Mild spoilers ahead for Ma.
In 1991, a young Juliette Lewis starred in Cape Fear, the remake of the 1962 film of the same name that featured Robert De Niro as an unhinged ex-con hellbent on getting revenge on the public defender who buried evidence against him. In 2019, Lewis finds herself up against a similarly deranged villain in Ma — however, unlike De Niro's Max Cady, Octavia Spencer's titular character Sue Ann is just the sweet vet tech next door. Until, of course, she's not.
Lewis portrays Erica, struggling mother of Maggie (Booksmart's Diana Silvers) and a former classmate of Sue Ann/"Ma" who let her fellow students get away with a heinous prank on Sue Ann that could be classified as sexual assault. Refinery29 spoke with Lewis about her new film, social media, and being really worried about dogs in horror movies.
Refinery29: What was your first reaction to the script?
Juliette Lewis: "Horror movies aren’t [usually] my thing, but I’m into great characters, tension, and high stakes. When I read this, it really spoke to me because it was so unpredictable. I loved this movie [exploring themes of] social media and popularity. The fact that it was about this sketchy older person facilitating booze for kids — we all knew that person growing up. It reminded me a little bit of Carrie or Misery."
One thing that's explored in Ma is FOMO, or "fear of missing out." How do you cope with the pitfalls of social media in your own life?
"It’s about finding balance in all things. The older you get, the more you learn how to be present. You never want to be stuck looking back or wishing you were someplace you’re not. My version of FOMO is seeing a job that I would have loved to be a part of. But, if I’m feeling like I’m trying to get something from my Instagram that I’m not getting in life, I take breaks. I’m one of those nature-loving spiritual people — even driving and leaving your phone at home [helps me]. Practicing detachment from the addictive quality of our devices is important."
Were you worried that people would think your character isn’t a good mom?
"I felt the script was so well-written and real. That’s a testament to Tate [Taylor] the director, who pushed me to get angrier [at certain moments], because he knew that’s what audiences would want. So when I confront Ma [played by Octavia Spencer] in the liquor store, we wrote that moment on the spot.
"I was just thrilled because I got to be one of my friends who are moms. Some are raising teenagers, and they’re navigating having open communication with their kids, being friends with their kids, and also providing discipline and looking out for them. I felt Erica was very real in [trying to balance that]."
What was your relationship with Diana Silvers, who plays your daughter Maggie, like offscreen?
"Diana, we adore each other, so it was really easy to have an easy rapport with her. She reminds me of a young Diane Keaton. She’s so cool. She’s all her own thing. She’s just unique and vivacious, and I’m really excited for her journey right now."
Did you give Diana any advice, as a young actress just coming up?
"On some of these sets I find myself as the Jessica Lange person that she was to me [when we worked on] Cape Fear, when I was 18. My thing is, I want to protect people, I want them not to hang their identity on their successes or failures. You cultivate relationships with people who are healthy for you."
There's a really intense scene of bullying and humiliation in Ma with a younger version of Sue Ann (played by Chambers star Kyanna Simone Simpson) which many people consider a sexual assault.
"Whether you’ve gone through that as a person, or seen someone go through that, [I think] this is a completely realistic scenario of bullying and sexual assault. It’s a type of bullying that happens with [young women] generally more, this type of ambushing. It’s really frightening and ugly, and it can break someone and have lasting effects throughout your life. Everything about the movie that I was like ‘Wow, it really touches on this as well?’ It’s an unfortunate thing that can happen to someone — it takes something that’s innocence and makes it really dark and nasty. My character, not like Luke Evans or Missi Pyle, I’m sort of a follower. It was interesting to play a good person who has done something wrong but didn’t intend it."
Were you worried about the dog in this movie? Sue Ann is a vet tech and is around animals a lot — I was nervous the entire time.
"When they bring an animal in the mix, oh dear Lord. That dog was Tate Taylor’s pup that he put in the movie, so that was really cute. But yeah, I was [worried]. In Fatal Attraction, you have the bunny boiling; even in Cape Fear you have a [dog situation.]"
Why should audiences go see Ma?
"If you like an exciting ride of a movie that makes you laugh and puts you on the edge of your seat. It’s fresh; it’s not something you’ve seen before. And just for Octavia Spencer, to see her be subversive and hilarious, you have to see it."
Ma hits theaters May 31.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).