Jamie Lee Curtis: ‘There was a time when my biggest roles were to do with my sexuality’

‘Once they parodied me on Saturday Night Live! Now I get a lifetime-achievement award’

Jamie Lee Curtis: ‘It was guerrilla film-making, new and delicious and lovely.’ Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty

Jamie Lee Curtis: ‘It was guerrilla film-making, new and delicious and lovely.’ Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty

 

Jamie Lee Curtis is describing herself to me. “I’m in a black hole wearing an orange suit,” she says. “It’s early morning in Los Angeles and I’m feeling really good. Fit as a fiddle.” The visual pointers are unnecessary, as we are talking via a video call, and that suit could be seen from space: she looks like a human Tic Tac. It is almost as dazzling as the raspberry ensemble she wore, offset by her trademark silver crop, in the whodunit Knives Out.

“I have a very close friend who’s a fashion girl, and she posted a picture of herself in that top and pants, so I sent it to our wardrobe designer and said, ‘That’s my character!’” Curtis has told the story before, but no matter: when she talks, it is as though she is linking her arm through yours. She takes you along for the ride.

Orange is a fitting colour to wear while promoting the new instalment of the series that made her a star. In Halloween Kills, the 62-year-old is back as the victimised but resilient Laurie Strode, who has been burning the pumpkin at both ends since 1978. In John Carpenter’s original slasher masterpiece, she was hunted by the implacable, white-masked killer Michael Myers, who sliced and diced her entire peer group but never quite managed to pin her down. He has been trying ever since.

This summer Jamie Lee Curtis revealed that her younger child is transgender. She and her husband, Christoper Guest, ‘watched in wonder and pride as our son became our daughter Ruby’

“We made that film in 17 days,” she says. “There were no frills whatsoever. It was guerrilla film-making, new and delicious and lovely. Everyone was so young! I was 19. The oldest person was 30.” She is forgetting Donald Pleasence, 59 at the time, who did her the kindness of shooting Michael in the final scene – not that it did much good in the long run. But you take her point.

Curtis reprised her role three more times in the next quarter of a century, most enjoyably in 1998, when she appeared in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later alongside her mother, the Psycho star and original “scream queen” Janet Leigh. What a shame that she never persuaded her father, Tony Curtis, to star in a Halloween film – or, for that matter, her husband, Christopher Guest of This Is Spinal Tap, with whom she has two adult daughters. This summer, she revealed that her younger child is transgender. She and Guest “watched in wonder and pride as our son became our daughter Ruby”, she said in July.

When the Pineapple Express director, David Gordon Green, revived the Halloween franchise in 2018, he disregarded everything that had happened since the first movie; the events of the sequels were wiped as if a computer had crashed. Now Halloween Kills, the second in Green’s trilogy, picks up the story at the end of his previous film, with Laurie on her way to hospital after an explosive confrontation with her nemesis, whom she left apparently burning to death.

Jamie Lee Curtis with Don Johnson and Ana de Armas in Knives Out. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate
Knives Out: Jamie Lee Curtis with Don Johnson and Ana de Armas. Photograph: Lionsgate

“The film-makers painted themselves into a corner,” she says. “A very bloody corner, but a corner nonetheless. I think Laurie would have been happy to die. If she had bled out surrounded by her daughter and granddaughter, and Michael was dead, she would’ve felt…” She claps her palms together, as though she has just dug Michael’s grave with her bare hands and is ridding them of the soil. “A good life. A hero’s death for her. Great way to go.”

But profitable film franchises, like remorseless movie psychopaths, are rarely allowed to die. “The 2018 Halloween was the highest-grossing [opening-weekend] movie with a female lead over the age of 55 in history,” she points out, proudly. The third one, Halloween Ends, is already in the can and due out next October. Come on, I say: it won’t really end, will it? “I never say never. Because if I’d said never, I wouldn’t have made these films, which have this global reach and which actually say something.”

Halloween Kills is certainly a movie with a lot on its mind. Had its original release not been delayed by the pandemic, the climactic scenes of mob violence would have looked prescient in the light of events in Washington, DC, this year. The movie shows townsfolk smashing windows and running rampant, even chasing the wrong man to his death. At the same time, Michael has morphed into a Trumpian provocateur, only with a carving knife instead of Twitter. There is talk in the film of him “creating the chaos” and fomenting “the anger that divides us”.

‘I’m snarky and smart-alecky, so it was really enlightening that what John found in casting me in Halloween was that I have a lot of sadness and a lot of longing’
Halloween: ‘I’m snarky and smart-alecky, so it was really enlightening that what John found in casting me was that I have a lot of sadness and a lot of longing’

Curtis wriggles excitedly in her seat when I raise the idea of Halloween Kills as an allegory or a bellwether. “Oh, dude – David is as prescient a human being as I’ve ever met. He wrote this movie in 2018. We shot it in 2019. And then, on January 6th, in this country, we actually watched the mob descend. Once you get to the third movie, you’ll see that a slasher trilogy has provided a history lesson about our world.” It will, she assures me, add up to “quite a profound statement. A sign o’ the times.”

It happened, too, with Green’s first Halloween. “David wrote that in 2016, then we shot it two weeks after those first women spoke to Ronan Farrow,” she says. “Right when the women’s movement was rising up, we released this film about female trauma, about owning what happened in the past and holding the perpetrators responsible.”

