The actress-author explains the premise of her 10th children’s book, My Brave Year of Firsts.
Actress-author Jamie Lee Curtis
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Jamie Lee Curtis back to this program. The award-winning actor and best-selling author is out with her 10th new book for young readers. The latest is called “My Brave Year of Firsts: Tries, Sighs and High Fives.” I love that title.
But that’s not the book. That’s not the book cover. That’s James Taylor and me.
Jamie Lee Curtis: You know what? You’re taunting. This is taunting. This is actually certifiable taunting. You are taunting me.
Tavis: That’s James Taylor and Tavis Smiley.
Curtis: Yes. I’m surprised you’re not making out [laugh].
Tavis: So how about the book cover, guys [laugh]?
Curtis: No, no, forget the book cover. Let’s see the after picture.
Tavis: There you go. There’s the book cover.
Curtis: By the way, I now know why you’re Mr. Smiley.
Tavis: Why? Oh, yeah, yeah.
Curtis: Okay, what’s your favorite James Taylor song ever written?
Tavis: Ooh, come on, come on.
Curtis: Best James Taylor song ever written? Oh, come on, if you had asked me on the spot…
Tavis: That changes every week.
Curtis: Say if we had just switched the whole thing and I’m in your seat?
Tavis: Give me yours, give me yours.
Curtis: Well, come on.
Tavis: Give me yours.
Curtis: “Millworker,” greatest song ever written.
Tavis: “Millworker” is good.
Curtis: No. “Millworker” is great.
Tavis: “Carolina in my Mind” is awfully good.
Curtis: Aw, “Carolina in my Mind” is boring, boring.
Tavis: “Sweet Baby James,” pretty good, pretty good.
Curtis: Flag is the best album, by the way, because “Millworker” is on it.
Curtis: “Company Man,” don’t even start with me.
Tavis: [Laugh] For those of you who don’t know this, every time Jamie comes on the show, we have this fight about who loves James Taylor more.
Curtis: He is the soundtrack of our generation and, therefore, there’s no one who speaks to me musically more than him.
Tavis: I love the humanity in his lyric. The content is so – anyway, we…
Curtis: And his voice.
Curtis: There’s just…
Tavis: We love you, James Taylor. How about that? I love this book.
Curtis: Ah, look at you segue! Look at you segue! You must do this for a living, baby!
Tavis: [Laugh] 20 years, I been working at it. I really do love the title, though, “My Brave Year of Firsts: Tries, Sighs and High Fives.” This is your 10th one.
Curtis: I know.
Tavis: Does it feel like 10?
Curtis: Well, look, I’m barely out of high school. I got 840 combined on my SATs, combined.
Tavis: You beat me.
Curtis: No, I did not. I did not. Therefore, the idea that at some point in my life I would end up an author of books for children is and was a kind of crazy idea that would never have been in my game plan, not that I have a game plan.
Yes, 10 books 20 years later, it’s an astonishing experience for me.
Tavis: Where’d the idea for the first one come from?
Curtis: My little girl.
Tavis: How did you get in this lane?
Curtis: I was an actor for hire. I was married, you know, to this really interesting guy.
Tavis: 28 years now.
Curtis: I know, coming up December. My four-year-old, my Annie, walked into my room – swear, walked into my office. I was sitting at my desk and she walked in and went, “When I was little, I used diapers, now I use a potty!” and she walked out of my room. I was stunned by this kid who basically was like fully owning her past.
I sat down and I laughed and I wrote on a piece of paper at my desk and wrote “When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old’s Memoir of Her Youth” because she was talking about her youth like she was talking about the good old days the way we talked about James Taylor back in the day or bell-bottoms or a shag or something that happened to you in the past.
The idea that my daughter who was little, who was four, had a past was astonishing to me because she was so little to me. She was just a baby.
So I wrote this list of things that she used to be able to not do and now she could do and, at the end of it, it made me cry and I realized it was a book.
I never thought about writing a book, I never dreamt about writing a book, I never anticipated writing a book, nothing. The next thing I knew, it was a book.
Tavis: So she’s a long way from four now.
