“I’m the only Oscar nominee who sells yogurt [Activia] that makes you shit,” cracked Jamie Lee Curtis during a career-retrospective conversation with film historian Leonard Maltin on Saturday night at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara. The newly minted best supporting actress Oscar nominee for Everything Everywhere All at Once was in town to collect the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Maltin Modern Master Award, and charmed attendees — including more than a few Academy members — with self-deprecation (“All the ‘nepo baby’ jokes, believe me, I’ve heard them all”), a claim that she “invented” Instagram and general candor about her 45 years as a screen actress: “I know what I can do, I know what I cannot do, and I’ve managed to have a really rich and robust group of opportunities in show-off business.”
Maltin — the namesake of the award Curtis was collecting, and a friend of Curtis’ late parents, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, and Curtis herself — was barely able to get a word in edgewise, but neither he nor the audience seemed to mind, as Curtis tended to find her way to real insights or heartfelt observations. One, for example: “I am the granddaughter of immigrants from Hungary and from Denmark, people coming to America having the opportunities and the difficulties and the heartaches and the tragedies and the tiny little bit of joy. And then they each — both of them — raised children who became massive stars from incredibly impoverished beginnings. And then to have their daughter, who did not come from an impoverished beginning — I’ve had a life of privilege and ease, I have never pretended anything but that — but nonetheless, that their daughter is sitting here, talking to you about the craft of acting, about a lifelong career — I’m 64 years old, I’ve been doing this since I was 19 — I’m honored and you’ve honored my parents and my grandparents.”
Curtis claimed that she never had any intention of following in her famous parents’ footsteps. “I was never going to be an actor,” she said. “I was going to be a police officer.” But then a tennis coach-turned-manager encouraged her to audition at Universal to play Nancy Drew in a film project. She didn’t land the role, but was signed by the studio — which was run by her godfather, Lew Wasserman, the most powerful person in Hollywood at the time — to a seven-year contract, and left college to go focus on that. She struggled to gain traction, and in fact was devastated to be fired early in her career — along with 11 other actors — from the TV series Operation Petticoat (an adaptation of a film in which her father had starred), but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her. “Had I not been fired from Operation Petticoat, I would not have been able to audition for Halloween,” she explained in reference to that 1978 John Carpenter horror flick, and that is the job that changed my life.”
After numerous auditions for the part of Laurie Strode, she landed the part that made her — like her mother, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — a legendary “scream queen,” and also impacted numerous other aspects of her life. “All of my life goes back to Halloween,” she volunteered. “All the good things in my life, including my husband, including my family — everything can be traced back to Halloween.” But in the immediate aftermath of that film’s success, she strangely received few other offers, which is why she is extra grateful to Carpenter for writing her a part in his next film, 1980’s The Fog.
As it turns out, Carpenter was but one of “three Johns” — a double-entendre that she had some fun with — who gave her major professional breaks. John Landis had hired her to narrate a documentary short about horror films, and then fought for her to star opposite Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in his 1983 comedy Trading Places. “I owe John Landis a great debt of gratitude because that flipped the switch,” she said, meaning that she was no longer pigeonholed as a horror movie actress. And then, because of the aptitude for comedy that Curtis demonstrated in Trading Places, John Cleese wrote her a part in his 1988 comedy A Fish Called Wanda.
There were other notable movies along the way, including Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel in 1990, James Cameron’s True Lies in 1994 (she acknowledged Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger for giving her above the title credit with Schwarzenegger even though they didn’t have to) and John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama — as well as the occasional return to the Halloween universe, starting with Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. Curtis, who has since starred in several additional sequels, said that one of the few regrets of her career was not insisting that Debra Hill, who had co-written and produced the first Halloween, also be a producer of the second. “She wasn’t angry at me,” Curtis said of Hill, who died in 2005, “but I was angry at myself.”
Curtis acknowledged that she was a last-minute replacement for others in several of her better-known roles, including the 2003 remake of Freaky Friday and the 2019 mystery Knives Out, both of which proved to be blockbusters. And she passed along a lesson that she learned on ensemble films like the latter: “Here’s the deal. It’s my secret sauce, you guys. Don’t go back to your trailer. Trailers are not your friend. Stay on set. I’m telling you that pearl of wisdom: stay on set. Be an active set-sitter.” Her part in Knives Out was markedly increased simply because she was around.
And then came discussion of Everything Everywhere, an art house flick that exploded into the most commercially successful film in the history of A24 and the most Oscar-nominated film of the year. Curtis said her agent told her she had received a script from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert for a film in which she would star opposite Michelle Yeoh, and for that reason she instructed her agent to say yes — but he urged her to read the script first, given how weird and unusual it was. She says she was charmed and knew off the bat that she wanted to play the officious IRS agent Deirdre — “a forgotten person,” like Yeoh’s character — with a dowdy look similar to the one she employed for Billy Bob Thornton’s 2001 film Daddy and Them, in which she starred opposite Ben Affleck, with one exception: she wanted her to have beautifully manicured nails, since she figured that the only time Deirdre was ever touched by another human was when she visited the beauty parlor.
And, moments before being presented with the festival’s award by none other than her husband, the comedy master Christopher Guest, Curtis emphasized the tremendous pride that she feels in being associated with Everything Everywhere: “It’s a beautiful movie about many things — it’s about love, it’s about family reunification, it’s about the American dream and the failure of the American dream and what we put immigrants through, it’s about marriage, it’s about a child — it’s deep.”