Juliette Lewis is one of those underrated talents in Hollywood. How else can one explain the fact that while the 38-year-old was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her role in Cape Fear, she walked away empty-handed?
In a career spanning 15 years that includes a plethora of critically acclaimed performances, the actress-cum-singer has yet to be properly rewarded. But she isn’t about to be deterred by what fans deem to a truly unforgivable transgression by the industry.
Instead, Lewis tenaciously soldiers on by stealing the limelight with roles that defy convention.
Her latest acting coup is in John Grisham and Lukas Reiter’s gripping legal drama, The Firm. Cast alongside actors of phenomenal calibre – Josh Lucas (Mitch McDeere), Molly Parker (Abby McDeere), Callum Keith Rennie (Ray McDeere) and Tricia Helfer (Alex Clark) – Lewis plays Tammy Hemphill, a feisty receptionist at Mitch’s new legal practice, Kinross & Clark.
Tammy is also involved in a long-term and tumultuous affair with Ray (Mitch’s brother), who is an investigator at the firm.
To put viewers in the picture, the story starts with Mitch and his family leaving the witness protection programme 10 years after being on the Chicago mob’s hit list because he and his wife blew the whistle on his previous employer, Bendini, Lambert & Locke, who legally cosseted the organised crime syndicate. So when the company went down, so, too, did the mob boss.
Not one to graciously give the nod to TV roles, although when she does, as was the case with Louisiana Sky and Hysterical Blindness, she is showered with praise, so I asked Lewis what sold her on The Firm.
“I really love that it came from a John Grisham novel. Josh Lucas (another film actor) was already cast. And I love that it was an ensemble cast – it seemed like a perfect fit at the right time,” Lewis enlightens.
Unlike some actresses who would have researched the character of Tammy to the hilt – after all, Grisham’s best-seller and his film adaptation, Sydney Pollack’s 1993 box-office hit with Tom Cruise, offer incredible insight – Lewis went for a more organic approach.
“No, I didn’t read the novel, or watch the movie,” she admits. “This is The Firm reimagined 10 years later, where the book and film leave off. And because it’s a series, there are all kinds of different stories that can take place, like the struggles of Ray and Tammy’s relationship and Mitch McDeere’s battles with his different legal cases. Overall there are 22 episode arcs of a whole intense situation that occurs to maintain a high level of suspense.”
Given Lewis’s penchant for portraying complex, fallible characters, she delighted in unscrambling the intricacies of Tammy.
“Well, she’s a woman who speaks her mind and can get along with any type of person, no matter their economical or sociological background. Those qualities I relate to as well. But the part that’s unlike me, that I love, is that she is always dressed up in heels and does her hair and nails before stepping out of the house in the morning. I like that, visually, she’s a lot different from me – after all, I am always looking to play something new,” she shares.
As for working alongside such a consummate cast, Lewis smiles: “It’s rare that you get a group of actors together who all approach their work in a similar fashion: with passion, commitment and humour. We work really long hours so there are a lot of laughs between us. I love this cast.”
While there is no dearth of top-notch legal dramas on the small screen, such as The Good Wife, Damages, Harry’s Law, Boston Legal and The Practice, The Firm, thanks to its impressive cast, dexterously penned script and adroit, fast-paced direction, won’t be sitting in their shadows.
In fact, this legal drama is so stupendous it could easily be in a league of its own.
In the meantime, Lewis is on the brink of releasing her next album.
“This is going to be my best album yet,” she assures. “I’m a rock ’n’ roll singer at heart. Musically, it’s the most fun. I am working with Isabella Summers (of Florence and the Machine fame). In fact, I just got back from London where I’ll be releasing the first single in autumn.”
With a firm foothold in Hollywood, where she chooses her projects based on “character, story, film-maker”, striving to always try unchartered territory, Lewis is clearly living the dream.
True, she may not have the accolades – yet – but there is no overlooking the fact that she is clearly rocking it as an actress… and singer.
• The Firm starts on Sony Entertainment Television (DStv channel 113) at 8pm today.