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SXSW Interview: Juliette Lewis and Jonny Weston Get a Little Inappropriate in Kelly & Cal

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Juliette Lewis and Jonny Weston. Courtesy of the Filmmakers

It's hard to remember a time when Juliette Lewis wasn't making a memorable mark on the big screen -- can you believe Cape Fear came out in 1991? But after a few years out of the spotlight, during which she focused on a music career, she's back on the big screen. In movies like August: Osage County and Hellion, she's reminding us how good she's always been. Still, her supporting roles always leave us wanting more.

If you were wondering when Lewis might step into a lead role she can make all her own, director Jen McGowan has the answer. In Kelly & Cal, which premiered at SXSW 2014, Lewis and Jonny Weston (Chasing Mavericks) make great chemistry as an unlikely pair of confidants.

Kelly (Lewis) is a former Riot Grrrl-turned new mother, who finds herself bewildered and lost when she is thrust into life in suburbia, where she doesn't quite fit in with the Yummy Mummy set. She loves her husband (Josh Hopkins, Cougar Town), but she can't figure out how to connect with him anymore, emotionally or physically. (She pleasures herself while looking at a picture of George Clooney -- more on that later.) When Kelly's insecurities are exacerbated by a well-meaning, but overbearing, mother-in-law (a dynamite Cybill Shepherd), she needs to find someone to talk to, and quick.

Enter Cal (Weston), a high-school senior who's dealing with his own recent crisis: A romantically inspired accident has left him paralyzed from the waist down. He's adjusting to life in a wheelchair, but he's not happy about it. When Kelly and Cal meet over a sneaked cigarette, they quickly develop the shared bond of outcasts, despite their significant age difference. It would be a shame to give away too much of the plot, but needless to say, boundaries are crossed and limits are tested. Theirs is a platonic love story that's not quite platonic.

When I caught up with the pair in Austin, Lewis was just the kind of free spirit you'd expect: warm, open and reflective. She and Weston shared stories of music, connection, and, yes, Clooney.

Kristin McCracken: Congratulations on the movie. It's been so well received! How do you guys describe the movie?

Juliette Lewis: I describe it as a person at a turning point in her life, who has an unlikely friendship with somebody who lives across the street that borders on inappropriate. It's the navigation of past, present and future, and the confusion of finding a new plateau.

Wow. That's good.

Juliette Lewis: I just stewed in a pot and worked that out. [Laughs] I'm never good at [the elevator pitch], because I get more into the mercurial forces of energy, what the internal life of the character is going through. So you will probably find a much better way of describing the movie, but I think it's about two people who meet at a strange point in both of their lives, and they change each other's lives for the positive, ultimately. They needed each other in some strange, bizarre way.

What drew you to Kelly? She's probably pretty different from your own life, except if you were stuck into a suburban life, all of a sudden...

Juliette Lewis: Actually, not, because I had just gone through the kind of arc that she was living in... It's a sort of midlife place you come to, where you've reached certain goals that you set -- or not -- when you were younger, but you're no longer running off the steam of when you were 25. And you're also trying to reconfigure what life means to you in that moment: Who are you? And then that's when you start living in melancholy and nostalgia-land, and going into the past.

So I was just going through myriad mixed emotions at the time I received this script. I'm really into signs, and the universe, and gifts, and things either aligning or not -- and to me, this was a gift. It was a beautifully written story. I was looking for a lead in a character-driven [project], something that moved me.

Also, I always want to play every single role with energies that I've not done before. So she's a new mother, yes. And I'm an aunt to many -- all my girlfriends have kids, practically -- so I've been on the sidelines of what that new chapter is and how different people deal with it in different ways. But I related to the core of that, and her slight irresponsibility, and her selfishness -- because, you know, I've been an artist since I was out of the womb... and part of you is just like, "Is this just a narcissistic endeavor?" I could go on and on, but I won't.

Jonny, tell me about Cal. What drew you to this movie?

Jonny Weston: You get caught up in the purpose of it. Both of [our characters] had just had a crisis of some sort, and it kind of makes you look at what the rest of your life is, and what you're actually supposed to be doing -- if there's such a thing as purpose, or what not. So these people are trying to get back in the moment, and find some kind of reconnection to the earth.

Neither one of us have any connection with any adult, you know, an equal in any way. So our minds wander. And I find someone, and essentially, like, you want to push it farther and have all this person, but then you're withdrawing because you know you want to keep what's so special about it. And you keep bouncing back and forth.

I think it's just about trying to find out some way to connect with another human being. I think Cal's willing to push it as far as anywhere, because he has nothing to lose at this point -- literally nothing to lose.

How did the two of you connect? Did you have time to rehearse, to develop your chemistry?

