Is there anyone more captivating than Juliette Lewis?

The actress’s offbeat career has culminated in ‘Yellowjackets,’ which is returning for its highly anticipated second season

“I try to stretch myself all the time when possible,” Juliette Lewis says of her role in “Yellowjackets.” “It’s not unlike life.” (Emily Monforte/For The Washington Post)
10 min

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — Juliette Lewis’s early years transpired at breakneck velocity. She worked with Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, scored an Oscar nomination, dated Brad Pitt and kicked a drug addiction, all before age 22.

She’s never been inclined to follow a straight trajectory. So, in 2003, Lewis embarked on a six-year sabbatical from acting to pursue music with her band Juliette and the Licks, opening for the Pretenders and Cat Power. “I went for broke,” says Lewis, which also describes her performances. “When I was on the road, I was flying economy, roughing it like a rock-and-roller, sleeping on a bunk, traveling on a bus.”

When she returned to acting, the industry had largely forgotten her. It tends to do that. Even with Juliette Lewis, indelible in Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” (opposite Robert De Niro), Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and Lasse Hallström’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” On a bus, out of mind.

But Lewis is a trouper, nobody’s snob. She took the long way back, accepting what came her way: sixth-on-the-call-sheet roles, best friend parts, fleeting sitcom appearances, Old Navy ads as a “National Lampoon” Audrey Griswold. (There are three; Lewis was “Christmas Vacation’s” Audrey in 1989.)

Now, at 49, she sits — as much as the kinetic Lewis sits — in a Four Seasons suite, no more bus life for her, as a star of Showtime’s addictive, buzzy “Yellowjackets.” Last season ended with Lewis’s five-times-in-rehab character Natalie suicidal and — spoiler alert! — holed up in a motel room until she was abducted. Lewis’s role is a gift, among the best of her career. The second season began streaming Friday.

IndieWire declared, “2022 Was the Year of Juliette Lewis,” and it has a point. She appeared in three television series: as “progressive, sensitive mom” Judy, as she put it, in “Queer as Folk”; big-haired “wild card with a lust for life” fan-turned-costume-designer Denise in “Welcome to Chippendales”; and, above all, as Natalie on “Yellowjackets.”

The first two series were limited, one and done, but Lewis will play Natalie for at least a third season and what the producers hope will be five, the longest acting assignment of her career.

“Movies are my jam. They’re my DNA,” she says. “I knew how good the writing was on the show, but the drawback was that I’m a commitment-phobe. I was scared of the long-term contract of it. You’re giving up a certain freedom of time.”

But she was attracted to the show’s ambition and the role’s depth. “I always want to try to do things that make me feel scared or go the distance,” she says. “Natalie has that range and specificity. You’re sort of in competition with yourself. You don’t want to repeat. You don’t want to have gimmicks. I try to stretch myself all the time when possible. It’s not unlike life.”

Attired in a jean jacket, red leggings and electric blue sneakers, Lewis erupts in fireworks of thoughts. The linear eludes her. Sentences tend to perambulate only to land in fresh territory.

“I’m a Valley Girl,” she says, though she seems nothing of the sort, the daughter of graphic designer Glenis Duggan Batley and the late character actor Geoffrey Lewis. She was raised in nearby Tarzana as a Scientologist, which she has ceased to discuss publicly. Today, she describes herself as “a spiritualist.”

For the uninitiated, “Yellowjackets” is a female “Lord of the Flies” crossed with “Lost,” but also entirely its own thing. It is macabre, moving, surprisingly funny, punctuated with holy-cow, clutch-your-seat moments, and utterly convincing in dramatizing that few things are more frightening than a pack of empowered teenage girls. The series jumps between 1996, when a champion soccer team is marooned in the Canadian wilderness after a plane crash, and present-day New Jersey, as the grown women struggle with the secrets and trauma from their time in the woods.

The adult cast features a trio of gifted, unconventional actresses who first electrified audiences in the ’90s: Lewis, Melanie Lynskey and Christina Ricci. Observing them perform as an ensemble, it’s a wonder no one thought to cast them together before now.

“I watched Christina and Melanie back then thinking, ‘Oh, there’s another odd one, a rare one,’ which I mean as a compliment,” Lewis says. “I love seeing people doing what you don’t expect. We all work very similarly.” She also refers to herself as “middle-aged” and “a veteran,” which sounds impossible to anyone with robust memories of watching Lewis as a teenager in “Cape Fear.” Somehow that was 32 years ago. Lewis describes working with Scorsese and Stone “as my graduate school. Those directors were my teachers.”

As Natalie, Lewis appears in a permanent state of distress and devoid of vanity: rumpled attire, uncombed tresses, melted mascara. “The notion of the stormy waters right at the surface of the character, probably for better or for worse for Juliette, that’s something she immediately empathized with,” says “Yellowjackets” director and executive producer Karyn Kusama. “By the end of the second season, we’re going to have much more insights into the many tragedies of Natalie, how the weight of the past informs the adult character.”