Curtis: She’ll be 26.
Tavis: Exactly. So where do these ideas keep coming from?
Curtis: Well, you know 10 books, 20 years. I’ve raised two children. I’ve been around a lot of children. This book came out of a friend of mine who runs a coffee shop in the mountains in Idaho where I live. He was talking about his daughter.
I inquired how she was doing. Her name is Frankie. I said, “How’s Frankie doing” and he said, “Oh, she’s had an amazing summer of firsts.”
Tavis: Ding, ding, ding, ding.
Curtis: You know me. It’s like ding, ding, ding.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Curtis: Of course, what comes up is bravery and doing things for the first time and how limited we are as adults to try new things and how much we ask children to do them. So right away, you know, the book pops in my head and comes out. It’s really easy.
You know what it is? It’s like rap music. I interviewed LL Cool J once for a movie we did together. For Interview magazine, they sent me out to interview him and photograph him, by the way, first time without his hat.
Tavis: Ooh, he lives underneath that hat.
Curtis: He does like his hat, but I photographed him. I’m a photographer and I photographed him. We were sitting there talking about whatever we were talking about and, at one point, I said to him, “So rap music, is it really like you see in the movies? Do people like to rap-offs and do you create these raps instantaneously?”
He said yes. I said, “Okay, rap me about the sugar container on the table.” He was able to do it.
Curtis: Okay, look at you, freestyling. For me, this is my freestyling. These come out of me as quickly as that came out of him. You know, in the same way that rap music is about something, these books are about something.
So it’s not just some random boring list of rhyming things. They actually have an intent and a purpose behind them.
Tavis: Why am I blanking on the word what Laura does is called?
Tavis: Illustrator. I had a brain fart.
Curtis: No. You know what you were thinking about?
Tavis: Oh, come on, come on. Anyway…
Curtis: Am I right?
Tavis: That was Jay Leno with that blue dress you had on.
Curtis: Oh, please.
Tavis: That wasn’t me.
Curtis: Oh, come on.
Tavis: By the way, why do I get all black and Jay got like blue and flowing?
Curtis: I wore something very…
Tavis: It’s very nice. I mean, you’re always hot, you’re always hot, but Jay…
Curtis: I didn’t come here to – I know, I’m wearing a…
Tavis: You didn’t answer my question. Why did Jay get all this and I get this? What’s up with that?
Curtis: Because this is a serious conversation and that is…
Tavis: Send this tape to Jay. I do serious conversations.
Curtis: Well, you do.
Curtis: And you know what? Something tells me he’d love to be sitting in your seat. No, I’m serious.
Tavis: He makes a lot more cash, a whole lot of cash.
Curtis: It’s so not about the cash, though.
Tavis: Oh, yes, it is.
Curtis: No, it’s not.
Tavis: Oh, yes, it is [laugh].
Curtis: No, it’s not. At this point in your life and this point in my life, it’s not about the cash. It’s got to be about something else, it’s got to be.
If it isn’t, I can tell you right now, the first book I wrote, the word “cash” didn’t fall into my head. When it was published and I was driving around in my car one day and my phone rang – remember how big the phones were in our cars back there 20 years ago?
I remember answering my phone. I remember where I was in Hollywood on Norton when my publicist and friend, Heidi, told me that my first book had crossed a selling platform of 50,000 books.
You have to understand. The truth is, I never thought about it from a financial standpoint. I never thought that it would be sold. I didn’t really ever put the commerce behind it. For me, it was art. For me, it was just an expression.
Tavis: Has money ever mattered to you?
Curtis: Well, of course, of course.
Tavis: I’m serious. So as you’ve gotten more chronologically gifted ’cause you still look nice…
Curtis: I’m so regretting my outfit. I’m so sorry [laugh].
Tavis: As you’ve gotten older…
Curtis: Because you’re looking in my eyes [laugh] and the last time I was here, you were doing a lot of this. I kept going like this, “Tavis, what’s going on?”
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, okay [laugh]. If money used to matter, as you’ve gotten older, what’s taking its place? What does matter more now than commerce?
