On NBC’s new dramatic thriller The Firm, which takes place 10 years after the events in the film of the same name, actress Juliette Lewis plays Tammy Hemphill, the feisty, sexy receptionist for Mitch McDeere (Josh Lucas) and his law firm, as well as the on-again, off-again girlfriend of Mitch’s brother, Ray (Callum Keith Rennie). Always able to adapt to any situation and never one to conform, Tammy is leery when Mitch accepts a deal to partner with a top law practice.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, done at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, Juliette Lewis talked about how this TV role came about for her, why she loves her character, how much fun she’s having with the wardrobe, the challenge of working with different directors who are all trying to execute the same vision, how much she loves her co-stars, her evolving interest in the type of projects she wants to do, and the roles she’s hoping to do while on hiatus, including a remake of the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
JULIETTE LEWIS: Yes, exactly. This came my way, and I was not looking to do a TV series, but there were several things I thought was interesting. So, I took a meeting on it. I said, “Why not?” I was just open to all kinds of new things. I had been touring forever and was starting to make movies again, and I liked the simple fact that it was from John Grisham. I was hoping that it retained some of the suspense that he’s known for, but I knew it was going to be a completely different thing, on its own, ‘cause it’s series television. So, I met with the creator and the producers.
What stood out about this story and character for you?
LEWIS: I love the character of Tammy. I like that Holly Hunter played her in the movie. I relate to her, as an actress, even though I’m doing my own thing. And, I like that it’s an ensemble. I actually would not want the pressure of a lead in a series. I want to do other things, like make more music and make films, on the hiatus. So, the pilot was really good. It was a page-turner. It was really well written. And then, what sealed the deal was Josh Lucas and the fact that he was the lead. I thought, “This is a really good role for him.” I talked to the show creator, Lukas Reiter, for several hours because, when you do work like this, I have no idea what each episode is going to be, so I have to be up for it all. I do what I always try to do, which is to make something come to life, by making it multi-layered and human and real, even though this is formulaic genre television. We’re trying to create a thriller with the core of the central characters who are all a family that have been in witness protection together, so there’s a bit of an incestuous working relationship.
LEWIS: All of those things, like in film, are things that you put together. I feel like she shops online. She’s really into fashion, but on sale items or the knock-offs. I also think, “Have I met her before?” I always wonder if I’ve seen that character in that environment, or that I have some sense of her, internally. I feel like Tammy is a survivalist, in the sense that she could live in any town or city, and she could associate with any class of people, and get along. She would get a job and she would make her way, and she’s positive about the whole thing. As far as the character goes, I’m always trying to bring my own life to it and make it sparkle, but it’s rooted in what Grisham wrote. This girl is kind of a vagabond, and her life has been connected to the loves she’s had. In this story, her love is Ray (Callum Keith Rennie), Mitch McDeere’s brother. There’s a lot of details in how you put together a character. We had some rehearsal, and then clothes and hair is a big part of who Tammy is. She’s a girl that puts herself together, and I’m not. I don’t walk out of the house in high heels, but she does. I don’t think she ever wears flats. Maybe at home, for a minute. I just love playing people that have an essence of things I relate to, but they’re not me.
What kind of relationship do Tammy and Abby (Molly Parker) have?
LEWIS: I like that juxtaposition of those two types of females. They’re both equally strong and head smart. You have Abby, who’s a bit more academic, and Tammy, who’s more street smart, but they find a common ground and get along. Just my experience with my own family, I bring that to my take on it. I’m barely in the pilot because there’s so much story, but we’re in future episodes a lot more. Josh, Callum, Molly and I want to explore those relationships, but within the thriller, episodic, legal case show that it is. We’re just trying to unearth the humanity and how they relate to each other. Tammy and Abby have a scene coming up that shows how I’m her no-nonsense friend, but at the same time, there’s a lot of love between us. We’ve been each other’s best friend for years, and we all fell into each other’s lives. That’s what’s interesting. I love the contrast of types that they all are. Even Molly Parker, as an actress, is not one thing. She does have this poise and grace to her, but she has such a strength and honesty that you can see that Abby would be friends with Tammy. Like the movie, they’re friendly with each other and they start working together, to fight the corruption. Those themes remain.
