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Juliette Lewis on playing a parent in Ma, horror, and giving advice to younger actors

By Heather Mason
Juliette Lewis Diana Silvers Ma

Juliette Lewis has been in a lot of films that are part of what she calls the "high-stakes genre." Her most recent movie definitely falls into that category. The Blumhouse horror film Ma tells the story of a woman (Octavia Spencer) who invites a bunch of teenagers into her basement to party. Then… things start to go awry. Lewis plays Erica, the mother of one of the teens. 

"I really love movies that take you on an emotional ride. What I loved when I read this script, it was absolutely riveting and unpredictable. And it was so perverse and twisted," Lewis explains. "And I was like, 'Wow. How are we going to pull this off? I don't know.' And then to see the movie... it had colors of movies I loved growing up, like CarrieMisery, where it's a psychological meltdown."

That psychological aspect is something that always appeals to Lewis, also citing The Shining and The Exorcist, and she believes films like Ma are getting back to the roots of horror she loved growing up.

"Don't you remember back in the day, it was like, boobs, a guy with a knife, and lots of blood or something?” she says. "And that's why, when you say, 'Are you into the horror genre?', I was like, ‘No.' But now, the storytelling is so just compelling and rich and surprising that it's coming back to its roots, like with The Shining where it was breaking the mold on cinematic artistry, just even visually too. Horror as a genre, they do really exciting things visually."

Ma does have a lot of blood, but at times the film feels like more of a dark comedy than straight-up horror. That's one aspect Lewis says she was drawn to.

"I liked it as a blend and I liked that it sneaks up on you," she explains. "And the interweaving of the backstory, that was really dark and compelling, what's driving her psychological breakdown or her trauma, that it was trauma-driven. That felt really real. That's the other thing. The themes are so topical and deep, the obsession with likes and popularity and then peer pressure and assault and all these themes that are pretty timeless, the stuff I was familiar with growing up in school and stuff people face now. So I really liked the mash, the collision of the different generations."

Over the course of her decades-long career, Lewis has played all types of characters. And while it may seem like there's little connection between her projects, she says she has always chosen roles based on three criteria.

"Well, it's always been three things. It's the story, the role — is it something different than what I last did — and then who's directing. And when I met Tate [Taylor], we're like the same kind of people... I don't know. I'm going to do his next movie. We'll be long collaborators, that's what I think."

Juliette Lewis Tate Taylor Ma
In Ma, Erica is the single mother of Maggie (Diana Silvers). Erica balances moving, a new job, and parenting a teenage girl. But the character isn’t just Maggie's mom — she also has a history with Ma and plays an integral role in the story.

"I love how well-rounded the mom role was. It's not disposable. It's grounded. It's rich. It's lioness strength," says Lewis, who was inspired by many of her friends who are mothers.

“What I loved in a lot of my friends is that they're navigating their own independence, their own journey with work and being self-sufficient, supporting their daughter, and being each others' confidants and best friends but also clearly trying to have boundaries and navigate early freedom, young adulthood,” she said. "And me and Tate talked so much about that because, in these types of movies, you'll see a parent that's literally like an archetype from the '50s... super square. Even when [Maggie] comes home and she smells like pot. Even that was like, we don't hit it too hard, but we hit it where, 'Um, that's concerning, honey. What's going on that this is now your new journey you're trying to take and not tell me about?' So, I really like how authentic it felt too."

When we spoke to Silvers, she fangirled over Lewis, so it made total sense when Lewis did the same for her. Clearly, the two bonded during while filming.

"I'm her super fan. I adore her,” gushes Lewis. "We had an instant chemistry. She's just such a grounded and unique and idiosyncratic and fun young actress and so I'm really thrilled for the world to get to see how special she is.”

As a veteran actress, Lewis acknowledges how her role on set has shifted since she was a young actress on set herself.

"On some of these sets now, when I work with younger people, it's not lost on me that I'm now in the position that Jessica Lange was on the Cape Fear set, when I was like 17 or 18 and she was probably my age now,” she notes. "So I just kind of want to validate people who are already doing the right thing. So, Diana, she's so connected to her family and her priorities are just straight on and she's not lost in vanity. I try to say, 'Remember, you can stop and start things if you want. Don't get over pressured by other people's intentions and continue learning in life' and she's doing all those things. She's in college in New York. She travels. So that's about it. I'm not heavy-handed with advice but I do try to encourage people to do the right thing that will sustain their heart and soul and health rather than get real self-sabotaging. But I haven't met any young people like that. They seem to be a little bit different nowadays. People can navigate things a little differently.”

Lewis can also see changes throughout the film industry for women since she began back in the late '80s as a child actor.

"Just look at this movie. You have women leading the whole charge in every way. We had a predominately female crew in key positions. The DP, Christina Voros, the first AD is female, the main producer's female,” she points out. "It's really cool to see people who are just excellent at their jobs and then happen to be female. But as far as female roles, yeah, we're seeing it more than ever... I feel there’s more storytelling and characters for young and middle-aged and older women, much more than early on for sure."

Ma hits theaters May 31.

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