From a serial killer to a roller derby queen, Juliette Lewis has excelled at playing wild cards and outliers. The former child actor and ‘90s It Girl returns to the fray on Sunday with Season 2 of Showtime’s breakout hit, “Yellowjackets,” reprising her role as the hard-drinking, expert markswoman Natalie. The show alternates between present day and 1996, when her all-girl high school soccer team fought for survival after their plane crashed in the wilderness. And now as an adult, she’s haunted by what they had to do to make it out alive (as are fans of the show).
“Yellowjackets” can be best described as a psychological thriller with dark cannibalistic tendencies, and Lewis’ performance is one of her more notable forays into series TV to date (other recent projects include HBO’s “I Know This Much Is True” and Hulu’s “Welcome to Chippendales”). But Lewis is no stranger to garnering attention with her dynamic performances. At 19, she landed an Oscar nomination for her role in Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear.” Lewis went on to star in films like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Kalifornia” and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” — all before turning 22. But the pressures and excesses of fame were too much, and she withdrew from the spotlight.
Now back in her element, Lewis spoke with the L.A. Times. Wearing a faded lilac sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “Dreamer,” black nail polish, worn sneakers and rainbow tie-dye socks, she discussed her rise to fame, her retreat and what it means that “Yellowjackets” is now one of the most anticipated series returning to television.
Q: “Yellowjackets” is such a unique series, a cross between “Lord of the Flies” and “Mean Girls,” wrapped inside an obsessive, dark mystery. I know you can’t divulge much about the new season, but what can we expect from Natalie?
A: This season, she’s predominantly made up of shame, guilt, denial and then a fierce and ignited purpose of seeking redemption, or self-revelation.
Q: The show runs on two timelines, the 1990s and the present. Like you, Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci and Tawny Cypress play the adult versions of the surviving teens — women with dark secrets. But Nata lie seems particularly haunted.
A: They’re all lost to some degree, but she of all the characters is the most imprisoned by the events and has had the least — I don’t want to call it advancement — but the pretended living of life or family. She’s on the outskirts of existing. And she has all these addictive tendencies. But I found her initially puzzling. To picture her, I asked to creators, “How does she make money? Do we think it’s always petty crime kind of stuff?” So that’s her backstory. She’s one of those people that can’t go home, they hate it. And then seeing all the friends that trigger all this stuff, she tries all the time to run away, but she loves Misty (Ricci) and these characters you’d think she’d never hang out with. She’s not as cavalier or callous as you might first think.
Q: But in contrast to other characters like Shauna (Lynskey), a soccer mom who dismembers more than cuts of meat for dinner, she’s not so bad.
A: What’s so funny is that Natalie’s actually maybe the sanest one. She’s just acting out pain. The others all have slightly sociopathic tendencies.
Q: You were just 15 when you played the role of Audrey in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” How did you get into acting?
A: I don’t come from academia or any kind of schooling. I was just always around artists. My dad [actor Geoffrey Lewis] and his friends, Karen Black and my mom, everybody being super pro-art, and then the sets — I grew up on them. They’re familiar stomping grounds … people in bloodied cowboy suits, laying there, sunning in the desert. Those are my earliest set memories. My dad would leave me and my sister in the makeup and hair trailer while he worked.
Q: You mean Karen Black of “Nashville” and “ The Day of the Locust” fame?
A: She was a good friend of my parents’. She was so instrumental in my becoming aware that I have a creative spark. It originated from these epic charades games we would play at her house with her kids and friends. And she just had so much enthusiasm for playing and make-believe. And my dad would do storytelling to music. There was a lot of performance art, and he took dance in New York. It was always about your [whole] creative self, rather than you’re in acting or you’re a child actor. It wasn’t so square for me.
Q: Did you always lean toward offbeat roles?
A: I did. I have an affinity for people that are different. Even in class, I gravitated toward underdogs — I guess I was one in ways — or people who weren’t being paid attention to. And then in my teen years, the great irony is that acting kept me out of trouble. I could have been destined for hanging out with criminals. So when I was acting at a young age, it gave me structure, a real sense of purpose. I felt I knew what I was doing when I was creating other people.
Q: I assume it was hard to maintain that structure when you hit those high levels of fame in your late teens?