Tavis: I like that. I’ll high five you on that.
Curtis: High five me, baby. See? High fives.
Tavis: I like that, I like that.
Curtis: I’m making a movie about the man who invented the high five.
Tavis: Who did? Who did invent…
Curtis: Glenn Burke in 1977.
Tavis: Wow. How’d it happen?
Curtis: A Black closeted baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Tavis: How’d the high five…
Curtis: Dusty Baker hit his 30th homerun that put him in the big club, 30-30-30, and Glenn Burke was on deck. When Dusty Baker rounded home, Glenn Burke, for the first time in history, reached behind him.
Tavis: That was it.
Curtis: That was the first high five and…
Tavis: Dodger Stadium?
Curtis: Dodger Stadium.
Tavis: Wow, Chavez Ravine.
Curtis: I want to say October 2, 1977. I could be off by a number. What turned out, of course, to happen is that Glenn Burke died of AIDS on the streets of Oakland after playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland A’s.
It’s an amazing story which I’m gonna actually produce a film on. The name of his biography is called “Out at Home.”
Tavis: I got to read that.
Curtis: It’s very powerful.
Tavis: What is the…
Curtis: Sorry, you high fived and then I went to the high five story.
Tavis: I’m glad you did. Speaking of brave, what’s the bravest thing that Jamie Lee Curtis has ever done?
Curtis: Well, getting sober was the easiest and bravest thing I ever did. I say easiest because, for many, many people, making the declaration is the hardest thing.
Actually, putting the words in your mouth that you need help is the hurdle that for me was once I crossed that hurdle, the rest of staying sober and being sober and working with sober people was easy.
The hardest thing is acknowledging it. For other people, it’s the rest of the program that’s saying they are – or having life intervene where they have car accidents or they’re arrested or they get their picture in the tabloids because they have a mug shot. I didn’t have any of that. I was all very high bottom, what they call it.
So for me, the single greatest accomplishment of my life and will be, no matter what, is being able to take what is a family disease and stop it and say it’s gonna stop here with me, you know, that the buck stops here. That was huge, I mean, crazy.
Tavis: I get the sense – I could be wrong. You tell me. I get the sense, though, that with all that you’ve done and encountered, you’re not one of those persons that has any regrets about what she did. If I’m wrong, tell me. I mean, I could be that.
Curtis: No, No. I…
Tavis: You do have regrets?
Curtis: There will, of course, be regrets because I’m human. Recently, it’s so interesting because I can be a bit of a smart aleck and flippant and I can…
Tavis: Not you, not you.
Curtis: Not me. And I can divert quickly for the joke. You know, I was a jokester in school and – I haven’t had enough coffee today. Where was I going? What were we talking about [laugh]? I hear you had one earlier, darling.
Tavis: That happens.
Curtis: What were we talking about?
Tavis: I’ll give you 10 seconds to figure it out, 10, 9. 8…
Curtis: Oh, you’re just being mean now.
Tavis: The prior question was what’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
Curtis: Okay, bravery, thank you very much. I can’t remember where I was going with this, but it had to do with something [laugh]. It’s all good.
Tavis: I was asking you whether or not you lived a life of regrets and you said you don’t have regrets.
Curtis: Right, and not regretting anything. Oh, I was being human! I found it! Oh, thank you.
Tavis: Now you didn’t find it. I threw it in your lap. You didn’t find it. I gave that to you.
Curtis: You didn’t give it to me! You nudged me.
Tavis: Give it to me then. Go ahead.
Curtis: Okay. I did an interview recently where it was one of those quick 20 questions things and you have to come up with the answers quickly. They said, “What is the thing you hate most about yourself?” and I said that I’m human.
When I really thought about it later, what I was saying is that I hate that I’m bulletproof, that I’m not bulletproof. I want to be bulletproof. I want to be a superhero. I want to be – it’s interesting because it’s the exact opposite of the way I live.
I’m uninterested in superheroes. I am only interested in real stories, real people, real connection. So my flip remark really made me do a lot of soul-searching of what did that really mean? I guess what I’m saying is, you can’t live a truthful life without regret.
