Juliette Lewis - Conversation taken from TTA2 - AW 2011
Interview Pawel Kominek
Photography Peter Ash Lee
Juliette Lewis first stood in front of the camera at the tender age of thirteen; what followed was a career of rapid ascent with impressive roles in movies like “Cape Fear,” “Kalifornia,” “What's Eating Gilbert Grape” and “Natural Born Killers,” which have all become a part of popular culture's collective memory. In 2003, Lewis pursued her long-held desire to take a break from her film career and start a rock band, which she did under the name Juliette & The Licks. This second career took her around the world. Between working on a new music project and filming for an upcoming television series, she found some time to talk to The Travel Almanac about the mysteries of the rock'n'roll circus and her travel experiences on tour – and to indulge us in some of her childhood memories.
How are you Juliette?
I'm good, just making some tea. Where are you calling from now?
Oh beautiful, that's one of my favorite cities.
Have you been here a lot?
Yes! I've been everywhere you could possibly imagine, because of touring. “Rock'n'Roll,” you know.
Oh yes, I know. [both laugh] So what have you been up to lately?
I just took on a TV show. I got an offer and said yes. It's based on a the book The Firm by John Grisham, which they made into a movie years ago and are now making into a series. It's really exciting because of what they want to do with it. I've been in Toronto, where the series is being shot, and just came to Los Angeles for the weekend. I'm recording music while I'm here so I'm continuing writing, recording, and trying to make my next record. And then I went to two birthdays. My friend's birthday yesterday and an older sister's birthday on Friday.
So the series is being filmed in Toronto?
Yeah, and that was one of the biggest things that made it a really hard decision because it means I have to live in Toronto and eighty percent of my schedule is now the television schedule. Toronto is a fabulous city, it's just that I'm not near my friends and family and stuff like that.
And how long will you have to live there?
Initially it's twenty-two episodes, so that's until April 2012. It's a very unique situation because you normally don't have a series that is twenty-two episodes long right away, but it shows that everyone is very excited and invested in it. In April they'll decide if it will continue, but then I'll also have three months off, at which time I'll release a record and do some touring. So in April I'll find out if I'm gonna live in Toronto for another year or not.
Quite a commitment.
It's wild. When you get offered a series you have to think in terms of five years from now – that's the potential of the commitment. It's really intense, but not all series go that long. You have no other way of knowing, but I was just really excited about the opportunity and there are actually a lot more interesting and creative opportunities in television nowadays than movies.
That has changed a lot over the past few years.
Yeah, it really has. It's harder to get interesting movies made today because of our economic climate. They just try to make these big popcorn movies in order to make some safe money...Oh well, I don't know.
So will you still keep an apartment in L.A.?
Well, I have a place that I'm renting but my lease is running out next month, so I'll stay with my sister when I come to town to record and then figure out if I'm gonna get a place here again later. But I do always call Los Angeles my home. I used to live in London and probably that's what I would call my second home, city-wise.
How long did you live in London?
For five months. I passed a lot of other cities while being on tour but with London – I did a play there, so I got an apartment and lived there for these five months. I just loved it. I love London living. I love that city. It was also a special place for me because it was one of the first cities, or countries, to embrace me musically.
I saw you play live a while ago in Cologne. I think it was one of the early shows after you released your first album with The Licks. That was really an amazing experience.
Oh that's great! Yeah, Germany is my other love affair. I have such a strong rock audience there. Hamburg is very exciting to play and Berlin is very special. Of course there are cities that are more beautiful and then there are others that have more energy from the people, but Hamburg is always particularly wild.
So how did this development from your former band, The Licks, to what you did recently with Omar Rodriguez from Mars Volta evolve?
The new band...Well, there is a lot of melancholy to the whole evolution, but I've been acting long enough to allow myself to evolve. I don't ever want to do A) what people think, or B) something that is safe. I need to feel a bit uncomfortable in order to be able to evolve. So now I am in a totally new thing. I want to feel good and it all starts with what is turning me on sonically. And right now I am really attracted to rhythm, groove, synthy bass lines...It's gonna be something totally different from my previous records. I'm working with a DJ at the moment, but I can't really say more at this point. But it's exciting because things are coming from beats and these are goals that I had forever and you finally get around to it. You get to complete each thought. So now I am planning a new band for this thing, a really killer soul type of band...Let's see what happens. I think my last record didn't have that much edge to it, or that much aggression, and people really like my aggression. [laughs]
Aggression is you trademark, right?
