It was some 40 years ago that director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill cast an unknown actress named Jamie Lee Curtis in what would be her first and most enduring role, as high school student Laurie Strode in a low-budget horror movie called Halloween.
Laurie’s battle to survive through the night against the unstoppable killer known as Michael Myers (played by Nick Castle in the original film) made her an instant horror icon and set her on a path that initially crowned her as the screen’s first “Scream Queen” in movies like Prom Night, The Fog, Terror Train, and Halloween II.
But Curtis made a conscious decision after that first round of films to step away from the genre, launching a new path for her career that included major roles in movies like Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda, True Lies and Freaky Friday, while also working as a children’s book author, human rights activist and photographer.
Yet she is still identified with Laurie all these years later, reprising the role in latter-day sequels such as Halloween: H20 and Halloween: Resurrection. Now, however, director David Gordon Green’s new Halloween sequel ignores all the films but the original. It puts Laurie front and center in the story of a woman battling the trauma inflicted all those decades ago, once again personified by Michael Myers. The movie is not only perhaps the best in the franchise since 1978, but it gives Curtis a chance to explore Laurie in a modern context.
Den of Geek spoke with Jamie Lee Curtis for the cover story in the latest issue of our magazine, and below is an expanded version of that interview (edited for length and clarity).
Den of Geek: What brought you back to Laurie and Halloween?
Jamie Lee Curtis: I was in an undisclosed, mountainous location on holiday with my husband last summer and Jake Gyllenhaal called me to say that he had worked with this man named David Gordon Green, that he had a great experience with him and that David Gordon Green wanted to talk to me about being in a Halloween movie. I was not expecting that call. I was not expecting to do another Halloween movie and yet given that Jake was suggesting I speak to this guy I said, “Okay, sure,” and he gave me a number.
I called the guy. He started to tell me a little bit about it. He claims, which I don’t remember, that he tried to put me in a movie years ago and he started to tell me the story and I said, “You know what David, here’s what. Let’s do this. You send it to me. I’ll read it and if I like it I’ll do the movie and if I don’t like it I won’t do the movie. It’s that simple.” I read it and within an hour I called him and I said “Yeah, let’s do it.” I loved what they were doing with it. I loved the simplicity of it and I loved that it was its own movie with very little connective tissue to anything but the movie made in 1978.
Did you feel like enough time had passed that you thought that there was something new for you to say about Laurie?
I don’t feel the need to speak for Laurie Strode ever. That’s not my job. My job is to, when there’s a movie, be it a movie that I instigated or a movie that somebody else instigated, when that presents itself then you make, basically, a commitment to tell the story as they have written it which of course there are various ways you could go. I felt what they were really honoring was the trauma that occurred in 1978 and the fact that really no help has been given over these 40 years since she was a young girl.
I imagine she went back to high school two days later. This happened on October 31st and maybe her parents let her stay home from school on the first and second of November but by the third of November she was back in school. I’m sure she just became a freak meaning she’s the girl that survived but she was already a vulnerable loner and I’m sure she just became more so. Of course, all the trauma was just buried and I just don’t think she ever got any help so I liked that the movie explored what actually happened to Laurie Strode for all those years.
It’s essentially a movie about PTSD.
Without question. Trauma, really. I’m reading a book, interestingly enough, about the First World War. What we now call PTSD, they coined the phrase shell shock. What trauma does to you physiologically, neurologically, certainly emotionally is different with each individual person but there is a lasting effect. It, in many ways, freezes you in your development at the point where the trauma occurred and until you explore it and really release it you don’t have a chance to really develop.
You are just buffered around, battered around by the trauma and your behavior becomes difficult and of course nobody, you know, everybody just…look what we do with people who are mentally ill. We vilify them. We call them losers. They’re drunks. They’re drug addicts. We don’t look at them as a human being and of course with all of what has occurred now with the women’s movement, the #MeToo generation, generations of women are now stepping forward from the shadows of their trauma with good support and are saying “No more, you no longer own me, trauma,” and our movie, weirdly enough, deals with that.
It’s an interesting coincidence in a way that it’s coming out right on the heels of the first year of the #MeToo movement.
Here’s what’s amazing. This movie was written before the #MeToo movement. Wonder Woman was written before the #MeToo movement and yet that was the movie. Look at what we as a creative group were creating. It feels like, yes, it was a year that the #MeToo movement really took fire but there were things ahead of it. There was certainly signs and bells starting to ring because look at the work that’s come out of it. All of a sudden all these movies are dealing with women taking back the narrative of their lives.
