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She's Got a Foot in the Door

updated 12/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

NESTLED AT THE FOOT OF HOLLYWOOD'S Beechwood Canyon, Juliette Lewis's one-bedroom bungalow is in total disarray: A clump of scrambled eggs sits in a frying pan, dirty dishes fill the sink, clothing and scripts are scattered everywhere. Half the clutter belongs to Juliette's live-in Romeo, Brad (Thelma & Louise) Pitt, but she's oblivious to the whole mess.

Hurrying in from the backyard, where cherry tomatoes are turning to compost on the vine, the actress, who makes a striking star debut as the terrorized daughter in Cape Fear, has only work on her mind. For Lewis, 18, acting is almost a religious calling. "I've always known this was my life work," she says. "I knew I could live no other way, that the one thing I wanted was to act and do it well."

In her first major role, Lewis has done it exceedingly well, holding her own against Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Robert De Niro, with several critics singling her out as an Oscar possibility. The New York Times's Vincent Canby cited Lewis and De Niro in the same breath, calling their work "two of the year's most accomplished performances." But most gratifying to Lewis is the blessing of director Martin Scorsese, who says her "explosive emotional truth" reminds him of James Dean.

Hands-down winner for Most Talked About Scene is the one in which revenge-bent rapist Max Cady (De Niro) lures high schooler Danielle Bowden (Lewis) into a darkened auditorium and seductively pushes his thumb into her mouth. Though the gesture, which De Niro improvised, surprised Lewis, she answered with an innocent but sensuous response that Scorsese printed on the first take. "When we finished shooting," Lewis recalls rapturously, "I realized, 'God, this is what acting is supposed to feel like.' "

Lewis has been relentlessly single-minded about what she calls her craft since she was a tot, living in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley with her mother, Glenis Batley, a graphic artist who divorced Juliette's father, actor Geoffrey Lewis (he was Flo's bartender on TV and has appeared in six Clint Eastwood films), when Juliette was 2. "As early as when I was 5 or 6 wanted to perform," says Juliette. "I would make believe one of my dolls was so-o-o sick, and my sister and I would work ourselves into a highly emotional state, crying and sobbing. Once my mother rushed in, convinced something was terribly wrong. 'We're just playing,' I told her."

Hanging out with her father, though, taught her the ups and downs of the business. "Sometimes he was on a roll and the money was good," she says, "and sometimes not." She remembers a day spent with him and Eastwood on the set of 1978's Every Which Way but Loose as "dirty and hot and boring."

Nevertheless, she began auditioning—without Dad's help, she insists—and won her first role in Show-time's Home Fires at age 12. Parts in I Married Dora and The Wonder Years followed. "I loathed sitcoms," says Lewis. "Everything is directed toward the punch line, and character be damned."

At 14, Juliette went to court to become legally emancipated from her parents (she was then living with her dad), so that she would be exempt from laws that limit child actors to five hours of work on school days. She says the action was no reflection on her relationship with her family, which includes seven siblings and half siblings from her mom's three marriages and her dad's four. "We all have a lot of love for one another," she says. "My mom lives five minutes from here, and I see her all the time." Juliette's parents will not comment, but her friend since childhood, Trish Merkens, 20, who sells fitness equipment, says the family "couldn't be closer."

After three weeks in high school, Lewis dropped out at 15 and moved from her father's house in the Valley to Hollywood. "All that schooling never prepares you for reality or for life," she says. She roomed first with actress and family friend Karen (Nashville) Black, then with Merkens. Her parents, Juliette says, supported the move. "They knew it wasn't my intention to become a party girl."

Still, when she was 16, she was arrested at 5 A. in an underground club for being underage. "I didn't even drink that night," she says indignantly. "I sincerely went there to dance, and that was all." The arresting officer, who recognized her dad when he picked her up at the station, gave Juliette her mug shot (the charges were dropped), which now hangs, poster-size, in her home.

She met Pitt, 27, in 1989 on the set of the NBC movie Too Young to Die. "It wasn't until shooting ended that we both realized we wanted to spend more time together," she says, adding that they're "madly in love" and "plan to get married in a few years." As for kids: "Good Lord, not for years!" Pitt, home after filming Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It, is tight-lipped. "The only thing I have to say about Juliette is: She is truth!"

And he, says Lewis, is beauty. "He's like a painting," she says. "I wasn't looking for that. He just came that way." With their recent his-and-her successes in Thelma and Cape Fear, Lewis says there is no career jealousy. "I'd like nothing better than for him to become the next Robert Redford. If he started getting mobbed whenever we go out, sure, that would be annoying. It already is. But he's not turned on by anonymous pretty bodies. They're just bodies." Both Pitt and Lewis lead a fairly low-key existence outside of work, listening to music—he plays the guitar—and hanging out with friends.

Lewis recently finished shooting That Night, a romantic comedy in which she plays a pregnant teen, and other scripts have begun to clog her mailbox. "I've been working for years for this," she says. "Success is a nice by-product, but what I really want is work."

JEANNIE PARK
DAVID MARLOW in Los Angeles

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