Actress-author Jamie Lee Curtis

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Actress-author describes the childhood ‘trauma’ that she believes has led her to write books for 4-year-olds and explains why she will get out of show business before she’s asked to leave.

Jamie Lee Curtis has often been labeled Hollywood's "scream queen," but her body of film work covers every genre. Her credits include Halloween, which made her famous, True Lies, for which she won a Golden Globe, and, her latest, You Again. She also has a successful second career as a best-selling children's author, whose ninth book, My Mommy Hung the Moon, was recently published. Curtis still finds time for numerous charities, including the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation and The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.


Tavis: A quick note here. We recorded our conversation with Jamie Lee Curtis just prior to the news about her father. As you know, legendary actor Tony Curtis passed away last week at the age of 85.
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Jamie Lee Curtis back to this program. The talented actress and author is out now with a new book for children called “My Mommy Hung the Moon.” The book is already on – at the top, in fact –
Jamie Lee Curtis: Thank you.
Tavis: – Of “The New York Times” best-seller list. You can also catch her in the new film, “You Again.” Here now, a scene from “You Again.”
Curtis: Ooh, right away?
Tavis: It’s come to this.
Curtis: It’s come to this.
Tavis: You and Sigourney Weaver in a splash fight.
Curtis: I know. (Laughter) Well, I actually bought her – I went on eBay and I bought her the picture of Joan Collins and Linda Evans having the legendary –
Tavis: From “Dynasty.”
Curtis: – “Dynasty” pool fight that they had. I thought that was a nice opening day present for her. I’m a big eBay buyer. (Laughter) I go on eBay a lot.
Tavis: Seriously?
Curtis: I do.
Tavis: So this $120 million that Meg has spent on this race, some of that came from you.
Curtis: Oh, right, she’s eBay, right? (Laughter) You know what? Honestly, I’m political to a degree.
Tavis: A hundred and twenty million, Jamie, of her own money so far.
Curtis: You know what? She must want it really, really bad.
Tavis: She really wants it bad, $120 million.
Curtis: I think she must want it really, really bad.
Tavis: That, and/or she has a whole lot left – 120 is a lot of money out of your own pocket.
Curtis: That’s a lot of money.
Tavis: Yeah. Maybe not for you, but it would be for me.
Curtis: Oh, yeah, because I have $120 million. (Laughter) Yeah. Because I’ll tell you right now, if I had $120 million it’d be called the Curtis Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. You know what I’m saying? If I had that kind of money –
Tavis: But you would do something like that, too, though. You’re just that kind of humanitarian.
Curtis: Well, if I had that kind of money, yes, I would do that, and honestly, the fact that more people don’t who have that kind of money shocks me. It just shocks me. The kind of change they can make with that kind of wealth is profound.
Here we are in the worst economy, my daughter’s a graduate from college and trying to find a career in a market where there are none, and believe me, I think the $120 million, there are a lot of families that would love that kind of help right now in this economy.
Tavis: Speaking of families and children, great segue, thank you; I’ll take it – bam.
Curtis: It’s good. It’s good.
Tavis: The new book.
Curtis: Thanks for selling it for me.
Tavis: No, please, no. I love the cover. I love the title, “My Mommy Hung the Moon.”
Curtis: “A Love Story.”
Tavis: You’ve really gotten into this.
Curtis: I’m in the zone right now.
Tavis: You are.
Curtis: I am.
Tavis: When I say into it, you love doing this, obviously, but you’re good at it.
Curtis: Well, I didn’t know I was going to do it and now I do it, and I do it truly out of my heart. I don’t think about things. I never thought in a million years that I would be successful at it. I didn’t have a fantasy that I would sell a lot of books, that it would make me money – make me money? I had no idea that that would happen.
What I knew is that I had something in my head and I’m guessing, for lack of a better word, it’s art. I’m in horror movies and bad, bad sex comedies. It’s hard to say that I do art; do you know what I mean? (Laughter) No, but I’m being honest.
Tavis: I hear you, I hear you.
Curtis: There are great film artists. I am not one of them. I’m an actor, and I’m in entertainment. The idea that I actually have something that’s a creative process that comes out of me with no filter, with no expectation, that is the closest definition of art that I have, is that comes out of me.
Tavis: You just said three things now I have to go back and unpack. One –
Curtis: You have to go back and unpack?
Tavis: I’ve got to unpack this, yeah. One, you say, with candor and with humility, and with an honesty that kind of hit me, that, “I’m an actor, I’m not some artist.” Most people don’t want to be – most folk in this business don’t want to be self-deprecating in that way. Everybody wants to make you think that they’re a thespian of the highest order.
Curtis: But I’m not.
Tavis: You’re very comfortable with that, though, is my point.
