Jamie Lee Curtis: A Life in Full Bloom
Bursting with ideas and hungry for knowledge, the actress is making up for lost time
Jamie Lee Curtis peers at me with a crooked grin through the driver's side window of my car. She has appeared seemingly from nowhere to open the gate to her Los Angeles home, tucked in a canyon not far from the Pacific Ocean. After directing me to a parking spot under a portico, she grabs my hand and gives it an enthusiastic shake.
"Oh my God, look what just happened,” she exclaims, noting that she's fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and aware that I am, too. “I didn't put my elbow up. I didn't try to not connect. I connected with you. Yours is the first human hand I've shaken in more than a year!"
She leads me up a stairway to a sun-dappled deck where a patio table is set with an afternoon repast of mint tea and lemon cake for two. “That was powerful,” she says, pulling out a chair.
I have met Jamie Lee Curtis before, but today I've come face-to-face with a woman I would describe as in full bloom. The actress/children's book author/philanthropist has overcome her share of difficulties and finally found a balance of professional success and personal happiness.
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At 62, she radiates energy and enthusiasm. In two days, she will depart for Budapest to film Borderlands, having spent the past 14 months at home. It was not a sedentary isolation, by any means: Since the start of the pandemic, Curtis has launched numerous, varied projects. “I wake up every day at 4 a.m. and have so much on my mind,” she explains. “I'm just so crazy excited and creative right now. And I don't want to squander any of it.”
This “great mental migration,” as Curtis calls it, began in her 50s, after she'd overcome drug addiction, raised her two children and started doing a whole lot of reading. A voice in her head kept asking, If not now, when? If not me, who? She realized that time was no longer on her side, and that it would be a tragedy to come to that final moment — “No one gets out of life alive,” she half jokes — without having put her ideas into action.
"Get out the tape measure,” she counsels. “Look at what age your parents died, look at what age you are. It's not long. Laugh about it a little. And then shut up and do something! So that's where I'm at in my life right now."
On a wall in Curtis’ kitchen hangs a 4-foot-tall poster that reads “Note to Self: Be Kind, Be Kind; Be Kind.” It is one of many messages that Curtis has culled during her recent years of autodidacticism — reading, studying, observing at what she calls “my own Jamie university.” Many of these sayings influence her daily.
When ideas go unexamined and unchallenged for a long enough time, they become mythological and very, very powerful. They create conformity. They intimidate.
Curtis was the second daughter of Hollywood legends Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Her parents divorced when she was 3, and she was raised by Leigh and her fourth husband, Robert Brandt, a stockbroker. Growing up, Curtis’ biological father was not around much, she says, and their relationship was tumultuous. While Leigh and Brandt offered a steadying influence, Curtis describes them as strict and rigid.
"There is nothing harder than being a child,” Curtis says with a sigh, “and I am a product of a lot of divorces. Janet married four times, Bob four, and Tony six. It is what it is, but I think, as a result, I have always had a feeling for vulnerable children.” Which would explain why, for years and years, Curtis has supported children's charities — and why in 1993 she began authoring children's books. She now has written a dozen of them. And why in 2003 she had no problem playing a 15-year-old girl in an adult woman's body in the film Freaky Friday, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe award.
So about 10 years ago, when Curtis stumbled upon E.L. Doctorow's quote about unexamined ideas, it came as a stunning revelation. “I realized it's about calcification,” she says. “It's about creating conformity so you don't rebel. That was me. I was a very good girl."
Since reading Doctorow's words, Curtis has been recalibrating the parts of her life that no longer suit her. “If something's not working and we don't look at it, rip it down and start again, then we're perpetuating the same intimidating force that Doctorow was talking about."
In some ways, though, Jamie Lee Curtis has been reinventing herself for a very long time. In December of 1998, gazing out the kitchen window at a vacation home in Idaho that she owns with her actor/writer/director husband, Christopher Guest, Curtis washed down a handful of Vicodin tablets with a glass of wine. It was a habit that had begun when she was prescribed the painkillers following a cosmetic surgery nearly a decade earlier. While she stood at the window and waited for “that lovely opiate hit,” Curtis recalls, a Brazilian healer friend who was visiting approached her from behind and said in a heavy whisper: “You're not Jamie."
