Juliette Lewis won’t mind if you go ahead and ask the question that everyone probably wants to. Is she really crazy?
“I much prefer that reputation to, ‘Is she a bitch?’ ‘Is she uptight?’ ‘Is she boring?,’ ” the 38-year-old actress said in a telephone interview.
From a child actor with early roles in My Stepmother Is an Alien and Christmas Vacation, Lewis gave her breakout performance at 19 in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, for which she earned an Oscar nomination.
Her unhinged rep came from playing a number of wild, frequently violent characters, especially her role in Natural Born Killers, released three years after Cape Fear.
“You’re sort of known for what hits,” Lewis said. “For me it was Cape Fear and Natural Born Killers. ... But what I set out to do from the very beginning is variety.”
To that end, Lewis has demonstrated a comedic streak too, from Starsky & Hutch, Old School and Mixed Nuts, the Nora Ephron movie that also starred Steve Martin.
Then there’s Lewis’s music career – she’s toured the world as a rock singer – her television work, which earned her an Emmy nod, not to mention starring in a viral video and, most recently, a return to TV in The Firm.
On Monday night in Toronto, Lewis gets the career-retrospective treatment at TIFF Bell Lightbox, joining artistic director Noah Cowan to discuss her work with some of today’s greatest directors, including Oliver Stone, Woody Allen and Scorsese.
One question that may come up is how hard it is to be so many things – actor, musician, crazy person, comedian – when the world likes to put its celebrities in safe little boxes. Lewis knows that’s often the reality; she just doesn’t care.
“I never am striving for acceptance. For me it’s about experience,” she said. “Once you begin to worry about how you are being perceived then all sorts of pernicious thoughts will creep into your head.
“Then you’ll get lost in [wondering] are your teeth white enough? And that … doesn’t appeal to me.”
One thing she does not want to do is direct; she’d much rather seek out directors whose work she admires, citing Alexander Payne ( Sideways and The Descendants) – “He blows my mind … the way he captures the nuance of life’s minutiae” – and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ( Babel).
There are too few strong female role models in the entertainment business today, Lewis said. But she is happy to see young actresses like Ellen Page and Emma Stone. “It’s reassuring when I see these younger girls who do have an identity. They have a strong presence that’s all their own, and they haven’t become homogenized by that well-worn path,” she said.
Lewis has studiously avoided that path, drawn, she said, to opposition.
“I’m as fragile as I am strong. I’m as vulnerable as I am invincible. It’s this dichotomy. It’s throughout my work. What I love in characters, too, is contradiction,” she said.
That’s why so many of her career choices have been intentionally against the grain. The way she sees things, it’s not her being crazy, it’s her being an artist.
“When you’re an artist, you’re always trying to fight or evolve what’s in the mainstream,” she said.
In Conversation With ... Juliette Lewis is at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 16, at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.