Hollywood’s Scream Queen turns emotion into meaning by writing books for kids

By Joe Piasecki

Jamie Lee Curtis talks to a boy about his fidget spinner after a public reading of “This Is Me” at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center
Photo by Emily Hart Roth

It isn’t hard to get Jamie Lee Curtis talking. I reach her over the phone while she’s at home in Santa Monica recovering from a cold. It’s a rare break from her frenetic schedule and, she deadpans, a chance to try out her Brenda Vaccaro impression. She nails it.

We’re meant to discuss her latest children’s book — “This Is Me,” which asks children to contemplate personal identity by imagining themselves as immigrants — but she’s excited about a movie. “Hondros,” a documentary Curtis produced with godson Jake Gyllenhaal, has just won an Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The film is about Chris Hondros, a conflict photographer killed six years ago while on assignment in Libya. Curtis got involved with the project after reading how Hondros, always striving to connect with his subjects, had paid for a destitute young soldier to attend school years after photographing him on the battlefield. Curtis hoped to do something similar for Samar Hassan, a little Iraqi girl whom Hondros had photographed screaming and covered in blood moments after American soldiers shot her parents.

Emotional response is what also drove Curtis, a mother of two, to write children’s books — a dozen of them since 1993. “This Is Me,” published late last year, starts with an elementary school teacher telling students about her grandmother’s immigrant journey from China, how as a very young girl she could pack only one suitcase with the things she loved and needed most. The fictional kids in the book and the real ones reading it then have to decide what they would take with them under the same circumstances. The story compels readers to consider what truly matters to them, and placing the question (albeit coincidental) in the context of the global refugee crisis.

“This Is Me” asks kids to decide what’s really important in life

We — mostly she — ended up speaking for nearly an hour about everything from finding creative inspiration to her past struggle with opiate addiction. (The Q&A that follows is abridged.)

Last Sunday, Curtis read “This Is Me” to a classroom-sized group of local kindergarteners as part of Laemmle Live, an ongoing series of free cultural events in the mezzanine lounge of Laemmle’s Monica Film Center in Downtown Santa Monica. She introduced it as a story “about every single person in this room, about the story of your family” — right after leading her audience through a session of body wiggles, funny faces and a silent screams. Curtis knows how to read a crowd.

The Argonaut: How do you come up with book ideas?

Jamie Lee Curtis: In the same way I saw the photograph of Samar Hassan and read about Chris [Hondros] and what he did: an emotional connection is made for me.

I don’t set out to write books about anything. I didn’t think I was going to write a book the first day I wrote a book. I barely got out of high school. I am a functional illiterate. I proudly got 840, combined, on my SATs. Combined. I was not intended to have a life of a writer, necessarily even a thinker, because on paper I can barely spell. So the last thing in the world I ever thought I would do is write books. It was never a goal; it was not a dream.

Every book that I have written has popped into my head and come out in a very fast flow of creativity. I don’t cogitate. I don’t ruminate. I don’t drink scotch out in a cabin in the woods and wait for the muse. I can be in an elevator. I can be at a public park. I can hear a teacher tell about something they did, which is the evolution of this book. … I don’t intend to write books. They just show up.

One day my [then] four-year-old daughter walked into my office with the kind of petulance a four-year-old has — in that pouty, chubby, delicious way as she marched into my room with her hands on her hips — and she said, “When I was little I wore diapers, but now I use a potty.” I laughed out loud and wrote on a pad on my desk, “When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old’s Memoir of Her Youth” [the title of her first book]. … And that’s how I became an author. Because my four-year-old made me laugh and cry at the same time. And that’s how I ended up producing “Hondros.” Because of emotion; because of a connection to something human.

Did “This Is Me” evolve from the 2016 presidential election campaign?

This book was written two, three, four years ago. It had nothing to do with politics. And then of course it became very much about politics, which is the nature of art. Sometimes art comes from a political idea, and sometimes it becomes a way to talk about politics and division and sort of fear-based xenophobia and all the rest. So, this was not intended as a political book, and then here I am going on the road in September of last year, when immigration was at the forefront of the rhetoric coming from the Republican Party.

What did you find on the road?

We started in New York City — at Ellis Island, where I did some readings for groups of students. We got there a little early, and in the Great Hall [where immigrants were processed] there was a little boy with his mom and dad. They were not citizens, but the parents both worked in Ohio. I was able to read the book to him. I asked him, “Well, what would be the first thing you would put in your suitcase?” and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of Legos. And right away I understood that we were onto something, that this was an idea that was going to grow.