She has been vocal in support of her sisters in the industry. When Scarlett Johansson (who had previously contacted her for tips about portraying Leigh in the 2012 film Hitchcock) had her recent legal dispute with Disney over profits denied her from Black Widow, Curtis rushed to her defence. “Don’t f**k with this mama bear,” she wrote of Johansson in Time.

The women’s movement was not interested. I was in horror movies, which subjugate and often objectify women in a sexualised and violent way

“If a guy did what Scarlett did, it wouldn’t have made the news,” she says. “Disney would have settled immediately. They made it personal and kind of went after her, in a way. So, of course, she has my support.” As do the women of the #MeToo movement. “I think others will be empowered to speak up because of those brave women putting themselves on the line. See, I don’t risk anything by supporting them. I really don’t. What, they’re gonna fire me from Halloween? I’m an old lady. What are they gonna do to me? But those women did have something to lose. That is courage. They have existed throughout history – and, obviously, this is way too little, way too late – but things are changing, for sure.”

Were there occasions when she has wanted to speak out and felt unable to do so? “It’s tricky for me,” she says. “I have never been a women-in-film darling. They are not interested in me.” Who are “they”? “The sort of women...” She stops. “The women’s movement was not interested. I was in horror movies, which subjugate and often objectify women in a sexualised and violent way. Even though in those movies I’m playing the girl who is intelligent, who fights back and is basically chaste. But I did those movies for a long time and there was … nothing.”

She sensed the world starting to take more notice of her when she switched from the likes of Halloween, The Fog and the excellent Road Games (think Rear Window on wheels) to the 1983 comedy Trading Places, in which she played a cheerful “hooker with a heart”. “That was a big-studio picture, an A-movie. But I’m naked in it – and now I’m legitimate? I always struggled with that. Like, wait a minute: that’s legitimacy, but the other thing isn’t?”

It seems unfortunate that she went to the trouble of making films as searching and subversive as the 1983 drama Love Letters and the 1989 thriller Blue Steel, both directed by women, only to feel excluded from feminist discourse. “Oh, I’ve had some wonderful opportunities,” she says. “And, by the way, please don’t make this that I’m feeling shunned by the women’s movement. I’m just saying there was a time when I was in exploitation movies, but that my biggest roles were to do with my physicality, my body, my sexuality.”

Curtis and Dan Aykroyd in 1983’s Trading Places. Photograph: Paramount/Allstar
Trading Places: Jamie Lee Curtis with Dan Aykroyd in the 1983 film. Photograph: Paramount

Her most unpleasant moments have all been outside the horror genre: bumping and grinding as an aerobics instructor in the inaccurately titled Perfect, with John Travolta, or being tricked by her own husband, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, into performing a humiliating erotic dance in the repugnant True Lies. Laurie would never have tolerated that.

The problem is that Curtis started out playing the clever girl in a genre that was considered dumb, so when she starred in genuinely stupid pictures, the disparity between her and the material was startling. Yet she has always bounced back – from a turkey like Perfect to A Fish Called Wanda, say – and sees herself as a survivor. “I was on television for seven years selling yogurt that makes you poop,” she says. “They parodied me on Saturday Night Live! And now here I am promoting this movie that I’m the star of, and I just went to the Venice Film Festival where they gave me a lifetime-achievement award. My point is: do whatever you need to do. I am that girl. I have survived the slings and arrows.”

I’m snarky and smart-alecky, so it was really enlightening that what John found in casting me in Halloween was that I have a lot of sadness and a lot of longing

It wasn’t just yogurt commercials and a few bad movies: she has spoken publicly about taking cocaine with her father, and in 2019 she went public about her former addiction to the painkiller Vicodin. (She has been sober for more than 20 years.) Does her survivor instinct make her more like Laurie? “Yes and no,” she says. “I’m snarky and smart-alecky, so it was really enlightening that what John found in casting me in Halloween was that I have a lot of sadness and a lot of longing. It allowed me to explore that in playing her. So, in that sense, yes, she and I are similar. But the Laurie we met in 2018 survived trauma with zero help. I have never sustained that level of trauma and, more importantly, I’ve had tremendous help.”

It is time to wrap up, but she wants to squeeze in one final story. “Don’t hate me!” she calls out to the unseen publicists monitoring her schedule. She feels compelled to speak about her final night’s work on the previous Halloween movie. The last scene to be shot involved her sitting alone in a truck. “There’s no dialogue,” she says. “The script says: ‘Laurie revisits 40 years of trauma in that moment.’ It’s night, we are out in the middle of nowhere. I go to my room and prepare. Then I hear, ‘Jamie, they’re ready for you,’ and I walk on to the set. The entire crew is silent; they’re all standing with arms behind their backs.

“Now, I like the crew to wear name tags on the first day of work, but this is the end of the movie. And every one of them is wearing a name tag that says: ‘We are Laurie Strode.’ I walk through this gauntlet of my crew, who are saying to me: we know what you have to go do. And we support you.” Her voice is faltering – she is choking back tears. “I climb in that truck and the crew stands there in silence and solidarity. That’s the kind of movie Halloween is. That’s what it’s like.”

It is a neat story, informed by just the right proportions of movie-set madness and charged emotion. I thank her, we say our goodbyes, then I search online for “We are Laurie Strode”. Sure enough, she has recounted the tale elsewhere. In one clip, from three years ago, her voice cracks and wobbles in exactly the same place as it did just now. Rather than rendering what she told me less meaningful, however, it makes me appreciate her craft even more. Curtis is an actor; what she gave me was a superior take of a well-rehearsed story. In other words, she killed.

Halloween Kills is on general release

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