Curtis: But I’m not and never have been and never have pretended to be. Meryl Streep is a thespian of the highest order. She has the credentials to do it, she has the background, she has the study and she has the body of work that is as impressive a body of work as any actor ever will have. So she, as far as I’m concerned, is an example of the art form at its highest.
I am an entertainer. I’m flat-out an entertainer, and I don’t think it’s self-deprecating, I think it’s just truthful. I don’t need to – I’m one of those people, I look in the mirror, I’m looking at the problem, I’m looking at the solution, and I’m looking at the truth.
The mirror doesn’t lie, so I know who I am. I know exactly who I am as a performer, I know who I am as a mother, I know who I am as a wife, as a friend, and then I can make adjustments within it. But I’m never going to make the adjustment that I’m a great thespian, because I just don’t have that skill set.
Tavis: It sounds to me – you tell me – but it sounds to me like it is that kind of honesty that allows you to do this and do it well. I ask that because I wanted to pose to you the question why do you think you’re so good at this, and I think I just got my answer – that if you’re comfortable and honest with yourself then what comes out of you is a truth. I think what comes from the heart ultimately reaches the heart.
Curtis: I agree with you, and I come from it from a child’s point of view. So I’m not –
Tavis: So now you’re saying you’re childish?
Curtis: I think I’m wildly immature, and (laughter) I have some – I’ve actually thought a lot about it, and again, this isn’t like the pull out the violin part. My parents were married, and my father is a fantastic performer, great entertainer and a wonderful dad when I was a little girl.
He left when I was a little girl, when I was just this age, and I think somehow that although on paper there is no trauma – my mom got remarried, there’s a lot of pictures of us smiling, my sister and I were dressed as twins, even though we’re three years apart. But ultimately, I think it was traumatic, and this isn’t like okay, call my doctor.
It’s really just self-knowledge. I think it was traumatic, and I think it’s why I write books for four-year-olds. That somehow, my world got rocked at four and now I’ve come up with a way to talk about it, and the way to talk about it is a book about moods and feelings, a book about loss and letting go, a book about imagination and ultimately a book about mother love.
So why I write those books, me, a woman who’s famous for her breasts and her ability to scream and kind of an insouciant personality, ultimately, I think the reason I write meaningful, emotional books for children is because somehow my world got rocked, and – not somehow; my world got rocked.
Tavis: When you say, when Jamie Lee Curtis say “mother love,” you mean by that, what?
Curtis: I mean the bond, the imprint of a mother to a child. That there is no more powerful love in the universe than the imprint from a loving mother to that child, and I think I had it to a degree and I think I longed for it to a degree, and I think it’s why I write books that are successful for young children, with no educational background.
I like to do book readings and I like to remind my group of people who are coming out to see me that I got 840 combined on my SATs. Then they get a little laugh and then I go, “Combined.” (Laughter) Because you have to remember, you –
Tavis: You and I weren’t that far apart, just so you know.
Curtis: Okay – we were raised in an era where those numbers mean something. I remember what it felt like to get those numbers. So the idea that I now have sold five and a half million books for children with virtually no credentials to do so is good. (Laughter)
Tavis: Not bad.
Curtis: It’s great.
Tavis: How do you, for lack of a better word, how do you grade yourself on the journey that you’ve had to navigate as a child growing up in this business, in this town? Because there are a lot of people who fail miserably at that. Here you are now, perennial “New York Times” best-selling children’s author, and you’ve made it. How do you process that?
Curtis: I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’ve had the good grace, God’s grace, to be able to have the mistakes, see them, recognize them and change. So right away, I’ve had the ability to change the course of my life a couple of times. I think there are lessons from our parents. I grew up around show business to a degree, and I saw what happens to film stars when their career ends.
I’ve seen that terrible sadness of that loss of attention that a film star of the magnitude of my parents and the community of my parents’ friends who had an absolute golden moment of stardom and then they’ve lost it. I think that there are lessons to learn watching that and I’ve learned them, so I will get out of show business before show business asks me to leave.
Tavis: How will you know when that time arrives? It ain’t now, but how will you know that?
Curtis: Oh, it’s starting – that fog is lifting very quickly. I know. I remember going to see a movie – I won’t even say who it was. He was a great actor, and gorgeous – just, like, knock you over. I remember the first time he came on screen. I remember the sound in the audience, which was like, (gasps) “Oh, no – oh, my God, really?” (Gasps) I don’t want it.
Tavis: He stayed too long.
Curtis: It’s just – I don’t want it, and we’re getting close. Digital film is not kind to women over 50.
Tavis: You’re still hot, though, Jamie Lee. You’re still hot.
Curtis: And you know what? I’m –
Tavis: (Hisses)
Curtis: I’m lit well here, I’m in a controlled environment, I’m in clothes that suit me. You have to remember I’m not acting here; I’m just me sitting here with you, and such a lovely person to be sitting with. Ultimately, I think that it’s one of the great lessons that I’ve learned, being the daughter of famous people and living in a community of people.
