Growing up as the child of movie stars Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, Jamie Lee Curtis learned early on the difference between real life and a photo op. When she launched her career as the 19-year-old breakout of John Carpenter’s 1978 “Halloween,” who made audiences care whether she got mauled by Michael Myers — and decades later, the new Jason Blum “Halloween” that put her back in the spotlight as a scream queen — Curtis didn’t get hung up on being taken seriously.
“I remember the first day on ‘Halloween 2018′ that I was working with the young actress Andi Matichak,” Curtis said on a Zoom call. “It was a very intense scene for her and she came in fully loaded. It was over the grief of her father, and it was deeply emotional work. People in horror movies deliver that level of intensity and emotion on the daily and they are overlooked — because the genre demands it. Toni Collette! And from the beginning I’ve stayed with the joy of the job. I love my job. No one loves being an actor on a movie set more than Jamie Lee Curtis. No one, there’s not a person alive who loves it more.”
Not that there weren’t plenty of film and television kudos along the way, including a BAFTA nomination for “A Fish Called Wanda,” a win for “Trading Places,” and four Golden Globe film nominations. But here’s the thing: Curtis can do anything. Horror, romance, comedy, drama, action. And when it came to IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdre in Daniels’ “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the role demanded all of it.
It also brought 64-year-old Curtis her first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress. She’s already won Best Supporting Female Performance at the SAG Awards, along with being part of the winning ensemble.
Compass International Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection
Here are some tricks of the trade that helped Curtis get where she is today.
Act with your whole body. When Curtis starred on the ABC romantic comedy series “Anything But Love” with Richard Lewis, executive producer John Ritter watched her audition with actors. “It was a scene where an old beau was coming on to me in my office, where I’m the authority, and he’s trying to get the job,” she said. “And he comes on really hard. And he backs me up against the desk. And, this was a beau that I liked. So it’s that conflict of like, ‘I want to, but I don’t want to, I want to, but I don’t want to.’ We did the scene many times with a bunch of actors.
“Before the next actor came in, John Ritter walked up to me and he whispered in my ear: ‘You have really funny legs.’ Now, this is coming from John Ritter, who was a master of physical comedy. And I believe that all of Helen in ‘True Lies’ is directly attributable to John Ritter. Because I was as free physically as I’ve ever been during ‘True Lies.’ In all of it, Helen was just such a fabulous person. And I credit the late great John Ritter for giving me just that little permission to go for it.”
Courtesy Everett Collection
Stay honest. While making the 1985 “Perfect,” in which Curtis starred as a perfectly bodied aerobic instructor opposite John Travolta, one day the Director of Photography refused to shoot her. “There was a scene in a courtroom,” Curtis said. “And to director [James Bridges], he said, ‘You’re not going to shoot her today. Her eyes are puffy.’ I was 26.”
She continued, “By 35, I had some eye surgery, because if you look at a picture of me as a kid, I look tired. I look exhausted, because I just had naturally dark circles under my eyes. Anyway, that happened. As soon as my gray hair started coming in, I started dyeing it. I hate beauty parlor chairs. I don’t like the smell of this stuff. I don’t like sitting there. I don’t like baking under the thing. And from a very early point, I thought: ‘This is ridiculous that I’m going to spend all this time hiding something.’”
Then came the infamous 2002 More Magazine cover, shot when Curtis was 43. “I was selling a book about self esteem for children,” she said. “It was called, ‘I’m Gonna Like Me.’ I said to them, ‘Look, my self esteem was put into question and I did plastic surgery, and I hated it. And I have now accepted that this is what I look like. And I will do this magazine cover for you. And by the way, on the cover, I’m smiling and airbrushed, but then I will take a picture in my underwear. You can do no retouching. The lighting isn’t gonna be pretty. And I will take that picture. But then you have to put it opposite a picture of me fully dressed up, fully made up. And you have to say how long it took and how much money so that people can relate.”
“I knew it would have an impact,” she added. “I knew it. Because I’m also known for my figure. And here I’m saying, ‘Look, I’m a little chubby. And I’m middle-aged. And I don’t spend eight hours at the gym. I don’t spend one hour at the gym, I’m lucky if I walk for 20 minutes, I maybe do a few sit-ups and a few push ups. I wanted to say to people who had spent a lot of time looking at pictures of me from ‘Perfect,’ comparing themselves to me, that I did not want that to happen. And so this was a way to say, ‘Look, this is what I look like. This is who I am, please understand, I’m just like you.’ That was an important moment.”
©Universal/courtesy Everett / Everett Collection
Staying sober was another important authenticator. “Being sober is the great equalizer,” she said. “You know that you are looking into the deep, dark, truthful mirror, [which] is both a beautiful construct of the emotional life, the spiritual life, the truth of my life. And looking into the mirror, you have to accept the things you cannot change.”