LEWIS: That’s what we hope for. It’s so wild, doing a show like this, ‘cause there’s so much plot, and all the tension. As actors, we want to go find the humanity and make it more nuanced and fill in the colors, rather than just being suit people who crack cases, ‘cause they aren’t that. So, we hope to see more character development, in the future. That’s the potential of any series. The essence of what we are is what Grisham laid out in the book. I think that is what brings a new element to this type of show. Hopefully, it will find fans, throughout it. I’m excited. I’m in love with my cast. You have no idea! It could have been something else. They could have been divas, and the lead male could have been rude to everybody, and it’s not like that. Josh Lucas is such a cool guy, and I’m really happy for him. He’s down-to-earth, gracious and professional. And, we’re all living out in Toronto together, so we’re each other’s support a lot, throughout this. We’re all in good places, in our lives. Molly and Callum are more versed in TV series. They’ve told me and Josh about different experiences with the writing and the creators, and how much freedom you usually have. I’m leaning different aspects.
As an actor, do you enjoy getting to work with so many different directors for a TV show, or is it challenging to have different people with different viewpoints, all the time?
LEWIS: That’s been one of the challenges, in a series. This might bore people ‘cause they’re not working on it, but the way things are run is completely different than what I’m used to. When I do a film, usually I work from my director. That’s my boss. The director is interpreting the writer’s vision, and we all interpret it, and they create their own vision as well. With this show, we have different directors. We have a few directors returning. David Straiton, who did the pilot and has directed House, is coming back in March. Helen Shaver is our producer, and she directed an episode. I played her daughter in a movie called That Night, so the fact that she’s directing is really cool. But, I’m getting used to it. At the end of the day, they’re all trying to execute the creator’s vision. Lukas Reiter gives the direction in the page, and then the directors execute it. They’re much more utilitarian in TV. It’s different for my head to get used to, but we’re doing it.
After having taken time off to do your music, does your acting career feel fresh again?
LEWIS: It does, but it feels like a start-up again. I’m always revving the engine. In this industry, there are so many twists and turns. You never have it made. I made a joke with my sister, before I took this job. I said, “I don’t know what’s more nerve-wracking, job insecurity or job security.” There’s opportunities and things you compromise with both. When I had endless freedom of schedule, or when I commit to a movie for two months, then I could manage my music and go on the road. Now, I’ll be touring much less, but people will see me a lot more on this show and maybe it will remind some people that I exist. I’m here! Anyway, I’m not in a place yet to have the retrospective. We’re just getting the show up and running, so we’ll see what happens. I will tell you this, I’m not doing any more cameos. There’s always exceptions, but I did so many cameos in the last two years. They were all interesting. I did Conviction, Due Date and The Switch, which they rewrote and made the role more for me, just to get my feet wet again. Now, it’s like, “You should give me what I’m worth.” Don’t you think?
LEWIS: As I evolve, my interests change, always. But, what is consistent is that I always look for something new to play. In my heart of hearts, I’m a character actress, whereas other people play their one strength. We’ve seen great guys like Clint Eastwood, or some girls that are always the femme fatale or the love interest. I like to help tell stories and try to be as rich and complicated as I can, even in a simple human. There’s always complexities. Now, this is a new chapter. I’ve never lead with the looks and beauty. Not for any reason, but I’m so glad because it’s not what I’m known for. I’m not known for my cheekbones, thank god. But, I like that Tammy is into her appearance. I think that’s funny. I’m looking for all kinds of stuff.
Is there a type of role you’d love to play, or a genre you’d love to get to do?
LEWIS: Yes. I may be doing something that I hope continues. With a lot of independents these days, you almost do them, and then the financing falls out. But, this movie is a remake of Nights of Cabiria. It’s a Fellini movie. It has all those elements of heartbreak and poetry and magic, but it tells the tale of this downtrodden prostitute, who’s not really meant to be a prostitute. She’s not any good at it. And, she lives in her head, searching for love. It’s so beautiful. That’s supposed to go after this [show finishes for the season]. It’s called The Days of Mary. I have been wanting to remake Nights of Cabiria. I tried to get the rights 10 years ago and I didn’t, and then this came my way. If it’s written in the stars, it will happen. I like things where characters are imploding. That movie All That Jazz, about Bob Fosse, is another thing I would like to do. I like things that are a bit surrealistic. I guess that’s how I live – half the time in my head, and half in existence. I love Terry Gilliam. I also liked The Descendants. The attention to detail that Alexander Payne pays is phenomenal. His films are super-real, gorgeous stuff.
THE FIRM airs on NBC on Thursdays