Tavis: To your point about lessons learned, whether one likes or loathes or agrees or disagrees with Barack Obama as president, nobody argues right now that the country has got to course-correct. We’re wrong in so many ways right now, and we have to course-correct.
We can debate that all day long, but we’ve made some mistakes; we’ve got to course-correct. That’s the country. For those of us watching this program right now, in our own lives, as individuals, as humans, we come to moments in our lives where we have to course-correct. So I raise that because when you admit that you’ve made mistakes and you’ve been able to get back on the right track a few times, without going into detail, just talk to me about how one comes to terms with the fact that he or she has to course-correct.
Curtis: Has to make a course correction?
Tavis: Yeah.
Curtis: Well, often, people have that course correction foisted on them with consequences of their behavior. Now, we are, as a country, having the consequences foisted on us because of our hubris as a country, environmentally…
Tavis: I agree, yeah.
Curtis: … economically, spiritually. We have to course-correct. I’m not a politician and I play one on TV – I’m an actor with a podium, if you will. I go back to the mirror. The mirror doesn’t lie. When you’re staring at the mirror you’re looking at the problem. The problem resides within you. You can change anything you want. You can (unintelligible) enlightened whenever you get enlightened. You can read a book and become enlightened, you can go to church and become enlightened, you can exercise and become enlightened.
We’re a country that is poisoning ourselves with the food we eat; we’re a country of functional illiterates. We have to change our educational criteria. I understand that some energy is being put toward that; education is the number one issue. Because we’ve already F’d it up, we’ve already blown it. We’re adult people. It won’t course-correct in our lifetime. That kind of course correction, where education is first, spirituality, health.
We saw – Chris and I watched the documentary, “Food, Inc.,” which is a documentary about the food that we eat and where it comes from. What was most interesting in the dialogue about meat and meat production and the fact that they’re feeding cows corn, which they’re not designed to eat; they’re designed to eat grass, and all of the ramifications for those choices, the thing that was most interesting was Wal-Mart is now offering organic milk simply because their constituents, their customers said, “We want organic milk.” That, to me, is how you can change, but it’s going to have to come from us.
Tavis: You’ve said, by my count now, three times in this conversation the word “spirituality,” which says to me in this conversation and others I’ve been blessed to have with you that you’ve come to a place in your life where that journey has brought you to a place where you’re comfortable even uttering that word a few times in a public conversation.
Curtis: Well, spirituality is an individual – I’m not a churchgoer. I don’t think that spirituality and God reside in a building.
Tavis: In a building, right.
Curtis: I believe it resides inside us, and it resides in some belief of something bigger than me. Because I’m like the freaking boss. You saw me, I already brought out –
Tavis: We’re going to talk about what you’ve done.
Curtis: I know. I ripped stuff off the –
Tavis: Taking stuff off my walls.
Curtis: Right, off the walls of your hall. (Laughter) I’m the boss. Talk to anybody who knows me – I’m bossy. I’m like, I’m bossy and I know everything. So what I’ve learned is that I don’t, and I don’t have a spiritual token, I don’t have a spiritual icon that I would then address and introduce you to, but I know that something is in my life that I don’t really understand, and I’m not sure I’ll ever understand spirituality.
But I understand the profound change in my life, and that acceptance and desire for something bigger than me to basically take control of my life so that I can stop being so bossy.
Tavis: You said something here now – I wonder whether or not you think that in a contemporary sense, adults who buy these books for their children are still raising their children with a basic sense of the difference between what is right and what is wrong, or have we again gone so far off course that we don’t even understand anymore or accept that there is a distinction between what is right and acceptable in a society and what is wrong and unacceptable in a society/
Curtis: Well, it is a parent’s job to determine what is right and wrong according to their values, and impart that to their children, and we have sadly gone off-course with the profound inundation of media and technology and a creepy-crawler vine of vulgarity and pornography and bottom-feeder sex sells. I was in eighth grade and I was doing a report on American history, and we did oral reports.
I was doing a report on the Electoral College, and I walked up and wrote the word “sex” on the blackboard. All the kids laughed and then everybody was looking at me. I went, “Good. Now that I’ve got your attention,” (laughter) and I basically told the story. Now, this is when I was 12 in public –
Tavis: By the way, if you could ever explain to me how the Electoral College works –
Curtis: Oh, no, no, no, we could do an entire –
Tavis: – I’d appreciate that.
Curtis: I actually did it as a roller derby person trying – anyway, my point being it’s out there, and I think it’s a parent’s job to take it back. I think a parent is allowed to say what is appropriate and inappropriate, right and wrong, according to them. That’s why God invented this point where people become adults. You’re allowed to make a different choice, and I can respect your different choice, but in my house, this is the rule.