Juliette Lewis: It was really important and integral, because the piece is called Kelly and Cal -- it's not just Kelly and, Oh, That Guy.

Jonny Weston: Kelly and Neighbor.

Juliette Lewis: So it was really exciting to be involved in the casting process with Jen.

So you came on first?

Juliette Lewis: Yes, but Jen already had a sense that Jonny was the guy. We looked at several people, but it really was just about sitting across from Jonny the first time in the audition room, and you just [think]: "Can that person meet me here? Can we just be present together?" Because that was my first concern... you can watch actors do a good job on videotape, but can we just sit in the same space?

Jonny Weston: Can they make you vulnerable?

Juliette Lewis: First of all, it was just written in the stars. Jonny and I had a very indescribable compatible way. And then also we both are crazily obsessive and enjoy the artistic process, so we could sort of talk about goals we have for scenes, and Jen was our guide.

Jonny Weston: I think what's interesting is that we both -- at least on this film -- we both came to our work from a very dark place -- and all the light and funny moments are still coming from a very dark place, at least for me. And that's what it is -- it's having the patience to go to these really strange places that you have inside of yourself. And then you trust that the person across from you has compassion as much as you do. We both kind of, I don't know, did some strange connecting.

Was there any room for improv?

Juliette Lewis: I've improvised in the past, but I think Jen really wanted to honor the script -- and it was a strong script, so we stuck to that.

I want to get to the music a little bit. In the movie, Kelly is a former punk singer, and you've had your own experience with that...

Juliette Lewis: Well, Kelly is the lyricist and a bass player. The music she did is nothing like mine, so... Normally, I keep my music separate from film, and I was a little [hesitant], but then I really enjoyed it. "Oh, I'm going to be a songwriter. I can just be a songwriter and write in the character."

Was that in the script from the beginning?

Juliette Lewis: Yes, the music was in there, but they were just like, "Oh, we heard you play music! Could ya? Would ya?" I called one of my old guitar players, a guy named Clint Walsh, who's very talented. We got together, and we just whipped up something.

"Moist Towelette"?

Juliette Lewis: Those lyrics were the scriptwriter's, but the vein of the song -- I wanted a 90s song, but for it to still sound good. So not like a shitty 90s song. But it's derivative, and that's the not the music I write. So it was very exciting to write in the character of this other person, and to not know if Jen and the producers were going to dig it.

I submitted a song, like a songwriter would, and they dug it. And then the last song -- there's a pretty little song at the end, called "Change" -- that literally just fell out of the sky. It was like teardrops from the moon that came from Clint's guitar. He was playing it in my living room, just mindlessly noodling, and I said, "Oh my God, keep playing that!" It completely made me feel open and innocent and new -- you know, like after a rain? And it felt like the end of the movie. So I submitted it to Jen, and she felt connected to it as well.

Have you ever had that connection before, with a character who is a musician? I'm trying to think...

Juliette Lewis: Only in "Strange Days"... And I'd like to do more of it, or even where I just submit songs as a songwriter. I think any musician wants to get their songs in films.

Did you tell George Clooney that you used him as "inspiration"?

Juliette Lewis: Okay, this was hilarious. So where I masturbate to George Clooney? We had to get the rights to use his image.

Jonny Weston: Oh, yeah! I was wondering about that!

Juliette Lewis: So I coincidentally just did a movie where he was a producer [August: Osage County], so I was newly reconnected with him. (We worked together a hundred years ago on From Dusk 'til Dawn -- one of his first big starring roles.) So anyway, I sent him an email: "Hey, there's this scene where my character... It's a beautiful little indie movie, and you know how these things are -- we just need your approval. She looks longingly at you..." I didn't say, "I masturbate to you!" I just said, is it okay if we use a picture? So he doesn't know... [Laughs].

Jonny Weston: [laughs.] It's tasteful.

Well, now he has to see the movie. What's next for you guys? Juliette, I saw Hellion at Sundance, and I interviewed Aaron Paul and Josh Wiggins -- they were so great. That's a very nice movie, too.

Juliette Lewis: I was in love with that! It came right after this. And right now, I'm doing a TV show called Secrets and Lies, that will be on ABC with Ryan Phillippe. That's in the fall.

Jonny Weston: That's awesome. I didn't know that. I'm glad he's back -- I haven't seen him in a while.

Juliette Lewis: Yeah, it's a beautiful role for him, too -- a lot of drama. I play a detective in that, and I have to leave literally in a day to go back to work.

Jonny Weston: I have a Michael Bay-produced movie, directed by Dean Israelite, coming out in October, I think. It's about time travel, with found footage. I'm this kind of skinny, off-kilter, misfit-ty type kid who gets into some trouble with time travel, perhaps....

Are you the lead?

Jonny Weston: Yes. It's called Welcome to Yesterday.