For a horror-movie fan, there are few thrills greater than interviewing Jamie Lee Curtis. She played Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s breakthrough feature, 1978’s Halloween, then played her again in Halloween II only to revisit the story’s accursed stomping grounds of Haddonfield, Illinois, in two more franchise reinventions: Halloween H20 and the recent David Gordon Green–Danny McBride trilogy. The latter made Curtis, who turns 64 today, one of the biggest box-office names in the history of the genre and gave her the clout to initiate a series of her own projects as a producer, including the upcoming Paradise, based on Lizzie Johnson’s book about the 2018 fire that consumed Paradise, California.
Curtis is every bit the take-charge personality you’d expect from watching her performances. I met her for the first time in the greenroom backstage at Vulture Festival, where I showed her a copy of horror scholar Carol J. Clover’s book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, which analyzes the evolution of women in horror from victim to heroine. Part of the book talks about the similarities and differences between Laurie Strode and Marion Crane, the heroine of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which of course starred Janet Leigh, Curtis’s mother. (Curtis grew up in a Hollywood family; her father was Tony Curtis.) I said, “I’m sure you’re familiar with this!” and she immediately replied, “Never read it!”
Curtis was illuminating onstage and playfully combative, pivoting away from the dollar-store Inside the Actors Studio questions I’d prepared and instead treating the audience to a rollicking, discursive account of her life and career. What made the talk so fun was how frankly Curtis demystified a lot of her most famous roles: One was written specifically for her, another was a last-second gig that she got because the actress who had first been cast dropped out, and many more were chosen so she could remain close to husband Christopher Guest and their children. Throughout our discussion, Curtis’s spiky realness shone through, whether she was asking me about the tattoos on the backs of my hands or being interrupted by excited fans gathered nearby who couldn’t restrain themselves from shouting, “We love you!” Watch our conversation below or read on for the full transcript.
You were in three different versions of the Halloween story over the course of 40 years.
Forty-four, but who’s counting?
Let’s take it back to the original Halloween. Co-writers John Carpenter and Deborah Hill are huge fans of Psycho, and there’s a character in the script, Dr. Loomis, named after a Psycho character. Then you, the daughter of Janet Leigh, end up being the star of this movie. How did it come about?
Well, I wasn’t originally going to be an actress. I was going to be a police officer. I thought I would be a cop or a social worker. I thought I’d be a really good cop. I went to college at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, where my mother was the most famous person to have ever graduated. Somehow, they wanted me with my D+, 840 combined SAT scores.
When I came home from college for Christmas, a tennis instructor was using a friend’s tennis court to teach tennis; his name is Chuck Binder. When I saw him at the Christmas break, he said, “Hey, Jamie, I’m managing actresses now” — because that’s what you do when you teach tennis in L.A. You also manage actresses. He said, “They’re looking for Nancy Drew at Universal. Why don’t you go up for it?” What was I, 18? I had brown hair. Maybe I was smart? I don’t know. I went up for that part, and I didn’t get it. But apparently, they were like, Oh, who’s this? He said, “People were interested in you. You should stick around.” So I took a month off from college to do an independent study. I wrote to UOP’s drama department and said, “Hi, I’m in L.A. Can I spend the month and try to break into show business? I’ll take acting classes, go to auditions, and I’ll write a paper for drama.” They said yes and so I stayed in L.A., and at the end of the month, I ended up signing a seven-year contract at Universal Studios as an actor and quit college.
So I was working there and then I got fired from a TV show and I thought my career was over. I thought I was gonna lose my contract; I thought I was gonna have to go back to college. Chuck Binder said that they were casting a low-budget horror film in Hollywood on Cahuenga in a shitty little two-room office. They sent over a scene, and I went and auditioned to play Laurie Strode. There are three parts for young girls: There’s a cheerleader — duh! I’m a total cheerleader. There’s a smart-aleck — I mean, super-duh! And then there’s the quiet, repressed virgin intellectual. Not duh! But John and Deborah somehow saw something, and they cast me as Laurie Strode. And my life has never, ever ceased to amaze me since that moment.