The problem is that the pressure out there right now is everywhere, and the fact that everybody has media right in their hand all the time is very difficult, I think, for families to protect their children.
Tavis: To your point, in every house there are rules, and in my house the rule is you can’t take my pictures off my wall.
Curtis: Okay. You know what? Here’s why.
Tavis: So why did you snatch pictures off my wall?
Curtis: Because I understand that – and I know to tip it down, you can cut to it, three. There you go. There’s Betty White. Good friend of mine, I’m going to make a film with her. I already made a film with her. I love her. Talk about a great example.
She had the love of her life, she loves animals. This is a woman who is the reason why there are animal laws on movies, because of Betty White. Because her first TV show had animals, and she said, “I don’t want to be responsible for an animal.” So there’s Betty White.
Tavis: Vanna White, look out.
Curtis: Okay, second one – my good friend Jim Cameron. Okay? King of the world. This man gave me the greatest opportunity I’ve ever had to be in a movie where the – I’m not going to say it was even art, but that was the closest thing to me being a really good actor that I think I’ll ever get to do.
“True Lies” allowed me to actually hang up Jamie Lee Curtis and throw on Helen Tasker. What was fabulous about it was the split. Her incredulity at her life with her husband and then the flip of her incredulity that she’s now married to a spy and her life is – it was such an amazing experience for me as an actor, even though it was hard on my family, that I –
Tavis: I loved you in “Trading Places” as well.
Curtis: I know you did, and I know why you did.
Tavis: Turn that around.
Curtis: I know exactly why you did. (Laughter) I’m not an idiot.
Tavis: I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that.
Curtis: Yes, you did.
Tavis: No, I didn’t.
Curtis: Okay, here’s the thing.
Tavis: My man.
Curtis: No, no, no – my man.
Tavis: My man.
Curtis: No, no, no, you don’t understand.
Tavis: Oh, no, you don’t understand.
Curtis: No, you don’t understand.
Tavis: You don’t understand, Jamie Lee. This is my man.
Curtis: You do not understand how important this human being is to – first of all, it is not just the soundtrack of my life. There is no – when I die, him singing “Walk Down that Lonesome Road” will be playing at my funeral.
Tavis: JT.
Curtis: He is the greatest musical artist I have ever heard in my life. I had the pleasure of seeing him and Carole King at the Hollywood Bowl just whatever –
Tavis: This summer.
Curtis: This summer, five months ago. He is the finest musician I have ever heard in my life, and I have every single piece of music he’s ever produced.
Tavis: I love you too much and I respect you too much to fight with you –
Curtis: You cannot – I am –
Tavis: – over who loves JT the most, so I’m going to let you win this – tonight. (Laughter)
Curtis: I am the biggest James Taylor fan –
Tavis: My staff is shaking their head like, “Jamie, you don’t know how much Tavis loves James Taylor.”
Curtis: I am the biggest – no, no, no. No, no, no. No, no, no. First of all –
Tavis: But the guest is always right, so Jamie wins.
Curtis: Excuse me. Excuse me.
Tavis: Yes, Jamie?
Curtis: Do me a favor.
Tavis: Yes, ma’am.
Curtis: At some point, maybe when you’re doing a holiday show or something, just put on “Mill Worker.” You want to get people – talk about a song about the loss of a human life, where that person is a machine for someone who she’ll never meet, the person who owns the label of the clothes that she makes every day.
That song, which he credits himself that it’s the greatest song he’s ever written, that song sends me to the mat every single time.
Tavis: (Unintelligible) North Carolina (unintelligible).
Curtis: He is the greatest musical artist I have ever heard in my life and he was on your wall, and I’m besotted with him.
Tavis: All right.
Curtis: I’m just saying.
Tavis: I’m going to let Jamie win tonight, because –
Curtis: There is no bigger James Taylor fan than me.
Tavis: Stop saying that, Jamie. You just want to rub that in.
Curtis: Don’t make me – and I don’t sing, so. (Laughter)
Tavis: Jamie Lee Curtis, one of James Taylor’s biggest fans, has a new book out. (Laughter) It’s called “My Mommy Hung the Moon: A Love Story,” and a new movie, “You Again,” and I’d be happy to say that to you any day of the week around here.
Curtis: You again?
Tavis: You again. With love – you again.
Curtis: You again?
Tavis: So any time you want to come back.
Curtis: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Good to have you.
Curtis: It’s nice to have a place where you can actually talk about things.
Tavis: You are welcome here any time. I enjoy you.
Curtis: I enjoy you, too.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight.
Curtis: I enjoy JT more. (Laughter)
Tavis: (Whispers) I love you, JT. I love you. Good night, keep the faith. I love you, JT.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm