Everyone loves Juliette Lewis
Finally, I got to meet Juliette Lewis. “I hate to say this,” said Juliette Lewis, “but every movie, I think to myself, ‘I’ve got to give this up. I’m done.’”
Thank goodness she pushed through because she is an integral part of the dark-comedy drama “August: Osage County.” The screenplay was written by Tracy Letts, adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It’s a close look at three sisters played by Lewis, Julia Roberts and Julianne Nicholson. Meryl Streep, a sure bet for an Oscar nom, plays Violet Weston, the drug-addled matriarch who should’ve had her mouth nailed shut.
Most family members throw rage at each other, but the Westons make other dysfunctional families seem normal. John Wells directed the film, George Clooney and Harvey Weinstein produced, and the cast also includes Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney and Abigail Breslin.
Last week Lewis spoke at the 92Y’s “Reel Pieces” series. “Material this good is liberating. You have text with so much to work with, chew on and unearth. This type of writing is the gift you look for in a career and it might happen once a decade, if ever.”
When Lewis auditioned, only Streep and Roberts had been cast. “Everybody and their mother were in on these parts and wanted them,” said Lewis. “There was talk of how old they wanted my Karen to be. I think it’s quite nice that she’s the age that she is. When you’re 44, it’s different than when you’re 25 and have endless opportunities. There’s a desperation in Karen and I know that can come with age.”
Lewis described an early read-through: “The entire cast was there and our gorgeous producer George Clooney with his partner Grant Heslov. Outside of the incredible Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts was the most intimidating figure. He is a great, beautiful, intelligent and funny soul. We asked him questions gently without prying too much and he’ll tell you that this is autobiographical material. It’s stunning because when you see the person Tracy is, you can’t begin to fathom that he came from this kind of hardship. Just shows you how little we know about each other half the time.”
The story is based on Letts’s grandmother. When he showed the first draft to his mother, she said, “You know, you’ve been incredibly kind to your grandmother.”
Lewis said, “Karen began very well put together and like the star of her own movie, then she ends up this rattled desperate beauty. It was a lot to hold onto over two months. I’m not academically trained or coming from the school of method acting, but I was stirring up energy. Karen had anxiety, so while portraying her I was feeling really nervous. It was very uncomfortable, but it was supposed to be. It’s a tricky hand. Karen goes to the funeral but all she wants to do is impress her big sister, Barb, and her mother and show off, like, ‘Look Mom, I’ve got this Ferrari-driving guy who loves me.’ That plight is so tragic. It was almost funny to me — there I am standing next to Julia Roberts and I’m the put-together sister. But you could literally go like that [flicks finger] and Karen might cry. You could just crack her. The disparity of her sisters, Ivy and Barbara, is an interesting dynamic. I wanted Karen to be a little drunker outside by the gazebo. If I’d had my way, Karen would’ve been slurring.”
Lewis also touched on the rehearsal process: “We had over a week, which is a luxury. I’ve done a lot of films and you maybe have a couple days. Where we were in Oklahoma it’s so spread out you can run forever and get nowhere. Meryl Streep’s idea was we all live in a house together. It would’ve been fantastic, but we couldn’t find one. We ended up in these little undeveloped condos with fake grass and behind a Toyota dealership. [Laughs] John, Meryl, Julia, Julianne and I talked about how in families you often think, ‘How could I be related to this person?’ But you are. It was like a little theater troupe and we were all on equal footing, led by the director and the incredible Meryl Streep. No one works harder and no one gives more and commits stronger than that woman. Meryl would invite us over to her little condo and we had potluck. Margo and Meryl would yell at the TV. The debates were going on and it just made me love those two women even more. They were TV hecklers. Who knew?”
On a personal note, Lewis added, “This was a very special film for me because six months prior, my sisters and I had come together when we almost lost my father. He had a heart attack. He’s fine now. I’m very close to both my sisters, but I’m the weird artist in my family. I don’t have children and my sisters do, so I took care of him at my house. When I got this script and it was three sisters in a family conflict who got together during a crisis, it was really cosmic and a gift. My character Karen only paints life rosy. She hangs onto that illusion and dream for dear life because she can’t face anything else. Even though that’s delusional, I kind of envied it when nursing my father. I wanted to believe that dream that Karen believes.”
Streep once said that every time she gets a script she thinks, ‘I can’t do this. This is beyond me. I’m going to say no. I can’t put myself through that again.’ Then she does and rises to the occasion and raises the bar in her performance. Her original response to doing “August: Osage County” was, “No, I’m not going to go into that house of pain.” If you’re an actor I guess you have to ask yourself what it’s going to cost to play a character.
Lewis said, “I jokingly say that it’s a masochistic medium. I know many actresses that do things that I think are unnecessary. Everybody has their own process. I know I want to feel. I want to have that emotion, and feeling is all energy based so I’m most likely going to be uncomfortable. The most difficult scene was when Karen is trying to walk out of that room with dignity even though every illusion she had was shattered.”