You’ve blogged about struggling in school because of the way lessons were taught …

I think the delivery system is what’s wrong. I think it’s been wrong for learners like me. I am a visual, auditory, immersion learner. I need verisimilitude. I need time and place. I need something I can relate to.

When I go to a foreign country — I’m going to Amsterdam this year for the first time — I will do an immersion. I will read two novels set in Amsterdam. I will read a good nonfiction history of Amsterdam. I will watch movies set in Amsterdam. I will listen to music composed in the Netherlands. I will start to inculcate culture and art and music and visuals and history into my being even before I get there so that I will have a little background in the place. I have always believed that anything I learn I need to come at it from a lot of angles. It cannot come straight from a textbook. That does not work for me.

If you had to abandon your Santa Monica home with only one suitcase, what would you put in it?

If you look on Instagram (@CurtisJamieLee), back in September I posted photographs of what I would take in the little suitcase. The thing that was most poignant for me — besides the stuff my children made me, you know, and my wedding ring — seems like a weird thing. My parents [Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh] were, you know, big film stars back in the day. And I only knew of them hating each other. There was a bad divorce. There was always invective thrown back and forth between my parents. And so as a child I had no sense of them loving each other. And my mother had all these years a little gold box that has it inscribed “Janet ❤ Tony.” … Out of everything that I could have, the only thing that I wanted to take with me of my parents would be this evidence that at some point they loved each other. … I have to believe I was born out of love. I have to.

When Prince died, you wrote about your own struggles with opiates. Have you thought about creative ways to address that?

Well, I think I’ve addressed it. I’m not a doctor, you know. I’m a humanist. I’m someone who for a long time has taken human experience and either pretended to show it in some sort of acting work or tried to write about it for kids. So vis-à-vis recovery, I’m not an expert. I cannot even begin to understand. But the most important thing is the awareness and the acceptance that in fact it is an epidemic.

I hit a very high bottom … meaning that the only thing I lost was my internal self-worth and sense of myself. I didn’t succumb to losing my marriage, losing my house, losing jobs, losing everything in the hunt for the opioid. But the craving for the release and the relief that an opioid offers knows absolutely no boundary.

These people are in pain, and it is important for people like myself to offer what I can. I wrote about Prince because another man wrote about his own addiction, and that article was one of the biggest reasons I was able to face my own problem.

What was the story?

“Vicodin, My Vicodin.” Esquire. January, 1999. Jerry Springer was on the cover. I have no idea why I picked the magazine up or how it made its way into my hands. … The article was by a man named Tom Chiarella. He was outing himself to his family, his friends, his colleagues and his doctors. … And he proceeds to basically say where he had squirreled away all of these opiates in his house. That’s how obsessed he was about them, and I related to it. ‘Cause I did the same thing. So in that sense I think it’s important for public figures to sometimes expose themselves a little bit in order to help people.

It’s unlikely I will ever write a memoir. I’m not looking for that self-explanation. I know who I am. I know what I do. I’ve been married for a long time. I love my husband [Christopher Guest]. I have two children. I’ve had a very interesting career that I never thought I’d have one day of —let alone 30, 40 years. And if I just stay out of the fucking way of myself and try to stay open to life, then you wake up one day at 58 and go, “Oh, OK.” I mean, I saw my husband’s picture in a magazine and said out loud to a girl I was sitting next to, “I’m going to marry that guy.” And I married him five months later. A man I’d never seen. A man I’d never heard of. I just saw his picture in a magazine. [Curtis told her agent to spread the word; Guest didn’t call. But after a chance encounter at Hugo’s Restaurant in West Hollywood on June 28, 1983, Guest finally asked Curtis on a date. They went out July 2 and married on Dec. 18.]

What’s it like being married to Christopher Guest?

He’s the funniest human being I’ve ever met. He’s the smartest human being I probably ever met. And he’s the quietest human being I’ve ever met. It’s a good combo.

But, again, the reason I told you that story is to show you that I just have to stay out of things. … If I can just stay out of it, this is how my life unfolds. I never thought I’d meet this guy and marry him; we’ve raised two children together. I didn’t set out to make a documentary. I never thought I’d write a book, and here I am in Santa Monica, Calif., with a cold, talking about a book that’s an object lesson for kids: What really is important? It’s not things. … What really matters are relationships and people.