High Times Greats: Jamie Lee Curtis

On the aesthetics of gore, being a sex symbol and being a businesswoman.
High Times Greats: Jamie Lee Curtis
Jamie Lee Curtis by Howard Rosenberg

Spawn of a Hollywood movie-star marriage, Jamie Lee Curtis has the combined good looks of both her parents. Starting out as the “Scream Queen” in a host of schlock horror flicks, she worked her way into the big time and stayed there. For the October, 1984 issue of High Times, Michael Wilmington interviewed Jamie Lee Curtis, who celebrates her birthday November 22.

I first became aware of Jamie Lee Curtis—daughter of one of Hollywood’s most storied and celebrated ‘50s marriages (between Tony Curtis of the oily locks and Janet Leigh, the decade’s best lady-in-distress)—in Halloween, the low-budget horror smash in which she played an apparently indestructible psycho. I remember thinking she was pretty, but, next to her mother—a little skinny. How wrong I was. I first became aware of Jamie Lee Curtis in a series of eye-popping stills from Trading Places, where she mugged and caroused for the camera with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, looking gorgeous, sparkling, a little bawdy, anything but a victim—and anything but skinny. In Trading Places—after five years as Hollywood’s reigning low-budget “scream queen,” stalked by a series of increasingly destructible and ever more dubious psychos and slashers—Jamie Lee played Ophelia, a wisecracking, street-smart, survivalist Chicago whore.

Her smile was easy, her morals were easier; her blouse came off like sheet lightning. It was a performance that cut like a knife: vigorous, vivid, sexy. And though roles like Ophelia are rarely hailed or applauded—they look too simple, too much like “star turns”—Curtis got a batch of good reviews—and last year’s British Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. (Her competition included Jessica Lange’s Oscar-winning job in Tootsie.)

Trading Places shows that Curtis is probably much better, much punchier, when she isn’t playing a victim—when she can give vent to a sense of satire and a bent for goofy high jinks that simply weren’t apparent in the likes of Prom Night or Terror Train. Her true metier, in fact, is probably as a sexy comedienne. In fact, I was continually struck, while transcribing this interview—which was prompted by her current film, Love Letters—at how much she sounded like Carol Burnett. It isn’t just her vocal quality and timbre, oddly enough, but the kinds of jokes she tells, and the way her voice pushes up to a spoofily “hysterical” coloratura lift, when she starts sending things up.

Curtis is obviously something of an untapped talent—despite her recent high visibility. She’s also a knockout. Unfortunately, the one thing I couldn’t transcribe here was the best part of the whole interview—When the photo session started, Howard Rosenberg set up, Jamie Lee slipped T-Bone Burnett into her tape player and then began, with sizzle and panache, posing all around her sunny, white-on-white apartment. As she whirled and tipped from balcony to balcony, I remembered Howard Hawks’ dictum, “The camera loves certain actors.” The camera—still and moving—definitely loves Jamie Lee. And so, for that matter, do we.

High Times: How do you feel about Love Letters?

Jamie Lee Curtis: I like the movie. I think it’s a good movie—for a certain audience. If anyone’s ever had an affair with a married man, or someone very involved—and if you’ve ever overromanticized the relationship—I think that this movie explains that fairly well. I’ve overromanticized relationships, numerous times. I haven’t gotten as deep as Anna does—but the line where he [James Reach] says, “Do you want me to leave my family?” I’ve had that line actually said to me. And I’ve actually said, “No, I want you to want to leave them.” So I buy all that stuff. I really buy that relationship.

High Times: It’s pretty rare these days when Hollywood even attempts a realistic story about recognizable human behavior.

Curtis: That’s why I did the movie. That’s why I think everybody did the movie. Because it was like, “Boy, we’re gonna make an attempt at this? Oh, boy… we’re gonna actually get money? We’re gonna make this movie? Nobody’s saying we’re gonna have to change the ending? Nobody’s saying he’ll have to leave his wife at the end? Oh, boy! It’s actually gonna have—not necessarily—a happy ending? Oh boy!!”‘ And I was real excited about that.

High Times: It was a real departure for you. Is it the kind of movie you’d like to make more often?

Curtis: It’s the type of movie I’d like to make… the way we made it. It was really great, we made it like we made Halloween. We made this for $700,000—and shot it in twenty days. It was really a group effort. And it was really fun to make that type of film… I like to be a little lighter. There’s a lighter side of me I like a lot better than the serious side. Love Letters—that one hurt a lot. That one hit home a lot, it’s serious, a real serious story. And I’m kind of—a happier person than that.

