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Reflections of a Scream Queen

Photo by Kathleen Clark
"IT'S A LOVELY FEELING TO GET A LAUGH OUT LOUD," JAMIE Lee Curtis says about playing live, "rather than performing before 20 members of my crew, who aren't allowed to respond." Curtis is part of a wave of American film celebrities (including Nicole Kidman, Annette Bening, Teri Hatcher, Al Pacino and Donald Sutherland) who have returned to, or only just ventured onto, the stage -- or, in Curtis' case, are about to. And, obviously, not for the big bucks. What, then, to use the actors' parlance, is their motivation?

Curtis is quick to point out that her latest project -- performing over the weekend in five concert readings of Wendy Wasserstein's play The Sisters Rosensweig, for L.A. Theater Works -- is radio, not theater. (The performance will later be broadcast over KCRW.) She also denies having any great desire to hit the boards: "I go where the work is . . . I'm not a snob." Which may explain her range of screen work, from the sitcom Operation Petticoat, to a film of Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, to horror flicks Halloween and Virus, to comedies such as True Lies, A Fish Called Wanda and its follow-up, Fierce Creatures.

Curtis' incentive to play in The Sisters Rosensweig is personal. Her late best friend and screen partner Richard Frank -- a Juilliard-trained stage actor -- portrayed the character of Jeffrey in the touring company of the play. "I saw that production many times," says Curtis, "and we used to say wouldn't it be wonderful if I could play opposite him. So now I get to play opposite his spirit."

Curtis is, by her own admission, unschooled and intuitive in her approach to acting. Her closest brush with performing in live theater was her TV series Anything but Love, co-starring Richard Lewis, which was taped before a live audience. "I had never been live before, and the question was whether or not I would spark to it or find it intimidating," she says. "The irony is that Lewis, as a standup who really wanted to be making a movie, was less comfortable with the live aspect of our show, and that the person with no stage experience was totally unleashed."

It was also an experience that allowed Curtis to formulate some eloquent -- not to mention speculative -- distinctions between film and theater.

"In the movies, you can go 360 degrees around an emotion or a feeling or a moment, and the editor can make it cohesive to the rest of the work -- which is the beauty of the movie business. Whereas on the stage, you are responsible for the through-line, for making it come alive as if you've never done it before. That's the challenge of the theater."

She describes her approach to her roles as "external": "I find that I immediately go to the wardrobe of a character. When I did True Lies, the first day of rehearsal, I went and outfitted myself with this woman's clothing and wore it to the rehearsal. The external work is my entrance to the person. The internal work comes when the camera rolls.

"But in the movies," she elaborates, "the emotion is only for a moment. In the theater, you need to build to a spontaneous place, to have a good groundwork -- to have that spontaneity night after night."

Explaining her technique, Curtis says she creates her own homework, depending on the nature of the role. In The Heidi Chronicles, there's a pivotal seven-minute monologue. "I wasn't going to show up to the first day of rehearsal without being letter-perfect on that speech," she continues. "No way. You want to be free. Because the movie is not going to be in sequence. A movie is putting together an emotional puzzle, breaking the shape of the story into a million pieces. That monologue was the cornerstone of the play. I needed to know the technical side of that."

Curtis admits that she also chose to be in The Sisters Rosensweig because of the challenges it presented: "The last couple of years, save for a TV film for CBS, the texts that I've had to work with have been Halloween: H2O and Virus -- genre movies with, well, limited dialogue and character development."

Asked why she chose to become an actor, Curtis dismisses the question: "I don't think I ever consciously became an 'actor.' I think I've been a performer since I was a little girl -- you might say a natural performer, without any academic training. It is truly who I am."

 

Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig will be staged as a concert reading for later radio broadcast over KCRW, featuring Caroline Aaron, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tony Roberts, John Vickery and JoBeth Williams, and presented by L.A. Theater Works at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; Thurs.-Fri., April 29-30, 8 p.m.; Sun., May 2, 4 and 7:30 p.m. For reservations, call (310) 827-0889.