Jamie Lee Curtis on Making Most of Quarantine with New Audible Podcast, Compassion Website: "I'm a 61-Year-Old Hustler"

Jamie Lee Curtis-Getty - H 2020
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Jamie Lee Curtis had just finished filming A24's Everything Everywhere All at Once  for directing duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert opposite Michelle Yeoh as the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its grip on everything everywhere, causing an unprecedented shutdown in Hollywood and beyond. It had a domino effect on Curtis' upcoming projects, including a planned trip to Canada to direct, produce and star in How We Sleep at Night: The Sara Cunningham Story for Lifetime. The self-described hustler didn't let the extended period of isolation get her down. Instead, she went to work.

Curtis co-created and produced her first podcast, Letters From Camp, an Audible original, and followed it up by creating an empathy-inspired website called My Hand in Yours, with all proceeds benefitting Children's Hospital Los Angeles, a cause close to her heart. Both projects debut this week and the podcast has notable pedigree in that it marks the first starring vehicle for Sunny Sandler, Adam and Jackie Sandler's daughter, alongside Curtis, longtime friend Jake Gyllenhaal and Knives Out co-star Edi Patterson. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Curtis detailed the Letters From Camp origin story, how Sunny landed the lead role, and what she hopes My Hand in Yours contributes to her legacy. 

I don't want to use the word devastating because the events of the world are devastating but how did it feel to put your directorial debut on hold?

It wasn't devastating. It was disappointing. Do you remember A Fish Called Wanda? There's a scene where we're opening the safe and Kevin Kline thinks the diamonds are in there. We open it and it's empty and he says, “I'm disappointed.” That’s what this is. I’m Kevin Kline disappointed. I was supposed to go off to Canada and make the [Sara Cunningham movie] until June and because of that postponement, other work got postponed, so there has been a bit of a rollout of the disappointments. I am one of millions and millions and millions and millions and millions of people who had family gatherings, weddings, work events disrupted, postponed and canceled because of the virus. I'm disappointed but at the same time, I am such a positive thinker that I just immediately started hustling. I'm a 61-year-old hustler. The things that we're going to talk about today were already in the pipeline of creation, but have come together during the COVID pandemic. Particularly, Letters From Camp really was completely created during quarantine.

Wow.

Performed, mixed, produced during quarantine. We had sold it before but we hadn't begun the writing and we hadn't really begun anything else. We had the original idea in December. So, this entire wonderful podcast for young people was created during COVID. That's a particularly satisfying [feeling]. In the midst of all of this, we were able to record in separate places. If I sent you the picture of the recording studio I built in a cabin in the mountains, it would make you laugh. I had outdoor cushions to help sound-proof. It was hilarious.

Letters From Camp started with an actual letter, correct? It sounds too good to be true.

Yes! So, here's how this happened. I'm dear friends with Lisa Birnbach, who wrote The Official Preppy Handbook. She's a comedy writer who lives in New York and we've really never lived in the same city. I am the godmother of her three children. I sent my goddaughter, Boco, the middle child, a birthday dress. She grabbed it out of a box when she was about eight and ran into her room, held it up, looked in the mirror and said to her mom, “Oh, I'm going to like me.” From that, I wrote a children's book dedicated to Boco and that’s the title — I’m Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem. It’s about looking in the mirror, liking who you are and the good deeds you do.

I've been Boco’s godmother her whole life, obviously, and when she went off to camp [as a child], she had struggles, feeling a bit of fish-out-of water. Cut to many, many years later, Boco now lives in California and is a comedy writer who works for Mitch Hurwitz. Out of the blue in December, Lisa was cleaning out Boco’s room and found a sealed envelope that said, “Jamie,” in a 12-year-old’s handwriting.

Lisa put it in an envelope and sent it to me. I opened this letter it was from Boco from camp. It was nostalgic and made me laugh. I felt bad that she didn’t send it because I would have, as an adult, been able to write her a letter and make her feel better. Or at least try to. I called Boco and said, “This is crazy good. I think it’s a TV show. You should write it and I’ll produce it.”

When we pitched it as a show, the podcast people heard about it and called and said, no, no, no. We want to do this as a podcast. The truth is to get it launched as a TV show would have taken years because the development process is so fucking ridiculous. But in the podcast world, it's a little like the Wild West, the rules aren't that clear. You can go to them with an idea and they will buy the idea and let you write it kind of without all of the hoop jumping. We went to Audible and they bought it and in January. In February, Boco started writing it and she wrote every episode. We started recording it a month and a half ago.

That’s a great story. How did the casting come together?

My daughter, Annie, is a dance teacher and has been for many, many years. One of her students happens to be Sunny Sandler. I've never worked with Adam but, over the years, I’ve met him and his wife, Jackie, at dance recitals. Both Adam and Jackie are avid, devoted and very enthusiastic dance moms and dads. They go to every recital and every competition, these big pageantry-like dance competitions and I've run into them over the years at recitals in places like Riverside. We say hello, but it’s always about the kids.

When we were casting this, we put the net out to the normal casting world, and I said to Annie, do you think Sunny would audition for the show? She said, “I don’t know, maybe.” So, I wrote to Adam and Jackie and said, “Look, here’s the deal. I have this show centered on an 11-year-old girl named Mookie Hooper whose mom is a famous journalist and it’s a fish-out-of-water story at sleepaway camp.” They said yes, so Sunny auditioned and she was up against women who have been on Broadway and in big shows. Out of every one — and believe me, this was a group decision — Sunny was hands-down the favorite. She won the role and completely lifted the whole thing with her natural voice, natural being. She just inhabited Mookie Hooper who is this extraordinarily interesting and very funny kid.

Authenticity is so important in children’s content. After writing children’s book and now working on this podcast, what is the key to making a children’s project work like this?

That would be a question for Boco, but it's really has to be in the voice of a child and has to be relatable. It's impossible to do it without a relatability. We had to set it in 2005 because we all hate social media so much and what it's done to teenagers. You can't make this show today, and you couldn’t make this show in 2016. I mean, I’m still crying over 2016. The wound is so permanent that I think every day is 2016 all over again like it’s f—ing Groundhog Day. Ultimately, we set it in 2005 because we wanted it to be a pure young person’s experience without the poison of social media, which is just that — poison for children.

Though to answer the question, it’s all Boco, all of the writing, all of it. Every second of it is her voice, her show, her character, her creation, all of it. I simply stood back, watched her make it and then just helped produce it. I've been trying to launch a lot of things and it's hard to get things to a final place. I've had a lot of things kind of in development all over the place and they just die on the vine. They don't mature to the point of actually being something. This matured into being something, and I wanted to get a bunch of talented people involved who I happened to know. I’m not a big show business person; I’m not a celebrity fucker or someone who counts a bunch of famous people on my call list at all.

I have good old friends like Melanie Griffith, who I've been friends with forever, and Jake Gyllenhaal not only happens to be my friend — first and foremost — but also, he’s the son of my friend and he’s my godson. He happened to be in Los Angeles at the time and I saw him during a socially distant visit and I said, “Jake, will you help me out?” He joined, and I worked with Edi Patterson in Knives Out in a small part. Then I saw her in Righteous Gemstones and I was so completely flattened by her comic talent. She’s jaw-droppingly funny. She came on board along with Kirby Howell-Baptiste. Every person we asked said “yes.” That’s the show. It’s something I’m proud of, and obviously it’s fun for young people. It’s a summer without camp for so many kids so let’s give them camp in a podcast.

What are your expectations for putting this out in the world at this time?

The expectations part I let go of, honestly. To me, the success of the show is the fact of what it is, how good it is and how perfect it is in so many ways. That we were able to tell the story of Mookie Hooper and the mystery of the lady of the lake and tell it in eight episodes in the middle of COVID. What happens after we launch it is way out of my control. I trust that Audible knows what they're doing. I certainly will promote it to the degree that I can and we will see what happens. The results are always none of my business.

You play Director Sue, who deserves a little attention. How would you describe her?