That includes genetics. “Now I got lucky,” she said. “I have beautiful genetics. My mother: gorgeous woman, my father was very handsome. And I have nice skin, but I knew that I would never become a ‘cosmeceutical’ person. I am not going to advertise that ‘if you do this, you will look different and feel different.’ That’s just not going to be my path. Selling yogurt that makes you poop is actually a public service. That’s different than ‘if you use this anti-aging cream, you’re gonna look younger.’ All of that became a rallying cry that then I’ve established as my gig. And so now it’s just the way it is.”
Courtesy Everett Collection
Stay out of your trailer while on set. From the start, Curtis knew who Deirdre was — even if she didn’t fully understand the script. “I’ve met Deirdre,” she said. “I know a couple of Deirdres. Three years ago, I was a 60-year-old woman who has had heartbreak, disappointment, been overlooked. I have felt abandoned. I have felt rejection. And I have been forgotten. I know what that feels like emotionally.”
No prosthetics were required for Deirdre’s ample bulges. On Zoom, Curtis hauled up her shirt to show me her stomach. “I’m not sucking my stomach in,” she said. “But I’m not not sucking my stomach in. This is what it looks like. And I worked out this morning. I’m 64. But my point is this, I am not fat shaming. I’m saying that for most people who sit at a desk all day long that’s what it looks like. No, I didn’t stick it out. I just relaxed. I relaxed my stomach. And if I relax it today, I’m not pushing, I’m just relaxing. I’m not doing what we all do 90% of the time, which is is clench ourselves.”
The majority of Curtis’ work in the movie was shot in the first two days but she never left the set. “I watch everything,” she said. “Being on set is very, very involved. I ask a lot of questions. I watch how people use the camera: angles, lenses. I felt the depth of it all. The first time I started speaking as Deirdre, I knew she sounded like a combination of Fauci and Bernie Sanders. I knew she wasn’t from LA. It wasn’t heavy handed. There was just a relaxing of my jaw a little bit and nobody said anything. So I just kept doing it.”
Her directors are happy people, she said. “They love also to do what they do. They are joyful people, they love that they’ve created this petri dish of creativity with all of these elements interacting and and colliding. It turns out that Daniel Kwan was the more visual and technical of the two. And Daniel Scheinert was more the communicator. Scheinert was the actor’s director. It didn’t need a lot, it’s shading things.”
She added, “The moment with Michelle [Yeoh] in the hot dog universe on the page reads in a way as being absurd. As Michelle and I created this world together quickly, the improvisation that came out of it was the breakup, the heartbreak of breaking up with someone, regardless of the fact that you have hotdog hands so you have to pull your suitcases with your feet. And this scene became about a loofah that Deirdre had bought at Bed, Bath and Beyond. But Evelyn used it more. And so Deirdre was telling Evelyn, that even though she bought it, ‘I’m leaving it for you.’ And that opened both of us up all of a sudden to the heartache of having to separate your property. All of that awful aspect of the breakup became this rich and fertile emotional soil. And Michelle went there. I went there. It became incredibly poignant.”
Stay curious. Check out the Variety Actors on Actors series and you’ll see Curtis do a penetrating interview with Colin Farrell. She was curious and probing, without trying to promote herself. “When I was young, I was not curious,” she said. “And I remember a man. I was in 19, 20, maybe 21. And I remember him saying something to me like, ‘You are the most incurious person I’ve ever met.’ Drugs may have been involved, who knows, but I remember thinking about what he said. And I don’t know if that became this impetus of curiosity. But the truth is, I am curious. I’m curious about everybody I meet. I want to peel it away and connect the dots.”
Take opportunities. When Curtis returned as Laurie Strode in “Halloween 2018,” she made a side deal with Jason Blum to launch her production company Comet Pictures. She has a long list of projects to produce, most prominently at Amazon with Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series co-starring Curtis and Nicole Kidman as the title detective, which is heading into production.
“All of a sudden, at 60, I now was headlining movies,” she said. “And those movies were successful. Part of my negotiation with Blumhouse for the ‘Halloween’ movies was to let me have a company. So they are going to produce ‘Scarpetta’ with me, they are producing [Amazon series] ‘The Sticky’ [starring Margo Martindale] with me, [eco-horror film] ‘Mother Nature’ will be produced under their banner. So yes, Jason Blum has been not only a great business partner, but has really been a creative partner for me. And with the success of those ‘Halloween’ movies, he has given me an opportunity that I would not have been able to find anywhere else. Because [before that] I didn’t have agency. I didn’t have a purchase to stand on.”
Having published 12 children’s books, Curtis also wrote a movie to direct, but it was shelved when COVID hit. “I don’t think that it will ever get resurrected,” she said. “I don’t need to [direct], to be complete as an artist. I would like to because I’m that girl and I’m visual and I like storytelling. I’m very much interested in expressing myself creatively.”
To quote Sheryl Crow, “all I want to do is have a little fun before I die,” said Curtis. “All I want to do is have some creativity before I die. And if not now, when? If not me, who? I’ve lost a lot of people, a lot of people have died that I’ve known. That’s part of life, obviously. What I’ve learned about death, is that the real tragedy of death is the creativity and the ideas that human could have brought to the universe. I mean, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. It’s happening, game is on.”