How Juliette Lewis is a ''Natural Born'' rocker -- The actress-turned-singer is about to release an album with her punk band, The Licks

By Karen Valby
Updated June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Do I sound like a mouse?”

Juliette Lewis is hoping to sound more like a rock star. Her new band, Juliette & the Licks, has a gig tonight at the Troubadour, an L.A. club, and she’s a twine of nerves during sound check. When she’s not singing, she’s either skipping in place or hugging herself tight, stringy arms clasping her back.

The Licks, journeymen musicians who’ve played with artists like Aerosmith, Jewel, and Courtney Love, swear they didn’t smirk when they heard the 30-year-old actress was anxious to start a band. ”No way,” says former Hole drummer Patty Schemel. ”I was like, ‘Wow, Juliette Lewis. Asskicker!”’ But when the band told their friends they’d be working with the actress, everyone wondered the same thing: Um, yeah, so is she wacko, or what? ”We had pins made up that say ‘Is She Crazy?”’ laughs guitarist Todd Morse, who used to play with punk band H2O. ”I keep telling Juliette that’s what we should call the record, because that’s the first thing everyone asks.”

People have always assumed the relentlessly quirky Lewis is as out-there as the characters she plays. It’s no news to her. ”’So does she hop on the table and act like a caveman?”’ imitates Lewis, laughing, her face scrunched and fingers curled in monster claws. ”It’s all because I was in ‘Natural Born Killers.’ And maybe ‘Kalifornia.’ ‘And Cape Fear.”’ (And perhaps those cornrows at the 1992 Oscars?) During her live shows, she’s fond of leaning deep into the crowd and taunting the audience in her guttural drawl: ”No one asks Woody Harrelson if HE’S crazy. You know why? Because I’m that…f — -ing…GOOD!”

This particular evening Lewis struts on stage in white boots, a pair of superhero wrist cuffs, and a tomato red jumpsuit. (She owns four brightly colored spandex suits, all an homage to rubbery frontmen like David Lee Roth.) ”I don’t see Big Brother in the house tonight!” she yells cryptically. ”You’re all in my house now, motherf — -ers!” The show is messy and loud, her songs a strange brew of Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, and Lou Reed.

Lewis has a unique approach to her live performances: She imagines she’s a robot who’s broken free — or a mannequin come to life. She duckwalks, she hops, she flops, she does splits. It’s something to behold. ”You can’t deny her personality on stage,” says Morse, ”even if the songs aren’t your bag of tricks.” One minute she’s on her knees, screaming about frat boys; the next she’s thrown herself into a back bend, railing against corporate America. Toward the end of the evening, she’ll ease down the gold zipper on her jumpsuit, revealing an askew black string bikini top underneath. ”This is a man’s world!” she moans, losing herself in a little James Brown. The crowd of 200 or so, a ragtag bunch of family members, movie fans, and folks patiently waiting to see headliner Har Mar Superstar, watches, half horrified, half seduced.

After the show, which ends with a coy curtsy, a grizzled old fan grabs Lewis and growls out his review: ”I’m over half a century old and I want to tell you that I’ve never seen anybody give that much energy in a show. It was like an EXORCISM!”