As Me with Sinéad — 4: Jamie Lee Curtis

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[00:37] Sinéad Burke: Welcome to As Me with Sinéad. This week we get to hear from someone I admire, not just from afar, but a true friend, a mentor. Jamie Lee Curtis. That’s a wild sentence to be able to say, particularly as somebody who grew up watching Freaky Friday and A Fish called Wanda. But we met in Ireland and since then, our friendship has physically traveled the world, and landed me in Los Angeles, where she very kindly gave me a tour of the entirety of the city from the desert to the sea. And has taken an immense amount of time to nurture me, and believe in me, and encourage me, and at some relevant points laugh at me. She’s got quite a story to tell, including about how she’s come to avoid tearing herself down for the entertainment of others with self-deprecating humor. 


[01:36] Jamie Lee Curtis: You said something nice about me and I had to take five minutes to go — I am just getting comfortable hearing nice things that the old me would have said, ‘No, no, no!’ And I am trying now to say ‘thank you.’ 


[01:51] Sinéad Burke: What’s on my mind this week? Well, by the time you’re listening to this, I will have been on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Yes. This introduction is filled with wild sentences! And it’s hours before I go on. My parents are in town to support me and will be in the audience. I’m excited and worried. We’re trying to live with the mantra of ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ Are you ready for this week’s show? Let’s go!


[02:31] Sinéad Burke: I’m sitting across from somebody who perhaps they don’t consider themselves as such, but definitely a mentor to me in a way that has been transformative, personally and professionally. We are joined today by the incredible Jamie Lee Curtis. Jamie, thank you so much for being here and for coming all the way in. It’s truly an honor.


[02:52] Jamie Lee Curtis: Well, it’s my pleasure to be here. And the first time we met you used words that — you know, we all wake up every day and try to figure out who we are, what we’re doing, why are we here, and feed the dog. And, you know, chop wood, carry water. And when you use terms like you used here, just now and the first time we met, I don’t think of myself that way. And it moves me because I think every human being would like to have somebody say that about them. And it’s just not the way I — I don’t make up that way. So I’m moved by it because I appreciate it. I’m old enough now to go, oh, no, you know, I mean, I’ve worked hard to figure it all out. 


[03:40] Sinéad Burke: And that’s kind of where I wanted to start. You know, how do you describe yourself personally and professionally? 


[03:48] Jamie Lee Curtis: I would describe myself as a artist in residence and a work in progress because it’s taken me a long, long, long — how old are you? 


[04:01] Sinéad Burke: Twenty-eight. 


[04:03] Jamie Lee Curtis: And this is on the radio and is it censored? 


[04:05] Sinéad Burke: No. 


[04:06] Jamie Lee Curtis: OK. Fuck you! Twenty-eight years old. I mean. I mean. I mean, you know what I mean, people listening? I mean, you know, I’m 60 years old. And it’s taken me a long time to be able to call myself an artist. 


[04:23] Sinéad Burke: What was it that was stopping you before? 


[04:26] Jamie Lee Curtis: I’m assuming you, like everyone else in the world, saw ‘Nanette’


[04:30] Sinéad Burke: Mm-hmm. with Hannah —

[04:31] Jamie Lee Curtis: With Hannah Gadsby. And she talks about self-deprecation as being really quite violent. It’s not this sort of charming thing. It’s a real form of, in a weird way, self-hatred. And that moved me. Like, when she said that I started bawling, just sobbing. Because I would have spent my entire life just saying, ‘oh, no. No, no. I’m a hacktress.’ You know what I mean? I just didn’t take it seriously. And I don’t know if it’s the clicking of the clock, and the ticking off of the days on a calendar, but cresting 60, having adult children who are marrying and choosing partners, being married a really long time to my husband — all of a sudden I have started to own that I’m here. And my motto is, ‘if not now, when? If not me, whom?’ And for me, the only tragedy of my death — because everybody’s gonna die. Nobody gets out alive. So we’re all gonna die. The only tragedy would be the ideas in my head that I didn’t bring out into the world before I died. Did the ideas in me that died with me is the tragedy. The creativity that dies with an artist is a tragedy. And to me, it’s not about the judgment. It’s not about — it’s not about the external response to the art. It is bringing ideas in your head out. And that’s when I started calling myself an artist, because I’ve done enough that I’ve started to go, ‘oh, I have ideas!’


