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How Juliette Lewis' Family Tragedy Mirrored "August: Osage County"

The Oscar-nominated actress-rocker talks with BuzzFeed about her "cosmic" and heartbreaking connection to her August character, her music career, and dating at 40.

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Juliette Lewis was reeling from a difficult couple of years: Her rock band, Juliette and the Licks, broke up in 2009; her movie career was floundering; she got into a hit-and-run car accident in 2010; and, most devastatingly, her father had a heart attack and fell seriously ill, bringing Lewis and her two sisters together to care for him.

"My sisters all came together in the closest way we'd ever been, and we all rose to the occasion in different ways," she remembered. "That experience, and then the fact that [August: Osage County] came my way, was like this cosmic message from the universe."

The actress was ultimately offered the role of Karen in the film based on Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award–winning play; she's the youngest of three estranged and very damaged sisters (Julia Roberts is the eldest, and Julianne Nicholson is the middle sister) who are forced to reunite to help their pill-popping mother (Meryl Streep) when their depressed father (Sam Shepard) goes missing.

"My family is nothing like this family, of course," Lewis noted. "But the through line of three sisters coming together in a time of crisis, and they're each distinct personalities, I thought that was fascinating, because it literally had just occurred."


Now in the third decade of a wanderlusting career, Lewis, 40, laughed easily as she told tales of her recent odyssey. She'd been roughing it on the road for much of the last decade, living in shitty vans while barnstorming her way from actor turned musician curio to indie rock legitimacy.

"I played a ton of festivals, so I toured in a van where you had to make pee stops in unison because if one guy had to pee, you're not pulling the van over. We had a number system of how much you had to go," Lewis remembered of her early days on the road, which spanned the better part of the aughts. "You're suffering, just with the bare necessities that you do not have. I remember I'd wash my face using a tea kettle on the bus … One time, we took a train from Greece to Turkey that had bullet holes in it. The sheets were like what I imagine prison sheets to be. We paid off the Turkish border control."

After an EP and two proper albums, as well as appearances all over the globe playing alongside acts like The Foo Fighters, Juliette and the Licks broke up; Lewis is in the midst of writing and recording a solo album with the help of band members from Cage the Elephant. She says it's the best music she's ever written — most of her early work, basic punk-tinged rock, was geared toward energizing the live show, not the studio.

The actress side of Lewis is also at peace with the ups and downs of a career that began when she was 14 years old. She earned an Oscar nomination for her role in Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear when she was just 19, then starred in Husbands and Wives, What's Eating Gilbert's Grape, and Natural Born Killers.

"When I was 22, I stopped making movies, and I was living in the first house I'd ever bought, which was too big for me. I didn't know what to fill it with, and I hadn't really experienced much of life yet, except making movies," Lewis said. "I had too much pressure by outside forces, like, 'Be a success!' 'You worked with Scorsese, now Woody Allen!' 'Now you gotta work with the next one!'"

But the hiatus, which coincided with treatment for a drug addiction that spiraled after her breakup with Brad Pitt in 1993, didn't last all that long. She returned to more frequent acting in the late '90s and early '00s, with appearances in various films and TV shows, even earning an Emmy nomination in 2003 for her part in Hysterical Blindness.

That was the same year Lewis got divorced from pro skateboarder Steve Berra, whom she married in 1999. It was also when her acting career again slowed down to a degree because Lewis launched her music career. But getting back into the big, prestigious movie game was always in the back of her mind.

"I thought, I don't want my — if you want to use a fancy word like 'legacy' — my legacy in film to have been when I was like 20," Lewis recalled. "So I was very conscious of what my next chapter would be in movies. I'm really selective, and then this movie came about as a gift from the gods."

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In August: Osage County, not only is Karen the youngest of the Weston sisters, but also the most removed from reality. While her older sisters are burdened with caring for their mother and their respective marital issues, Karen has moved on from a life of difficult relationships to what seems to be a more fruitful one with a charismatic businessman named Steve (played in the film by Durmot Mulroney). And though he proves to not be as much of a boy scout as he first seemed, that doesn't deter Karen from clinging to their chemistry.

"It was so wild to play Karen because I was going through this place of — because my dad wasn't well — questioning everything, and I couldn't find my inner joy or my inner positivity," Lewis admitted. "So, to find a girl who desperately has to have a positive light — she would crack and cry if she was cynical — I just loved the idea of playing that type of desperation, and that forced positivity to the extent of delusion."

It would be convenient to say that playing a character like Karen rubbed off on Lewis, and that her new, refreshed outlook is an instance of life imitating art. Of course, there's a chance that such playing Karen and working with such an impressive cast, which also included Ewan McGregor, Margot Martindale, Chris Cooper, and Benedict Cumberbatch, helped turn around a difficult few years for Lewis. But it was also a matter of the actor-musician herself getting her head on straight, "doing a lot of reflection," taking care of her health, and trying to tackle stresses — money, family, love, career — with meditation.

"I had a lot of issues with my dad aging, so what do I do? Rather than avoiding it and going, Oh my god. He's old and sick, I see him every week," she said with a smile. "I love the man that's there, not the man that was. He has dementia. He's ailing, but he's funny. He forgets stories sometimes when he tells them, but he's still here and lucid. But if I'm already putting him in the grave in my head, I'm missing who he is now."

Lewis recently wrapped on several new films, including one with Aaron Paul, and is awaiting new opportunities, as well as trying to get her own screenplay finished and produced.

"The type of movie I want to make, you often see a male lead in, and it's like Noah Baumbach's Greenberg," she explained. "But you don't often see a female struggle at 40 or so. They don't quite have their shit together, they're dealing with their parents' sickness, and you're living in your head a lot. You're trying to date. So it's humorous, but you often see the male version of that. I want to do my version."

In a sense, it is an autobiographical work. "I want [a boyfriend] to be passionate and obsessed with their work, but also giving and loving. And I feel like it's just around the corner, to tell you the truth," Lewis said, smiling. "I'm just at this really comfortable stage right now."