Did they know the lineage that was involved?
To tell you the truth, I know there was another woman up for it. It usually comes down to two. You go in a couple of times, they narrow it down. So there were two of us, and I know who she was. I don’t think she went on to continue acting, but I know her name. I guarantee you that when weighing those two options, to have the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis who legitimately got to those final two, it’s gonna tip it in my favor. It just did.
When I was young and people would ask me about that, it would feel like what they were trying to say was “You didn’t get this because you were any good. You got this because you have famous parents.” And that’s a shitty thing to say to somebody when they’re young. Then you as a young person have to try to defend it. It’s not fair, and yet we do it all the time. We all do it. Any time the child of a famous person, whatever the job, tries to do the same job, we all by nature go, Really? Uh-huh. I know that happened for me, but I fully accept that my mother’s legacy tilted it in my favor.
The critics loved this movie in a way that they haven’t loved a lot of horror films — Carpenter’s craft, your performance, everything about it. What did your mom say when you told her that you’d gotten this part?
I think she was happy for me. There was no advice-giving. It was a little low-budget horror film. I think she was just happy I had a job. It’s funny, you can look back on it and think that there’s this great conversation. There isn’t.
Because nobody knew at the time what a big deal it was going to be?
It wasn’t a big deal even when it first came out. It took a long time to catch on. It got some good reviews, but again, there was no internet. How did you sell a horror movie? The trailer and then an ad in the paper, and that was about it. I mean, it was a word-of-mouth response for sure. People would say, “Ooh, did you see that?”
Did you find it difficult to get roles that showed different aspects of your talent? When you’re a success in one thing, they want to put you in that again and again and again.
Yes. I didn’t know I had any talent. I just showed up, did that movie; that was fun. I didn’t get any work. I got no work. Here’s what I got: Charlie’s Angels. You can go on YouTube. I am Cheryl Ladd’s best friend, and she wrestles an alligator. I play a professional golfer on a Charlie’s Angels episode. Then I did the ultimate guest-star part: I was on Love Boat with my mother! The story line is that I’m getting married, and my parents come on the honeymoon with us and hilarity ensues! So I got those two jobs after Halloween and then I didn’t get any other work. By then, John Carpenter and Deborah Hill had become successes — John Carpenter was being courted by everyone to make films for them. They were the ones that held the secret to the success, not me. And so they wrote the part in The Fog for me. Also with my mother!
So you then go into the next big role for you, Trading Places, a classic comedy. And it’s probably a surprise for people who only knew you from horror.
So here’s the story. When I say I owe my entire life to Laurie Strode, I owe my entire creative life to Laurie Strode. You may say, “Well, how does Laurie Strode affect Trading Places?” I’m gonna tell you. I got a call from my agent saying that John Landis was doing a short documentary called Coming Soon, about 1950s horror-film trailers. Remember those crazy trailers that would say, “Coming soon”? He was making a documentary about these horror-film trailers, and he needed somebody to be the on-camera personality. Who do you think they called: the current scream queen, right? I didn’t know who John Landis was. I don’t watch these movies. I’d never seen one of them. They brought me onto the back lot, and I’m this person when I’m working with John Landis, doing the narration for these horror-film trailers.
We worked for, like, three or four days on the back lot at Universal. Then when John was casting Trading Places, he said to Paramount, “I want her.” I went and auditioned, and they said no. Remember, this is the female lead in a comedy with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. A studio picture. I know they said no, and John Landis said yes. I am in Trading Places because of horror films and because John Landis had the courage to stand up to the studio and say, “I want her.” And then that movie just was a huge hit, and that gave me some street cred. Because of that movie, John Cleese wrote the part in A Fish Called Wanda, and because of A Fish Called Wanda, Jim Cameron wrote the part in True Lies. So the truth of the matter is, if I trace it back, all of my big successes are still directly related to Laurie Strode.
You have this period after Trading Places where you did a lot of great comedies. Let’s talk about A Fish Called Wanda for a minute. Absolute perfection, this movie. It runs at such a high level all the way through. It just keeps building and building and building. What was it like?
I had a child at that point. I had a 6-month-old baby. It was very frustrating for me. How do you do this? How do you work and take care of a child? I was feeling very conflicted. We were shooting an hour away from where I was living. That means two hours in a car and 12 hours at work every day. It just felt shitty, so I was upset a lot. The work was super-fun. I obviously got to be the paramour for a bunch of different men, which was fun. I bought them all toothbrushes on opening day. You know, because it’s gross! You’re just gonna be making out with all these strange people. So I asked them to go brush their teeth. But it was fun. I just felt conflicted because I was away from my kid.
Were you ever able to integrate those two things — being a parent and working?
Yeah, I sold yogurt that makes you shit. That’s how you integrate it. You integrate it by selling yogurt that makes you shit and lets you stay in L.A. and raise your kids. I did a sitcom called Anything But Love for a minute, and that was also intended to keep me home, keep my work hours low. Being an actor is not a hard job; it’s a time-consuming job. I’m 64 years old in a week, and I have been unemployed for the great majority of my life. I’m a freelance actor. Therefore, I’m an unemployed actor most of the time. So it’s not like I work 14-hour days every day for 340 days a year. I work sporadically with intense time issues. So for me, the issue was always time management.
Often I ask the question “Why did you follow this movie with that?” and the answer is “I was behind on my mortgage payments” or “Somebody dropped out and they had to get somebody and I was available.”
I’m an accidental actor. I am an accidental participant in everything I do. By the time I get sent a job, there’s a reason, and it’s pretty clear that I can do a good job of it. For the most part, I’ve taken every job I’ve ever received. If you look back at my filmography, there are a few films that I agreed to do, again, for all the right reasons that turned out to be horribly bad. There is a movie called Virus. If you want to watch a really good bad movie, it’s called Virus. The man sitting here in the hat is looking at me like, Is she bullshitting me? Is it really bad? It’s really bad. It’s incredibly bad.
So what were the roads that led to True Lies?
Here’s True Lies: I’m sitting at home and then the phone rings. “Hello?” “Hi, Jamie, it’s James Cameron.” “Uh-huh. Hi, James Cameron.” “Listen, I’ve written a movie for you and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I would like you to read it.” “Okay.” “But I can’t send you the script because it’s protected, but I can have my assistant drop by and he’ll wait and you’ll read it and then you give it back.” “Okay, James Cameron! Okay!” Hang up, the guy shows up, I read the script. He and I meet the next morning. I’m like, “Okay!” He says, “Great.”
That’s how True Lies happened. The phone rang, and it was James Cameron saying, “I’ve written a movie for you.”
That’s gotta be pretty great.
It was awesome! It was unbelievable!
So what kind of training did you have to do to be in True Lies?
You know what I had to do? Stop eating. I called the production manager, and I said, “Hi, it’s Jamie Lee Curtis, I’m playing Helen. How far into the schedule is this scene in the hotel room?” He said, “It’s the second week.” I said, “Fuck! Thank you!” and then I stopped eating because that was like three weeks away.
But it took about two months for them to actually offer me the movie because my good friend Arnold Schwarzenegger — who only knew me as Tony Curtis’s daughter — needed to be convinced. So they screen-tested a bunch of actresses. It ultimately came back to me. To Arnold’s credit, we are now friends. I just think he knew me as Tony’s little girl. If you remember, Arnold Schwarzenegger directed a movie called Christmas in Connecticut, and who did it star? Tony Fucking Curtis. So Arnold loved my dad, and I think it might have been a little weird for him having to mack with Tony’s daughter. And I’m not a traditional beauty. I’m not a traditional leading woman. I think he thought maybe there was a better person out there. I give him a total pass for that. I agree with him. I probably would have done the same thing. But I ended up doing the part.
And here’s what happened. There’s a sequence in the middle of True Lies that’s the interrogation, and it’s written that Helen is sitting on a stool with a bag on her head and then she pulls the bag off and she’s sitting in a room with a bare bulb above her head. Like in those spy movies.
Your classic interrogation scene.