Yeah, I mean, with The Licks I was kind of riding this feverish wave' I was so determined for people to feel. My thought was, whether you like the music or not, you're gonna leave the show elated or adrenalized. So with the next band I still had that, but the band itself was less dangerous. And The Licks, as a band, was pretty fucking awesome, but we also slowly shaped the sound into that. So yeah, with the new band it's gonna be something very different again.
You said elsewhere that one of the reasons for starting a band was that you wanted to travel the world.
Well, I have this story that I can tell you. I was talking to a music manager and in the beginning people were asking, “Really, you wanna go on tour?” And the reason for that question is this inbred prejudice for an actress. They think they're gonna book a three-month tour and then I'm gonna get a movie and go, “Oh sorry, I can't do it..” That's what they would think. And actually it's because of my work ethic in film that I wouldn't abandon a tour. When you have a job booked for three months, a job is a job and you will do nothing else but that. Anyway, I had that meeting with this manager and said, “I don't think you understand how committed I am to this thing,” and I said, “I wanna go all the way to Brazil.” I just pulled Brazil out of my head because at the time it seemed like the furthest place on the horizon that I hadn't been to, in order to try to make my point. But anyway, four years later I was playing a festival with Björk, the Killers, and me, and that was one of the most emotional shows I have ever played. I told the whole audience this story before playing the song “Get Up.” So for me it's just, the more far away from home I get and every place or culture that I feel I know nothing about besides maybe some stereotypes in movies, I'm so hungry to go there, to the unknown, the unfamiliar territory, and I went to the most far away places from my comfortable American life and I loved it, especially being able to do it through music.
Do you organize tours so that you have some time to discover all of these places while you're there?
In the beginning I didn't. It was all about getting the record out to as many people as possible and my schedule was such that I was constantly working. The thing is, with business people, with your publicist, your booking agent – that's their job – they book press and book shows. So it's not until you step in to preserve your sense of sanity and soul and learn to say, “Hey, by the way, I need some days off,” that things improve. [laughs] In the beginning I was like, “NO. I must work, I must work.” So before a show I'd do five hours of press, which is unheard of. I talked to people who have been in it for a long time, like Dave Grohl, and he said, “What are you doing, you have to preserve your voice!” So I learned it the hard way, and every now and then we do get days off where we have a say, like in Prague or Istanbul, which I really enjoyed.
What did you like about Istanbul in particular?
I loved it because it was nothing like expected. It was such an open and alive city, full of music and art, and as a port town you have this mix of all kinds of people coming. It just has a really special energy to it, and that has a lot to do with music and art. I loved the bazaars, shopping districts, and the people really have a spirit there which is so open and friendly. I didn't know if it would be a chauvinistic society, but I didn't experience that. We had this one experience where we got lost. We had to get to the airport to fly to China. I filmed all of this...Someday I'm gonna release it as a documentary...We got lost in this neighborhood and there were all these kids in the street. The Pope was visiting, so they had closed all the roads down and we were trying to get back to our hotel. Our driver was taking all these little roads and then we just stopped. We couldn't get back and then we just gave in and ate these weird, amazing pastries where all these kids were, and they were singing and playing music, and then somebody who spoke broken English explained to us that in this neighborhood, they were all musicians. There were violinists and string players in this one pocket. So when you're traveling, everything takes on the color of a Fellini movie and you just surrender to what is happening in your environment.
You just mentioned Prague. I recently saw this TV show with you and Crispin Glover in Prague, which I really loved.
That was so strange, right?
A very special setting, yes. What did you think of his castle?
It was amazing! I mean, I couldn't really do it, live there; I like people around me. It's great for him because he is creating a movie studio in this castle and somehow he doesn't mind it. But I need sunshine and heat and people and friction, you know? Prague is a place for beauty and romance I think, but I'd probably be a bit more drawn to Latin countries or Germany, with Berlin, where it's more mixed.
In that show you mention that while on tour you like to color your hair.
[Laughs] It's really funny because touring – there's a grind to it – every day is the same. The routine is the same. So any time you're doing something to break that routine, it becomes a luxury. If I got to do my nails, I would feel like a queen that day – that is rare – whereas if I was at home I would avoid doing my nails, I don't really give a shit about it. But so on the road, me coloring my hair – it's my alone-time. A place of transformation and regeneration. It became this symbolic activity and it involved this, “OK how am I gonna do this? I brought enough hair color, I need a plastic bag...” It becomes a strategy that also takes your mind away from work. I love it.
