It was Debra Winger who in effect secured Jamie Lee Curtis the female lead as ex-Olympic-swimmer-turned-aerobics-instructor in Perfect. On the day Curtis was to discuss the project for the first time with Travolta in Jim Bridges’ office, “Unbeknownst to me,” recalls Bridges, “Debra Winger found out about it.” Since Winger had worked with Travolta and Bridges on Urban Cowboy, she was feeling left out. “Suddenly, without calling, Winger appears with her governor. Then John arrives. Then Jamie walks in and she knows none of us. But the way she handled herself in the situation convinced me she was the right choice.”
The past year has brought a kaleidoscope of changes to the 26-year-old daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. After relationships with production-designer Michael Riva and rocker Adam Ant, last December she married Saturday Night Live regular Christopher Guest, 37. With Perfect she has permanently shed the scream-queen image of Halloween, and with her steely screen presence in Perfect she has distinguished herself in the crowded category of Hot Young Actresses. Now, just as Travolta makes no apologies for his movie stardom, Curtis makes no pretenses about pursuing that profile. “More than anybody I know, Jamie wants it,” says Travolta.
Offscreen Curtis is a combustible combination of smarts and insecurities. On their first day working together she told Bridges, “You know, my daddy said if you’re doing a close-up of me and I see anything wider than a 50-millimeter lens, I should walk away.” Her next role is that of another confident, don’t-mess-with-me adversary. Later this month she starts shooting 8 Million Ways to Die, in which she plays an alcoholic prostitute opposite Jeff Bridges. Yet in real life, she insists, “I’m the least tough person I know.”
Characteristically Curtis holds strong opinions about her weaknesses, which she discussed with associate editor Scot Haller in her West Hollywood apartment.
I had the worst experience the other day. A girlfriend and I were coming home from dinner, and a guy was stopped right in front of my driveway. So we sat there waiting for him to go, didn’t honk or anything. The guy starts backing up, and he hits my friend’s car. I went nuts. It was like, “What! What do you…” And this guy leans out of his window and goes, “I suppose you think you’re perfect.” I started to cry. I got emotional. I said, “You know what? That really hurts my feelings, because this has nothing to do with what I do or that I’m an actress. It has to do with you hit my girlfriend’s car.” And he apologized. Whew! So I’m going to be the subject of lots of perfect jokes—and perfect-body jokes. There’s a song I did the video for, and it goes, “She’s the closest thing to perfect that I’ve ever seen.” Well, give me a break.
I never felt very comfortable with the way I look. I still don’t. When I started working I was 18, and I was pretty lost. I didn’t have much of a self-image. I was never known as me. I was always Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis’ daughter. I certainly did not have a joyous high school existence. I don’t think I went to my prom. I don’t remember. That’s how bad it was. I was very shy and quiet. I have this friend who came up to me the other day and he said, “Hey, I saw your high school picture,” and he made a funny face, like, wow, you’ve sure changed. What am I gonna do? I was a teenager, a lost teenager. What did I know about that stuff?
What I really wanted throughout my younger life, and even when I first started acting, was really to look and be like other people. I just wanted to be normal. I just wanted everything to be normal. I have short mousy hair. I’ll never have great long hair. I always wanted to wear ribbons in my hair, but it’s just not me. When I started [acting] I didn’t have great style. I didn’t know much about dressing. I adopted big shoulders and the clothes of ’40s movie stars that I was being compared to, Lauren Bacall and Carole Lombard. I kept thinking that I wasn’t enough. I needed to evoke something or somebody else. God knows what it was. I was misguided. Now I’m not emulating anyone. I’m finally getting strength in myself. I’m in a pretty good space. People are going to read that and think, my God, does she sound like she’s from California! You have to know where I was coming from to know how happy I am. I was coming from none, zippo, no self-esteem.
Recently I had pictures in Harper’s Bazaar that were done by a very famous photographer, and it’s me—glamo. Glamo Jamie. Ritzy dresses. With more makeup than I’ve ever worn in my life. And I had people say, “You know, you’re the first actress I’ve ever seen who looks better without makeup.” Again, here’s a formula that I’m not going to fit into. I don’t look good when you put a lot of makeup on me and put those dresses on me. I look like an idiot.
You should see my face when I read beauty magazines. My husband calls me “Flipper,” because I flip the pages and snap them like gunshots. I’m like, “Give me a break. I don’t know who that girl is. I don’t know what that expression is.” Usually it’s, “What have I sat on?” Nobody looks like that. Clothes never look like that on people. That’s not going to make you happy. If you think that having a tight ass means you’re going to fall in love, you’re wrong. To think that finding perfection with your body is going to make you a happy person is not true at all.
A lot of my happiness came from meeting Christopher. I’ll tell you the story. It’s the perfect story. Did I say “perfect”? Oh, gosh. My mother says gosh—gosh and golly gee. We were shooting the movie. I was looking at Rolling Stone (What’s really weird is that it was Rolling Stone), and there was this picture of three guys who looked like they were friends. One was Christopher. My heart stopped. I was just like, “Aaahh.” This guy had an expression. He had a little smirk, and I smirk. I thought, “Great, somebody can smirk.” I knew nothing about the guy. I just saw his name and his face. So I asked around. And I was hearing he was the funniest man around.
One day I just went, “Life’s too short. This is ridiculous. It’s 1984 and I’m worried about calling a guy and asking him to dinner.” I’d never done it. So I’m standing in the production office, and I called his agent, after a girlfriend of mine told me who his agent was. I was so embarrassed. The agent said, “Let me take your number, and if Chris calls you, fine.” Well, he didn’t call. I went on my way, and I guess he went on his.
About two months later—it was actually June 27—I went to my favorite restaurant, Hugo’s, with some friends. We saw some people in the back and went to talk to them. Thirty feet away was Christopher. We did one of those acknowledging waves, a mute wave, a flip of the hand. And when I turned my back I was dying, because he was so great. Anyway, when he left he waved again, and I waved again, and my heart stopped. He called two days later. We had dinner on July 2 and we’ve been together since.
As the daughter of someone famous, I can’t ever treat this business lightly. I have to be careful to say I work hard, and here’s what I do. Some actress born in Iowa can come in and go, “Hey, this is all a lark. I’ve got a big house, and it’s so much fun.” But I can’t be naturally excited about things because the minute people see me going, “Oh, this is the funniest thing,” it’s like, —— you, kid, you lucky bitch. I always have to show my dedication and that I’m serious.
I was at a softball game with a friend of mine, and a friend of his came up to me and said, “Freeze-frame.” After he left, Bobby said, “People can freeze-frame on their VCRs. He was watching you in Trading Places.” Then it hit me: Oh, this guy had my breasts in freeze-frame on his TV. Okay. I made the decision to do that work and I have no regrets. If my purpose was to get ahead by showing my breasts, I would have done it when I was 18 years old. It was certainly not a predesigned idea that I would take off my shirt and propel my career. I guarantee you.
I seem to be stepping out from underneath awnings. First it’s Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis’ daughter. Then it’s “Horror Movie Queen Here,” with an arrow pointing down. Next it’s Body Actress. I hope they’ll just call me an actress one day. I could very easily become Aerobics Actress. Now everybody who’s thin thinks they should preach their regimen. I turned down many offers of videos and books. I had one I was going to do—what was it? The Workout Book for People Who Were Born on November 22 and Who Are 24 Years Old Today. That’s the workout book I was going to put out. Real specific.
You know the best part about Perfect? In this town whenever your name is printed, they always put the name of your movie in between. Jamie (Perfect) Curtis. How great can it get, you know?