Jamie Lee Curtis first became known as Hollywood’s “Scream Queen” more than 35 years ago, when she captivated legions of fans who flocked to “Halloween,” “The Fog” and other horror fests. What audiences didn’t know at that time was that Curtis had her own fears — she was frightened of being pigeonholed.
At the top of her reign in 1979, Curtis turned her back on horror. That risky choice eventually led to a versatile resume that has included hit movies (“True Lies,” “A Fish Called Wanda”), sitcoms (“Anything But Love”), books (she has written seven bestselling children’s books), commercials (pitching Activia yogurt) and high-profile guest shots (“New Girl”).
But starting last week Curtis is back in blood.
In a wicked spin on her horror roots, Curtis is the centerpiece of FOX’s new series titled, appropriately enough, “Scream Queens.” The series, from Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story,” “Glee”), is a send-up of slasher movies, particularly those set in sororities with scantily dressed or undressed co-eds.
It’s a surprising homecoming for Curtis.
“I never saw this coming,” she says while relaxing on the back patio of the comfortable Santa Monica home she shares with her husband, actor-director Christopher Guest (“Waiting for Guffman”) and their children. “I didn’t know I wanted it. But now I am delighted to have it. And creatively, I am having the time of my life.”
A child of show-business royalty — her father was Tony Curtis, and her mother was Janet Leigh — Curtis displays an endearing warmth and openness as she discussed “Scream Queens” and its place on the roller-coaster trajectory of her career, which has embraced highs and lows. In the past, she battled low self-esteem and addiction, but she says she’s been sober for 17 years.
Starring in a series filled with humorous mayhem was not on her bucket list. Jokingly referring to herself as “a woman of middling talent and questionable ethics, and even looks,” Curtis has embraced a lifestyle that puts the emphasis on comfort and happiness and letting life evolve organically.
“My life is filled with light, humor, love and everyday-ness,” she declares, pointing to her surroundings. “I am happy with it.”
In “Scream Queens,” she plays Dean Cathy Munch, the cynical no-nonsense head of fictional Wallace University. Munch has a particular distaste for Kappa House, the popular sorority for pledges run by Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts), who is rich, entitled and just plain mean.
Munch forces Oberlin to open the sorority membership to the so-called undesirables, including students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. After Oberlin reluctantly complies, someone in a devil’s costume begins a wave of terror across the campus, dispatching students with gruesome glee.
Although the killer is wreaking havoc on campus, Curtis says Dean Munch is the one the students should be really afraid of.
“I get to be the Greek chorus, the one that gets to look at people and tell them who they really are,” she says. “I get these wonderful mouthfuls of words that are often a searing commentary on the state of young people today. I strip away these young girls’ facades like I’m varnish remover, pointing out to them who they really area. It’s so fun.”
Starring in “Scream Queens” is an outgrowth of Curtis’ guiding philosophy, which is to “stay out of the way. That’s the way it is for me creatively. I just have to stay out of the way and let things happen.”
She points to three touchstones that demonstrate the rewards of letting things happen.
“There are three times in my life when I was just sitting in my bedroom and the phone rang,” she says. “The first time was in 1986 when John Cleese called and said, ‘I’m going to write a movie for you, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin and myself.’ Like he promised, ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ was funny and successful.
“Then another time the phone rang and it was Jim Cameron who said, ‘I’ve written a movie for you and Arnold Schwarzenegger.’ That, of course, was ‘True Lies.’ Both those times I was just minding my own business when these men called and said, ‘I’m going to change your life today.’ So when the phone rang and it was Ryan, it was the same thing. He said, ‘I’m writing a TV show. Would you like to do it with me?'”
It was tempting. “Each of those phone calls led to the biggest, most successful work of my life,” she says, “and life hinges on a couple of seconds you never saw coming. Each of these men changed my life, Ryan Murphy probably more than anyone.”
Murphy says he’s been a huge fan of Curtis since her original Scream Queen days: “I saw absolutely everything she was in, comedies, everything.”
He pitched “Scream Queens” to Fox TV heads Dana Walden and Gary Newman, who bought it immediately and ordered it straight to series without a pilot. But he didn’t have Curtis on board.
“And I really didn’t want to do it unless Jamie Lee did it,” Murphy says. “She didn’t know anything about it, just that it was a comedy. But I think she felt the love and adoration I had for her. I missed seeing her. I wanted her on my TV every week.”
Curtis initially warmed to the idea of “Scream Queens” but backed out when she learned the series would be filmed in New Orleans. “I called Ryan and said, ‘Sorry, bummer. But my life and my family are here. I won’t leave them.'”
Murphy and his fellow producers quickly worked out a production schedule that would allow Curtis to shoot scenes for several episodes within a concentrated period.
“I’m sure it’s a pain in the [butt] for the production department, so when I’m there I show up with a lot of energy,” Curtis says. “But it was the only way I could do it. Now I couldn’t be happier. Life really does hinge on a couple of seconds you never see coming.”