Jamie Lee Curtis, who won a SAG award on Sunday for her role in "Everything Everywhere All at Once," at her home in Santa Monica, Calif. (Jessica Pons for The Washington Post)

Suddenly, Jamie Lee Curtis is everything everywhere all at once

“I’ve been a hustler my entire life,” says the actress with her first Oscar nod and a major production deal

14 min

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Jamie Lee Curtis is your new best friend, tapping your hand, patting your thigh. She’s a sharer. A two-hour interview stretches into four. The sun melts into the Pacific. The light dims on her lemon trees. Curtis, 64, keeps talking.

She gushes stories. Other actresses inspire awe, hovering above us, distant planets. Blanchett, Kidman, Streep, Curtis’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” co-star Yeoh. Curtis is beloved. She doesn’t affect cool. She’s the movie star next door.

She’s baked a lemon pound cake nestled in goo. It’s Oscar season, “the season of shiny things” as she calls it, when nominated actresses commit to celery and clavicle-to-ankle Spanx. Curtis feasts on cake. It’s her first nod in almost a half century of acting. She’s probably the first nominee ever who spent seven years hawking yogurt that “makes you poop,” her words, grist for parody on “Saturday Night Live.” Lo and behold, on Sunday, she won the Screen Actors Guild Award.

Candor is her calling card. Menacing tax auditor and hot dog-fingered paramour Deirdre Beaubeirdre’s ample paunch is her own. Don’t believe her? Sitting at the dining table, her rescue dog Runi curled by her bare feet, Curtis hikes her sweater and heaves her belly over her jeans like a mound of fresh dough. “Oh, yeah, it’s all me.” Two decades ago, Curtis famously posed in black lingerie and no makeup, with zilch retouching of her cellulite, crow’s feet and other mortal imperfections, instantly becoming a girlfriend to us all.

Curtis was long known as much for her body — “Trading Places” (1983, seven seconds topless — she clocked it — that many mistakenly recall lasting her entire performance), “Perfect” (1985, Curtis as the over-aerobicized titular ideal) and “True Lies” (1994, her strip tease in lingerie and heels) — as her body of work. But that’s no plan for the long game in her business. A gifted comic actor, Curtis combined a pixie quality and an infectious smile. She shone in iconic movies like “A Fish Called Wanda” and “Freaky Friday.” She refused to stay in the box where pop culture placed her. Emotionally, she is all in.

Also, she will cry. Repeatedly. On her two-season podcast “Good Friend,” launched during the pandemic, she is reduced to a puddle almost every episode. “She wears her nerve endings on the edge of her skin,” says close friend Deborah Oppenheimer. Curtis is known for her loyalty and constancy. She keeps friends. She’s been married to director and actor Christopher Guest for nearly four decades.

“She’s the least movie star-ish movie star I’ve ever met,” says Jason Blum of Blumhouse, producer of the “Halloween” reboot thrillogy. “You root for her. She puts herself out there. It’s hard not to get on that person’s side.”

Curtis is a child of Hollywood, daughter of actors Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, who never saw herself swimming in the big pool. A journeyman, not a major player. A repeat Oscar presenter, once descending hanging barefoot from a helicopter (amazingly, this was her idea), never an Oscar nominee. In recovery for 24 years, she takes little for granted, relishes the moment, refuses to speculate on what happens next. Her dictum: Live where your feet are.

“I’ve been a hustler my entire life,” she says. It’s what she admires in other people. Photographed on the morning of her nomination, in pajamas with extreme bedhead, “I was in complete shock. This is not someone who knew this would happen. What you see is ugly crying.”

Plenty of glittery types attend the Oscars. Only the anointed attend the Oscar luncheon, held this year on Feb. 13, the nation’s best-looking, cool-kid gathering. “That Monday will go down as the most important day of my professional life,” Curtis says, which was also the day she posed for The Washington Post. She considers it bigger than the colossal pomp of March 12, that she had finally reached the inner sanctum, that her acting had been recognized and valued. “The reality is that 99 percent of the people I met at the Oscar luncheon have never hired me. I’m not complaining. It’s not self-deprecating,” she says. She reveled in the moment. Shaping her hand into a phone near her ear, she beckoned, “Call me. Hire me, Guillermo Del Toro.”

Tom Cruise, whom Curtis says she doesn’t know, told her at the lunch, “Can you believe it? We’re here.” She says, “These are two people that this isn’t part of our normal life, our artistic life. We’re in the en-ter-tain-ment business,” plucking every syllable.

A ‘final girl’ and an ‘idea girl’

Curtis finds herself at this moment flexing more creative and financial muscle than she’s ever had, in part because of her success as an engine of entertainment, a popcorn-tub star. Curtis is a scream queen in a genre that she cannot bear to watch. Okay, at her own premiere she’ll watch.

Horror costs little to make. Done right, it’s a killer at the global box office. Curtis is the tentpole, the through line, the “final girl” as they’re known in the industry of the “Halloween” empire, which dates to 1978 and the start of career. Curtis’s past three “Halloween” movies grossed nearly $500 million; “Halloween,” the 2018 sequel, marked the largest opening with a female lead over 55 years old.

Her Comet Pictures scored a production deal with Blumhouse and has multiple projects in development: an Amazon series titled “The Sticky” about the great Canadian maple syrup heist with Margo Martindale, a movie about the heroes of the deadly 2018 Paradise fire based on a book by The Washington Post’s Lizzie Johnson, and an eco-horror movie “Mother Nature” that she co-wrote with Russell Goldman, which inspired a graphic novel to be published in July, illustrated by Karl Stevens. “I have always been an idea girl,” Curtis says. “I wanted to be a producer. I wanted to be creator. My intention is to tell stories.”

She quotes novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, from a speech he gave at the recent AARP ceremony where Curtis was honored with a Career Achievement Award: “The exchanging of stories isn’t just fun or desirable. It’s something essential to our well-being.” Curtis says she crouched beside the Nobel Prize winner, a man she also doesn’t know, and whispered “Can I have a copy of your speech?” He gave her the very sheets she clutches now because, it turns out, it is difficult to say no to Jamie Lee Curtis. She dwells in the house of yes.

In a licensing coup, Curtis landed the rights to Patricia Cornwell’s best-selling Kay Scarpetta murder mysteries. Being an insistently curious person, Curtis inquired about the rights and, lo and behold, Cornwell owned them, and entrusted her longtime friend to do the project right. Curtis has become a player in a town that venerates them.

Curtis and Cate Blanchett co-star in the upcoming “Borderlands,” based on the video game, directed by Eli Roth and Tim Miller. There’s serious chatter of a “Freaky Friday” sequel with Lindsay Lohan. And then there’s her deal with Nicole Kidman.

Another story. Curtis met Kidman at last year’s Oscars. She didn’t know her, either. Kidman, the Actress, was there as a fifth-time nominee. Curtis, the Trooper, was there with a rescue dog named Mac N Cheese to honor animal rights champion Betty White during the “In Memoriam” segment. Her goal: Get the dog adopted.

Curtis’s “Perfect” co-star John Travolta adopted the hound, and renamed her Peanut. Fast forward, Kidman is set to star as Scarpetta. Curtis will play her sister, Dorothy. And Curtis’s return to the Oscars comes as a nominee for a movie that initially befuddled her, though she is hardly alone. “EEAAO” manages to incorporate a Chinese laundromat, the multiverse, hot dog fingers, a nihilist everything bagel, an imperious turtlenecked IRS auditor (that would be Curtis) and googly-eyed rocks.

The first day of shooting “EEAAO,” the little movie that could, began almost three years to the day it received 11 Oscar nominations. “It was made fast and for very little money,” Curtis says of the five-week shoot and under $20 million budget. Then, came the pandemic, which afforded directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (known to all as the Daniels) time to tinker and perfect as they held it for theatrical release.

“I didn’t understand the movie. But I so knew her. And I loved Deirdre because I know how lonely she is and I know how forgotten she is. I understood what a garden exists inside her,” says Curtis, who keeps Deirdre’s “Auditor of the Month” award shaped like a certain adult toy next to her 2021 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Curtis insisted that Deirdre have “beautiful nails because I really believe that that contact with her manicurist is the only physical touch from another human being that she has in her life,” she says.

“Jamie clearly had no qualms about getting weird and getting strange,” Kwan says. “She brought so much life and humor to the character that was actually really surprising to us. When Jamie commits to everything, she does it 100 percent.”

Curtis stayed on set, present. She loathes trailers; her trailers accumulate dust. That’s how Curtis earned more screen time in “Knives Out,” and became integral to “EEAAO” despite a supporting role. In test screenings, viewers yearned for more Deirdre, in all her mustard-colored glory. As an actor, her only job is “to make you believe that who I am and what I’m saying is real.” The highest compliment she receives from fans? “I didn’t realize it was you.” Best actress nominee Michelle Yeoh’s constant cheerleader, Curtis committed to making the movie a success. The Daniels dubbed her “our weapon of mass promotion.”

Always working for strangers

Fifteen years. “I figure I have 15 years left,” Jamie Lee Curtis once professed. This was in 1993. She was talking about “the showoff business,” her term, but she was in the midst of the wreckage, drowning in deep trouble, a 10-year addiction to Vicodin and alcohol. “Everyone in my family was a prisoner of alcohol,” she has said. (Divorce ran rampant, too. Her father was married six times, her mother four, and her stepfather three.)

Curtis might have washed up, or worse. She embraced sobriety in 1999. Her days begin confoundingly early, well before dawn, with recovery readings and text chains with several sober groups. By her own projection, her past-sell date in entertainment should have happened in 2008, rooted not only in what the movie business long did to women of a certain age but something “much deeper. I watched my parents be discarded.”

Again, tears. Curtis prepared for everything to end. The mother of two daughters, Annie and Ruby, now ages 36 and 26, she wrote 14 well-regarded, best-selling children’s books. (Neither daughter followed her parents in the business. Both wed in their sizable backyard. Ruby came out as transgender in 2020, and Curtis officiated in her cosplay-themed ceremony last spring.) She launched a charity, My Hand in Yours, which has raised more than $1 million for Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. She may also be the only Oscar nominee to appear on “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” a series she doesn’t watch that stars her “Halloween” compadre Kyle Richards, to attract more donations.

“I have been retiring from an industry that retires you without you having a say in it,” she says. “Fame doesn’t leave you. The jobs leave you. Fame stays with you the whole time.”

Yes, she is the child of Janet and Tony, both Oscar nominees (neither won). Yes, she was the goddaughter of Lew Wasserman; for decades, the talent agent and studio executive was one of Hollywood’s most powerful men. Yes, Jake Gyllenhaal is her godson. And yes, she is married to Guest, he of “Spinal Tap” and “Best in Show,” also an Oscar nominee.

What did it get her? “I’ve never worked for a friend of my family’s. I’ve never worked for Rob Reiner, who is my husband’s best friend and whose house we got married at. Never worked for people I grew up with up. Nothing. I’ve worked for strangers. Strangers have hired me,” she says emphatically. “The assumption is that there’s this fast track like Disneyland. I’m not saying you might not cut a line a little bit, maybe by 10 people, because you have a famous pedigree because people are curious.” But that won’t put you in prestige pictures, she says, or keep you there.

“I was defensive then. Now, I don’t give a fig. The one actual benefit to all this nepo-baby garbage is that I have experience that other people don’t have,” Curtis says, deploying neither fig nor garbage but saltier words that she relishes and are unprintable in this space. “I watched what happens to other people, who have it and lose it, and the heartbreak in that. I’ve seen it with a lot of friends of mine.” It toughened her. It made her dwell in “re-al-i-ty,” every syllable emphasized as though it was its own country.

Hollywood ‘nepo babies’ know what you think of them. They have some thoughts.

Guest appears from the ground floor where he’s been playing music, Nigel Tufnel and Corky St. Clair in the flesh, and “most likely tying fishing flies,” Curtis says.

“We are as unalike as two people can be,” Curtis says. “I am loud and he is quiet. I am vulgar and he is not. I’m a multi-tasking, type A+++. I walk fast. He walks slow.” She is a caretaker. She knows where everything is. When she tries to retrieve a photo, an object, a memory from the overstuffed filing cabinet of her mind, she will say “Hold please” until it is found.

When you leave her gracious home at dusk sated with cake, there are no air kisses, no Hollywood folderol and vacuous maxims. Curtis will hold you close and tight for what seems like a quarter of an hour. Later she will text — the first of many — “I warmed up lasagna. I’m watching golf. Throwing a ball for Runi! My beautiful life.”

One last story. Curtis felt compelled to watch the Oscar announcements at 5:30 a.m. “Why?” Guest asked. “Because I have to exorcise your movie ‘For Your Consideration,’ a movie about people wanting, longing, fantasizing and dreaming about wanting an Oscar,” she told him. “It’s hilarious and it’s heartbreaking. Because it’s a fiction and I have to face the reality.”

And so she did. Oppenheimer dropped by, without Curtis’s bidding, because she didn’t want her friend to be alone and, just in case, to document the moment when Curtis’s name was called.

Guest remained upstairs as though it was just another Tuesday. He didn’t descend to her office off the kitchen until 6:05 a.m. Curtis recalls, “A half-hour has gone by of me screaming and crying, and he asks, ‘What happened?’ ”

Well, everything.

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