First of all, when Boco started conceiving it, I simply said to her, “Well, obviously if you need an old woman, I would be happy to join the troop.” I had no idea how involved Director Sue was going to be until the mystery started unfolding. Then I was like, “Oh, she has secrets. That's so good.” That was really it. I am and have always been a cheerleader, a very upbeat group hug person. I was a cheerleader in high school, and I cheerlead when I work. I love the crew and I love the community of a movie or TV show.

Even when I was in the jury pool in the Beverly Hills courthouse, we were waiting in that horrible room with the TV up on the wall, I was the one who stood up in the corner and said, “Excuse me, everyone, I'm noticing no one is watching the TV. Might I ask if they could turn off Geraldo?” So, I walked up to woman behind the glass and told her that I’ve taken a group conscience that we’d like to turn off the TV. The minute they turned it off, there was some applause and a couple people said thank you. That’s what happens when you leave me in a room with a group of people. I wasn’t chosen as the jury foreman, which, by the way, the late great Farrah Fawcett was in the jury pool, too. So, my point is, that’s my nature. Director Sue is simply all of those elements thrown into one person.

What content have you been consuming during this extended period of isolation?

I'm a reader. I read every day. I probably have read six or seven books this summer. I don't have to do much. I'm not a recreator. I'm a creator. I finally have learned the difference between recreation and creation.

You are certainly are staying very busy on that front. So, let's talk about the website you created, My Hand in Yours …

All my life, I have felt compassion. It's just been my nature since I was young and I never really knew how to put it into words. About five years ago, I started realizing that when someone was going through something difficult — whatever it was, a cancer treatment, the loss of a family member, sitting at a grave site — by putting these words together, my hand in yours, communicated what I felt in my body. I started writing that at the end of texts, emails and letters.

Before COVID hit, I realized as I'm getting older that I want to make sure that my legacy is not show-off business, which is fine and fun and certainly entertaining, but it isn’t from me. My books are from me. I wanted to start a website for comfort items in times of crisis. I went to a woman who is an artist who I collect and told her that I was going to start this and donate 100 percent of the proceeds to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, an organization I’ve been supporting for 30 years, and she jumped on it. Every artist I have gone to — Cathy Waterman, Simon Pearce, Moye Thompson — every person has responded in the same way. They are donating all of their time and artistry to it. They're not charging me for anything except the actual production of the items.

We’re starting with these beautiful clasped hands [by Anne Ricketts], a small little bronze sculpture. I'm going to roll out a different item, probably every couple of weeks, and you can order them and send to people with a note that says, “I'm thinking of you. I love you. I'm sorry. I can't be with you right now, but this is something for you to hold your hand and know that it's my hand in yours.” That's the intention. Just like the other productions, it has just been so beautiful to watch a team of people come together, donating time and energy to making this website a reality. My goal is for it to live forever.

I saw you posted about the backlash to the black-and-white images women were sharing on social media. What do you make of that?

Somebody started bitching about women posting pictures of themselves as a way to empower women, and I'm fucking over it. Keep your fucking opinions to yourself. Jesus Christ, let people express themselves, just fucking stop with the breaking people down all day. … I'm just over it. We all need to get along. We all need to realize we're in this together and that none of us are perfect and that we're all trying to do our part. I just want everybody to just take a breath and say, “We're all in this together to support each other,” rather than this, snarky ability to just spew stuff. It just feels really frustrating. That was a little reactionary on my part. It happens once in a while. It's OK.

Last question: It was revealed during Comic-Con@Home that you've joined the cast of Archer. Judy Greer was apparently the linchpin of that. What can you say about Archer or your role?

I have a 23-year-old son and we’ve been watching every episode of Archer from the beginning. It is incredibly funny and vulgar and fabulous. Judy Greer is so crazy talented that when she was cast in Halloween, I was so excited that it was Judy Greer from Archer. It was Cheryl Tunt and I couldn’t believe it. I think Judy just told them that I was a big fan. I have a small part and it was just super fun to go in — I was alone in a recording studio — but I still had a good time and that’s all I can say.