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Juliette Lewis is on her way to becoming your new indie queen. Never one to shy away from a challenge (note her riveting performances in Cape Fear, From Dusk to Dawn, and Natural Born Killers), Lewis tackles one of her most challenging roles in recent years as Kelly in Kelly & Cal, directed by TFF alum Jen McGowan (Confessions of a Late Bloomer). In the film, she plays an aging punk rocker who moves to the ‘burbs with her husband and her newborn and loses herself in the process. Kelly becomes drawn to the charming but angry 17-year-old Cal (Jonny Weston), her wheel chair bound neighbor, and soon finds herself in the midst of a crisis that threatens this new stage in her life.
We chatted with Juliette Lewis about her experience at this year’s SXSW Festival, indie movies, and finding elements of her characters within herself.
Tribeca: You had two movies at SXSW this year: Kelly & Cal and Hellion. What was that experience like?
Juliette Lewis: It was really exciting to show your work in a venue that would appreciate it. I have a supporting role in Hellion, but I am in nearly every single frame of Kelly & Cal. I was so lucky to work with two female directors (Kat Chandler and Jen McGowan). They both had all the qualities you want in filmmakers—prepared, passionate and incredibly visual. When you make an indie film, all you can do is hope that it gets into a Festival and has a place to be seen. That’s really all you can ask for. When both Hellion and Kelly & Cal got picked up by IFC, it was just icing.
I’m now 40 and I really do think about the experience, not the outcome. Kelly & Cal was a deeply personal and creatively challenging project that I relished. I could only be at the SXSW Festival for a day, which sucked, but I was working on a TV show. I’m just happy for the filmmakers. I really think festivals are about helping filmmakers make another movie.
Wide releases, I guess, are really only important for multi-million dollar movies. Fewer and fewer people are playing in those projects.
Tribeca: I am a huge fan of your music—I even sang Hot Kiss at karaoke a couple of weeks ago!
Juliette: No way!
Tribeca: So it was really wonderful to see you play a character like Kelly with a musical background. Did that help you get into the role?
JL: We really just allude to her music in Kelly & Cal, but it did help me find the character. I had just gone through similar experiences in my own life. The term “edge of a mental crisis” did apply. It happened to me when I was facing the mortality of my parents and reassessing my goals. I’d accomplished quite a bit, but it’s easy to wallow in discontentment. I think that’s where Kelly finds herself when she gets married and has a baby. She has this existential dilemma. She’s living this straight life, but can’t help but think she’s lost part of herself. I’m not a new mom, but I know that feeling of displacement and feeling lost. And sleeplessness [laughs]!
I did write two songs for the film, but that’s me acting as a songwriter for a specific project. I wasn’t doing Juliette Lewis’s music. It was really fun for me to submit those songs to Jen as a musician. She thought they were perfect for the movie. It was important for Kelly’s music to have that 90s/PJ Harvey vibe. I wrote the music for “Wet Nap” using Amy Lowe Starbin’s words. However, my guitar player and I co-wrote the song “Change” that you hear over the credits. It came out of the clear blue sky in keeping with the sentiment of this movie—a mixture of sweet hopefulness and melancholy. That was different for me too.
Tribeca: If you had to describe your director Jen McGowan in one word, what would it be and why?
JL: No-nonsense…or tenacious. Tenacious! I can’t pick just one. She really knows what she’s looking for and she doesn’t suffer fools. Jen’s not intimidating, which is so good because the material was really intimate. She’s totally straight up. It’s really daring to do what you see me do on screen, which is nothing, I’m doing nothing right? However, it’s not nothing. There’s a weight to each scene. It’s a really tricky thing to play. As an actor you have to try not to sentimentalize, try not to pull the audience’s strings. Jen really helped me convey the discontent and disenchantment of the character in subtle ways.
Tribeca: I don’t remember the last time that I witnessed such intense chemistry between two actors as between you and Jonny Weston. How did he come to the project?
JL: Jonny was obviously such an important element. The movie doesn’t work if I didn’t have a co-star who could carry his own weight. He could sometimes dominate the energy of a scene because his character is all external while mine is all internal. Eventually though our characters meet in the middle. It’s really rare in LA to find a young male actor who could act without artifice and be so in the present.
I was very involved in the audition process. That was the only way the movie could be made. I knew I would have to read with these guys and make sure they could play some demanding scenes. It was pretty instantaneous with Jonny. He approaches acting with an unbridled enthusiasm that is really beautiful and inspiring. Both Jen and I were really excited that we had him for the film. Anytime you think you’re discovering new and exciting talent, it’s great.
Tribeca: He’s so terrific in the movie.
JL: Right? I don’t know how to explain that chemistry. I just knew that it was important that we have it, and it was obvious within two minutes of meeting him. He reminded me a lot of myself in certain ways. So it was easy for me to have Kelly revert to her teenage self around him.
I’m now 40 and I really do think about the experience, not the outcome. Kelly & Cal was a deeply personal and creatively challenging project that I relished.
Tribeca: Have you fully embraced the digital age of distribution? Is a wide release as important as it used to be for actors?
JL: No it isn’t. I remember reading somewhere that the film industry is the wild west nowadays. You know, my friend Mark Duplass just sent me an email with a list of dates for his movie with Elisabeth Moss called The One I Love. That’s what we as filmmakers and actors do—we all reach out to communities and friends through any method we have. Social media is huge now. At the end of the day it’s up to people to grab on and spread the word.
You need a place to show your film and you need a voice—that’s what those media lines are for. We need to explore all avenues for getting films shown. Wide releases, I guess, are really only important for multi-million dollar movies. Fewer and fewer people are playing in those projects. I’m no indie queen—the majority of my films are studio films. People associate me with independent cinema so much because the studio films I did were a bit radical. Natural Born Killers and Cape Fear are cult movies, which I’m honored to have been in. Right now in my career, I just want to tell compelling stories and be in special films. I also want to make my music, sell my records, and do my live shows [laughs].
Tribeca: I hope you come back to New York with a new album soon.
JL: Oh I will! I recorded with a bunch of guys from Cage the Elephant, which is this incredible band. If you don’t know ‘em, you should know ‘em. It’s not done, but it’ll all happen next year. [laughs] I’ll try and give you a new karaoke song!
Kelly & Cal opens Friday, September 5th at the IFC Center in NYC. Click here to get your tickets!