Jamie Lee Curtis on Returning to Horror in ‘Scream Queens’

Executive producer Ryan Murphy said he wouldn’t have made “Scream Queens” without Jamie Lee Curtis — the original Scream Queen herself. Now Curtis calls it the role of a lifetime.

How did it feel to know Ryan Murphy wouldn’t have done the show without you?

It is rarefied air to have someone call you up and say, “I am writing something for you.” It’s only happened to me a few times and it’s not happened to people sometimes ever. First of all, it happened with John Cleese. I thought of course he wanted my husband, because Chris (Guest) had just done “Spinal Tap.” Then the same thing happened with Jim Cameron (for “True Lies”). This is the third time in many, many years that someone has called me and said, “I’m writing something for you.” Right away, it makes you feel like you have something to offer that somebody wants. That feeling is very unique and very special. To have a great writer call you up and say, “I have this show and I’d like for you to star in it with Emma Roberts and …” (trails off).

Once you worked out your deal for the show, you signed on without even seeing a script.

I didn’t see a script until March. I didn’t know I slept with Chad Radwell until my wardrobe fitting for a show I had still not read one word of. In the wardrobe fitting (costume designer) Lou Eyrich said, “You have a change in your bedroom.” I was like, “My bedroom? What’s happening in my bedroom?” She said, “It’s post-coital.” I’m like, “Coit-ing? Who am I coit-ing?” That’s how little I knew of the show even two weeks before shooting.

Yu Tsai for Variety

Have you ever signed on for a project blindly like that?

No, of course not.

Why was that? Just trust in Ryan?

This was the way it had to be. This is how Ryan Murphy works. The leap of faith was really faith in the fact that Ryan is a great writer. When he walked onto set that first morning, he said to Emma and myself, “OK, my concept of the show is dialogue is very fast. Just throw it all away. This is a show where I want to let the writing do the talking. You don’t have to do much.” I have a history of being in horror films which are traditionally not written at all. They are supposed to replicate some quotidian, regular, workaday life. These scripts are not written particularly well and they’re certainly not political and they’re not sociological. So, because horror movies don’t really deliver much writing you end up pushing it, because you’re inflating something that’s really dead. That’s why I loved when Ryan said, “Look, just say the words. You don’t have to do anything.” It’s very freeing to not have to do very much.

Did you ever improv anything?

I’m not a good improv-er. I married an improv-er. You need to write me a good joke. Give me a good “Fish Called Wanda” monologue. “The London Underground is not a political movement.” “Aristotle was not Belgian.” Give me jokes properly linked and I will deliver them and if I stay out of the way they will work. They’ll be funny. And I get mouthfuls on this show.

How much do you think horror fans are going to enjoy seeing you in this?

When I finished “Halloween Two” I knew I couldn’t do another horror film. I knew, being the daughter of people in the entertainment business, I understand what pigeonholing will do and I felt like I had done that enough. I did “Halloween H2O” as a gift to the fans, because I knew 20 years later they would be happy with that. So, I have not traded on it nor have I needed to trade on it.

About two years ago, I did a charity event for “Halloween” and somebody there said, “You know, there are these conventions all over the country. And they would go mental if you came.” I said, “I’ll do one, but every penny I make goes to charity.” We made a lot of money in two days for Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. It was very satisfying, but what I really got from that was how loyal, loving, and dedicated fans of that genre are to the people in them. It moved me. I really left there understanding the power of that genre way more than I think I ever did.

How does this role compare to your role in horror films?

The truth of the matter is, if this is the last thing I ever do … I’m getting older. Am I really going to be on the set when I’m … Really? I don’t think so. This is a perfect full circle for me to be able to take everything that my unprepared talent yields. I am not a trained person. I cannot do accents. You’re not going to hire me to play Marie Antoinette. I cannot sing. I can dance a little. I don’t do impressions. I’m not the Lea Michele level of talent. I am not that person. For me, this show is a perfect blend of everything that I do well. I can tell a joke. I’m brave, I’m strong, I’m opinionated. I scare easily. I fight back. If you took every job I’ve ever done and boil it down it’s going to boil down to “Scream Queens.” I didn’t know that going in. I had no idea the level of funny that we were going to have, and I didn’t understand that I was going to get to be the voice of reason, distaste, and disdain for society. I’m not just some quotidian person who’s constantly looking over my shoulder in fear. I think it really is, for me, just a perfect storm of opportunity. Of taking my strong suits and putting them into one hand. Then I just get to play my aces. Here are my kings. Here are my queens. My royalty. I get to lay it down every single week. So I can’t imagine once this show’s finished what else is going to come along that’s going to make me go, “Wow.”

I noticed the cast gathering around you between takes. What does that mean to you?

(Shrugs.) I’m a maternal person. My friends call me Mama. I have that nature and I like it. I’m a loving person and I care about people. I really don’t believe people get told enough how great they are, so I’m very supportive of people. Each person is really bringing their best thing to the show. Every single person. There’s not been one second of that easily diss-able part of show business which is bad behavior. I’ve been on TV series before. I’ve seen what happens to people. I want and always have wanted to be the voice of reason, which is this is the best f–ing job you will ever have. You will never have more fun. You will never make more money. This is it. This is as good as it gets in our industry. Don’t eff it up. I don’t have to say that to these people. They all know it. They all recognize how special this is. It’s because of the writing.

How do you think the triumvirate — Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan — are able to channel women’s voices?

That’s what writing is. Writing is channeling human behavior and I don’t think it’s a gender question. I think it’s an antenna question. They clearly are programmed to receive modern society. It’s an interesting curio when critics say, “There are no women on the writing staff.” You don’t have to have a woman on the writing staff to be able to write the voice of a woman. You have to have a vagina to be able to write about the sense of a woman? Really? Aren’t we evolved enough to know that that’s not true?

How do you think audiences are going to respond to the show?

I think people are going to love it. I’m sure there will be a little backlash and that anything worth doing really almost demands a backlash. If you’re doing something so far down the middle … It’s like politics. If you’re doing something so far down the middle where you’re not going to stimulate some reaction, then really what’s the point?

What do you think the backlash is going to be about? The meanness? The violence?

I think probably a combination of all of that. I was raised in the 1970s. That was really the “Father Knows Best,” “The Brady Bunch” era. There was something fed to us, which is that people are what they say they are. That father knows best. That mom doesn’t have an opinion. That there is very little conflict. I think what we’ve learned since then is that people are very complicated. People are multi-layered. We are by nature contradictory. We do one thing, we say another. We think one thing, we say another.

I watched the Republican Debate. I tried to watch it with an open mind. I literally tried to watch it saying, “I don’t know anything about any of these people and one of them is going to be the President of the United States. OK, which one?” I watched people try to say one thing, but we know that they’re really thinking another. I think that’s the show. It exposes people’s dark truths. That’s the big takeaway.

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