanted to completely transform, and lose myself so that you don’t see me anywhere in that part. [The film] visually offered me that, and then there’s one scene where I’ve never gone through so many transitions in a short period of time. I went from grief stricken to being vengeful, and being totally disconnected and drinking her three dollar wine. This is a rare situation that you get to make a movie so powerful and relevant, and that it’s a true story. You make your pieces of entertainment all of the time, and so that was really exciting to be apart of. And then this cast, I feel like we’re all cut from the same cloth. Me, Minnie Driver, Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo. It’s been just a joy even to promote it because everyone is so down to earth.

Would you say that you got so lost in the role that you took every part of yourself out of it?

Just visually. Acting is this very mercurial, odd medium, because you’re dealing with emotion and energy. The things that I understand and then can express, but it’s you also become a sponge for characters you’ve seen in your life. This person is a type of person you intuitively know to steer clear of, or not have a conversation with if you’re in a line with them. I wanted to give off that kind of damaged energy that is really unpredictable. That’s how she was. The biggest compliment I received was from Betty Ann, because I never met this woman, and she felt I captured her. And [Betty Ann] dealt with her a lot. That was really exciting.

I was wondering if you could take us into the process of getting into that character – the mindset.

It’s so strange. It’s really about commitment, and surrender. I know these are conceptual things. But first off, you have your ingredients. You go to your dialect coach and make sure you get that accent down. But then, I had the challenges of blending that with somebody who drinks and does drugs. The way they slur when they talk, or when they’re feeling angry things are harder, so your speech changes. That was a challenging part. For the accent, I worked with this really great woman named Liz Himmelstein who works with all of the actors. We listened to tapes from Betty Ann, who gave lots of interviews. Betty Ann speaks her own way, but you just sorta want to hear the cadence and general accent. With make-up and hair, my whole thing is about realism. So they age me, and if I don’t transform internally, it’s just me in a costume. Like, “Oh, look at me. I looked F’d up.” You’re just amplifying different things. You have your own experience, and you have imagination. But again, it’s people you’ve seen at the bus depot. People who are living on the outskirts of society, living a pure and damaged existence. And liars. A lie upon a lie upon a lie. That can make you crazy. That kind of lying and not wanting to be caught. She’s just a really guilty conscience person, and that makes her a little bit crazy. But I must say that Tony Goldwyn was such an incredible guy, because it’s hard to trust a director, but I trusted him implicitly. Because we wanted to make her rooted. In the end, she knows what she’s doing. She’s self preserving, and she’s manipulative. And she’s full of sh*t, if I’m going to be judgmental. As a human being, she’s not very nice. But I could have been bigger, I could have been smaller. Oh, and all of her language is verbatim. It’s from interviews. So her bad use of phrases were what she said. I thought that was really interesting.

How would she have thought of herself?

Well, I don’t think she would have liked herself. That’s why she’s holed up in her trailer, never leaving, that’s why she doesn’t take care of herself. She’s sort of doing a number on her own soul because of the secrets she carries. For empathy, I don’t care about a person being sympathetic. But I have an understanding for where that person is in their life. The truth is that I did think because she’s a real life person, like Nancy Taylor, that they don’t want their lies up on screen for everyone to know and see. But I did think, “Oh my god, are we making her too gross?” And Betty Ann said, “She’s worse.” Again, to me it’s about doing something honest. These personalities live amongst us, and so I’m just trying to be fearless.

Speaking of being fearless, we look back at some of your iconic films like Natural Born Killers, which you’ll be remembered for fifty years from now, and Cape Fear. How do you describe where you fit in with this business?

Thank goodness that people like me out there! It’s really filmmakers that have given me my career, other artists who are looking for something complex. I was just never interested in playing prototypes, and I think that especially when you’re younger you play the girlfriend, the daughter. When I was the daughter in Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR he wanted me to have some depth. But with the script, something on the page is different than what it becomes when you create the character. I sort of look back now and am really proud of for better or worse becoming a voice for the disenfranchised, the misfit, the left of center, the outsider. I thik there’s something within me that has felt that, my whoel life. And whether it’s having these very funny, bohemian parents, I don’t know. But I think I like that I can wave my freak flag. It’s not appropriate for every part, but I think everyone’s unique. You just sort of have to discover it. It’s funny, I actually have in my mind to do one of these typical girls that we see on the outside. They get their nails done, and they go shopping. And you would stereotype them as one thing. And I’d love to unearth the pathos of what is going on with that type of girl.

You just don’t gravitate toward those [typical] roles.

There’s a primal, I think, in my dramatic work. Because then you have The Switch where I played Jennifer Aniston’s best friend. I look for diversity, it’s what I’m drawn to in my whole life. Repetition kind of makes me crazy. In drama, for whatever reason, I’ve been able to connect with real primal energy and I think that’s what people really reacted to when I came out with Natural Born Killers because there’s not a lot of females that show a real animalistic kind of expression. I might have gotten it from my father.

How did Oliver Stone explain that to you?

