Juliette Lewis on Igniting Passion and How Working With Director Derek Cianfrance Brought Her Back to Her Roots

Actor, blistering rock star, and provocateur are some of the roles inhabited by Juliette Lewis. For nearly three decades she has defined the chameleon nature of the versatile artist. Lewis now forms part of the cast in “I Know This Much is True,” a sprawling HBO adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Wally Lamb. It is directed by Derek Cianfrance, one of the cinema’s modern poets of wounded lives and aching souls. The story follows two brothers, house painter and divorcee Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo) and his schizophrenic twin Thomas (Ruffalo). It’s the eve of the first Gulf War and in a bizarre act of protest Thomas wanders into a public library in Three Rivers, Connecticut and commits a shocking act of self-mutilation. Thomas’s subsequent arrest and institutionalization sets Dominick on a painful road of reflection. He comes across a manuscript in Italian left behind by their immigrant grandfather, documenting his own life in the early 20th century. Lewis plays Nedra Frank, a translator hired by Dominick to translate the testimonial and hopefully shed some light on why his family always seems to be cursed.

Lewis spoke with Entertainment Voice about the making of “I Know This Much is True” and keeping the creative flame burning amid a world in lockdown.

“I Know This Much Is True” is quite a grand story, it’s more like a grand piece of cinema, it goes from Middle America all the way to Italy. What were your initial reactions to the script and to your character?

That’s exactly what Derek said. He said “this is a six-hour movie, that’s how you gotta think of it.” I was so excited to work with a real-life filmmaker. My DNA is in film and yes we are all grateful for these rich, character-driven stories on television, but it’s a different dance when you do TV, with the structure of it, the language of it, and the way the directors shift every episode. It is so discombobulating for a person that comes from film. So to work with Derek was a revelation, even in his process. One of his favorite pieces of direction, and I couldn’t believe it because he was a man after my own heart, he would say, “Ok, now let’s fuck it up” (laughs). He meant the scene! “Let’s fuck it up!” That’s rock ‘n’ roll speak to me. What that meant was “let’s unlearn what we think we know,” and from there you have discovery. That was so radical to get into and it’s what I felt when I was coming up as a young actor. Every experience was kind of like that, because I was just learning. There’s that and then with Mark, it’s been a dream of mine to work with him as an actor. He’s one of the greats. I’ve been a huge fan, I know him personally. I was an actor in a little independent movie that he made. We got to have these really incredible, fun scenes in this one where every part of it had so many layers. And my character, when I take the job, I always look to play someone I’ve never played or felt. So visually the curls were a thing for me, I wanted her to have curly hair (laughs). We’re also meeting a person in the most stressful month of their life, let’s say.

As you mentioned, this is not the first time we see you work with Mark Ruffalo. You played a role in his 2010 directorial debut “Sympathy for Delicious.” This is a different kind of project, however. What was it like working with Ruffalo on this series and what was the vibe on set?

The set was like most sets I’ve been on, very long hours, but really loose. The whole thing was just very exciting. It’s like what the [Robert] Altman experience must have been like, or [John] Cassavetes, what you hear about what that world was like. It was like other sets I’ve been on where everyone is after the same thing, unlearning what you’ve learned. I was impressed by Mark because I’m wound a little tighter on set. I never feel I can relax. I guess it’s just my process of doubt. Mark, he’s just fucking next level, so I was a little envious (laughs). Our last scene, we meet him, I don’t think I’m giving it away, but he’s in the hospital… and the way he can inhabit and become just seems effortless. I strive for the same thing. You don’t want it to look tried. You want it to look as organic as breathing.

The character of Nedra Frank is a translator and scholar but not in the traditional way a character like this is usually presented on screen. There is more of a vivacious, colorful spirit to the role. How did you prepare for the part?

Her essence is so messy, and so uncomposed. That’s what was so interesting to me. So you have me, someone relatively unschooled, I don’t want to say “uneducated” because that sounds terrible.

What do those words mean these days anyway?