High Times: You say Love Letters was a group effort. Did you make any special suggestions or contributions?

Curtis: Some small script suggestions. I like the screenplay. The screenplay has changed from what you saw. They cut a lot—a lot of the stuff that I think you may have missed or wanted, character stuff that had to go for the sake of plot development. There was a great scene with Amy Madigan and me in a restaurant talking about men. It was a wonderful thing—kids screaming in the restaurant and Anna idealizing everyone she sees, imagining that it was her with Oliver’s kid. So she’s looking at kids and mothers—and her girlfriend’s rattling on about penises. It was really very funny. I miss that scene.

But I like the film. It’s a small movie. You don’t start out with great expectations for this type of film. It’s just that if you feel strongly about it, and you believe in it, you put it out there. And you let the people decide.

The one thing that’s interesting… I like to get involved—I’m real nosy. I’m a real bitch, in that sense. I mean, I’m not… I think I’m real good to work with, and I don’t think I’m nasty. But I like to know what’s going on. Like, with ad campaigns and things, I stick my nose in full force. And actually, the ad line is my line. It’s a line from the script, but I recommended it: “Sometimes it’s right to do the wrong thing.”

I think it’s a movie for women, primarily, because men have a lot of trouble dealing with the fact that it’s a girl’s point of view of what an extramarital affair is like. I think women will like it a lot—because I think a lot of women have been in those places. Also, a lot of men pretend like they’ve never said things like: “I know it’s a lie, but promise me you’ll never leave me.” I mean, come on: it’s said, done, a lot.

High Times: I’m reminded of the problems Jonathan Kaplan had on Heart Like a Wheel. He was told by the marketing people of a “truism” of Hollywood advertising: Women don’t go to see movies. Do you see any signs of that breaking?

Curtis: Terms of Endearment is a “woman’s film” that’s grossed over a hundred million dollars. It certainly crossed over for men. And it’s made a lot of money—so there are a lot of women out there.

There are certainly aspects of Love Letters that should appeal to men, as well as women. I don’t want to bring up the aspects that should appeal to men, because it has to do with me—and I would rather not, sort of, bring that up too much. Nor does it sound good coming from my mouth. I’m not that good at being objective about that sort of thing.

High Times: Any comments about being one of the Hollywood “Second Generation,” like the Fondas and the Carradines? Or about the breaking up of the old Hollywood?

Curtis: Boy, oh boy. Well, put it this way: The “Old Hollywood” community does not exist, even today, even with those families. I adhere to—and miss—a lot of the Old Hollywood. And I wish that a lot of the aspects that my parents were able to enjoy about the studio system, I could enjoy. It’s a lot more difficult.

I’d like the security, the feel of “family.” Right now it’s very hard—except for your close group of friends—to really feel like there’s a family atmosphere. You work for one studio; then the next day, you work for another studio; then the next day, you work for another. It’s a very extended family; it’s a very big family.

High Times: I want to ask you about your parents—because they’ve been in four of my favorite movies: Your mother was in Psycho and Touch of Evil, and your father was in Some Like It Hot and Sweet Smell of Success.

Curtis: Those are my four! Okay. Good. We get along. We’re in. Sidney Falco… I just saw my dad the other day and he started doing his Sidney Falco. And he also does Burt Lancaster, so he’s doing the two of them. He’s doing Hunseker and Sidney, and he’s becoming schizophrenic—

High Times: What was it like being the child of such a visible marriage?

Curtis: Well, it was a real visible marriage, but don’t forget, they were divorced when I was three. So it wasn’t visible for me. I didn’t see them ever together, really. I don’t remember them ever being together. And it’s interesting for me to look back over news footage and clips and magazine articles. I look at them and go, “Shit. They must have just been the cat’s meow. They just must have been pretty… fuckin’… great.” And I would really like to have seen them together. It’s a disappointment in my life that I never got to just see them together, to see them, the two of them when they were at that time of their lives—it must have just been…

We have no idea about that type of stardom any more. That type of stardom does not exist. John Travolta probably comes close to getting that much attention. And he’s really one individual… And my mom and dad had it. And I saw that when I went to Europe to promote Trading Places. Because it was phenomenal how they were respected and loved by the European people.

Americans are fickle. We want a different flavor. We want to be stimulated by different people… We’re very easily dismissed in this town.

