As Laurie Strode, a young woman with a rather unfortunate sibling relationship and a strong survival instinct, in John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 slasher Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis is known to generations of moviegoers as the Scream Queen; and yet, surprisingly, when offered a starring role in Fox’s slasher-comedy Scream Queens, a series developed entirely around her legacy, Curtis balked. And it wasn’t for the reason one might expect.
Certainly, for a good many years, Curtis made a premeditated departure from the horror world, in an effort to broaden her career. Out of 30 projects in the last 20 years, she has taken on roles in only three genre projects, including two continuations of the beloved Halloween franchise—Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and Halloween: Resurrection. Curtis credits her egress with her ability to land starring roles in a number of comedies that have stood the test of time, including A Fish Called Wanda, Trading Places and James Cameron’s True Lies.
To clarify, Curtis’ hesitation had little to do with the notion of returning to the genre work that forged her career; actually, the offer came along at just the right moment. Curtis reached a turning point at the HorrorHound convention in Indianapolis, a gathering that the actress had avoided for many, many years. Finally agreeing to attend in 2012, under the provision that proceeds from her appearance go to charity, Curtis’s time in Indianapolis surprisingly left her feeling “more comfortable returning to the fold.” The simple reminder of avid fandom was enough. “Here I was, at this convention, thinking, ‘F—! People love this,” she says. “I was really moved both by the generosity of people, because they gave a lot of money to charity, and I took some personal appreciation from it and thought, ‘I can do this!’”
Admittedly, Curtis’ doubts about Scream Queens, and the offer of the role of the caustic, hilarious Dean Munsch, actually stemmed from simple disbelief—about herself and the space she currently occupies in entertainment. With a versatile 40-year screen career at her back, Curtis nonetheless couldn’t believe the proposal in front of her. “I still don’t really believe, even though I’ve been told by many, many people, that Ryan [Murphy] conceived the show around me. It’s hard for me to accept that because prior to my phone ringing, people weren’t building shows around me,” she concedes.
On Murphy’s initial approach, Curtis’s first concern was the quality of the writing. “Honestly, I only wanted the writing to be good. I have spent my life doing things that were not driven by the writing,” she says. Curtis was particularly impressed with Dean Munsch’s pilot-opening monologue, in which she delivers a “powerful feminist statement” to intensely obnoxious sorority girl Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts). “I’m very pleased to see that issues of sexuality, eroticism, and objectification, get laid at the feet of men—if not more than women, certainly equally to—in the show. I think that’s Ryan, Brad [Falchuk] and Ian [Brennan]’s evolution as men in entertainment.”
After reading the pilot script, Curtis still had questions about the specific role she would realize within the Scream Queens universe—and that was fine with her. In fact, the entire process of acting in the series was one big question mark. Curtis delighted in the show’s ‘whodunnit’ dimension, and recalled huddling with everyone from cast member Skyler Samuels to the sound mixer to one of the stand-ins to discuss the ongoing, shifting mystery of who the Red Devil—or Red Devils—might be.
Curtis was unaware, going in, that she was passing the baton, handing over the “looking over my shoulder in dark hallways” part of her career to the cast of young actresses around her. “I thought I was going to be running down dark hallways, looking over my shoulder,” she admits. “I thought he would use me in that way, and instead he used me in a very different, very unique way. And it was really quite thrilling.”
With Dean Munsch, and Scream Queens generally, Curtis was excited by the opportunity to celebrate her past work while building something new. Certainly, the series pays its debts to the Halloween franchise. Drawing inspiration from Halloween II, which takes place in a hospital, Scream Queens Season 2 will occupy a similar space. In any case, Dean Munsch is no Laurie Strode—she has her own bite and her own agenda. “Dean Munsch is a more curious woman; she is not at the end of her rope, and as we see at the end of the season, she’s on the cover of f—ing Time, Newsweek and Men’s Health,” Curtis explains. “She has done away with sororities and the Greek system, and she has basically taken back feminism for a new generation of women.”
Like Munsch, Curtis carries the gravitas and the command to address the issues and the people head-on. Watching the Dean’s impassioned—if put-on—‘Take Back the Night’ speech to members of the college community in episode 3, in the wake of several gory student deaths, it’s hard not to think of Curtis’s recent, passionate introduction of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at a Union Hall in Buena Park, California. The command of the stage is there, along with a sincerity Munsch can’t always muster; though admittedly, Curtis hasn’t been overly involved with Democratic politics in the past.
Watching one of Scream Queen’s gnarliest moments last year, involving Lea Michele and a stiletto to the eye, Curtis had an epiphany. “I said, ‘If I don’t get out and do something to help Hillary Clinton, then I should just put a f—ing stiletto in my eye.’ It was a way of saying, I have to do something,” she asserts.
Curtis then began doing something, following Clinton from Iowa, the day before the caucuses, to Nevada, and finally, to Buena Park. In the climactic moment in California, Curtis fought the urge to be theatrical. “My first instinct was to walk out like Sally Field [in Norma Rae], with the word ‘Union’ on a card over my head, and kind of stir it up that way,” she says. “For me, my parents were very active in democratic politics, and I take a lot of pride that they were—that that’s what my parents did. And yet I haven’t.” Taking time to raise her kids and manage her many careers, Curtis decided that this was the moment to begin doing her service to the political process.
Speaking of Clinton in earnest, Curtis shares her excitement about performing in this process the role that she knows best.“I was a cheerleader in high school! That’s what I do,” she says. “I’m not the smartest girl in the room, on any level; I am not a policy wonk; I do not know the intricate details of her plans; but I know that she’s the right person, and I know that he’s not. And in that clarity, I can be an effective cheerleader.”
As for the silly, scary and strange events to come in Season 2 of Scream Queens—going shortly into production—Curtis remains in the dark. “I would assume we’ll get a script in the next three weeks,” she says. “I know there’s a time skip—and I know that term because I have a 20-year-old fan of a show called One Piece, which is a Japanese anime TV show,” she says, referring to her son Thomas. “For me, the pleasure will be in the mouthfuls of ideas and words that I get to say, channeled through this funny woman. It’s just been a real pleasure in my life—a real bloody feather in my cap.”
“And who knows?” she adds. “Maybe this season, I’ll be the prey!”