For all her character’s pain, Lewis says, “I feel like Natalie’s the sanest of all of them. I feel like this is how a very broken human being would express herself. If you like some tragedy with your comedy, Natalie will give it to you.”

Lynskey, who stars as Shauna, the Jersey housewife with breathtaking knife skills and myriad secrets, says that “working with Juliette, you’re transported. It’s just crazy what she can do.” Filming a scene this season, “Juliette was so delicate and wounded and interesting. When they said ‘cut,’ it was sort of embarrassing, because I was crying a little bit and I was definitely not supposed to be crying. I looked over and so was Lauren Ambrose,” the “Six Feet Under” actress who joins the cast as adult Van.

On set, Lewis has been known to say before an arduous scene, which describes almost all of them, “I hope the angels show up.” Lynskey says, “It really does feel like she’s channeling something.”

Two ‘Yellowjackets’ stars bring out the grit and vulnerability of the show’s most essential character

“There are moments when Juliette’s on screen and she walks through a room where I’ve never seen someone carve space like that,” says Jonathan Lisco, the series’ showrunner along with creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson. “She has an absolute lack of self-consciousness. This season is going to be an up-and-down ride for Natalie. The challenge is for her survival over her demons. Despite what they went through in the woods, all the women have a dynamic longing for that time, that they never felt more.” Among the producers and writers, Lisco says, Natalie is known as “the hunter.” She demonstrates mad firearm skills.

“Natalie vacillates between explosive rage — though she would never hurt you — and then she’s a puddle of sorrow, guilt and shame,” Lewis says. “I just think the showrunners like seeing me angry. It’s exhausting. I exhaust myself. She’s not emoting a lot of lightness or happiness or laughter.” In two seasons, each requiring five-month shoots near Vancouver, “I think there’s only one scene where I laugh, where she’s having a good time for a minute.”

Lewis compares her often-comic scenes with Ricci, who plays semi-sociopathic Misty, to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” though “it’s hard to say who is Joan and who is Bette.”

She was delighted for the variety in doing three recent television series, to be in demand, “but that’s not something I think I’ll ever do again.” Her roles in “Welcome to Chippendales” and “Queer as Folk” she described as much lighter, a pleasure, while “Natalie is scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

Tate Taylor directed Lewis in “Ma,” “Breaking News in Yuba County” and three episodes on Fox’s “Filthy Rich.” He wanted to cast her in his hit “The Help,” but Lewis was unavailable. (Which part? “I’m not telling,” Taylor says.) “She is a very energetic actress, a very visceral actress with lots of movement. No part is too small,” he says. “I think she is one of the underutilized talents in our business. She needs to be in everything.”

Away from set, Lewis deviates from any script. She’s the recovering rock-and-roller who’s happiest at her rural Southern California home with her dogs, on the hunt for a bureau for her bedroom. Married to skateboarder and entrepreneur Steve Berra from 1999 to 2003, Lewis is single, a devoted aunt. She’s the proud owner of a souped-up Dodge Challenger, not unlike the one she and Woody Harrelson drive in “Natural Born Killers.” She once rescued a horse from “a life of being in the movies,” after filming one with the animal in Spain and Mexico. “I paid a whole lot of money to get the horse into the country. Then it turned out the horse was completely unrideable.” So she had the horse retired to a farm for injured animals. “It was very symbolic.”

Lynskey recalled sitting with Lewis last year at the Hollywood Critics Association awards, where both were nominated for best actress in a dramatic series. (Lynskey won.) Lewis began to worry about how late the event would run, telling her incredulous castmate she had a date afterward. “For most people, that would have been their entire night,” Lynskey says.

During the break between “Yellowjackets” seasons two and three, Lewis is filming “The Thicket” in Calgary. It’s a dark western thriller with Peter Dinklage. She plays a violent killer named Cut Throat Bill. Yes, Bill. Says Lewis, “I’ll look slightly unrecognizable.”

After a role like Natalie, “I would like to play a nice, nuanced aristocrat,” she says. Hard to imagine. “So, maybe not. Maybe a jazz singer.” She’s writing a movie, “an exaggeration of themes of things I went through. It’s loosely, loosely autobiographical,” and she wants to direct. “I’ll probably produce stuff. I love storytelling. I want to pitch a TV show that I won’t be in, about the early punk scene.” She’s interested in “ways to tell stories where I’m not in front of the camera.”

Oh, and she wants to make essential oils. Seriously. Lewis adores essential oils.

“Juliette has such a truly specific and unique take on the world,” Kusama says. “There are times when she just cracked me up with her curiosity and openness.”

Lewis understands the business. “You can always work. You can always get bad work,” she says. “But I have a name now,” meaning she’s matching the performances and roles of her first burst of work three decades ago.

It was never a straight line. For Lewis, that would never make any sense. “But I’ve carved out this funny, funky path I call my own,” she says. And no one is forgetting her now.