A: I was always like “The Girl” in these huge male-dominated movies, and that was fantastic for me, actually. I was given reverence and treated equally. I was really spoiled — I didn’t really know that. People said that at the time, “You’re going to be spoiled after working with Scorsese.” I didn’t know it was rare. But later I was always having to prove myself. I never got to the place of like, just like a Charlize Theron. I didn’t do the maintenance program, the trajectory. … I fought against the magazine culture of it and the cultivating of an image. And in my sort of deconstructed way, I created an image that is an individual stick. Now people have a very strong identity about me, ironically, out of what I didn’t do. I didn’t do Maxim covers, [tried to] sabotaged a Vogue cover by going, “No, I want this photographer, I don’t want to wear this!” I knew what I didn’t want. But some of it was out of ambush or rebellion or sabotage.
Q: And you retreated.
A: I changed my life. I reprioritized and went on a self-discovery journey and pulled back from show business.
Q: Given your early experiences, do you feel protective of the younger, female performers you work with on “Yellowjackets”?
A: Sophie [Thatcher, who plays teen Natalie], she’s so smart and different than I was. I mean, I was smart, but I was introverted at her age and didn’t know the machine. I didn’t know what it meant when I got nominated. It’s huge pressure. Had I known that you do press for the team, I might have been able to stomach it better. But I was like, 19, and I didn’t know what to do with this kind of stuff. And I didn’t have a stylist, which is the norm now. Like for the Oscars, I got a vintage dress that was tacked up on the wall in a thrift store. I was like, “That’ll do!” It didn’t fit me right, I was too skinny. That would be unheard of now. It’s a much different time. It’s a well-oiled machine, but [my advice is] that it’s always good to maintain your own sense of freewill and self determinism and not be too hooked to your career.
Q: Your refusal to comply at different turns in your career is part of what your fans love about you, especially in the film industry, where women have been allowed so little latitude.
A: Thank you. I put a lot of thought into what I do. People wouldn’t know it because they’ll sometimes think I’m that way [like my characters], so it was effortless. I’m not and it’s not. I have a standard, and a relationship to my audience, to what they expect. I want to make something super fresh and unexpected without thinking too much, and also be very true and honest to the text and the material I’m given. So it’s complicated. And in [serialized TV], I don’t know what is coming next. It’s a different medium than film.
Q: Natalie’s hotel room meltdown in Season 1 is one of those fresh, unexpected moments. It’s still referenced on social media as one of the more memorable onscreen implosions.
A: The tantrum! I wanted to show a real tantrum like when you lose your s— alone and it looks uncontrollable. I liked that scene because I love when I do things that I’ve never done before. Even though I might have done volatile before, that’s not the same. I wanted to be like a 2-year-old, roll yourself on the bed, and you break stuff. And even within that, when you choreograph a thing, there’s cliched pitfalls you’re always trying to avoid. How do you then let go of that, to make it fully realized or totally unexpected? You don’t want to telegraph it. You don’t want to push too hard and make it melodramatic.
Q: Do you, Melanie or Christina ever have a chance to compare notes on how different things are now because you all started out young in the business?
A: I was just loving our text chain. We all have the craziest, filthiest, wicked sense of humor. Deadpan. And I guess I’ve never worked with a cast of 99% women actors before so that’s unusual. And then the second part is that there’s no pretension. And then Lauren Ambrose [adult Van] came into the fold. She’s one of us. Simone Kessell [adult Lottie], she’s a New Zealand actor who’s just incredible. We had to do all these night [shoots] and, you know, we’re the older girls. We’re going to be in the cold weather. It’s different on a 47-year-old body than 22. I’m a little cranky. I had to get realigned with vitamin IVs from working in the wilderness at night. [Laughs] So we get through by leaning on each other.
Q: “Yellowjackets” blew up by the end of Season 1, and now there’s all this anticipation around its return. Do you feel any of that old pressure you used to, with all this attention on you again?
A: At my age, I don’t even let it in. It’s nice because it’s a different job security. It’s good to have a detachment from that idea of what success is. Success to me, as a mid-lifer [laughs], is the quality of time spent and how that time felt and the experience of spending five months making something, not the outcome. And PR-wise, I don’t do everything under the sun. I just can’t do all the talk shows. I can’t campaign because mentally it makes me feel sad and bad. It does the reverse of when you have cameras on you, and you’re glad-handing. … I was never good at it. There’s people who are really good at it, who can compartmentalize. For me, it taxes me and it makes me think of what I’ve given up. When you lose your anonymity at 20, it can permanently [mess] you up socially, and on many levels. But now I just listen to myself and make sure to give attention to the aspects of my life that have nothing to do with work.
Q: What happens now when you unwittingly step in the spotlight?
A: What’s different than when I was a kid is that I love people connecting with me. Like people in the grocery store. That feedback — when my dad died and I was getting hugs from strangers — I was like welcomed and became part of a community in that sense. That’s where fame was like a blessing … I needed all those hugs.
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
How to watch: Season 2 is airing on Showtime