Juliette Lewis Unpacks Her ‘Profoundly Moving’ ‘Yellowjackets’ Journey: It Was ‘Summer Camp With Blood and Crying’

TheWrap magazine: The Showtime series has the actress experiencing a new career high while turning 50 this month: “I’m just leaning into it”

Juliette Lewis (Credit: Jeff Vespa for TheWrap)

A version of this story about Juliette Lewis and “Yellowjackets” first ran in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Every time Juliette Lewis finishes a project, she is reminded of Dorothy waking up from her dream in “The Wizard of Oz” and trying to explain the profound experience she just went through. “You have this magical journey. I always think of, ‘And the Tin Man was there and Toto and the lion!’” Lewis said, paraphrasing Dorothy. Waking up from her “Yellowjackets” dream at the end of Season 2 was particularly emotional. “The crew, our A.D. department, that cast — you could be weeping about it,” she said. (Spoilers ahead!)

For two seasons on Showtime’s addictive thriller, Lewis’ Natalie Scatorccio wore her trauma on her sleeve, grappling with survivor’s guilt and memories of the horror she and her soccer teammates lived through as teenagers stranded in the wilderness. In the season finale, Natalie’s pain comes to an end when fellow survivor Misty (Christina Ricci) accidentally stabs her with a fatal dose of phenobarbital. “I don’t believe I’ve ever done a death scene before,” Lewis said. “It was so profoundly moving, where she landed and to shoot that scene.”

Juliette Lewis in “Yellowjackets” (Colin Bentley/Showtime)

In Season 1, your story arc was intertwined with Christina Ricci’s. This season, you spent a lot of time with Simone Kessell [adult Lottie] at her wellness compound. Natalie’s anger and sarcasm stand in such sharp contrast to Lottie’s open-hearted calm. How did you find that energy with Simone?
Well, first of all, I express eternal appreciation for this casting department and the producers and the show creators. Every cast member they bring aboard is one of us — a friend going forward. Simone and I would crack each other up, like two girls in high school, off camera, talking about boys or hormones or what have you. [Laughs] So she kept me light. We had a wonderful time working together, even though we were adversarial.

Natalie resolves some of her pain by working with Lottie. Of all the characters who could have embraced Lottie’s, let’s say, culty wellness, I would not have guessed Natalie.
But Natalie’s on board! She’s like, “All right, well, when in Rome!” Bart [Nickerson] and Ashley [Lyle], the creators, early on, when they were telling me where Natalie would land, they were saying, when you sign up for a silence retreat, which I’ve never been to, or a wellness place, and at first you’re like, “I don’t know what’s going on here. This is a bit much.” And then the longer you stay, the more you become part of the fabric and get in it. So they laid the environmental groundwork [for me] that the longer Natalie stayed, the more she would be touched by it and it would break her superficial armor.

Yes, she’s even happily walking around in head-to-toe purple clothing and wearing Birkenstocks with socks.
I hope that came through because she’s not verbal [about her deepest emotions]. I wanted to show that Natalie became her soft self. I don’t know how long that would have remained comfortable for her, but she liked it. She liked being clean. She liked being comfortable. She relinquished her eyeliner, which was her war paint.

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Juliette Lewis and Simone Kessell in “Yellowjackets”(Kailey Schwerman/Showtime)

What was it like shooting the night scenes where all the survivors gather around the bonfire at Lottie’s compound?
Like filming scenes with your favorite people, with side quips and deadpan humor. [Laughs] We’re all older, so to do night shoots as an older person is much different than when you’re 22! What did we do? Tawny [Cypress] brought “Trivial Pursuit” from the ’80s that the props department rounded up for us. So behind the scenes, we’d be playing “Trivial Pursuit.” And then as the night progressed, I got really slapstick and goofy. We joke that I turn into a 14-year-old guy. Jokes like [lowers voice], “That’s what she said.” You know, just really dumb. It’s probably from being in a band for six years. [Laughs]

I spoke to Melanie Lynskey last year and she said she loved working with you and she compared it to working with a box of fireworks because she never knew what you would do in a scene.
I have to put that on an embroidered pillow! It’s probably the cutest compliment I’ve ever heard. I like that. This was encouraged early on by Mr. Scorsese and Oliver Stone. The only way I know to keep it alive is to find a new way of expressing the same thing. So I’m always searching for specificity but also something you’ve never seen. But it’s not intellectual. It’s just the way I work: chasing fireflies and trying to release them.

