When evil meets innocence alone in the darkened theater of a high school in an agonizing 10-minute sequence in director Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” the encounter may be as nerve-wracking as anything captured on film. In the scene, Max Cady, a sadistic psychopath just released from prison, feeds 15-year-old Danielle’s insecurities and emerging sexuality to hook and--ever so slowly--reel in his catch.
What caught critics off guard in last weekend’s No. 1 box-office film wasn’t Robert De Niro’s benign malevolence as Cady--Oscar-caliber performances are almost expected of him--but Juliette Lewis’ ability to hold her own next to De Niro and shine in what will probably be a career-making role.
“Usually when people go, ‘Oh my God, Bob (De Niro),’ they’re nervous to meet him and stuff because they feel inadequate--is that the right word?--or not as good as (he is),” Lewis said. “And I don’t say I’m as good as him. I’m just confident about my own abilities. Yeah. And I am.”
De Niro and Lewis, who was 17 when she shot “Cape Fear,” never rehearsed that tense scene, which was filmed on location at a school auditorium in Fort Lauderdale. Scorsese used two cameras, one on De Niro and one on Lewis so he wouldn’t have to edit later and interrupt the tension. The scene was shot three times; the first take was used in the film.
The young Lewis--whose two major credits were the 1990 TV movie “Too Young to Die?” and this year’s small feature film “Crooked Hearts"--was required to improvise at one point, when De Niro sticks his thumb into her mouth before kissing her. “Before we did that scene,” Lewis recalled, "(Scorsese) said nonchalantly, ‘Bob is going to do something.’ But he wouldn’t say what. I’m sure they didn’t know how I was going to react, if I would stay in the scene or lose it.”
Lewis did stay in the scene, responding as she believed the girl would respond. After initially pushing De Niro’s probing thumb away, she started sucking on it. Afterward, she looked up at him hesitantly, her eyes asking: “Did I do all right?”
“He put his thumb in my mouth all the way, and then he pulled it all the way out,” Lewis said. “I’ll tell you exactly what it felt like, emotionally--like someone walked up, penetrated you and then walked away.”
Any questions about Lewis’ ability to understand the very adult manipulation and sexual intimidation in her scenes with De Niro vanishes upon meeting her. She’s 18 now, although she went to court to have herself declared an adult at 14 to avoid the restrictive labor laws faced by child actors: “Like not being able to work 12 hours, adult hours,” Lewis said during an interview last week in her publicist’s office in Century City.
Her emancipation was supported by both her father, actor Geoffrey Lewis, and her mother, Glenis Batley, a graphic artist. The couple split up when she was young.
“See, I wanted to work,” Lewis said. “And I hated that they’d say, ‘We lose the kid in five minutes!’ So you’d have to rush, you know. And I’d want to do my best. And also you have to pay a (legal) guardian who sits and basically does nothing. And you have to pay them like $600 a week. Things like that I didn’t need.”
Lewis’ hair is bleached white-blonde for a new feature film she just finished shooting. While she speaks in the laid-back, broken language of a teen-ager raised in Southern California, her mind races too fast and carried ideas that were sometimes too expansive for her vocabulary to express; she often pauses in conversation searching for just the right word.
Lewis was only three weeks into her freshman year of high school when she dropped out. She later took a high-school equivalency test. Now, she wants to take English classes to help her reach the eventual goal of writing.
She said it often “freaks people out” that she has done so much--or given up so much, depending upon your point of view--in the pursuit of her career. “It throws people off, and it’s very weird,” she sighed. “But I’ve just always been that way. I sort of knew what I was going to do, and I wanted to be prepared. Because people just sort of let life lead them, and they don’t make everything happen.
“It used to be a curse. I even told Marty (Scorsese). We were sitting on the set one day, and I said, ‘Sometimes I just wish I was stupid.’ It’s a curse to be smart, because nobody, nobody understands it. And they can’t think it’s possible, that I’m so young and know what I’m saying or know what I’m doing.”
Although Scorsese has been criticized for the merciless violence and disturbing content in “Cape Fear,” Lewis supports him. “We need to see this. The violence Marty (Scorsese) portrays is real. And it’s much better to see that than other movies where they blow people away left and right and nobody feels anything. He makes you feel. He makes you not be able to look away because it’s so realistically done. He makes you feel disturbed by that.”
Lewis was the first actress interviewed for the role of Danielle in “Cape Fear.” She remembered meeting De Niro alone one Saturday morning at a Beverly Hills Hotel room before flying to New York to meet with Scorsese.
“It was to my advantage because I knew that was not a normal situation for (De Niro), interviewing young girls,” Lewis said. “I could tell he was a little uncomfortable. I mean, all the other girls came in with their moms. So I said something to put him at ease. I summed everything up very quickly, meaning I didn’t tell him an elaborate story of all the pieces of (crap) work I’d done. I said, ‘If you want to see if I can act, just look at this movie-of-the-week I’ve done.”
It’s precisely because she has grown up so fast that Lewis feels she was able to pull off her “Cape Fear” role. (Lewis’ boyfriend--actor Brad Pitt, who played the pretty-boy hitchhiker in “Thelma & Louise"--is 27.)
“I knew what I was portraying,” Lewis said. “It’s like, you gotta be past the phase you were playing. You can’t be in that phase or you’ll just play what’s beneath you, what you already know. A girl who’s like that doesn’t know why she feels the way she does, why she’s innocent and insecure.”
Is Lewis, at the tender age of 18, still innocent?
Before answering, she put her head down and thought for a moment. “No,” she said finally. “In the sense that I know there are people who cut up children. I know there are snuff films. That’s when you’re not innocent anymore, when you know the types of evil taking place in your world.”
Lewis doesn’t recall a moment when she underwent a sexual awakening. Instead, she said, “I was always aware of how men can be drawn to women.
“I was like 12 or something, when you first kiss a guy and you see the way the guy reacts, how they get really excited, or whatever. And I’m perceptive, so I think, ‘Ah, jeez, is that something that I’m able to do?’ ”
Lewis is getting scripts, but she thinks people are looking for her to prove herself, as though her performance in “Cape Fear” were a fluke. One of her biggest fears is that she will never again work with people the caliber of Scorsese, De Niro, or Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange--her parents in “Cape Fear.” “Yeah, it does worry me,” she said. “That’s what’s scary.”