Juliette Lewis is so well-known for playing so many characters on the edge that it’s almost surprising to see her in director Tate Taylor’s Ma as Erica, a single mom who moves back to her hometown with her teenage daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers). Determined to get back on her feet after a divorce, Erica is equally resolved to be a solid parent to her daughter while also being her friend.
Yet Erica and Maggie are soon both caught up in the web spun by Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), who lures Maggie and her friends to her basement with promises of a safe space to party and drink. But “Ma,” as she tells the kids to call her, has a psychotic agenda of her own, fueled by her own history in the town, some long-buried secrets — in which Erica is involved as well — and the way that the trauma of the past has twisted Sue Ann in the present.
Lewis broke out in 1991 in a teen role herself, as the daughter manipulated and seduced by Robert De Niro’s Max Cady in Cape Fear. Some of her most complex roles since then have leaned toward the dark side in movies like Natural Born Killers, Kalifornia, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and Strange Days. But she’s also tackled comedy in films such as Mixed Nuts, Whip It and Old School, and more recently has stood out in TV projects like Camping, Secrets and Lies and The Act.
Lewis is also a rock singer who has both led her own band, Juliette and the Licks, and recorded and toured as a solo artist, cutting five albums over the past 15 years. We touched on that and more while speaking with her about Ma recently in Los Angeles.
Den of Geek: What did you kind of lock onto when you got this script?
Juliette Lewis: Okay, so many things. First of all, I’m not a horror movie, genre movie person. In fact, I had a brother who was obsessed with them growing up. So I just love great storytelling and characters and when I read this script, it was so twisted. I love how it subverts some of our current themes with social media popularity obsession, which seems to go on through every generation. And those kinds of themes and bullying and then also the sketchy older person who’s buying booze for kids.
All this amorality is twisted so hardcore that it becomes a really spooky, scary movie. And Octavia runs the gamut of funny, completely subversive and wicked and amazing emotional range – because she’s manipulative as Ma as well.
And then, my part, this was such a wonderful mom role because she felt really — she felt like any one of my girlfriends who are raising teenagers. I loved her and Diana Silvers’ relationship who plays Maggie. I adored Diana so it made my job easy. I loved that I was like the lioness mother and I got to confront Ma in the movie as well.
In many ways, she’s the opposite of Ma. She’s had her hard knocks in life but she gets up and she just keeps on going and doesn’t let them hold her back in a way.
That’s right. She’s someone who’s making the most of challenging situations. But yeah, she runs the gamut of being a disciplinarian but she’s also trying to navigate the freedom you give to a young adult and your own life when you have to work for a living and provide.
It’s funny you mention you’re not a horror genre fan but you’ve had some experience playing a killer and sociopath in your career. Does it take a lot of effort and energy to kind of get into that mindset when you’re playing that kind of character?
Yeah, it’s funny ’cause for whatever reason I love primal energies. I love going to the depths of an emotional range and seeing how to conjure that energy whether it’s vulnerable or, on the flip side, full of malice. And I’ve gotten to do that with a few movies like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn even, where it becomes a survival vampire movie. When, you know, my character survives at the end or Cape Fear where I’m on the receiving end of this sadistic sociopath. And then Natural Born Killers which runs the gamut of all kinds of things because it was a bit of a psychedelic movie.
For me, these themes, though, they get really heavy and dark, you know. You’re sitting in some energy. But that’s why it’s important when you have a director like Tate and Octavia who led the charge because she’s exec producer, she put it together with Tate and they really create an environment that’s just fertile for creative exploration.
This is very much the kind of story you can go in so many different directions with. You can make it really super dark or you can make it almost campy if you want. Did you play around on the set with different tones?
Well, it’s a Blumhouse movie. They want to make a cool movie that speaks to people, that resonates and that has you on the edge of your seat. And they manage to do that but also invite humor and make it really a fun ride.
When you have someone as talented as Tate, he sort of suggested ideas on the spot, and he pushed me to get even angrier with Ma because he knew that’s what the audience was going to want at that time. So he helped me with tone sometimes and things like, how protective should I be? How laid back? How angry? He knew what kind of movie he was making. I also think they found it in the editing room, and they created this perfect tone, I like it.
One of those early scenes, where they first meet Ma, the kids are asking people outside the liquor store to buy them beer and liquor. I know that my friends and I did when I was a kid…
But now you watch it from a different perspective years later and you kind of say, what was I thinking?
I thought the same thing! I was like, who was that sketchy dude that bought us, frickin’ junior high schoolers, booze. We didn’t go to anybody’s house, thank God, but what makes it scary is that it’s tapping into experiences we’ve had, that our friends have had. And I love that. But I did love that sketchy adult buying booze for kids.
You had a handful of scenes with Octavia. Is it something that you build up in your mind until you get there on the set that day?
It’s funny, you get a good read for people the more experience you have and Tate, it was instantaneous when I met him and the same the first time I talked to Octavia. I went, oh, this is going to be good. This is going to be good. She is just a big lighthouse and I was just so happy to support the journey she’s on to just blow people’s expectations of her away. She gets to show a whole bunch of other elements to her talent in this movie and I was just thrilled to be a support for her and I felt like we play really well.
Again, the roles are so filled out ’cause I’m playing a very strong, well-rounded mom figure and then she’s playing her bananas character that’s totally grounded because she’s a phenomenal actor. But she made the whole experience great and she made the environment, she really was wonderful with all the kids since a lot of her scenes were with them, you know. She had a lot to do and she never shows you she’s pressured at all. She’s just a consummate, good, talented person.
What are you working on at the moment that’s got you really excited?
What I’m working on in the moment is a limited series for HBO, starring Mark Ruffalo, from a Wally Lamb book called I Know This Much is True. It has a phenomenal cast. Mark is going to blow people’s minds – he plays twins. I have a really fun role in that. Again, I’m always trying to do something I’ve not done before so my next role is this very haughty, slightly narcissistic academic and so that ends up being really surprising for Mark’s character. We’re in the middle of filming that. I have another couple days on that and then we’ll see what the future holds. I’m waiting to hear on a couple of things, I don’t know what.
Are you still touring and recording? Have you found time to squeeze that in while you’ve been doing all these projects?
So, the problem is that you cannot squeeze it in. I’m trying to do everything now, so what I’m doing is like next week I’m going to finish writing these songs. I’ve been working with my boyfriend who’s a phenomenal drummer, his name’s Brad Wilk. One of the best drummers in rock and roll. So I catch him before he goes on tour but I’m writing with a few guys next week and that’s the goal, to start putting on shows at the end of the year. We’ll be trying out our new songs. But I’m dying to get back on stage, man, it’s really where I live out my everything.
What’s different for you between performing rock ‘n’ roll on stage and acting?
I think with music, the electricity of a room and the cyclical energy, the fact that I write the songs, they’re all different aspects of my emotional self. I get to pour out in music. Also, music is just so visceral. You can hear the beginning of one guitar chord or one rhythmic pattern and you’re just transported, it’s so visceral. Also, I’m really physical on stage because I’m in love with the music.
I guess I sort of describe music as I write, direct and doing the whole thing with other people who do the same whereas when I’m making movies or TV, I’m a part of a bigger whole.
Ma is out in theaters now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye