Juliette Lewis looks back on media disdain for Natural Born Killers: 'They were so, so mad at us'
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Oliver Stone film, which also stars Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr., is screening as part of L.A.'s Beyond Fest.
Oliver Stone‘s controversial Natural Born Killers was released 25 years ago and to mark the anniversary Los Angeles’ Beyond Fest will host a screening at the Egyptian Theatre on Oct. 8 attended by Stone, producer Don Murphy, and actors Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, who play the film’s homicidal central couple, Mickey and Mallory Knox. Now, that sounds like it should make for an interesting Q&A.
“I’d say!” laughs Lewis. “I think it’s going to be great for film lovers and for people who like radical, ground-breaking, or strange and daring cinema. It’s going to fun to talk about all of our experiences in that time period. I’m excited that this opportunity came that we all could sit together and reflect, because it was such an important film and a time in all our creative lives.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come to play Mallory Knox?
JULIETTE LEWIS: The script itself was dangerous. It was multi-layered, and so it was exciting, because it had risky elements in the subversiveness of it. But the deciding factor was Oliver Stone, because Oliver Stone doesn’t just make one-sentiment films. At that time in particular [he was making] things that make you think, and really pack a punch, and were really intelligent. So, for me, it was an incredible opportunity to show these kind of primal energies that you particularly don’t get as a female to demonstrate. I was 19, going through my nihilistic rite of passage phase [laughs], so it was really a perfect project for me.
They were looking at every possible actress at that time. I was like, What do I have that they don’t? And it’s the element of surprise. I was like, you don’t need brawn and strength to convince someone you might kill them; you need the element of surprise. So, there was this infamous audition that I had with Oliver where I was going to make him believe that I could kill him. [Laughs]
How did you do that?
I don’t know! I just talked to him! But I remember sitting with Hilary Swank on this movie later, and she was like, “I’ve just got to clear this up. Is it true, did you jump on the desk and threaten Oliver with your bare hands?” I was like, “No!” I just explained to him how speed and agility and the element of surprise [is all] you’d need. I don’t know, I just talked to him. Maybe that came off as a threat. I think it’s funny.
Was there instant chemistry between you and Woody when you started working together?
Yeah, yeah. It’s a trip. The way this film worked, it was “anything goes,” meaning all improvisation. You know, when I’m in the car, and I have my legs up, and then I playfully strangle Woody with my knees, I mean this is all improvised moments. It was a real anything goes creative environment, meaning we were encouraged to contribute, and that’s not always the case. So, in Woody, I had just an incredible scene partner. It was like we were family from another time. We were just really comfortable around each other, doing our own thing, being Mickey and Mallory. To this day, every time I see him, it’s like a comrade who you went to boot camp with. We all shared this one-of-a-kind-experience.
But we were both at turning points in our careers, to prove ourselves. He had come from Cheers and White Men Can’t Jump. I came from Cape Fear and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The thing about Natural Born Killers is that it’s also a farce, to me. It’s an exaggeration of scenes. It’s not like a totally pinned-down, true portrayal. It’s something more fantastical and requires a different set of skills. And Woody had a lot of humor and there is humor in our portrayals in that.
You worked a lot with Robert Downey Jr. (who plays a tabloid TV journalist named Wayne Gale) on the movie. What was that like?
Just the best. I remember being in the rehearsals, all of these things just came on the fly, like his Australian accent. He was like, “I’m thinking about doing a little bit Robin Leach, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous — what do you think, Oliver?” All Oliver wanted was your contribution and that you lit up creatively. It was like there was no creative impulse he wouldn’t take. It was really fun. But Downey is just an improv wizard. He’s electric and he was just phenomenal as this bizarre Wayne Gale character. There’s so much humor in the film. I use the word — whether it’s right or wrong — it’s camp. It’s not just this lowbrow, one-idea of like, Oh, they’re anti-heroes. That’s the trick Oliver spun on the audience.
You shot a lot of the film in a real prison. What was that like?
It was wild. It’s funny, because there’s a lot of stories from this set that are really unique. We were like an old band of gypsies, carnival folk. I mean, people use those terms in movie-making, but this was particularly true, because we were literally in caravans, going from town to town. Winslow, Arizona, to then New Mexico the next week, and landing in the prison, a working prison. And that’s all Oliver. He used actual inmates in the riot scenes. That’s Oliver. I don’t know. He comes from the war, you know. So, there’s a fearlessness in the way he wants to create electricity on a set. It was a trip.
There’s endless stories from the prison. But one of them is, I had walking pneumonia. So, I ended that film going, Will I end up in the hospital? Or can I make it through? I was barefoot, and we were crawling, running through fake bombs and smoke, and, yeah, I had walking pneumonia the whole time. That was a trip. I didn’t want to cost anybody money by taking a time out, so I pulled through. But the prison was f—ed up. It was heavy.
Natural Born Killers became this very controversial movie, and some people even blamed it for inspiring copycat crimes. What do you remember about that?
It was wild. As actors, when we were selling the film, I never had experienced the level of animosity and aggression or disdain from journalists. They were so so mad at us! Like, we were at fault! And I went, Wow, this is Oliver’s ability to antagonize who he wanted to light a fire under. I feel there are relevance in the statements of the film and it’s also ugly in that these characters are vomiting out ugly behavior and then there’s humor within it. Anyway, I feel like it has a place. But when you started getting the stories of where you blame [the film for crimes] — I don’t go to criminals to get their excuses.