Juliette Lewis on acting: "I'm able to tap into very primal or dark ranges of emotion"

The actress appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss "Sacred Lies," in which she investigates violent unsolved murders

Published March 9, 2020 6:11PM (EDT)

Juliette Lewis in "Sacred Lies: The Singing Bones" (Facebook Watch)
Juliette Lewis in "Sacred Lies: The Singing Bones" (Facebook Watch)

Actress and singer Juliette Lewis, who you'll remember from hit '90s movies like "Natural Born Killers," "Cape Fear," "From Dusk till Dawn," and my personal favorite, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," stopped by Salon to talk about her new project on "Salon Talks." 

Lewis stars as Harper, an armchair true crime detective in Facebook Watch's "Sacred Lies" anthology series, subtitled "The Singing Bones" for Season 2. Produced by Blumhouse Television, the series is a mix of mystery, thriller, and horror. With episodes based both on real life murder cases and also inspired by the Brothers Grimm, Lewis told me that she was very proud of her work playing Harper, who she described as "rich" "quirky, and "slightly masculine."

Harper is a bit of an outcast with obsessive tendencies, including her penchant for constant snacking. Lewis says the role required a different walk and and awkwardness around people very unlike her personality. She says she felt the timing of the show's subject matter, missing and murdered women, was timely and important, given the prevalence of these real cases today across America.

Lewis no doubt inherited some of her acting chops from late father Geoffrey Lewis, a well-known character actor. She described her Los Angeles upbringing in a large and artistic family as rather bohemian, and said that while her parents never put her in acting school and her dad didn't teach her the craft, both parents were extremely encouraging and supportive of her working in the industry as a teenager. So much so, in fact, that they helped Lewis become an emancipated minor when she was 14, so that she could work longer hours on Hollywood sets and live into her dream.

With a Season 2 of "Sacred Lies" in the can and several other acting projects coming up, including HBO's "I Know This Much Is True" limited series, Lewis is eager for fans to write to her on social media with thoughts on the show and its mysteries as they are resolved. 

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tell us a little bit about Harper from the "Sacred Lies" anthology.

My character is really rough around the edges. I loved playing this character by the way, because I just love transforming. I love being something and someone different than myself, talking different, behaving different, but making it look like that is me. She's sort of a hermit, a shut-in. We learned that she has a traumatic backstory, which is why she's obsessed with finding out the identities of these unsolved murder victims and bringing sort of restoring dignity that they lost in death. We find out what drives her. She's kind of quirky and funny. It's all very serious stuff, but all the characters are really richly drawn and they're different. They're fresh, they're not like people we've seen on TV before.

Many of the characters that you played earlier in your career were also very nuanced. And some of them were very violent, unlike the archetype of characters that women were offered at that time.

Nuanced. That's the word. That's what I like. I like all those details of human beings. Because I formed a rock and roll band and that was a very expressive and volatile on stage, but I only played [one role] in "Natural Born Killers" where I was a sociopath and really explosive. I've been in movies where there is violence, but I've been the innocent one. But it's funny, because people associate me with "Natural Born Killers" a lot.

That one gave me nightmares.

That's great. I scared everyone.

The subject matter of "Sacred Lies" is very timely, as we've learned so much about missing and murdered women, specifically indigenous women. I'm of Native American heritage myself and this is very much in the news lately.


How did you research your character and learn about solving true crime stories from the perspective of looking for people who nobody seems to care about?

I've been really aware of that and I watch lots of documentaries, so that is what drew me to the piece. Raelle Tucker, the creator, her pitch was so passionate and she explained to me there are unidentified victims of violent deaths. It's just astonishing. That's the heart and soul of the piece. How does that come to be? How do you come to be forgotten or not looked for or lost? What ends up happening in the story without giving things away is it's ultimately a positive show. This is actually a series that uplifts at the end and gives you closure in certain areas. 

And the other theme is finding your connective tissue in life, your chosen family. A lot of people are not fortunate. I'm fortunate with a beautiful, strange, unique family, but some people are dealt a really horrible hand. This is very much about finding your chosen family and nurturing each other. Jordan Alexander, the other really great actress in the show, she plays Elsie, a character in and out of the foster system. And we're both rough around the edges and we sort of find each other.

Do you connect with true crime as a genre?

True crime, it's weird what people are drawn to. For me, it's twofold. One is, first of all, I like survival stories. There was a show called "I Survived." With that show I just love what people are able to endure . . . and the strength of the human spirit and one's will to survive. So that's one thing. But where it's murdered people, it's so dark, I can't stay in that space. But I am fascinated by detective work and how brilliant some of these people are in solving crimes. And how you have to kind of a sixth sense and that it is a puzzle piece. And these profilers. I've read profiler books and how they can read a crime scene. I find that interesting. And my character, I think she fancies herself that she has this extra intuitiveness to be able to understand the victim and how they got there.

What layers of Harper did you connect with?

It's interesting because each personality or person I play, you're always using aspects of yourself and you could be just blowing that up. So for me, this is the isolation. I think we've all spent times isolating or we don't leave our house for a week or go through feelings of deep sorrow or whatever. I use that feeling and the neglect of self-care. That's what we learn of Harper. She's so obsessed about what happened to other people, that she's neglecting her own heart. And we see her snacking on junk food. She's disheveled.