High Times: By the public, or the powers-that-be?

Curtis: Definitely dismissed by the powers-that-be, after a certain amount of time. And, yes, dismissed by the public—not because they really do, but because they’re inundated by so many others. And that’s partly just an actor’s life; that happens to a movie actor. You know: it goes away. It cannot stay forever. I don’t look for that. I’m not expecting it—especially in today’s business.

High Times: Did your mother ever encourage you to act?

Curtis: No. I just sort of did everything. It was really odd. I was encouraged to be just sort of an interesting child. I was exposed to a lot of things, so that I could make my own decisions about lots of stuff. I was exposed to everything. I could have been a ballet dancer. I could have been a good athlete, I could have been a real good athlete.

High Times: What was your specialty?

Curtis: I could have been a good tennis player. I could have been a good swimmer. You know, you have to make that decision really early on—so you can be molded into the proper form for that sport. I have a good all-round body for sports. I’m a natural athlete. Good form. I may miss the ball, but I’ll look good doing it. You know what I mean. I may, like, fall at the end of a hill, but my style—going
down—will be good. I was well-educated in sports—and arts and literature. I thank my parents a lot for that. They made sure that I was educated on all levels, for everything.

High Times: Could you talk about Halloween? When you guys were making it, did you have any idea it would be that big?

Curtis: No. No one did. No one. Now, they say they did. There are a lot of people around this place who say they knew it was going to be a huge hit, that they were big supporters of it. I mean, I meet more and more people who I went to high school with. And I meet more and more people who were involved with Halloween, every day. All of a sudden, there were like lots of people who were producing this movie. And I went to school with a lot of people. Boy oh boy oh boy… I went to schools I never heard of. And was very good friends—best friends—with a lot of people.

Howard Rosenberg: You went to school with me.

Curtis: Which one?

Rosenberg: Alan Capps. You went one day, and it was during the actor’s strike—

Curtis: Alan Capps—I did! We did go to school together. It was Alan Capps’ cinematography class. During the actors’ strike I thought: [slaps knee] Okay—I can’t act. Go for shooting. So I was going to shoot movies. So I went to cinematography school.

You know, we made Halloween for $300,000 in fourteen days. And it was a little horror movie; I don’t think most people had illusions about what it was going to do.

High Times: It spawned a whole series of movies…

Curtis: I was in some of ’em.

High Times: …which got progressively cruder and bloodier—

Curtis: Which is bizarre, because the one thing about Halloween is that it was all assumed terror. It was assumed violence—mostly. It was assumed blood. It’s the old adage: your own imagination is a hell of a lot worse than anything you’ll ever see. And so, play on that, use that, utilize that. And so what happened was, every subsequent film got more graphic. All of a sudden, all of these knock-off movies that tried to emulate Halloween became gorier and gorier and gorier.

If you like the people that you’re watching, and you believe that the action in the movie is completely normal—normal life, kids walking down the street, nice—and if you believe it wholeheartedly, then when the unreality comes in, you believe that too. All the knock-offs… you didn’t give a fuck about anybody. I can’t remember anybody’s name, you know? Slowly, more and more character development was going down the toilet, and more and more close-ups of knives slashing into throats were coming in. And I watched this happening—and I remember, on Prom Night, saying to Paul Lynch, “You assume too quickly that your audience likes us.” It’s like five pages into the script, and already bizarre stuff is happening. I said, “They’re not going to respond to it. You haven’t let the audience get to know the characters yet.” It has to be very simple. Simple, real… Boom! That’s how you scare people.

John Carpenter said to me, the first day, “I want Laurie Strode to be vulnerable. I want you to be so vulnerable in the part that the audience actually talks back to you.” I immediately said, “I don’t want to play ‘vulnerable’ parts. Meaning, I don’t want to be weak.” And he said, “Vulnerable is not weak.” And we talked about vulnerability and weakness, and the similarities and the parallels. And he said, “I want them to love you. And I want them to take care of you. So that by the end of the movie they will actually talk back to you.” And I said, “Yeah, sure. Ha ha.” And I went and watched the movie, at the Pix Theater in Hollywood, with eight people. And the walk across the street, after all the girls have been killed in the house, and there’s the shot sequence: On Laurie, back to the house. On Laurie. Back to the house. On Laurie. Back to the house. A woman stood up at the back of the Pix Theater and screamed out, “Laurie! Don’t go in there!” And I went, “Okay, John. Okay. So you were right.”