[06:25] Sinéad Burke: And is it a confidence piece — that self-deprecation that you mentioned. Being 105-and-a-half centimeters tall, I think as a way to encourage people to include me, or as a way to make them not feel uncomfortable with my disability, I probably used to make myself the butt of the joke, or would tell short jokes. And I remember my mother sitting with me and she sat down with me and she said, ‘why are you giving people permission to use that against you?’ And I was like, ‘I’m not! I’m like, this is me owning it.’ It was like, ‘no, you’re just offering an invitation to say, if I say this, you can, too.’


[07:01] Jamie Lee Curtis: I was 59 years old when Hannah Gadsby said it on ‘Nanette.’ And this is what she said, quote: ‘I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me. If that means that my comedy career is over, then so be it.’


[07:43] Sinéad Burke: It’s incredible.


[07:45] Jamie Lee Curtis: It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. And I had never thought about it. I just knew I was one of those self-deprecating people passing off any compliment, any support, I would pass it off and kind of flip my hand. Yeah. 


[08:04] Sinéad Burke: And what’s your practice now? 


[08:05] Jamie Lee Curtis: You said something nice about me and I had to take five minutes to go, I am just getting comfortable hearing nice things that the old me would’ve said, ‘no, no, no!’ And that’s the same thing. And I am trying now to say ‘thank you.’ I’m trying. Because it’s the act of trying to better yourself that is what kind of keeps this whole thing going.


[08:34] Sinéad Burke: But it has to become habitual.


[08:37] Jamie Lee Curtis: Well, sure. Anything that’s a bad habit — self-deprecation — takes time to unwind it and start something new. And listen — nothing changes unless something changes. Only that which changes remains true. Change is a word — I’m sober 20 years. The program of recovery uses the serenity prayer. God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Just that as a tool. So the word change is important to me.


[09:16] Sinéad Burke: And it’s constant. 


[09:17] Jamie Lee Curtis: Change is inevitable and important that we start to embrace it, which has to do with getting older. And the messaging that obviously you’ve run up against. The truth of the matter is I have people tell me that I’m great, that they love me. I get that every time I walk out the door anywhere I go. And it’s the byproduct of being 60 years old in an industry that I’ve been in since I was 19. I’ve had all sorts of fame — I’ve had movie fame, I’ve had some TV fame. I’ve done commercials, which is the biggest exposure, because when you advertise or represent a company, you get this enormous exposure. But the truth is, they don’t know me, this is the impression of me. That is very different than the kind, thoughtful gaze and word following the gaze that you’ve literally gifted me twice. The first time we met and here today. That’s very different. That makes me cry. 


[10:27] Sinéad Burke: More after the break. 


[12:38] Sinéad Burke: And you were talking there about how you entered the industry at 19. What made you want to step foot in this space? 

[12:48] Jamie Lee Curtis: The truth is, I was nothing. I was a very bad student. I got very bad grades in what we call high school. I got into the only college that I was accepted to, which was where my mother was the most famous person to have ever graduated. And for some reason, that lovely institution wanted my D-plus average to join their academic institution. And I was there for a very brief time. And the truth of the matter is I wanted to be a police officer. I thought I would take corrections to be a social worker, or work in maybe a police officer, maybe somewhere in the criminal justice system. I’m good with people. And I minored in little sister at a frat, so I was either in some sort of criminal justice class. Really. 101. You know, I could barely spell criminal justice. Or I was doing shots with frat boys. And that’s how my academic life was. And I came home by accident at Christmas and a man named Chuck Bender, who used to be a tennis teacher I knew taught at a friend of mine’s house, he was the tennis teacher, was now managing actors. And he said, ‘they’re looking for Nancy Drew, why don’t you go up for it?’ And I looked at him was like, OK. And I went up for Nancy Drew. I did not get the part. But somehow, someone said, ‘oh, well, whoever that was, she was good,’ or whatever. I don’t know what they said. But they said enough that he said, ‘you know, you could probably get work.’ And I decided to stay home for one month from college in January, where you could take a month off and do an independent study. And I called the drama department and said, ‘how about I do an independent study on how to break into show business? And I’ll go to acting class, a dance class and, you know, auditions and I’ll write a paper to support that process. And I’ll get a credit from the drama department for that one month class.’ And during that month, I ended up meeting the people at Universal Studios and they offered me a seven-year contract and I quit college. And I fell into acting through a tennis teacher who was a friend of mine, a man I credit to this day, Chuck Bender, with my career. I would never, ever, ever, ever had tried to become an actor. 