She just doesn't care about herself, and that changes through the series. But I've had gone through times of this feeling, so that I got to live in. Also, she's very, what we would think of traditionally slightly masculine. I just sort of leaned in. And behavior-wise, she moves and walks totally different than me. You really get to be somebody else, just like in all of your roles.

Let's look back a little bit to some of your iconic roles. Many viewers will know you from your work playing these strong characters. How do you see yourself as an actress by comparison today, and what you bring to your roles?

Well, I think when you have more life experience, I just feel you can play more of a range of people, and there's more to contribute. I also enjoy what I'm doing a little bit more, but I have to temper that word. Because I do suffer from the never being satisfied or hoping it's good enough. You know, all that stuff, all that noise. But when I was a kid it was really harsh. So I just feel like I'm able to enjoy the process. I think also, actually time and experience gives a different sense of security.

The other thing is when I was younger, for whatever reason, I'm able to tap into very primal or dark ranges of emotion. Don't know why, but I just can. But then I didn't know my light self yet. And so that's the irony, having lived a bit. Living through hard stuff where I could play something lighter or a working woman or something that you'd think is relatively simple— that's different with age.

Well that might be more complicated actually, for you.
Isn't that funny? Yeah. 

What's a role that that fits into that category, recently?

I've played all kinds of stuff that people sometimes don't know. They just see what's successful. One time I played Jennifer Aniston's best friend.

Oh, yeah, they have a baby.

"The Switch"!

Was that with Bateman?

Yeah, Jason Bateman.

Hey, look at me.

You knew it.

Somehow, it's all in there.

And then I did this show recently with Jennifer Garner called "Camping" for HBO, but that was very broad. That actually looks like it's just all fun, but that was a stretch for me too. Because this character was slightly super overtly sexual and kind of campy. It was just hard for me to play, actually.

You've worked with some iconic directors — Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese, to name two. What have you taken away from working with them and others? Is there an element to the entire filmmaking process where you feel the most at home?

So much that it makes my heart beam. I also want to mention Mira Nair and Kathryn Bigelow. Every one of my directors I always say are my teachers because I'm not formally trained. And the one thing the greats have in common to me is their openness to collaboration and the way they provide the space for ideas — bad ideas, good ideas. But really they just want you to be the most creative. 

For Oliver Stone, we improvised to high heaven on that show. It was a bit psychedelic. Sort of kind of anything goes within the characters. And so he was really open to us coming up with stuff. "Natural Born Killers," in the beginning, there was a fight sequence so I had to train for all of that, but I would come into him and go, "What if she just sort of is jumping on him and then screaming like a banshee, like a hyena?" And he was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's good. Try that." So you could just come up with wild ideas. 

"Cape Fear," it was before I knew how to articulate my process, so Scorsese knew just to validate me when I needed the encouragement and he encouraged me to just do things differently. I always just did things differently. Kathryn Bigelow taught me persistence, patience, tenacity. She was really meticulous about what she wanted and we would do lots of takes.

I just did a new project called "Mayday" with Karen Cinorre and her partner, a brilliant DP who did "Lady Bird," Sam Levy. We filmed it in Croatia. And it's a really incredible young female cast. I can't describe it because it's so exciting and strange. That'll come out in about a year.

Exciting and strange. Is that going to be your epitaph?


Mine's going to say "Never bored." I decided.

Similar. I never want to be bored.

Let's talk a little about your music. You left acting for a bit for music.

For six years, yes. Traveled the world.

What role has music played in your life? 

It was funny because when I was a kid, there was no segregation of my creative self. I thought of characters in drama and singing and dancing. I was a blend of all these things when I was like eight. And then I got successful doing movies and I had shelved my singing self. And to me, singing is so intimate. It's so close to you, you know, because I'm a songwriter.

When I turned 30 I was like, "You have to do this, it's sort of now or never." And I did everything very grassroots, totally independent. A lot of help from my guitar player, Todd Morris, who was in a punk band called H2O. And we did all these festivals. But I grew it organically from like 100-capacity clubs. That's been a little bit now, like over a decade. I made a couple records, you can find them. 

I know your dad was an actor, and your mom is a graphic designer. You separated legally from them at 14 so you could work for longer hours, right?

When you work really young, I would work with other actors, other teens and they're like, "Oh yeah, we got emancipated because we can work longer hours." I have really funny, bohemian F-you to authority, art is the holy grail and expression — that's what my parents cultivated in me for better or for worse. So the irony early on, is when I started working professionally, it actually gave me a sense of purpose, discipline and kept me out of trouble.

I could be an adventurous spirit and get into trouble. And so that's what was funny, is in my teenage years I started working. But my parents helped me a lot in that they encouraged that. They weren't from academia land, which is not wrong, but they're just a different type of . . .

Did you dad, who was a character actor, introduce you to the craft or did you just have it in the genes?

It's funny because there's certain things I don't think can be taught. The magic of stuff. But we were on sets a lot. You're sort of just around the environment and you could see how productions function. The hours are really long, you're on location. He introduced me to a small agency, but I had to audition. I had to get all of it on my own and that was neat.

"Sacred Lies: The Singing Bones," which premiered Feb. 20 is available on Facebook Watch now.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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