High Times: How did you feel about getting typed as “The Scream Queen of Hollywood”?

Curtis: It was okay by me. It was work.

High Times: Trading Places revolutionized your image and won you the British Academy Award. Were you surprised at the impact it had?

Curtis: I was flabbergasted. I am still surprised. Trading Places was John Landis’ doing. He hired me. And I’m sure he put up with a lot of shit from a lot of people. Because they were just too used to seeing me in a certain way… there’s a long list of women who could play that part, who wanted it. Apparently I gave a good audition. But I thank him for giving me that part. I give him all the credit. I loved working with Danny and Eddie. I had a great time. But he enabled me to be good. He’s a wonderful director.

High Times: Trading Places was done right after Twilight Zone. Did you know about the problems he was going to have?

Curtis: Yes.

High Times: Did it affect the shooting at all?

Curtis: No.

High Times: Are there any actors or actresses whom you emulate?

Curtis: I don’t emulate anybody I respect Katie Hepburn—a lot. I gotta tell you—I was never a movie kid. I dated a couple of guys once who each went through this experience that when they saw The Graduate, it changed their lives. Movies don’t do that for me, now. Maybe it’s because I know too much about them. Maybe I get a little jaded. I’m really shitty at movie trivia games. I suck eggs at that. I’ve never been a cin-e-mah student.

High Times: Now that you’re in a position to shape your career, what would you like to do? What’s your type of movie?

Curtis: I like funny movies. I think I… like romance. I like… what did I buy? I bought Splash. What else did I buy—wholeheartedly, recently? I bought Terms. I liked Broadway Danny Rose. What movie did I think a lot about, recently?… Oh! I liked Iceman. This new movie, Iceman? I loved this movie. I cried. And there’s a scene in Iceman that made me laugh: where Timothy Hutton is singing with this iceman. And he’s singing “Heart of Gold.” And it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen: I mean, I laughed. Real, hearty laughter. It’s hard to get me to laugh like that—at a movie.

I’m really very simple. I like happy endings. I like to be stimulated. I’m simple, you know?

High Times: Is there anyone you’d especially like to work with?

Curtis: Quite a few directors. A lot of actors. I’d like to work very much with John Schlesinger. I’d like to work with Roman Polanski. I’d like to work with Gerard Depardieu—very badly. I’ll do a walk-on, to do a movie with
Gerard Depardieu. I’d like to work with [Deborah] Winger. I think Winger and I would be terrific together in a movie.

High Times: Any other plans for the future?

Curtis: I don’t think it’s possible to plan too far ahead in this business anymore… I have a feeling some day I’ll be an executive. I sat at somebody’s desk yesterday—and I just think it fit me well. ‘Cause I know who’s going to hit. I know it. God, I know—I wish I could just say, “Put those two together in that movie, thank you very much… yeah, yeah, yeah, I know they’re not big… yeah, yeah, I know… no, no, I know, I know… Okay, I know all that. Just let ’em go to work.”

And if there was a place for me in there, I’d say, “Well, we’ll put those two and me in there.” I think I have a very good eye. I also think I’m a good businesswoman. And I will be behind the desk sometime. Because, as an actress, you can’t work all the time. It’s the weirdest business in the world: the more successful you get, the less you work. It’s the dumbest thing in the world. The more success, the less work. It’s dumb, but true.

But I don’t like not working. I like to work. So, if I can’t act all the time—I think I’d be a terrific executive. I’d be a good line-producer, but I’d be a really good executive. I think I work well with people. I think I do know how to match people together. I’m good at saying “No.” I’m real good at saying “Yes.”

High Times: How do your parents feel about your success?

Curtis: More and more I’m seeing their glee. More and more. Not that they weren’t happy before, but I get to see it. There’s a thing called “passing the baton”—and I think it’s just a genuine, neat thing for any parent to see their kid doing well at something—and it happens to be the same thing that they did. I can imagine if a child of mine was successful in the same business I was in; I think it would just tickle me pink. I think it makes them happy.

High Times: You made one movie [The Fog] with your mother. Would you like to work with both your parents?

Curtis: Yeah, there’s always been a desire for the entire family to work together. It has to be dealt with very carefully… I’d sure like to. [Laughs] Sidney Falco meets Ophelia! And Marion Crane… Marion, Sidney and Ophelia have a movie together. Wow.

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