[15:15] Sinéad Burke: Did you submit the paper? 


[15:17] Jamie Lee Curtis: I did. I actually have a copy of it. And it’s terrible. I mean, it’s not a paper. It’s not like you would write as some sort of thesis. I told you, I was virtually a functional illiterate. I could barely put words together. And that’s not self-deprecation. That is — just look at my SAT scores. My SAT scores were 840 combined. So they actually take the two scores and combine them and that was a very low score. 


[15:40] Sinéad Burke: And did you not like school?

[15:42] Jamie Lee Curtis: Hated it. 


[15:43] Sinéad Burke: Why? 


[15:44] Jamie Lee Curtis: The delivery system didn’t work for me. 


[15:47] Sinéad Burke: Tell me more. 


[15:49] Jamie Lee Curtis: So I’ve raised a child with some learning differences, and therefore I’ve looked at alternative ways. I’ve learned terms like somebody is an ‘experiential learner’ or an ‘auditory learner’ or ‘visual learner.’ And I grew up with the classic education of books, lectures, writing, tests, memorization. Nothing spoke to me. Nothing woke me up. Nothing went in to my brain. And I’m assuming somewhere if someone had tested me, they would have learned a lot about my brain. But in those days, you just went to school, did what everybody else did, and what everybody else did was better than me. OK, I’m going to tell you this funny story, because I think it’ll completely make you understand. I’m telling you, I was a non-academic. I was a B-minus, C-minus student. Very, very low scores. Testing, very low scores. In eighth grade American history, the teacher was a man named George Forges, and he taught in a different way. And he stood up at the beginning of class and he said, ‘so the way I teach is, I’m going to lecture. We’re going to tell stories. We’re going to talk about history. At the end of each term, I’m going to put subjects on the board. It’s a lottery. You pick a number, you pick your subject based on your lottery number, and then you give an oral report on the subject. 


[17:18] Jamie Lee Curtis: Should you just stand up and say, in the War of 1812 was fought in 1812, you will get a C. You will pass my class and I will move you forward. If you do anything else from a more creative standpoint, your grade will go up.’ And in eighth grade American history, I had a very high lottery number, and I got Paul Revere’s ride. We were doing American Revolution. And I got Paul Revere’s ride for my oral report. So I went to class the day of my report, I went to the bathroom and I changed into a green leotard and green tights. And I had made antenna out of like styrofoam and some tinfoil — like a headband. And I walked into the class and all the people were looking at me. And I stood up in front of the lectern and I said, ‘Hi, I’m a flea. And I was on this horse and oh my god! Do I have a story for you!’ And I told the story of Paul Revere’s ride from the point of view of the flea on the horse. And I got an A-plus. The only A-plus I ever got in my entire life was in eighth grade American history from Mr. Forges. 


[18:42] Sinéad Burke: I’m really sorry to tell you, but I think you might be an academic. I think the system might just be broken.


[18:47] Jamie Lee Curtis: The system is broken and, having a child with the difference, I know the system is broken. The delivery system doesn’t work. But I was a different kind of learner and I didn’t know it.


[19:03] Sinéad Burke: We’ll be back just after this break. 


[21:04] Sinéad Burke: When you were 19 and you ventured into film, your parents having so much experience in the industry, did they sit you down and be like, have you thought about this?


[21:14] Jamie Lee Curtis: I understood that I had famous parents. It’s funny because when I started acting, there wasn’t a second that I thought about it, in a weird way. And yet now, of course, there’s curiosity and blah, blah, blah. Of course it helped me. I accepted — I state it now proudly. Of course it helped me. At the time, though I did not feel it did, and I just was doing everything that they asked me to do, and I’d never done any of it before. And my father, who I was not close to — I remember I must have been maybe 19, maybe 20, and I was in his car and he pulled up to the stoplight and he turned to me and he said, ‘never let them shoot you with anything less than a 50.’ And then we drove off. And what he was saying is that in the movies they use lenses on cameras and the pretty lenses are what they call portrait lenses are the sort of 50, 75, 100, 150 — what they call a long lens. And he was saying, stay away from wide-angle lenses.

[22:24] Sinéad Burke: Thank you.