Yeah! But I have my stereotypes of what I think a scholar is or what a professor is and how they should behave. But the reality was I talked to a couple of women who are essentially competing in this world, who are competing for a voice, who are competing to prove themselves in this world which is another industry run by men. This takes place in the ’80s, when especially there was even less of a place for women. So you meet this girl who has a lot of edge, and rightfully so, but totally misplaced anger and totally doing what she accuses Dominick of doing, which is objectification. That was a funny juxtaposition as a human being, because I’ve seen that. And then the scholar part, I just did my research on what that life is like every day. The stacks of paper, you never really sleep, you’re underfinanced, all that shit.

Looking over your career there are some true greats involved, from Oliver Stone in “Natural Born Killers” to Martin Scorsese in “Cape Fear,” what would you say you have taken from your experience with those filmmakers and how did you apply it now to “I Know This Much Is True,” and working with Derek Cianfrance?

It’s interesting because I forever have that as my formative years. It is what shaped me, those experiences and those filmmakers. They’re who validated my instincts. Sometimes the hunger, the instincts, and all these really exciting feelings of doing things different can get tamed or muted because of the process of the industry. For example television, the structure is very specific and you’re always under the gun of time, which can be the case with film as well, but on TV they’re always trying to pack a lot of pages in a single day. The art of it can become utilitarian in that you’re just taking the page and putting it on its feet. Working with Derek was an absolute revelation and I’m not just playing with words. He brought me back to my roots that I actually didn’t know I was so far removed from. Every so often you get to dance with these creative lights and that’s what this was.

Beyond acting, you’ve blazed a trail in music with your band Juliette and the Licks and as a solo artist. How would you say the two art forms combine when you are making a movie or performing songs on stage? How does the rock musician influence the actor and vice versa?

It’s all energy-based. I did music for the live show, I wanted that. Yes, you can sing and write songs, or can you? But I wanted the live show experience, this sense of community and release. That journey is really special and traveling the world, playing tiny rock clubs and then playing bigger venues. But what’s the same is when I had the live show I had my set of songs and night after night I want to make it fresh, I don’t want it to be roped. The same on this project you have your text and you want to make it pop off and come alive as if it was all made up on the spot. When you have a group that’s all working in that way together it’s really fun. Derek really encouraged improvising a lot, we got to improv. I’m always trying to keep it fresh and make it come alive. I did a Sam Shepard play and every breath was written, so you can also do that with a live rock show. I’ve seen things really polished like Pink Floyd, or Roger Waters, recently, they prep every beat of it. Early on before I’d made music I always used music to tap right into the pulse of a character, through song.

Later this year you have another film slated for release, “Breaking News in Yuba County,” which also boasts an impressive cast that includes Allison Janney, Mila Kunis and Awkwafina. Tell us a little bit about that film and the experience of working with the cast.

What happened is I had just done this show called “Sacred Lies” on Facebook Watch, one of these streaming platforms, and that was a murder mystery, very character rich, female-centric with complicated female characters, which was really fun. So, “Yuba County,” which will be coming out, is by Tate Taylor, who brings together this world of women. And he is a real wild creative force. He’s just a guy who knows every beat ⁠— he knows good writing, good acting. It stars Allison Janney, Mila plays her sister. Allison’s going to blow people’s minds in it. I got to play a character, a news anchor, a very haughty southern Fox News-ish person. If I got to put together all my characters from the last year and a half it would be a trip, they’re all so different.

Right now the world feels as turned upside down as the lives of these fictional characters. Life is imitating art.  How do you think these times are affecting your art or influencing the creative process?

I gotta lean into how we all have duality. I have to lean into the optimism of the cup being half full, because if you lean the other direction you won’t get out of bed (laughs). So in this journey we are, knock on wood, coming out of and learning lessons. When does it end for governments not to actually care about its people or be better prepared? But as people it’s forced us ⁠— my friends, myself and creative folks ⁠— to be creative in different ways and that’s interesting. Now I’m speaking creatively, not just about pandemics. I mean to say in a creative journey any time you can break what you know and get on the seat of discovery, or the path of discovery again, you’re igniting passion. So my positive take is that coming out of this horrifying time period, I feel there is going to be a vigor and a hunger that’s electric, that’s already being cultivated. That’s a positive thing.

I Know This Much is True” premieres May 10 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.