Classic interrogation setup — that one light above your head. But overhead light is shitty! So I called the DP, and I said, “Hi, it’s Jamie Lee Curtis. Listen, apparently, I’m gonna play the part of Helen. Listen, there’s a seven-, eight-page scene in the middle of this movie. It’s written that it’s a bare bulb above my head. I’m telling you now, I need more light on my face than a bare bulb above my head if you’re gonna film me in a close-up for a long sequence.” If you see the movie, you will notice that the interrogation room that Arnold and Tom are sitting in has a light around the glass. Why? Because I said, “You have to figure out a way to get light on my face.” The cinematographer had the production team build a light around the glass so I could be lit. If you go home and watch it again, I start out on the stool, I take the bag off, the light’s above my head, and I go like this [mimes blocking the light with her hand] — and I move the stool! Then I’m lit really well.
I remember the first time I saw that movie, I thought, That’s the best-looking interrogation room I’ve ever seen.
And then I wanted to ask you, the Knives Out sequel’s coming out soon.
I’m going to the premiere of Glass Onion. I’m excited. So great. I was a replacement part, but great.
Really? Tell me about that.
I’ve been a replacement part — a very successful replacement part — a couple of times. I was a replacement part on Freaky Friday. That was like the week before shooting began and I stepped into that part.
Which might be my favorite of all your performances.
Oh, it’s fantastic. But I believe I was also a replacement part in Knives Out, which is great! What that means is the part was written for somebody else and they either said no, couldn’t do it for scheduling or whatever, and then the part becomes available.
How much time did you have to prepare for Freaky Friday?
A week. I’m telling you, I was on a book tour on a Thursday, I read the script on a Friday, I flew home, I met director Mark Waters on Saturday, I had my hair dyed red on Sunday, and I was working on Monday. I had a 15-year-old and a 5-year-old at the same time. That first scene was at Pali High, where we pull up in front of the school and we run into Chad Michael Murray, and I say, “Make good choices!” The only line I’ve ever improvised.
Did you play the guitar prior to that movie?
I might have strummed a few, but I also said to them, “I need a guitar teacher, I need to learn that riff, and I need to practice it a lot.” So at lunch, the guitar tech would come and we would work.
Obviously, that’s something that can be pretty easily faked, but you didn’t want to do that.
No, I’m faking it — meaning you’re not actually hearing my notes because my noting would not be great. I will tell you this: I’m married to a guitarist. I’m married to Nigel Fucking Tufnel. My husband’s lovely and supportive-ish. I mean he is, but you know what I mean. We have a different way we go about things. I remember I had learned the guitar solo, and I was feeling like “Fuck yeah! I got this!” And so I said to my husband, “Can you just sit here? Can I just do this guitar solo? Because I need to be able to do it with somebody watching me, not just by myself.” He was like, “Okay.” I just closed my eyes and went for it. And I slayed. I opened my eyes, and this was my husband [initiates 15-second blank stare]. I slayed.
I want to talk about Everything Everywhere All at Once.
So great! So great! So great.
You were a huge, huge booster of that film. I always love it when people who are in the movie are genuinely excited about the movie, and you were genuinely excited about that movie.
Yes. I am a weapon of mass promotion. I invented Instagram! You’re laughing, but I invented Instagram. The iPhone was released several years before Instagram, and you could take good pictures with it. I’m a photographer, and I started being able to take really beautiful pictures. I went to about 30 photographer friends of mine and I said, “Hey, you can take really good pictures on the iPhone. I’m gonna start a Blogspot called” — wait for it — “iPhoneys: iPhone Photographers Sharing Their Vision at iphoneys.blogspot.com.” We all uploaded our pictures to that Blogspot for five years until Instagram stole my idea and then we all joined Instagram. You can go to the Blogspot today. They’re all still there.
Anyway, you were talking about loving a movie. Someone tweeted when we were in the midst of promotion for Everything Everywhere All at Once, “I wish someone loved me as much as Jamie Lee Curtis loves Everything Everywhere All at Once.” That, to me, meant my job was complete. I loved that movie so much, and I couldn’t believe it existed.