That comment planted a seed. A month later, Curtis picked up a copy of Esquire, came across an article by Tom Chiarella about his addiction to Vicodin, and realized just who Jamie was. “He wrote about how he didn't know where his marriage certificate or his daughter's birth certificate were,” she recalls, “but that he knew where every Vicodin was in his house. There were two in the tip of his left cowboy boot, one under the bill of his Cubs cap … and I recognized all the secrecy and the obsession and that was me."
In February of 1999, Curtis entered recovery, and she's been free of drugs and alcohol ever since. Had she not shed her addiction, she says, she would be “dead for sure.” Sobriety has brought her a community that she desperately wanted and a new identity that she describes as “just a sober person — flawed, contradictory, broken and redeemed."
She has continued the practice of letting go. “I am somebody who sheds every day,” she says. “Let's get rid of that, I don't need that. It's all about old ideas that don't work anymore.” In the mid-1990s, Curtis began to scale down her acting career to devote more time to raising her two children with Guest. For a time, she took up photography as a steady hobby, amassing cameras like a pro. Now, she says, she has given them all away and shoots just fine with her iPhone.
More recently, she has gotten rid of what she calls “vampire” friendships and begun setting boundaries with the friends she has decided to keep or reconnect with. And she has become increasingly comfortable with giving her money away.
She and Guest long ago established their Syzygy Foundation, which supports children's health and environmental causes, and while at home during the pandemic, Curtis launched myhandinyours.com, an online shop offering various objects of comfort made by artists — sculptures, candles, wind chimes — to benefit Children's Hospital Los Angeles. She has underwritten the entire project, and in less than a year it has raised $250,000 for the hospital.
Possibly one of the biggest “old ideas” that Curtis has shed recently is the notion that gender is fixed. With her younger child's permission, Curtis reveals that she and Guest “have watched in wonder and pride as our son became our daughter Ruby. And she and her fiancé will get married next year at a wedding that I will officiate.” Ruby, now 25, is a computer gaming editor. Older sister Annie, 34, is married and a dance instructor. Curtis says she has no grandchildren — “Not yet, but I do hope to."
Her life, these days, is what Curtis describes as a “constant metamorphosis."
[T]he free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.
The actress takes me on a tour of the house next door, which she and Guest purchased in 2016. During the past year, she has reconfigured the bungalow into a writing-in-the-round workshop space, a podcast studio and a warehouse for her myhandinyours.com store. Whizzing across the yard, Curtis passes the garage and observes aloud, “That's my husband's car there.” She stops in the garden to show me the pale lavender Lagerfeld roses she has recently taught herself to cultivate.
“I live by the idea that what I know is that I don't know very much,” she says. “I struggled in school with what I'm assuming was some kind of learning challenge, and I barely got out of high school, since I became an actress so early.” (Curtis’ film debut was a starring role in the 1978 horror movie Halloween.)
She's now making up for lost time, inspired by Steinbeck's statement that wide-ranging individual inquiry is of the utmost importance. In addition to routinely participating in online adult education programs such as entrepreneur Julie Robinson's literaryaffairs.net, Curtis consciously pushes herself to try new things. Podcasting falls into that category.
In November of 2019, Curtis’ good friend, the author Lisa Birnbach, discovered a letter that her daughter, Curtis’ goddaughter Boco Haft, had written to Curtis from summer camp years earlier but never mailed. When Curtis finally read the letter, she got the idea for a television series and commissioned Haft, now a comedy writer, to turn it into an eight-episode script.
At about the same time, Curtis launched her own production company, Comet Pictures, which now has a feature film in the works, as well as a TV series based on Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta novels. Given the slowdown in in-person production due to the pandemic, Curtis decided to develop Haft's script as a podcast instead of a TV show. Cast members include Curtis’ good friend, the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, and Sunny Sandler, the 11-year-old daughter of actor/comedian Adam Sandler.
Recording the audio podcast in the bungalow before she had set up her soundproof studio was a challenge, Curtis says: “We recorded under desks, Jake was in a closet, I mean, it was funky. I took outdoor cushions and made a little cave.” Letters From Camp is set in 2005, intentionally before the proliferation of social media, which Curtis abhors.
"I think social media is poison for young people,” she says. “They don't know yet how to discern what's real and what's fake, what is kind and what is mean. We get lost in this desire for followers. Followers? The word is grotesque!” The show launched last August and quickly become the number one podcast on Audible. Curtis just finished recording Season 2, which guest stars Daniel Radcliffe; a third season is in the planning stages.
