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Juliette of the Spirits: An Interview with Kelly & Cal's Leading Lady Juliette Lewis

Despite years of wonderful work, it’s taken Juliette Lewis almost two decades to land her first flat-out great leading role: Kelly & Cal.

Kelly & Cal

Director: Jen McGowan
Cast: Juliette Lewis, Jonny Weston, Josh Hopkins, Cybil Shepherd

Juliette Lewis was just 18 when she received her first Academy Award nomination for her supporting turn in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear and in the years exploded upon screens with ferocious performance after performance, working with some of the greatest filmmakers in the medium including Woody Allen, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow and Mira Nair. With her mischievous look, raspy voice and an undeniable scene-stealing quality, she’s usually the most memorable thing in all of her films. Just last year she brought a heartbreaking sense of deliberate cluelessness to her Karen in August: Osage County where she acted opposite Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep.

Despite years of wonderful work it’s taken Lewis almost two decades to land her first flat-out great leading role, which comes in the moving indie drama Kelly & Cal. Directed by Jen McGowan from a screenplay by Amy Lowe Starbing, the film has Lewis play Kelly, a depressed woman trying to figure out who she is after becoming a mother and realizing she wants to be more than just a wife (Josh Hopkins plays her husband). Kelly befriends her teenage neighbor Cal (an energetic Jonny Weston) with whom she gets a chance to relive her own youth sharing stories about how she was a riot grrrl and slowly becoming too attached to this young man, who is just as troubled as she is, “how many times do you think that one person can have their heart broken in a year and survive?” he asks.

Things get worse before they get better and as the film turns more towards genre thrills, Lewis delivers the performance of her career. The character seems to be borrowing elements from who we think Lewis is and she grabs these and turns them against us, reminding us that an actress’ greatest asset might be her ability to keep us in eternal suspense. I spoke to Juliette about her performance in the film, working with legends like Streep and Jessica Lange and also about masturbating to George Clooney. Because we all do, right?

* * *

Do you think that people will assume Kelly is an autobiographical character?

(Laughs) I don’t think so... but I never care what people think. I’m always fine either way. This character for me is deeply personal in that it’s real intimate and it’s the kind of intimacy that you get when you see someone in their home and feeling lost or discontent, suffering from insomnia... and I loved that about the script and the character and all I wanted to do was honor that and I feel the writing was really unsentimental about new motherhood and about where this girl finds herself. Reading the script I often found myself going “wake up!”, it made me uncomfortable at places and I love contradictions and people full of them, people who are not always likable and you judge them, sometimes you empathize with them and I felt Kelly had a good soul but she does some irresponsible things. I don’t have children, so that’s different, but as far as the music yes, you know, we’re a little bit different but the essence of that when you’re questioning who you are... I think we’ve all gone through that in different intensities and about a year ago I was going through what I called an existential crisis.

We’ve seen you play daughters so much, that it’s quite rare to see you play a mother. Onscreen you’ve been daughter to Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep and in this case you’re Cybill Shepherd’s daughter-in-law. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from any of your onscreen moms?

Oh, from all those incredible ladies you just mentioned? Lemme see, wow. Jessica Lange, you know, when I worked with her I was seventeen and you know at seventeen you don’t take advice! I thought I knew it all and then Meryl Streep... lemme tell you about her, I think people don’t give advice but they lead by example and Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange are two women that make you go “that’s how it’s done!”, that’s how you can continue in this industry: have a good head on your shoulders, have your priorities in place, have a family and be insanely talented and committed and both those ladies are that.

Kelly and Cal’s relationship made me think of Cape Fear, without the murder, but I felt there was nothing inherently wrong about the relationship between them…

I see something wrong with it! (Laughs)

I mean, at the beginning at least…

Well, yeah, first of all I wanted to make sure that whoever was playing Cal was of age. That was very important to me and we had great luck by finding Jonny. He immediately felt comfortable and I liked that he wasn’t intimidated or didn’t seem to be and he has an insane passion and a lack of artifice, he’s really wide open and committed as an actor and he felt special to watch. He’s a beautiful spirit and we got along really nicely, but that’s the thing, when I read the script I thought you can blur the lines by hanging out with someone and it’s those little things... like when Kelly starts hanging out with him a little bit more than she should be with this kid across the street and neglecting her marriage. That was just the thing, when you’re escaping or avoiding something and you’re getting into trouble in a really slow way. Before you know it you cross the line! Kelly just stops being an adult and starts regressing into her teenage self and that’s the mistake.