[22:25] Jamie Lee Curtis: He said that and he said that when you sign a contract, you are signing it in perpetuity. Which means whatever you do, you understand that once you’ve done it on film, it is no longer yours. And it will haunt you. And how many actresses and actors, to make ends meet, to get their start, did sort of questionable movies, doing questionable things in questionable movies? And then they become big stars, and then those movies come back to haunt them. In perpetuity was a very helpful thing to learn. 


[23:02] Sinéad Burke: And how did you choose your projects? 


[23:07] Jamie Lee Curtis: I am not that person. Every job I have done was the only job available to me at the time, and I begged for them. I have never had the career where — and this isn’t — this has just been the experience of my life. And I joke you not. It’s never been where I was so sought-after or sought after at all, where I had an option to do this comedy, or then this drama, or then maybe I should go off and do this or this. It’s not about choosing. My experience is most actors will want to work, you know, in my profession, not yours necessarily. For instance, I don’t know — do you have a regular income from a source? Do you get paid by — I’m not asking you a personal question, I’m saying, are you under contract for something? 


[24:00] Sinéad Burke: Yes. 


[24:01] Jamie Lee Curtis: Okay. I’ve been an actor since I was 19 years old. And I’m 60. And I am what they call a freelance actor, which translates into unemployed actor. If you’re freelance, you’re unemployed. The only time I’ve ever had a gig was when I did commercials for television where I had a two-year commitment. Or I did a TV series where I had a year’s commitment. Besides that, every time I work, I work and it finishes and the possibility that I will never work again exists. And that therefore affects you financially, emotionally, your family life. And so it’s been an interesting journey.


[24:42] Sinéad Burke: Yeah. What are you most proud of? 


[24:44] Jamie Lee Curtis: I was going to make a joke because I’m a joke maker. I would say two things. The first is not a joke, is that I’m here. I’m sitting here with you. That I’m still at my age waking up every day with a creative mind. And that is something I’m incredibly proud of. You know what? I think it’s that — I think that I have created a life, some by accident. Chuck Bender, 19. I would have never, ever, ever looked in the mirror and said, ‘ooh, I could be an actor!’ and then pursued it. My teeth were gray. My mother took tetracycline when I was a child inside her and my teeth were like the color of this box. I mean, they were nasty. And I didn’t think I was pretty. And I certainly didn’t have any discernible talent, and I could barely spell the word discernible. In fact, I’m not sure I can. And from all of that, I became an actor and then an advocate. And then I wrote books. And then I developed a mind, and then I did therapy. Then I got sober. And then, you know, I have developed a mind of my own making through the beautiful circumstances of my life. But the fact that I have a mind of my own — it’s not my mother’s mind, not my father’s, not my husband’s, not my daughter’s, not my son’s, not yours. That it’s mine. And that’s precious and beautiful. That is what I am most proud of, that I am here in a way that I feel I exist. And I didn’t feel I existed for a very long time. 


[26:42] Sinéad Burke: This is never something I imagined, but oh, my goodness, am I honored, grateful, proud and moved and educated from this conversation. It is an honor to know you. Thank you so much for joining. And what a privilege. 


[26:56] Jamie Lee Curtis: And for me. 


[26:58] Sinéad Burke: Thank you so much. 


[26:59] Jamie Lee Curtis: Thank you, my beauty. 


[27:02] Sinéad Burke: And that was Jamie Lee Curtis. Jamie is in a new movie that I really can’t wait to watch, ‘Knives Out.’ It’s a fun, old fashioned whodunit and it’s out in the U.S. on Thanksgiving, and in selected theaters before that. It features Jamie and Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, I mean, let’s go see it together. Pick a cinema anywhere in the world. I think we should go. I think we should do this. The person you should know in this part of the show is connected actually to this episode. After first meeting Jamie, I wanted to thank her for her kindness. So I sent her a book, a book that changed me and made me view the entire world differently last year. It’s called ‘Notes To Self,’ it’s by Emily Pine. It’s a personal narrative through an essay format about things that trouble us all, be it fertility, be it alcoholic parents, be it the harm that we subject ourselves to. Made me feel seen in a way that I hadn’t before, and it gave me the tools to think and be better and be kinder to myself. 


[28:11] Sinéad Burke: So this week’s person you should know is Emily Pine. As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. We’ll be releasing one new episode every Thursday this fall and in the new year. If you’d like what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends to listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen. Please do rate and review us as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke. And find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @lemonadamedia. 

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