What I Really Want to Do Is Sing

Juliette Lewis puts the acting thing on hold to unleash her inner Iggy.

Juliette Lewis: Natural Born Weirdo.
Juliette Lewis: Natural Born Weirdo.

There was a time during the mid-'90s when actress Juliette Lewis teetered on the verge of mainstream stardom. She snagged lead roles in Natural Born Killers, The Basketball Diaries, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? She even dated Brad Pitt pre-mega-star. But she never quite escaped the quirky supporting parts she was offered more and more as the decade progressed.

So Lewis decided to become a rock star. She formed Juliette & the Licks in 2003 and has since released a pair of punk-inspired albums, including this year's Four on the Floor. "Acting is a really interesting thing to do," she says. "But more and more, it's hard to get movies that are breaking the rules. And I only use part of my creative voice through acting. Music utilizes everything — from the visual aspect to songwriter to overseeing the stage show."

Moonlighting movie stars are nothing new. (Remember Bruce Willis' blues gig? Or how about Russell Crowe's alt-rock outfit?) But the recent commercial success of bands like the Jared Leto-led 30 Seconds to Mars shows that some of these artists are more committed to their music than to their day jobs. Lewis hasn't done a movie in two years.

Since the release of her band's 2005 debut album, You're Speaking My Language, Lewis, 34, has logged nearly three years of nonstop touring. In that time, she's developed a reputation for delivering one of the most dynamic live shows in the business — infamous for her skintight outfits, bizarre head garb (Viking horns and Indian headdresses are faves), and whirling dervishes.

It really shouldn't be possible for a human being to leap about the way Lewis does onstage. But she manages to do it, all while carrying something that can generously be classified as a tune. "Everybody gives 110 percent," she says. "It's the whole band, this electrified energy machine. We just love what we're doing."

Lewis started writing songs a whole decade before the Licks released their first EP, . . . Like a Bolt of Lightning, in 2004. She even showed off her vocal chops in 1995's forgotten sci-fi thriller, Strange Days. "It's funny, because what I was writing was neurotic and melancholy," she recalls. "I hadn't found my rock and roll voice yet, and a rock and roll voice really stems from confidence — from not playing it safe or being an imitation of something."

There aren't too many bands that make music like Juliette & the Licks these days. That's because most of the bands that play their type of music retired or OD'd 30 years ago. The Stooges are the most obvious reference point, but traces of the Pretenders and early Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are also evident. Lewis even insists that Motown, Broadway musicals, and the Who influence her songs. "The real turning point was just starting a band — when I decided I wasn't going to do music with a producer developing me or picking up a guitar to be a singer-songwriter," she says. "I knew I wanted to cut my teeth live — by trial and error, making mistakes."

While Four on the Floor qualifies as the Licks' slickest CD, that is because of extra time spent in the studio, not a conscious decision to head in a glossier direction. The album was originally released in Europe last year. It's not that the band has more fans overseas, says Lewis; after her record company folded, nobody in the group really felt like shopping around for a new U.S. label. "I'm not into waiting around until somebody graces me with 'Oh, we'll put out your record,'" she says. "I'm too into the DIY of music and making it happen."

Still, Lewis doesn't blame people for being a bit skeptical of her latest role as rock chick. After all, fans have been burned plenty of times by actors stepping off the big screen and onto a small stage. She says all folks need to do is check her out live. "I don't mind being the circus freak," she laughs. "I don't mind being what brings them to the room. As long as they're in the room, we'll do the rest."