Sometimes there’s a subtle distinction between being off-puttingly crazy and delightfully kooky, and Juliette Lewis is glad to blur that demarcation. “I’m actually really easygoing, believe it or not,” the actress, now starring as an offbeat legal secretary in NBC’s The Firm, says to Vulture. “People see Natural Born Killers and think I’m going to flip out. [Dramatic pause.] I sort of relish that.” Vulture is pleased to report that the re-emergent Lewis — she’d been focusing on making indie-rock music for the past eight years or so — is indeed quite laid-back. So we took full advantage of that to ask her cheeky questions about things like crappy reviews, her "Shit Girls Say" cameo, and cornrows — and she gamely answered them all.
How do you feel about The Firm being met with such challenging reviews?
Oh my God, I know! It’s tricky because we, the actors, took the project off of one script, and that’s part of the intrigue of taking this job: You have to act whatever you’re given. Let’s see … bad reviews. Um, ultimately it’s just weird. Reviews tend to be irrelevant at the end of the day, 'cause it’s, “Do people dig it, or they don’t?” So I dunno. I probably would be sad if it was my project, like if I developed it. But I’m not. So I’m just trying to be good at my part.
Do people treat you differently after you became a redhead for this role?
In the beginning, it was like subtly warm, light brown. I was like, “NO! She needs to be red.” So I jazzed it up over the holidays. And I get to joke, “She’s a redhead — it’s not natural!”
Do you regret the do you’re most famous for, the cornrows you wore to the 1992 Oscars?
It’s funny, just sort of part of who I am. Change — I like change. I come from a different school … I don’t know what school that is. I don’t come from a place where I wanna ever be known for the dress I’m wearing or my pretty cheekbones.
We’ve been seeing you in a bunch of supporting roles recently. Was this intentional?
I’ve been an independent musician for the last eight years, and I didn’t act for about four years. Very deliberately, because I wanted to do everything a young band would do, which is basically tour relentlessly until you find your audience. So I’ve been putting my feet back in the water. Also, there’s the whole industry and career maintenance: I’ve never been good at that. That’s not really my bag.
How tough is it recording music while filming The Firm?
It’s a hard thing to find a balance. Right now, I’m in love with simplistic but really banging beats — and synthlike bass. But at heart, I’m a rock-and-roll singer. It’s part of my 13-year-old self who used to listen to hip-hop. Early hip-hop, mind you! It’s gonna be much more bottom end, low end. I don’t know if this is going to mean anything to anybody. Lyrically, I’m ready to rage a little bit, share a little bit of what I’m feeling right now.
About what’s going on in society.
One of the songs — I don’t know what it's called — but one of the lyrics is, “There ain’t no Patti Smith for this generation.” It’s a girl not seeing the power of the past in the present, and a lot of the trivial nonsense that we’re bombarded with. A rant song has gotta be really real. You can’t over-intellectualize.
How did you get involved in "Shit Girls Say"?
This was the magical world of Twitter. I was following Shit Girls Say. When I was in Toronto, I twittered, “Hey, I need to go dancing. Where do I go?” [Shit Girls Say co-creator] Graydon Sheppard responded. It turns out he knew the singer of Dearly Beloved, which opened for me last year. Long story short: I knew he wasn’t a crazy person. So we met up. He invited me to do Shit Girls Say, and I’m so glad I said yes.
Do you feel like you’ve been stereotyped by being cast in so many off-kilter roles?
It’s not where people cast me, it’s where I go. I look back, and I’m proud of my past because I’ve become a voice of the disenfranchised or whatever at times. I sort of unearth those qualities we all have. But I’m open to all these things I haven’t done. Like after Cape Fear, I was an ingénue. And I remember having to prove to Oliver Stone that I could be a killer [in Natural Born Killers].
How did you convince him?
Actually Hilary Swank, when I worked with her [in 2010’s Conviction], she had this great urban legend about me that I just thought was hilarious. She said, “Is it true when you met Oliver Stone, you got on the table and threatened to kill him?” Wow, that sounds awesome! No, it didn’t really go down that way. We had a conversation, and then I started training. He had me do chin-ups in his office. He just wanted to know if I was dedicated. And ultimately I showed him how committed I was. He believed me.
What is your dream project?
It’s the one in my head that I have yet to spit out. I really love Fellini. He always has a sense of poetry, surrealism, but real truth and humanity. Ever since I’ve been a kid, I’m someone who lives in my imagination. I have a story I’m developing. That’s my dream project — to get that on the page, get that out.
Will you direct it, too?
[Groans.] I really don’t wanna direct.
You’re, like, the only actor who’d say that.
I know! Isn’t that funny? I absolutely do not want that job. I would gladly not direct. It’s a hugely technical medium. It’s more: directors that I want to work with. And I work really well with the directors that are known to have challenging reputations. I work beautifully usually with those guys. I neutralize the hotheads!