Get ready for the new, uptight, buttoned-down Juliette Lewis. The 30-year-old actress — known for her wild youth and her freaky, hell-raising characters — takes a major career departure with Chasing Freedom, an original movie for Court TV airing Jan. 19 (9 pm/ET). Lewis plays Libby Brock, a staid, career-obsessed corporate lawyer forced by her boss to represent — pro bono — a young, Afghani woman seeking asylum in America. Set just before and immediately after Sept. 11, the film explores the horrors of life under the Taliban, as well as our own issues of homeland security and ethnic paranoia. It's heady, mature stuff for Lewis, who first gained fame (and an Oscar nod) as the Lolita-esque teen who sucked Robert DeNiro's thumb in 1991's Cape Fear. She went on to play a slew of lawless nutjobs (Kalifornia, Natural Born Killers) and hopeless sluts (HBO's Hysterical Blindness). But don't think this Court TV gig means Lewis has gone straight for good. Next up, she'll play a big-haired baddie in the film version of Starsky and Hutch.
TV Guide: No offense, but why is a movie star like you acting on Court TV?
Juliette Lewis: The script was so timely and moving and profound that, had it been for HBO, it would have been a total no-brainer. But, yeah, I was concerned when I read the script. I was like, "Whaddya mean this in on Court TV?" But I did my homework. I checked out [Court TV's 2002 Peabody-winning movie] The Interrogation of Michael Crowe and it was phenomenal.
TVG: Still, seeing you on the right side of the law is a little weird...
Lewis: I know! I've never had an interest in courtroom drama, with all that lawyer lingo and the chest-pumping and the scenes with the hard-ass judge we've seen a thousand times before. Besides, I'm always so animated in my parts that I worried if I could be restrained and poker-faced and still be interesting to the audience.
TVG: What convinced you to chance it?
Lewis: I guess because Chasing Freedom is so radical. It's not about righteous, noble intentions. And there's no love story thrown in just to make my character more palatable, like there would be if it was on Lifetime. Libby represents a lot of Americans in that she's status hungry. She wants power, wealth. She doesn't give a damn about having a social conscience. And this makes her eventual awakening all the more fascinating.
TVG: You seem to be having your own awakening with this part.
Lewis: I finally feel I've come into my own and that my career is only going to get more interesting from here onward. Nowadays there are all sorts of movies with leading roles for young girls, but 10 years ago when I was in that group, all you could play was somebody's daughter or girlfriend. I love getting older.
TVG: Uh... not something we hear from most Hollywood actresses.
Lewis: I have a good head about aging. I don't obsess about it. In fact, I'm the consoling person for all my friends who are flipping out about turning 30. I think it's so much cooler to be 30 or 40 than 20. My God, I'm so glad to be over all that emotional and physical kid stuff.
TVG: It seems like only yesterday that you were showing up at the Oscars with your then-boyfriend Brad Pitt, shocking the press with your thrift-store dress and your dippy cornrows.
Lewis: That was, what? Eleven years ago? And now Brad is 40! Can you believe it? You know, I do feel a little nostalgia for my youth. I was never happier than when I went to summer camp. It was the highlight of my life. It was then that I got interested in acting. But once my hormones dictated that boys were all the rage, that's where my focus went.
TVG: You're never been one of those girly-girl type actresses.
Lewis: I never thought I should be catered to like some sort of princess. I didn't learn about the business through movie magazines, you know. I learned about it from cowboys. My father, Geoffrey Lewis [a veteran of many Clint Eastwood films], would take me to the set of, say, Bronco Billy, and I'd see what it meant to be a respectable professional. One day, my dad would be acting for a world-class movie director like Sergio Leone or John Milius, and the next day he'd be doing Laverne & Shirley. He taught me to take pride in the work and the craft, not in the superficial, fluffy stuff.
TVG: Speaking of fluff, what's up with Starsky and Hutch?
Lewis: It's out March 5 and it's going to be a big, fat, roaring-out-loud comedy. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are the stars. Vince Vaughn is the bad guy and I'm his dingy mistress — we're sorta like Archie and Edith Bunker. It takes place in the '70s, so I have beauty pageant hair and wear rust orange, a color that hasn't been seen in 30 years. I did Old School with this same group and I'm so excited to be doing these goofy movies. Despite most of the roles I've done, I'm not a serious person — seriously!