On September 8, Jamie Lee Curtis looked like the picture of ease, reclining on a couch poolside at the Lido’s luxurious Hotel Excelsior. And why shouldn’t she? That night, the Venice Film Festival would honor the star with its Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement and premiere her latest movie, the Universal picture Halloween Kills. Of course, there was another good reason for the lounging: “I’ve been on my feet since the morning!” she said brightly, after a photo shoot moments earlier, wearing an elegant black-and-white color-block top as if in homage to Venetian carnevale. But even if Curtis was running on two hours of sleep, you’d never be able to tell.
In person, Curtis radiated the same sunny intensity and human-to-human thoughtfulness that has distinguished her characters on screen. She hit the ground running as a teenage babysitter in Halloween, the 1978 John Carpenter horror film, launching a 40-plus-year career minting her as canon for many children of the ’80s (and beyond). At the festival’s Golden Lion ceremony, Curtis paid tribute to “the genre that has given me my creative life”—including the Halloween sequels in the ongoing Michael Myers slasher saga. Yet she’s also delivered indelible turns in comedy standbys such as Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda, and Freaky Friday (not to mention the bafflingly maligned action comedy True Lies).
As Curtis returns to the Halloween series once more, it might come as a surprise when to hear her feelings about horror movies: she doesn’t watch them. It’s a matter of public record—so I had to ask, why not? “Life is scary enough!” she said. “I’ve raised two children to adulthood. I’ve been married for 37 years”—to actor, writer, and director Christopher Guest—“I’ve lost both my parents, many friends. The world is out of control!” Curtis then pivoted seamlessly into talking about the book Why Fish Don’t Exist, a memoir by NPR science journalist Lulu Miller, whom she dauntingly described as “raised by a chaos theorist.” (Curtis herself has published several children’s books, starting with 1995’s When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth.)
There was something soothing about getting a book recommendation with the chaos and gore of Halloween Kills still buzzing in my brain. Curtis’s Laurie Strode character spends most of the movie thinking that masked nemesis Michael Myers is finally dead. But Laurie has no such luck, and now chanting mobs are on the march to hunt him down. “It’s a movie about communal rage about communal trauma,” Curtis told me. She called director David Gordon Green prescient for anticipating the mood of a frightening American era of mob mentality and stalled systems. “The machine is broken. The center cannot hold,” she went on. There’s only so much that Strode, a parent and grandparent, can do at this point.
Curtis’s parents were Hollywood stars, Janet Leigh (Psycho) and Tony Curtis (Sweet Smell of Success), and elsewhere she’s said her foot in the door on Halloween must have been because of her famous name(s). Yet her best roles emerged out of testing out her various strengths: “I met John Landis [director of Trading Places] because he was doing a little documentary, Coming Soon, about horror movie trailers and who did he hire to narrate it? Oh, that would be me.” Having seen Curtis’s comedy work, John Cleese wrote A Fish Called Wanda and cast her (as Wanda, the brash lure in a caper to swindle Cleese’s upstanding barrister). Curtis recalled a hilarious compliment from John Ritter, watching her on the sitcom Anything But Love. “‘You have really funny legs!’ he said, but what he meant was, your physical stuff is funny!” she explained, bringing us up to her multilayered role as a seemingly unassuming wife of spy Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies.
I worried I might be lingering down memory lane, but the irrepressible actor took us back to the earliest days: “There is a picture of me as an infant that I only recently shared with a young actress that I worked with, because she didn't believe me.” As a child, she scared easily, which might have helped with her scream-queen roles. Scrolling through her phone, she couldn’t find it—then stumbled across another shocked baby picture: “I look stunned!” she exclaimed. In the midst of a cheerful family portrait, baby Curtis stares out eyes a-goggle, absolutely horrified, the world—somehow—too much for her.
I see what Curtis means about her appearance in the baby photo, and yet it’s also pretty funny. Being scared, being funny—two signature talents in the arsenal of an enduring star.