Also during the pandemic, Curtis recorded Good Friend, a podcast composed of conversations between her and other prominent individuals about friendship. It is scheduled to be available on iHeartRadio. “And that's just the beginning of that creative work,” Curtis says, beaming. “Things are up and running and really fun."
[L]ife hinges on a couple of seconds you never see coming. And what you decide in those few seconds determines everything from then on.… And you have no idea what you’ll do until you’re there.
The dishes on Curtis’ kitchen shelves are color coordinated and arranged by size. The walls of the guest bathroom in her home are hung with cartoons from The New Yorker, equally spaced, all the way around. Curtis once jokingly described her professional self as a closet organizer, and she is nothing if not prepared. “I'm your American Red Cross participant, earthquake-prepared, well-stocked person,” she admits.
But she has discovered that the most transformative events in her life were ones she never saw coming. And, as Marisha Pessl notes, Curtis’ reactions to those surprise events made all the difference. Back in 1984, Curtis was thumbing through a copy of Rolling Stone and saw a photo of Guest with his costars from This Is Spinal Tap. Though she'd never met him, she said out loud, “I'm going to marry that man.” Five months after their first date, she did.
More recently, the actress got a call out of the blue from a director named David Gordon Green. “Hi, Jamie, listen, I have a movie,” Curtis remembers him saying. “OK. Send it to me. I'll tell you right away,” she responded. “I read it, told him, ‘Yeah let's do it,’ and boom!” The movie was the 2018 reprise of Halloween, and it broke the box office, grossing $256 million. “It was one of the franchise's biggest openings ever, and it starred a woman over 50,” she enthuses. “I was, like, ‘Wait, what? I didn't see that coming.’ Boom!” Curtis will star in two more versions of the horror sequel—Halloween Kills, out in October, and Halloween Ends, in 2022.
In February of last year, Curtis had her bags packed and was ready to depart for Canada to film a movie she would direct and star in for Lifetime. Then COVID hit. “I was ready to travel, and then I didn't leave my house for a year,” she says. “That was a big-ass pivot. All of our lives hinged in a really big way on something that none of us saw coming."
But look what Curtis did instead. “That's the question,” she begins. “What are we planning for, what are we saving for?” While making provisions for the future is prudent, she admits, she no longer lets saving for a rainy day keep her from enjoying the sunny ones. “Why aren't we wearing those Prada pants to lunch with a friend rather than saying, ‘Well, I only have those for a fancy occasion.'? I now feel a freedom in living authentically in the moment and being open to whatever shows up."
All of us are better when we’re loved.
When Curtis was reading No Great Mischief and came across the line about being loved, she gasped. “That killed me,” she says. “Because I don't think I've really felt that much. As a child, I didn't really feel that."
And yet today, she describes herself as “a deep, serious romantic.” Married to Guest since 1984, she says he is her “one and only,” but notes that she's realistic and has no “big delusions of grandeur.” On the occasion of their 35th wedding anniversary, she wrote him a song. Its chorus repeats, “I feel safe when I drive up and see that you are home."
She elaborates. “That's the long marriage. It's the safety of knowing his car is in the garage, that I'm not alone, and that he's here."
All of it makes more sense when Curtis discloses her secret relaxation ritual, which she partakes in regularly at bedtime. In an attempt to slow the rapid-fire activity in her brain, she turns on her iPhone, goes to YouTube and searches for examples of a particular genre of videos: the surprise wedding proposal in the form of a flash mob dancing to the Bruno Mars hit “Marry You.” The tears roll down Curtis’ cheeks as she watches a hopeful boyfriend get down on one knee in front of the mob and his astonished sweetheart to lip-sync his request:
It's a beautiful night. We're looking for something dumb to do. Hey, baby, I think I wanna marry you.
"It just delights me,” Curtis explains. “I've watched lots of them. Hundreds!” She laughs out loud. “That first moment of pledging yourselves to each other, that hope and thrill, is really the start of the marriage. There's just something magical there, between the reality of it and the beautiful unknown of it. That's marriage. And that's life."
Jamie Lee's Greatest Hits
Trading Places, 1983
In this buddy comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, she played a hooker with a heart of gold.
Knives Out, 2019
Playing the matriarch of an eccentric family, Curtis helmed an unforgettable ensemble in this murder mystery starring Daniel Craig. Netflix recently won a bidding war for a series of sequels.
Meg Grant is an entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles. She profiled Viola Davis in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of AARP The Magazine.