“This is terrible. This is not how I want to start the day,” says Juliette Lewis, already shooting off sparks of energy as she apologizes for arriving a few minutes late at a Toronto hotel room for an interview. It’s 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 13, and she’s at Toronto Film Festival for the world premiere of Drew Barrymore’s Whip It (out today), the roller-derby drama in which Lewis plays, in her own words, the “resident badass.” Of course, it’s hard to blame the actress for sleeping in. She had just jetted in from Europe, where she was promoting her new album, Terra Incognita, the latest fruit of a music career that stole her away from the big screen for nearly four years.
Lewis says her days as a rocker are far from over, but her moviegoing fans will be glad to know that they’ll be seeing a lot of her in the next year. She’s already shot roles in three upcoming films, including the Jennifer Aniston-Jason Bateman comedy The Baster and Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut, Sympathy for Delicious (both slated for 2010). And if her performance in Whip It is any indication, Lewis still has plenty of the live-wire charisma that made her one of the most exciting — and unpredictable — actresses of her generation. The star opened up to EW about rock, roller skates, and lying at her audition.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With Whip It and your new album both out now, are you getting used to juggling music and movies?
JULIETTE LEWIS: No, this is the first time I’ve been doing both. I feel like a rapper. I just don’t have a Vitamin Water, you know what I mean? But no, before, I hadn’t done movies in four years. So this is exciting for me.
Were you recording while you were working on Whip It?
No, I had just come off tour with my old band, the Licks, when I got the offer. So I literally had five days in between my tour and starting the roller derby boot camp.
What was that like?
We would do like six hours of roller skating. We all gave hits and took hits and compared our bruises. It felt so good, though! I gotta tell you.
Did you do other research for the role?
I was playing the captain of my own roller derby team, so all the girls that were on my team were actual roller derby girls who compete. I would just bounce everything off of them. You know, “Would someone really say this line? Would you really shove a girl in a locker?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah!” It was difficult for me to be mean to Ellen Page and shove her in a locker. Because it’s not my nature. It’s not my nature to dominate and bully.
Your character is kind of a rock star, though. Did you feel some overlap with her and your music persona?
The spirit, yeah. The machismo and the spirit, I can identify with. I mean, when I’m on stage, I feel like a lion out of a cage. Or a peacock, you know? So I understand this sort of peacocking nature onstage. But off-stage, interacting with people, this is not what I’m about at all.
And there’s definitely an intimidation factor. What was your inspiration for that?
I was just summoning my inner dominator. My inner ass kicker. Actually, trying to relish that feeling. But I tell you, the girls I was modeling after were the girls on my team. They have a hold no prisoners, take no s— kind of vibe.
What made you decide to do the movie in the first place?
Drew had me in mind, I guess, for this role. She called me, and she’s got a gift for enthusiasm when she’s on fire about something. Then I read the script, and I was really excited. And then I got on some skates and had to do an audition because I lied — you know, like all good actors do, we lie — that I could skate. “Oh, I skate every weekend!” [Laughs]. Because that’s my job. I’ll make you believe anything.
So you had to practice skating for the audition?
Yeah. You know, I can pick up anything really if you give me enough time and good teaching. I hadn’t put on skates in eight years. But I have the ability to fear not. So that was what I pushed forward.
How long have you known Drew?
You’d think we would’ve been friends all this time! Our paths never really crossed except for maybe at a party once.
She just thought of you for the part?
Yeah. She was smart. [Laughs] Who wouldn’t want me? No, I’m just kidding. I was so excited to support this endeavor, you know? Because I understand about doing new things and forging a new path. I related to it just in starting a band at age 30 — and meaning it.
So why did you decide to come back to movies now?
Yeah, I don’t care care whatever labels they use. “Comeback.” Because it had been four years. It’s the longest time I’ve ever taken off making a movie since I started them 15 years ago. Why now? Because I had firmly established an incredible audience all over the world with my music and it took me four years to do that.
Did you always know you’d come back to acting?
Yeah, for sure. I’m like in my early 30s. Well, then. Now I’m like 36. But no, I never thought for a second that what I’ve done in film would be complete.
What goals do you still have for yourself in movies?
It’s really to associate myself with avant-garde filmmakers or people who are trying to do something special within the medium. I’m not in it to pay my bills or to do, you know, light fare, something that’s easily digestible.
Has Hollywood changed since you’ve been gone?
Oh, no. It’s all the same game.
How have you changed?
How have I changed? I don’t know. I just have a different vigor and insouciance in my approach these days. I’m actually less cynical, oddly enough.
That’s supposed to increase with age!
Yeah, exactly! It’s weird. I’m less cynical. I love the process of working with a filmmaker and the writers and the actors. Because in my other work, I wear all the hats. Do you know what I mean? I make the records — I mean, with a producer — but I oversee the artwork, the track listing, my t-shirt designs, the live show, the songs. It’s a lot of pressure sometimes. So it’s actually a relief and a release to make movies. It’s funny.
Photo credit: Darren Michaels