Juliette Lewis worked with Martin Scorsese, dated Brad Pitt and was nominated for an Oscar, all before her 21st birthday. But the actress who embodied messy ‘90s youth in films such as “Natural Born Killers” and “Kalifornia” recoiled from the limelight in her early 20s to deal with drug addiction and a rocky relationship with fame.
Now the 41-year-old native Angeleno is back in the fold, discussing her career reboot in a Los Feliz diner where it seems everyone in the thirtysomething crowd recognizes her. The casual, talkative brunet is the antithesis of her new role as the stoic, suit-wearing detective in the ABC series “Secrets & Lies” debuting March 1. The challenging venture is one of many that now include Lewis’ foray into music as an indie-rock singer, and her gradual reentry back into film.
You rose to great heights in your midteens with films like “Cape Fear.” Since recently returning in films such as “August: Osage County,” what’s been the reaction?
In movieland, they were like, wait a second. I thought you were done with us? No, I thought you were done with me. It becomes like this conversation with an ex-lover: Hey, we had a good thing going, let’s do this again.
Music has played a big role in your return to the public eye.
I wanted to break the preciousness of what I call pedestal culture, which is fame culture, where they put you in a shiny box and you’re all saccharine sweet. I’m not like that, but coming from movies, people keep wanting to push that on you. So in my live rock-and-roll shows, I couldn’t have been more in-your-face, aggressive, confrontational. Even my look was deliberately unpolished. I just wanted to be what I was — a raw, expressive force. Sweaty and real.
Andrea Cornell, the character you play in “Secrets & Lies,” is so reserved. She’s the polar opposite of the wild girl you’re often thought to be.
Right. She’s unreadable, poker-faced. Per [executive producer] Barbie Kligman, Andrea’s supposed to be the smartest person in the room at all times. If she’s saying something out of place, it’s because she’s 10 steps ahead.
Was it hard to pull off?
Yes. It’s never a pleasant ride. It’s never easy. Acting. But this is one of the more complicated things I’ve done.
Are there other actors you look to for guidance?
When I worked with Meryl Streep it was like, [exhale] so that’s how it’s done! That’s how you thrive in this field with grace, intelligence and integrity. Be down-to-earth, be a mother. She’s a rare force of nature. She makes me hopeful. You don’t have to be a Frankensteined, sad, carved-up woman with no soul.
Your dad was an actor, wasn’t he?
Yes, a character actor, so we were good with money, then not so good. Sometimes we had Christmas presents, sometimes we didn’t. I grew up between ... apartments in Hollywood and better places in the Valley.
Clearly that bumpy ride didn’t scare you off.
Dad and Mom always gave me the idea that you go into it if you like storytelling or live in your imagination, which I did. Artistic expression was almost akin to spiritualism in our family.
The image of you is as a reckless, wild teenager — was that true or just bolstered by the roles you played in your teens?
The irony is that acting young kept me out of trouble, giving me a sense of focus and purpose. I had a penchant for adventure. [Laughs.] I was going through your standard identity crisis when I hit 13. Once I understood I could do that in storytelling, I developed an empathy with outsiders and that informed my acting. From that I carved some weird path as the Weird One. The Alternative Girl.
Then you became famous for it.
When I lost my anonymity at 19, that was not a good thing for my frame of mind. I would not wish that upon anyone. I went from a sensitive introvert to. ... I loved being invisible so I could people-watch. I loved disappearing within characters, so losing my anonymity did quite a number on me. Today these young people are conditioned, media trained. I’m a different breed.
At 20 I took time off. Success becomes your imprisonment. I had a drug problem for like two years and not when people thought I had one. Not when I was nominated for an Oscar. That was just me being eccentric.
And your life moved on, obviously, because here you are.
Right, at 30, I started that long, slow adventurous project of being an independent rock and roll band, then I slowly came back to movies. It was challenging.
What’s been a high point on this side of your career?
“August: Osage County” was huge with Julia Roberts and Meryl two years ago. Right before that was with Hilary Swank [“Conviction”], where I did a tiny cameo. Writers said nice things about me. We connected.
And what about being out there now? It’s definitely not as high profile, but how do you feel?
I relish my freedom. But even with media, with [paparazzi] who meet me at the airport or outside some restaurant, I talk to them so straight like people I went to school with. We’re not going to play this game that I’m living behind some glass barricade.
You are still making records and doing shows. Is there a different dynamic there?
When I toured I refused to have security, and knock on wood [knocks on table], I didn’t need it. In certain situations you do, though, and I struggle with this in myself. I have to be practical with this odd business I’ve chosen, but there’s also this daredevil defiant one part of me. I refuse to alter my normalcy or the privilege of just enjoying the fresh air.
I’ve read you are a Scientologist. Is that true, and if so, that’s another stigma you likely contend with.
I’ve done things within Scientology that I’ve found useful, but it’s very much a thing that you use within your life like a lot of self-help movements, or 12-step programs, or crystal healing, or whatever. Even though [bad] things are written about Scientology that could be very real for another person, it’s not my experience. I have to have freedom of expression, choice, religion. I like my rights.
And you still live here in L.A.?
Yes. I love California living. I’ve fallen in love with it more as I’ve traveled the world and come back to it. I always thought I would leave it, but I adore the grooviness here. I love the trees. ... Sorry, sometimes my sentences are curvy and long-winded, so I hope you do a good job of navigating them.
Don’t worry, I just interviewed Chuck D [of Public Enemy], who speaks in wonderful riddles. That worked out fine.
No! Really? I’m in good company. Chuck D followed me on Twitter. When I found that out I was like ‘Yes! I’ve made it!’ Chuck D is following me. It’s those moments that make life amazing.