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Juliette Lewis on Why Sitcom TV Almost Made Her Give Up Acting

When she was just 17, Juliette Lewis got the attention of Martin Scorsese, landing a role in “Cape Fear” — then won an Oscar nom for impressively holding her own against Robert De Niro. But it was an even earlier part, at age 13 — in Showtime’s TV movie “Home Fires” — that earned her her first Variety mention, with our critic singling out her “sure performance.” “I was shocked to see it was the first job I’d ever done,” says Lewis, now starring in ABC’s “Secrets and Lies.”

You were so young. Did you always want to be an actor?

My dad (Geoffrey Lewis) is a character actor, so I always knew of the acting business as a line of work. You never have the same job twice; you work long hours, you get to work with interesting, colorful people. I always was connected to acting in that way — not from reading about it in magazines.

What about this role appealed to you?

It was about a troubled family. It was drama! That was substantial and exciting for me, because I always gravitated to things of substance, but I didn’t always get them. (I played) a little piece in the puzzle of a dysfunctional family.

It didn’t scare you out of acting?

Not that job. That came later. Sitcom TV is what made me almost give it up in the ’80s.

What happened? 

Before I got “Cape Fear,” I was doing sitcoms, and they didn’t like my naturalism. The very thing that Scorsese validated me for, they were trying to correct and shape me into the kind of obnoxious teen acting on TV at that time. And me being the rebel child I was, I knew innately that they must be wrong. But I didn’t know how to do anything about it. So I thought I should not do this line of work, that this was probably not the right thing for me.

But you stuck with it.

I lucked out on working with some of the most brilliant directors of our time. It’s not lost on me what a gift that has been. I consider all the directors I have worked with my teachers, because I’m not academically trained. People like Lasse Hallstrom, Oliver Stone, Scorsese, Woody Allen, Kathryn Bigelow. I had that rare experience to work with her — I think she’s phenomenal.

What’s the most valuable lesson about show business that you’ve learned?

There’s that adage; You never have the same job twice. I like that. I love variety — pun intended. The lesson I’ve learned is to value and treasure the experience, not the outcome. People are everything —  the exchanges between people, the energy we share, the creativity. I feel really lucky that I’m in a line of work where I can use those creative energies.

What did you learn from working on “Home Fires”?

It’s where I cut my teeth. It’s very important, the relationship between wardrobe and hair and director. That’s a key thing in all my jobs. I’m helping tell my director’s and screenwriter’s stories. That’s who I work for. In TV, the hierarchy is a bit different, so that’s been a new experience. I like the respect, the collaboration. I learned that from my first job, and from watching other actors work. I really approach it like make-believe. I don’t carry a lot of baggage. I just look like I might.

What do you wish you could have told your younger self?

I wish I had picked up an instrument when I was younger. I wish I had gotten into athletics. I had really liberal artistic progressive parents who let me quit everything. I quit karate. I quit piano. I quit dance. It goes on and on! All those things I quit because I got mad I wish I had stayed with. It’s hard being a beginner when you’re older. I’d tell myelf to stick out through the rough spots and pick up an instrument — and learn karate. I think it’s really important for females to learn to fight.

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