Have you ever found yourself needing to explain what a tape recorder is to someone, like Kelly has to do at some point?

(Laughs) No! Wait, let’s see, but I’ve had someone explain to me how to use Spotify! I can’t get my phone to do updates! I’m slightly scared of technology, but I do use it. You know what though, when I recorded my album and you wanna take home a demo of a song in its early stages and you’re like “hey, can we burn it on a CD?” and the engineers would look at me like “what?”. People look at me like I’m crazy when they see I have CDs and a CD player.

Your band in the film is called Wet Nap, which I thought was a very peculiar name because it reminded me of your band’s name, The Licks. Was that meant as some sort of tribute?

(Laughs) That’s not my lingo! That’s not my title, that’s the writer’s! What was really fun for me was that I got to play a songwriter in this movie and write in character for the film, cause that’s certainly not my music. I have two songs in it, the Wet Nap single and Jen, my beautiful director, told me they wanted something very '90s, lo-fi and we were modelling it after a PJ Harvey song I love and know a lot called “To Bring You My Love”, but I wrote it with my old guitar player Clint Walsh and we wrote the Wet Nap song, which mostly has lyrics by the screenwriter and then the last song just came out of me, it’s called “Change”, I thought it was hopeful and delicate and I thought this was where Kelly found herself at the end of the film and also kinda what I was feeling a year ago when I wrote it.

I’m sorry but I really need to ask about the George Clooney masturbation scene. You’ve worked with him in the past and he’s known for his legendary pranks. Was the scene in this film an inside joke?

Listen, nobody’s brought that up and I think it’s hilarious because I actually wrote George a letter because we needed approval on that image of him. I left out that I would be masturbating to his image, I just told him it was an independent movie and we were all in love with him and there was a scene where my character looked longingly at his image. I’m sure he would’ve loved it and would’ve thought it was a compliment... he would’ve been fine with it but he gave us approval and I thought it was completely coincidental cause I’d just worked with him in August: Osage County where he was a producer. It’s really funny you brought this up!

Next up we’ll see you in Secrets and Lies where you play a detective, have you received any detective advice from Woody Harrelson?

How cute is that? I love that you’re bringing up all these funny things! All my Twitter people are going, what a trip is it that 20 years after Natural Born Killers both of you are playing detectives. How crazy is that? I love it. No, of course not, I just wished Woody a happy birthday but I haven’t talked to him about his incredible job, but let’s see…Secrets and Lies is a real treat for me because it follows this line of challenging myself in new ways and doing things that you all wouldn’t expect of me. It’s important to me to tell stories and create emotions in a different way because you see, I can be very animated at times but I started this being quite shy and the detective I play in this show for example, shows no emotions, she’s pretty much poker face all the time and I just love that because we all know people like that. I’ve done research, I’ve spent time with detectives and questioned them and realized that they use their emotions sometimes only to manipulate their subjects, to gather more information, but they’re very guarded about who they are as human beings. Secrets and Lies is going to be very interesting, intense and I’m working with Ryan Phililpe with whom I worked with fifteen years ago in The Way of the Gun, I’m just in his face all day, every day because he plays the main suspect. Each episode is very unpredictable.

Are you allowed to discuss anything about Jem?

Oh my goodness, I am so curious about how the movie’s going to look because Jon my director is a visionary, he’s all about the visual elements and the way it’s shot is so exciting and the girls that play the Holograms and Jem were all just so good in their roles. I unfortunately can not tell you anything about it other than that they wrote my part for me, so what’s awesome about it, is that I had just been working and needed a vacation and this was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Fuck, I don’t think I can say anything about it or I’ll get in trouble! It was a role you wouldn’t expect to see me in and it’s a major role and it’s gonna be such a fun movie.

And probably quite stylish too, which reminds me, last year when you attended the August: Osage County premiere in New York, you wore this stunning Naeem Khan gown which was perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever seen you look…

Thank you so much for that, I’ve been having more fun playing dress up and it’s because I have an incredible stylist named Ilaria Urbinati and she makes it all really fun and she has great taste.

You looked great! But please never give up your rock t-shirts and jeans!


* * *

Kelly & Cal is now playing.

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