I mean, I cannot lie to you and say I do not regret things I have done in my past, but the really good news is that there are very few of them and I hope that as I get older and the time on the planet and the time with the people that I spend adds up that those regrets will be really small moments in my life and that the great majority of my life will be one of integrity, one of grace, one of depth, one of some humor, less cleavage and more clarity.
Tavis: [Laugh] Less cleavage, more clarity. I’m down with one of those, but anyway, as you get older, which I think you’re doing gracefully…
Curtis: Thank you.
Tavis: Are you enjoying the journey?
Curtis: Yes, I am.
Tavis: But getting older, I’m discovering, is not the same for the faint of heart. I mean, this is…
Curtis: We just don’t see it coming, you know. We hear about it. Someone can say, “You know, you should wear sun block ’cause you’re gonna regret not wearing it.” You know, I was a girl who would put – we would go to Palm Springs. I grew up here in California.
You know, my girlfriends, we’d go to Palm Springs for the weekend and Bain de Soleil Orange Gelee which was basically like Crisco for your skin. Let’s just put this and just bake in the sun, just bake because we all thought it was hot to have tans or whatever.
Obviously, there are things that you kind of look back and go, oh, wow. But for the most part, I’m finding a lot of humor in getting older.
Tavis: You mentioned humanity a moment ago. What is it about the humanity of children specifically that so turns you on, interests you as subject matter?
Curtis: Because they’re true. They’re just the truest thing you’re gonna find. Here is the great irony. We’re an adult. It’s a book about bravery, about celebrating bravery in children in doing things for the first time, trying something new and succeeding.
How often do we do that in our daily life? How often do we adults try new things? Yet these children are so open and willing to try and willing to look foolish and stumble and fall.
I think it’s because, as we’ve gotten older, the media has made falling kind of like a joke. It’s like the media now is at the ready to catch any public figure from falling, literally, spiritually, physically, mentally.
They’re just lying in wait. That lens is poised not to take a beautiful photograph of you. It is poised to catch you in your flaw as a human being.
That’s why I think my response to that flippant question of what do you hate most about yourself is that I’m human because I am flawed and therefore, by being flawed, I’m vulnerable.
The media now has given the message to adults. Don’t try new things, don’t look foolish because we will catch you and then broadcast it to the world. I think children don’t have that.
Tavis: I wonder whether or not you think these children that you’re writing to now are growing up in a world, inhabiting a world, where they’re seeing more or less bravery, more or less courage?
I mean, I get what the book is about, but on a much larger scale, I wonder whether or not we’re giving them a world where – I wonder if we’re more cowardly now than we’ve ever been.
Curtis: Well, we’re cowardly because we don’t see war, we play war.
Curtis: We sit at our consoles and play “Gears of War” or, believe me, I have a 16-year-old son and I have the gamut. So we’ll play that, but we don’t see it. We don’t see images from war. We don’t turn on the news and see the evidence of war, the result of war.
Maybe twice a year, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, we’ll go out, we’ll hang our flags, we’ll try to inculcate in our children some sense of national honor for the fallen.
But really, we don’t see it. We just don’t see the pictures. There’s no drive-by on the freeway of death up close. So we don’t really see bravery.
I get the absolute privilege the last couple of years, I hope every year until I’m an old lady, to go to the LAPD Medal of Valor ceremony and narrate each of the stories that accompany that soldier, that police officer, who was injured in the line of duty or killed in the line of duty.
I tell their story at a huge luncheon filled with police officers and their families with Charlie Beck honoring the fallen and the injured in the line of duty.
But again, we don’t see it. So I think our children are inured from any absolute sense of risk and, therefore, bravery has a whole different face to it.
Tavis: How much bravery does it take to age in this business as a woman? Am I overstating it?
Curtis: No. Here’s the reality and it’s sad and true. When you cut to me in a movie and your image of me is from “Trading Places” and you cut to me, I know that there are a bunch of people who go, “Oh, wow, she really got old.”