I couldn’t either.
And I couldn’t believe how much people loved it. It was so thrilling. You know, there were Marvel movies out there, and we were just blowing them out of the water. It was so thrilling. The Daniels — fantastic.
When I go to a movie, I’m always hoping that I’ll see something I’ve never seen before, and there was something like that every two minutes in that movie. And a lot of it you were in. You’re doing kung fu fights, you’ve got hot-dog fingers, I think at one point you play the piano with your feet.
With my feet. All I can tell you is that was a dream come true: to be able to go to work on something and let go of every idea you’ve ever had for yourself and just understand a character so deeply that you could commit so completely to what they did and what they said. I loved Deirdre Beaubeirdra. I know Deirdre Beaubeirdra. I know women like Deirdre Beaubeirdra. They’re really lonely women, and they wield their power in their jobs in such a painful way to get back at humanity for making them so lonely.
Tell me about Michelle Yeoh.
Michelle Yeoh is just an extraordinary human being. We had never met. We met on day one of rehearsing, and the two of us just fell in love. We were all up in each other’s grille. By the way, that movie was made in 38 days in an abandoned office building in Simi Valley. That building was the Countrywide Savings and Loan campus. Remember them? They were at the beginning of the subprime meltdown. That building got evacuated in one day. That entire campus that you see in that movie, which was the IRS office, was abandoned. They just pulled the computers out and walked out. And we shot the entire movie in that building. They built the interior of Dierdre and Evelyn’s apartment in the atrium of that building. That’s what creative people can do with 38 days and $12 million in Simi Valley, California.
Tell me a little bit about your work behind the scenes as a producer because that’s become increasingly an important part of your life, yes?
Yes. I mean, there’s a moment where you don’t want a movie camera in your face anymore. For me, the goal is that I am a creative person, I’m interested in telling stories, and because of Halloween, I was able to set up a company with Jason Blum at Blumhouse, and now I get to be a boss.
What happened is I went to Jason and started a company. I wrote a screenplay, and I may direct it for Jason’s company. Then through Jason’s company, we’ve started to buy material. We bought all of the rights to Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta novels, which we’re turning into a television series. We bought the rights to a book on the Paradise fire that Lizzie Johnson wrote; we’re gonna make a film out of that. I have four or five other TV shows that I’m trying to produce and get going.
I’m a hustler. It’s all a hustle. Nothing’s easy, nothing happens quickly. Oh my fucking God, nothing happens quickly. The wheels of this business are so incredibly slow because nobody can make decisions, and it just feels endless. But I persevere, I’m patient, and I’m trying to figure out how to manifest. What’s gonna flip my switch every day? I’ve raised my kids — thank you, Activia — and now I have an opportunity — thank you, David Gordon Green — to be a boss and see what I can get done. Maybe I can’t get any of it done. But we’re off to a really good start, and I have to believe that I’m here for a reason.
I interviewed your mom when she was on tour for the remake of Psycho, and I asked her, “Considering how many great films you’ve been in, does it ever bother you that when you see your name mentioned, it says ‘Janet Leigh (Psycho)?’” And she said, “No, because I got into this business hoping that I would be in at least one good film. And then the dream beyond that is to be in one classic film. Then the dream beyond that is to be the image that is on the poster of that classic film. I achieved that, and everything after that has been great.”
Wow, I wish she’d told me that! That would have been really fucking helpful!
But you’ve done that, time and time again.
I have, thank you.
It’s an extraordinary achievement.
And I’ve had fun! I want to talk about your tattoo. I want to know why you have a hand tattoo. What does it say?
It says, “Remember,” and then this hand says, “who you are.”
Oh shut the fuck up! I love that so much! I have tears in my eyes. Can’t we just cry for a minute together? “Remember who you are?” I mean, “Remember who you are.” When you leave here, remember who you are. And who you are is incredible. Remember who you are and that you can manifest whatever the fuck you want. You can do it because look at me! I’m telling you, 840 combined on my SATs. Can’t do an accent to save my life.
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