With all of the traveling you do for touring, do you ever feel like going anywhere for leisure?
Yes, I mean, I hadn't been on a vacation in, like, three years, where it was really a vacation, and I went last year for a friend's birthday party to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico and that was like a revelation. I got off the clock...off the grid. You're not checking in, you don't have to do anything, you're not thinking about time or next week's appointment, your sole purpose is to live in that moment, and Mexico is the perfect place for that. I love the sun. I like laying in the sun, and you lay by the pool for three hours and then you're like, “Oh, I think I'm gonna go to the beach,” and then you lay at the beach for three hours. But you slow down so much, and there is something really incredible about doing that from time to time. So I love traveling for leisure and I don't mind flying either. But it's the bureaucracy, the security...oh man. It's craziness. But I'm a professional on knowing which airports are more organized and which ones are full of chaos.
From your personal experience?
Yeah, especially when you're traveling with ten people. There are a lot of problems traveling in such a large group, with luggage and gear and people would assume it's all first class for me, which is not true at all. When you're in a rock'n'roll band it's economics. You're all the same, wanting the same, and you're away from home so you're just at the mercy of who is gonna help you. When you're connecting flights, when you miss your flights....I'll tell you – at Italian airports, no flight leaves on time. [both laugh] I know it's a stereotype, but...
It's part of the experience.
It's part of the experience, right. They have no lines, there is fucking chaos everywhere, it's hilarious. I don't know how anybody comes and goes in that. Oh, and there was also this train trip. On our way to Istanbul, I don't remember where we were coming from but, there was this fourteen-hour train ride on a train that looked like it was from 1974. Sometimes transportation has the quality of prison. I don't mean to be so crude but it does, some of it. Because unless the city or country is putting funds into it, they are just trying to ship as many humans as possible from point A to point B. This train had bullet holes in it. We were like, “Are these bullet holes?!” I think they were, and the sheets were like prison sheets. You had to bribe the guards to let you bring your gear through, they started to look through all the stuff.
Is that really true?
Oh yes! I can't say which guards; They weren't Turkish. I don't know...We were passing through so I can't incriminate anybody. [both laugh]
What transportation method do you usually use when on tour?
Normally we're driving around in a bus, like nine people in a twelve-person bus, and every day it's driving. But I like it...also traveling with jetlag. It's kind of great sometimes. I've had a lot of moments where you're awake at 5AM and you're looking at the beautiful scenery, passing through France or Germany. You have all these moments of solace when you're traveling. I quite like the bus, I like driving. I do a lot of things driving, even at home. When I drive, I do it to clear my mind. If I'm stressed, I write in my car; I have a recorder.
I hope you don't mind me asking, but you were in a car accident last year, weren't you?
Did that change the way you think about or experience driving?
Oh yes, for two months after that, I was terrified. The problem is, I wasn't driving. Somebody was driving me home from an event. It was this screening, and I had a driver who picked me up. So this guy was driving me, I was in the back seat just dozing off, and then suddenly I got blindsided as somebody hit us right on the side where I was sitting and threw me to the other side. But it was one of those miracles where nothing happened other than a huge whiplash. I had physical therapy for that, but nothing too serious. The paramedics even said, “You're really lucky. We normally don't see a car that damaged and someone comes out as unhurt as you.” So they put it in perspective for me.
After that I didn't leave my house for three days. I didn't realize that I was actually avoiding getting in the car.
Oh no...of course!
And then when I got back into my own car and it was me driving and being in control, I kept saying, like if you're at a four-way stop sign, “Oh no, the car is coming!” I kept having a panic, but now I'm back to normal.
That's good. Okay let's move on, but I did want to ask you something else slightly related.
You started your acting career at a fairly young age. How was that in terms of transportation? How did you get to your castings, for example. Did your parents drive you?
Well, in the beginning – I have to say this – my mom has not driven since 1975. My mom is a very funny, peculiar person and she got in one car accident in the 70s and has not driven since.
She takes public transportation or you give her rides. So when I was like thirteen, we hired my mother's friend to drive me, because she had free time. So she was my driver when I was doing some television shows, which was one of my first jobs. She would drive me in this station wagon that was from the seventies and I remember everything about her...It was always in the early hours. At the crack of dawn the sun is not up so I would try to doze off or sleep in the back seat and bring a pillow. And yeah, my mother's friend, I remember everything about her, because she would play a radio station with all this fifties music. It was her youth, so she would always listen to the fifties. She'd smoke cigarettes and drink Pepsi. That was my point of view from the backseat.