At 14, Juliette Lewis Was Dancing At Underage Clubs

The Yellowjackets star says she was “a walking hormone.”

Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle; Araya Doheny/Getty Images

Juliette Lewis is “terrified” to talk about her life at 14. It was around that age that she first started getting into trouble, and Lewis isn’t sure quite how much of it she’d like to reveal to the world. “You're literally a walking hormone. Or many hormones, whatever governs interest in boys. I was just lit up,” the Yellowjackets star tells Bustle. In her tween years she’d been an equestrian, spending afternoons jumping and barrel racing. “Then it was literally like, ok, my boobs are developing. ‘Bye pony, I don't care for you anymore. Hello, surfer guys!’ It was like an after-school special.”

Puberty wasn’t the only change Lewis was grappling with. She also began acting professionally at 14, making her first major screen appearance in the television movie Home Fires, and was learning to juggle her work with her social life. Her classmates in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley didn’t know to what to make of Lewis’ burgeoning career, so she and her best friend Patricia sought community elsewhere. “We went to two underage dance clubs in the Valley. One was called Sherman Square and the other was Phases. Phases was new wave, my first taste of drag queens and queer culture. It was magical,” she recalls. By 15, Lewis had earned her first blockbuster supporting role in National Lampoon's Christmas — as well as a wild-child reputation, after being arrested for underage drinking that same year — but at 14, her experimentation was still under the radar. “At Sherman Square, all these one hit wonders in the '80s [would play]. Sometimes fights would break out in the parking lot, a little bit of danger and stuff like that. But we would go there to dance.”

It’s the inherent dangers of adolescence that Yellowjackets understands so well — and that Lewis identifies with the most when playing present-day Natalie, the once-stranded soccer team’s most morose player. “We were f*cking mean for no reason. And in hindsight, you're like, ‘That's gross,’” Lewis says of her own teen years. “[In] Yellowjackets they’re just learning these new emotional tools [that can be used] as weapons or not. Even sexuality or viciousness. They're only newly formed in your mental agenda and your physical self, so they can be ultra-exaggerated.” Every teen discovers these weapons, but the Yellowjackets are uniquely poised to use them.

Below, Lewis reflects on getting her GED, falling in love with Janis Joplin, and hitchhiking.

Take me back to 1987, when you were 14 and had just started acting professionally.

I grew up on my dad’s [actor Geoffrey Lewis] sets and they were always the land of make-believe. I would spend time in the makeup and hair trailer, and the girls would dress me and my sister up. I had split parents, so this was dad's version of having childcare, but we had a blast. So later, when I was 14, I knew that acting was the place you go to if you lived in your imagination, which I did.

When did you realize that acting might be the right creative outlet for your active imagination?

I have an early story with my sister and myself getting lost deliberately in the woods when we were skiing to see if we could find our way out and make it back to the main tree trails where all the people were. But in those moments, you're like, “Oh my God, are we going to die out here?” You're living drama in your real life. And then you learn that you can actually play scenes [as an actor]. You can emote and give all this color to scene work. With all my roles, I'm always trying to find [the character’s humanity]. Even in Yellowjackets. It's like, “Oh, [Natalie’s] the toughie. She's unemotional, blah, blah, blah.” I'm always trying to unearth that deep concealed humanity in any individual I play.

You’ve always had a real love of music. What were you listening to at 14?

I listened to Depeche Mode, The Cure, Kate Bush. “Running Up That Hill” was my eighth grade song. Then you had the B-girl [side of me]. I was hanging out with a group of break-dancers who would go battle on the weekend. We'd do little dances like the robot but as the girls, we were just the hanger outers.

Then, still at 14, my dad turned me onto Janis Joplin. She was on the TV one day. I was standing in the living room and he pointed at the TV and said, "Do you know who that woman is?" I said, "No, dad." And he said, "That's the first white woman of soul." From the end of 14 into 15, I went all into '60s and '70s rock. Even Miles Davis, because my dad loved him.

How did you balance acting, school, and your social life?

From that point on, I entered the orbit of “othered.” What that meant is I would go away and do bad '80s sitcoms, one being called A Family for Joe, the other was I Married Dora, which would not pass the political correct test today. Then I would try to go back to high school in the Valley. I would come in because I would be missing from class and when I would appear, there'd be whispering. “Oh, that's that girl from that show.”

Was there any part of it that felt cool at the time? To be “noticed” by your classmates?

Most definitely not cool. I mean, none of these were hit shows and it just set me apart as not being regular. And I already was a weird kid. I was developing my survival mechanism of not giving a f*ck, that people associate with me a lot. [It’s] partially true, but it is just kind of a survival mechanism. Then I got my GED and got out of high school shortly after that.

That was around the time you got emancipated, which got a lot of attention in the press. Were you surprised by what a big deal people made out of that?

That forever bothered me. It's only known because I said it early on in my interviews as a source of pride for me and my parents to show how unique we were. How bohemian or pro-art. Because I didn't get emancipated from [them]. I was emancipated with the help of my parents from child labor laws. It was more of an admin thing.

What were you dressing like at the time?

I had an older best friend named Patricia, who's my best friend to this day. I've known her since I was 9. She was like, "Yeah, you should wear white Levi's." She literally dressed me in hip-hop garb. We both pierced our ears with safety pins and wore Reebok high tops.

[When I got into] new wave sh*t, I wore these Chinese slippers that had a flower on them. A huge things in the '80s is you would double up on men's boxer shorts and roll the top. Then a lot of the shirts were cut. Patricia was so crafty, we would cut the necks off our shirts and sweatshirts and layer them.

The two of you would hang out with boys together a lot as well, right?

She was the one who would always have guys wrapped around her finger. I didn't have that knack. [She] dated the guy with the car, she knew how to make sh*t happen for herself. We f*cking hitchhiked to the beach [one time]. It was very the Valley. I don't know who hitchhikes [now], we're too aware of predators and killers. But those teen years you sort of make it out by the skin of your teeth.

What would that rebellious, hitchhiking 14-year-old think of your life today? Particularly that you’re still acting?

I was the very definition of a dichotomy in that I was intensely self-assured in who I am creatively. Or that my voice is my voice and it's singular. Then the other part of me was wanting to be a pleaser. “Does a guy like me? How do I make him like me? I'm not good enough.” All that sh*t.

So my 14-year-old self would be like, “That seems right that you're making a living, taking care of your mom, and buying yourself a house all because of the merit of your ability to keep people excited and guessing in your work.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.