NEW ORLEANS — Lately, Juliette Lewis thinks about being invincible. She isn’t, of course, as evidenced by the faux fur-wrapped knee brace on her right leg. Following the difficult shooting of Showtime’s psychological thriller “Yellowjackets” amid Canada’s COVID lockdown, Lewis decided to go on a sunny getaway and quickly went overboard physically. She tore her anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus, common injuries in athletes, but in her case stemming from the years she spent doing exuberant stage jumps and high kicks with her rock band, Juliette and the Licks.
Invincibility was one of the thematic words that he dedicated to Cubs the Poet, a member of the family that works as artist-in-residence at the Ace Hotel in this city; he writes poems on the spot.
“Too much vigor and enthusiasm,” Lewis told him to describe why he was now limping through New Orleans, where he was shooting the new version of “Queer as Folk.”
“And lack of stretch, although that doesn’t sound that great.” She laughed, and he typed her poem.
Lewis is 48 years old and has been working since he was a teenager, making his mark on movies like “Cape Fear” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”
“I find myself in middle age, where I can walk into a space and I know my worth,” he said. However, she has had to adjust her limits. “Until recently I discovered that work-life balance is an amazing concept. I didn’t even know there was a name for it. I thought it was something like working until you can’t take it anymore, and then taking some time off to heal your body and mind.”
He was quick to say, however, that he wasn’t complaining about the job.
“This industry has fed me. There is no other place for someone like me, who loves to use the imagination”.
The fact that “Yellowjackets” is partly set in the 1990s, the decade Lewis rose in Hollywood, at a time when the culture seems to be coming clean about how women were (badly) treated back then, has given the program an added dimension. The mechanics of celebrity and the limits imposed on young women —“If you have brown hair, you are a moody and sarcastic teenager. If you have blonde hair, you’re an airhead, a pretty girl,” as Lewis described it—she was almost forced out of the business. (Martin Scorsese, who cast her in “Cape Fear,” saved her.) So far, in her 40s, she has found a role that cleverly questions the expectations placed on teenagers back then, and how they should bounce back as adults.
Karyn Kusama, executive producer of “Yellowjackets,” said she wasn’t looking to hold up a rearview mirror of the 1990s with her cast, which includes Christina Ricci and Melanie Lynskey, but when it did happen, it made audiences relate.
“In some way, we felt we owned their image,” he said of that bygone era of its stars, “and it wasn’t like that, we didn’t own any of that. Maybe that’s what drove us crazy as a culture: we were never able to own them the way we wanted.”
That may be especially true of Lewis, who resisted categorization.
“A director always wants someone who can go to the extreme, maybe even in one scene. She has all the capabilities to do it,” said filmmaker Tate Taylor, who cast her in his 2019 horror film “Ma.” “She can be very scary at the beginning of the scene and you think she’s going to kill you and then at the end she moves you to the bottom of your heart.”
“The way she embraces vulnerability is unlike any actress I’ve ever seen,” he added. “You feel like a voyeur, observing her vulnerability.” He had wanted her for “Crossed Stories,” her 2011 Oscar-nominated period piece, she said, but she was busy touring Europe with her band.
As a performer, Lewis has also had invincible moments: youthful characters who indulged in teenage bravado until things fell apart, often brutally. She now explores that territory again, from the other side, in “Yellowjackets,” in which her character, Natalie, a high school football star, survives a plane crash in a remote area with some classmates. team. The series alternates between the violent aftermath of the accident, following the teens in flashbacks to the 1990s, and the present, with Lewis and Ella Ricci, Lynskey and Tawny Cypress’ co-stars revisiting the trauma as adults. (Sophie Thatcher plays Natalie as a teenager.)
“Natalie is written as this toxic force, I guess,” Lewis said. “But she veers completely into weakness and propitiation around girls, and it’s weird where she ends up. I did not see that coming”.
In long late-night chats, the 40-something co-stars discussed the power dynamics of gender in the 1990s.
“We all share horror stories about that time: the sexism, the misogyny,” said Lynskey, 44, who made her “Heavenly Creatures” debut in 1994.
“When we all started our careers, I think we were sold on the idea that we had until we were 40 years old,” he added. “I didn’t see many older women who had great careers.” Streaming has changed that to some extent, but “it takes a lot of tenacity to keep holding on and believe you don’t have a finite time,” Lynskey said.
Lewis earned an Oscar nomination at age 19, sharing scenes with Robert De Niro in “Cape of Fear,” and soon followed up with a genre-shattering performance as a savage killer in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Killers.”
“It has become an inspiration for cute Halloween costumes,” he said. “Every Halloween, people on social media send me photos of ‘Natural Killers.'”
At 14, Lewis already had an agent and began landing roles in sitcoms. She had been a hesitant student.
“Finding this purpose of storytelling, living in your imagination and having a space for it actually kept me out of trouble,” he said.
That came later, in her 20s, when the demands of fame caught up with her and she felt at odds with the image she was expected to maintain.
“I really liked trying to do things my way,” he said. “To the Golden Globes, I wore a headdress that I bought at a flea market for $15 in the Valley. But in photo shoots I had moments where I would cry in the bathroom from the pressure.”
Lewis developed a drug addiction. “It was hard. I had an implosion,” he recounted. At 22, he took two years off and sobered up. The hiatus hurt his career path, he explained.
But at age 30, she turned away from acting again to focus on Juliette and the Licks. She had been a secret songwriter and vocalist.
“When I hit 30, I said to myself, ‘Oh, you haven’t done that thing you were so in love with. You are 30 years old. What are you doing?”. He spent almost six years touring in grunge style.
“Juliette came in hot, on fire, committed, determined to be a rock star,” said Linda Perry (a member of 4 Non Blondes and songwriter for Pink’s “Get the Party Started”), who produced Lewis’ first EP. “She was not an actress who became a singer. She was a rock star taking her rightful place.”
When the band disbanded a decade ago, his screen career picked up steam again. His co-stars and directors seem amazed at his ability to ward off unpredictability, especially in the grueling business of big-box TV production.
“She’s unpredictable and energetic when she’s working,” said Kusama, who directed the first episode of “Yellowjackets.” “She is one of the most instinctive actresses I have ever worked with. In the pilot, I realized very quickly that she was never going to do the same take twice.”
Lynskey recalled a scene near the end of the season. His characters “have an antagonistic relationship; there are a lot of discussions,” she added. But in one take, “I decided to look at her and check if she was okay, and the moment I looked at her, she just burst into tears. That’s how present she is, on the brink of emotion, at all times.”
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