You’ve also got David Gordon Green directing it, who’s a very intelligent filmmaker and always has a different slant on the material he’s approaching. What do you think it is about the original film that has made it stand that test of time and has some of that has found its way into the DNA of David’s film?
David was a film student. The interesting parallel to me is John Carpenter and Dean Cundey and Tommy Wallace and Nick Castle were all film geeks who were all USC film students together. Do you know what I mean? You worked with your friends. These were their friends. Tommy Wallace, John Carpenter and Nick Castle had a band together called the Coupe De Villes and they were a rock-n-roll band and they made these cool movies together as young men. David Gordon Green, and Danny McBride, and their sound mixer and their camera man and their art director these are all guys who went to school together. They’re film geeks. They’re guys who studied movies, all different genres of movies.
That love of that process is, I think, a big similarity in the DNA of these two movies without question. There are Easter eggs all over this movie. There’s some very subtle but very intricate DNA weaving throughout Halloween 2018 and Halloween 1978 so in that sense I think it’s very exciting what David’s done. What makes it stand the test of time? I really don’t think you can answer that. Single words would pop into my head: simplicity, elegance, music, a Steadicam, Panaglide which was the beginning of Steadicam. Those would be the words I would use. We’ll never know why some things survive the test of time and some things don’t.
Was it nice to have John involved in this as executive producer and have Nick back as well?
I was the first person who greeted (John) when he got out of the car. I looked at him. I was like “Can you fucking believe this?” Yes, obviously having John’s imprimatur on it, his godfatherness to it, and of course knowing he was going to make the music was just cool from the get go. John came and visited. He and I had a couple meals together. He doesn’t want to be on a movie set. My God, who wants to be on a movie set? It’s boring. But the people that made this movie this time were not dissimilar to the guerilla crew that made the first movie. People did not get paid well on this movie. People wanted to be a part of it. There was a real excitement about being there and so of course to have John Carpenter show up and Nick Castle show up just solidified it for people that these guys would come and put their fingerprint on the movie.
I have the original slate from the first movie and I brought it. We used it for the opening shot. The first picture of me as Laurie 40 years later I’m holding the original slate from the original movie so in that sense having them there was great.
I was in the room at Comic-Con when you had that moment with the fellow who came up and said that asking “What would Laurie do?” in a life-threatening situation saved his own life. What went through your head during that and have you reflected on it and thought about what that meant?
Yeah, I mean, being in Hall H was cool because this movie’s about something and horror movies have always been a pejorative and the people that made this movie devoted themselves to it to make it incredibly good and satisfying for the audience… (but then) to have this guy stand up and make that statement was profound because here we were talking about a fiction, and here he was talking about non-fiction and the effect that fiction has on non-fiction. The idea that “what would Laurie do in a situation” actually would help someone navigate a real life situation was clearly moving for everybody in the place. He was moved by it and of course I was moved by it.
40 years later, have you changed as an actor? Have you changed your approach to the craft and does your life experience inform the way you play a role like this differently now?
My approach is pretty similar. I try not to have one because the whole idea is it’s supposed to look like it’s happening and I am an untrained actor so it’s not like I have a lot of super training but I’ve worked as an actor for 43 years or something, 44 years already, been acting for a long time so my approach is very similar.
Has there been a moment when you made peace with the fact that the general public would probably always identify you the most with this role?
I did understand at one point that I needed to step away from the horror movie vehicle, that if I wanted to do anything as an actor beyond horror movies I would need to separate from them. I knew that. I was raised around show business. I had parents who were actors and I understood that you could get pigeonholed. I wanted to see if I had other opportunities and so I made a decision to not do anymore after I did Halloween II.
That was a conscious choice on my part and I’m glad I did it because I had other opportunities which were great but I have never disparaged Laurie Strode, and have been very proud of being Laurie Strode. I’m very proud that Laurie Strode was a woman of substance and intelligence. She was an intellectual. She was chaste. You know what I mean. She was a real person. For my first movie you could easily have cast me in any one of those parts and I would have met the fate that the other two women met but I didn’t. I got cast as Laurie.
I became exploitable later in my life in more legitimate movies if you will. All of a sudden they were like “Oh, she looks really cute in a leotard” but my first role as an actor was probably my best role as an actor because it really gave me a chance to be an actor and so I will always be grateful for that opportunity. I will always thank Debra and John for that opportunity and I will always obviously thank the fans who made her so, you know, who had such an impact. She had an impact on them and of course they’ve had an impact on her and have certainly had an impact on me.
Halloween is out in theaters Friday (October 19). You can read our explanation for the ending right here.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye
Read and download the Den of Geek NYCC 2018 Special Edition Magazine right here!