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Juliette Lewis and Sophie Thatcher in “Yellowjackets” (Kailey Schwerman/Showtime)

Natalie’s death scene is pretty magnificent, cutting between present-day Natalie succumbing at the bonfire and her vision of herself on a plane, where she’s joined by her teenage self [played by Sophie Thatcher]. What was it like shooting that?
With Karyn [Kusama], the director [of that episode], we’ve both been touched by people leaving us that we love — I had been touched by that that month. And we wanted to honor the spirit leaving, where it’s a letting go in a positive sense rather than a resistance and shock.

And wow, being in that plane. I mean, those days I was in orbit. What was going on behind the scenes, with the loss of two meaningful people in my life, and then being in those spaces was… I’m not on autopilot. So I have to work with everything [I’m feeling from my own life] and then release it in waves. When Sophie sat next to me and we all knew we were saying goodbye, there was a lot of feeling. And I love her. We’re very comfortable around each other. She could be a little sister to me. So, yeah, that was special.

We’ll miss seeing you on Yellowjackets.” What will you miss about it?
The cast: Ricci, Tawny, Melanie and our new incredible Lauren [Ambrose] and Simone. I could have done a movie with all those ladies. It’s really a rare thing to have that kind of camaraderie and chemistry and level of talent. We all work in a way that complements each other. I’ll miss them a lot. The experience of making [the show], I would call it summer camp, but it’s a little rougher. [Laughs] Summer camp with blood and crying.

This business can chew people up. You’ve been doing it a long time. How do you stay above the fray?
I gotta let it go. I’m just super low key right now. I mean, I left the business early on to connect with myself and cultivate other interests. But it’s hard because the business demands a lot of you, especially these TV shows. You could be doing this all year, like with the FYC — which I’m like, “Oh, my God! I want to be considered! Please consider me! I want to thank my parents and all the incredible people in my life on stage. Yes!” [Laughs] But I’m not a self-promoter. This has been particularly hard because I’m not a competitor in that way with my costars.

All of it has been challenging, this new success. I didn’t realize because, you know, I’ve done stuff that people still tell me about from the ’90s. Every week, someone will talk about these five movies I did in the ’90s that put me on the map. I marvel at it. It’s amazing. But TV success, I didn’t know I’d be like, a little scared or that it would bring up when I lost my anonymity early on. So I go hiking and turn my phone off.

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Lauren Ambrose, Tawny Cypress, Christina Ricci, Melanie Lynskey and Juliette Lewis in “Yellowjackets” (Colin Bentley/Showtime)

What are you going to do next? You finished the movie “The Thicket”?
“The Thicket” was with Peter Dinklage and the director, Elliot Leister, is wild and really exciting. I played a role I kind of always dreamed of. I’m very excited to see how it turns out. And then I’ve been writing. I’m trying to finish a script that I will direct. I want to be in it. We’ll see what happens. I’m open to the next thing that the creative universe presents.

What can you tell me about the project you’re writing? Is it a drama?
It’s very much like my mind and guts dumped out. So it’s funny, it’s dramatic, it’s a bit psychedelic, abstract. But there’ll be a narrative arc to it. It’s idiosyncratic. It’ll be very me. Once you see it, you’ll be like, “Ah, yes. That’s her!” [Laughs] There’s also a — I don’t love the [phrase] “one-woman show” because that’s odd. It would be more of a rock and roll show with a narrative. It’s time to get out of the rough-and-rugged, you know, early firecracker youth artist and into… I’m turning 50. That doesn’t mean anything arbitrary. But it means I want to fully realize ideas I’ve had and give them the proper space and massaging rather than rush it.

What does turning 50 mean to you?
It means a lot. I’m going through it, organically, where you settle. You put out any little small fire, burning embers from prior fires and then build a rock garden. [Laughs] There’s a lot of reflection. And I know there are physical changes and really incredible emotional growth and I’m just leaning into it. Anything that isolates us in our aloneness, we just look out look at the ones who came before. And you just see who’s doing it well and having conversations. I just ran into an incredible person, Sheila E., today, and she’s older than me, we were just talking. I didn’t know she was 65. I toured with Chrissie Hynde [in 2009, with her band Juliette & the Licks]. There are certain people that are ageless to me or they have evolved into themselves in only the ways they should. There’s nothing pretend. Debbie Harry is this way. And Chrissie Hynde. They seem to own their artistry and also their queenliness. I can only call them queens. I can’t call them women.

Oh, they’re queens to me too. Debbie Harry was my absolute childhood idol. And Siouxsie Sioux is on tour again, too.
Yeah! Yes. I can only lean into these. And the Cure. I just saw the Cure. I mean, talk about magic. I want to follow them. I might just hit the road and follow the Cure. So if you ask me what I’m wanting to do, I just want to honor the artists that are here.

Read more from the Drama Series issue here.