It’s the nature of the movie business. It’s the Tinsel Town and all that. Nowadays, when you make movies, you don’t need any lights at all. You have to remember, back in the day, the film stocks that they had were very, very insensitive and they would have these humongous lights and lighting was everything, so everyone looked good.
Nowadays with digital film where you don’t need any light at all, you could shoot in the [bleep] dark. It makes people not look so good and it makes aging on film much, much harder.
But I’m old enough and savvy enough to understand that, when someone cuts to me, there will be a moment of “Wow, she got old. Oh, she’s still funny, though” or whatever.
Tavis: Why can’t it be that, “Wow, Jamie Lee is still hot,” “She looks great” or “She’s aging gracefully.” Why can’t it be that?
Curtis: I just don’t think it’s the way that – I mean, that’s a sort of positive way of looking at it. My experience is that that’s probably not the way.
So what happens is, you have a lot of people who are completely destroying their faces with this genocide of beauty which is an epidemic, a pandemic, where people are trying to alter nature’s course.
It is deadly and you see it everywhere you look on the news, on television, in the movies, and it’s sad. You know, it’s a reality, but sad.
Tavis: So you see yourself doing this for many more years?
Curtis: I don’t really know. You know what? I really don’t know. I’ve published 10 books for children, I’ve obviously been in movies, I’ve been on TV. I haven’t sat in your chair yet.
Tavis: Is that a threat [laugh]?
Curtis: No, never.
Tavis: Jamie Lee Curtis comes to PBS.
Curtis: You know what I love? What I love is that somebody gets to call you Mr. Smiley. I love it. Somebody said it backstage. They said, “Well, we’re almost ready for Mr. Smiley.”
Tavis: There’s only one person on this whole set that does that. That’s Karen. Karen’s the only one.
Curtis: Karen? Yeah, I just spoke to you.
Tavis: I get called many other things around here, but only Karen calls me Mr. Smiley.
Curtis: You know, I don’t know. I want to be with my people. That’s what I want to be with. I mean, obviously, I’ve done a lot of things. I never thought I’d do them. I barely got out of high school and I look back at my life often and go, “Wow, this was awesome!”
But I don’t know. You have to carry it forward, so I don’t know what I’m gonna do with that.
Tavis: How often do you get a chance to interact with the kids who actually read your books?
Curtis: You know, that’s the reason…
Tavis: You got a nice app, by the way, too.
Curtis: They did an amazing app of one of my books, my balloon book which is called “Where Do Balloons Go? An Uplifting Mystery” about loss and letting go and creativity.
A company came to me and said, “We’d like to make an app of your book” and it’s [bleep] fantastic, like crazy great.
Tavis: I saw it.
Curtis: It’s so much fun. You make balloon animals and you can send faxes and emails and send balloon animals to people. It’s nutty and so much fun to play with. But am I gonna like be pulling every book into an app world? I don’t know.
There’s a point where I think you’ve got to just gracefully bow out and, you know, tend to your rose garden and take care of your people.
Tavis: Well, don’t do that any time soon, please.
Curtis: I promise you, the next time I come here, I will be naked. I promise you I will wear so little clothing. I thought I’m finally on a legitimate TV show. I’m gonna dress like a lady, I swear.
Tavis: Thanks a lot, Jamie. Thanks a whole lot, Jamie Lee.
Curtis: I literally thought I would be respectable on your TV show.
Tavis: The new book from Jamie Lee Curtis is – oh, that’s not the book.
Curtis: You know what?
Tavis: That’s James Taylor and Tavis…
Curtis: Oh, to…
Tavis: Slow down, slow down. Read that out loud again. What does that top line say?
Curtis: To a true friend…how low can we go.
Tavis: That’s right, and it’s signed at the bottom by…
Curtis: Not even James Taylor, just James.
Tavis: Do you see this?
Curtis: You know what?
Tavis: Anyway, the new book by Jamie Lee Curtis is called “My Brave Year of Firsts: Tries, Sighs and High Fives.”
Curtis: I’m not sure I like you anymore.
Tavis: [Laugh] I love you, Jamie Lee, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Curtis: Yeah, sing to me then.
Tavis: I will off-camera. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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