He doesn’t explain; he gives you freedom. He wanted us to create and contribute. I wrote scenes; I made up my own dialogue. There were no limitations. The movie is just psychedelic. Whether Mickey or Mallory were tripping or seeing demons, he would literally put us in a car and say, “Okay, here’s the scene. You’re driving in a car. Oh, but some demons are going to run by you.” I sort of had to just go with it. So much of acting is about commitment, and that makes a person believe. If I’m going to think “How do I react to demons? Is it real? Am I pretending? Am I ignoring them?” You just go with it.

What made you decide to take this role? And I also have to ask, your teeth looked so gnarly, what did they do prosthetically?

She never got them fixed, isn’t that crazy? It’s so weird. I play a part, and then it leaves me. I can’t even remember if we put two fake … I think we put two fake teeth and one of them was blacked out. The make-up department did such a beautiful job, because they actually put wrinkles around my eyes that are really fine with this fake glue. They muddied up my complexion and then put this stuff on my teeth. It was all really subtle and I just wanted to look real and I think it worked.

And what really drew you to the role?

I think like I said before that it was such a rare opportunity just to be on this team. This team of talent is pretty exciting for me to just be a part of. As a role, I’m always looking to do something I’ve never done before, and that was these kinds of transitions that she seems sort of crazy and she’s an alcoholic, and that she’s a real person who does know what she’s doing. It’s a combination of contradictions. I didn’t know how I was going to pull it off, and that’s what excites me. Tony is a very kind and talented director. He was really cool to work with.

Tell us about your music career for a little bit. What is it that music does for you that acting may not do?

Music’s visceral, and I got to tell you, there’s no drums or bass in the movie. For me, it was all about the live show. When I first started, I wrote a handful of songs. I wanted to get on my feet and running, cut my teeth live. There’s this whole unpredictable element of live music. And with songs, I can express my heart. I can write a song on a Wednesday and perform it that weekend, and record it in my friend’s basement. It’s the ultimate freedom, and I’ve done just that. Just recently I was on tour for a couple of months, a month in Europe and a month here. I just did a show in Chicago at Reggie’s Rock Club. But it’s also performance art for me. It’s just a different medium.

Do you have distinct groups of fans? Like you have fans that love your music, and then fans who love your movie career, and vice versa?

It was a blend. In the beginning, I’m the curiosity factor, and resident freak show. Like when I go on festivals – I played the Warped Tour out of the gate. The Warped Tour is for 12-18 year olds, that’s their main demographic. A lot of kids didn’t know who I was, so there I was just trying to prove myself as a female, playing really muscular rock and roll. I was an outsider in that sense. It’s just been really exciting for me. I’ve been on the road, and I knew I was going to prove myself. That’s where it counts. Since then, I’ve opened for Muse, the Killers, and the Pretenders last year. This is just off touring. But I have to say my audience is the most beautiful bunch of people you’ve ever seen, because it’s all over the place. Young and old, hardcore dudes in motorcycle jackets, gay, straight. So it’s pretty cool.

In some ways, Conviction is a story of selflessness. What is the most selfless thing that you’ve ever done?

Man, to even say what you’ve done that is selfless is sort of strange. I don’t know. I’m thinking of my sister, and what she’s done for me. That’s the other beautiful thing about the movie, is love. It shows what you would do for love. I’ve gone across the world for twenty-four hours just to be with someone I love. Maybe I had thirty-seven hours and I figured out a way I could spend a night with a person. I would travel the world but that’s one small thing. That’s not putting yourself through law school. It would be better to ask people who know me.

Did you feel at all like [your character] Roseanna was conflicted? She could have done the right thing, but she chose not to.

When you’re on that path … I’ve known people like that. You can’t help to be bad because it’s really a self-hating thing. She knows what the right thing is. She does feel remorseful, and she does feel pain. I hope that’s all in that scene. At the end of the day, she can’t get herself to come clean, because that would admit guilt by the ramifications of her actions in the last eighteen years. It was too much of a load for her to own up to.

Have you ever felt conflicted like that?

Totally. I’ve had a pretty peaceful, healthy life. And I mean peaceful when I’m not tortured by my art. Touring is pretty rough. But when I was younger … you have hard things you live through. You feel conflicted.

You were a rebel as a teenager. Didn’t you drive without a driver’s license, and you just made up your own rules?

I think I got it from my dad. My dad’s a badass. He’s also really joyful and funny. It’s not out of anger and spite, that kind of rebellion. It’s more “Why not?” “Why can’t I?” Yes, I was difficult to teachers to. I feel bad for my science teacher. But there are some things that are on the internet that are not true. Like the emancipating my parents, that was sort of a common thing that young actors were doing, with the help of your parents. Different than in the media with some story of someone famous trying to do that. It’s a bad thing. But if you had the words “Emancipated Minor” on your resume you are gonna get hired over a regular minor. You could work longer hours. If anything my parents might have been a little loose in their discipline. God bless parents.

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