"Excuse me for a moment," she says, brandishing a syringe filled with white goop. "My son's rat Diglett has pneumonia.... It's treatable. But we have to dose him really heavily with antibiotics." And with that, Curtis dashes up the stairs.
These are bittersweet times for the 46-year-old actress turned bestselling children's author, who made headlines in 2002 after becoming the spokeswoman for the dare-to-look-your-age movement (see box). Lately, Curtis has been coping with the loss of her mother, legendary film actress Janet Leigh, who died at 77 on Oct. 3 from a vascular disease. She's also busy promoting her sixth kids' book, It's Hard to Be Five: Learning How to Work My Control Panel, and will appear as Tim Allen's wife in the comedy Christmas with the Kranks, due out Nov. 24. But there's no next role lined up: "I'm not even in the hunt," she says. "Where I am at 46 is a beautiful place to be. I feel I have the opportunity to really choose the road less traveled."
That would be in a Ford Explorer bearing the bumper sticker "My gamer son can kick your honor student's ass." In the course of 19 years of marriage to writer-director Christopher Guest, raising children Annie, 17, and Tom, 8, building a career as an actress and author and overcoming an addiction to Vicodin and alcohol five years ago, Curtis has found joy in the ordinary. "I love giving the rat his antibiotics," she says. "I love hanging Tom's backpack on the hook in the kitchen every day. I love making Annie stir-fried vegan noodles before she gets home from school. These are the simple pleasures that I'm really looking forward to doing on a more consistent basis." Older sis Kelly, 48, who has worked as Jamie's assistant—or, as her business cards read, "a-sister-ant"—for five years, sees the changes. "She's always been searching for truth. She's opening up to all the possibilities. She's just really living her life now."
For Curtis, their mother's death brought a new round of questions about her own life. Janet Leigh, who shrieked her way to Hollywood stardom in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic Psycho, suffered from vasculitis, a painful inflammation of the blood vessels. Curtis was with her mother when she died at home in Beverly Hills. "We had a year to say goodbye, to say everything that we ever wanted to say to her, and to thank her for everything she ever did for us," she says. "It was nice to say T know you didn't have a lot of help and a lot of guides, and you navigated a lot on your own.' " At the funeral, "my daughter spoke and touched on something," Curtis adds. "My mother was a very driven and active woman, and letting go of her life was the hardest thing she ever did."
With her determination to balance work and motherhood, Leigh served as a role model for her younger daughter with actor Tony Curtis. "Without ever planning to, I've walked in my mother's footsteps for a very long time," says Jamie Lee, whose first big acting break also came with a horror movie—1978's Halloween. "I had the same career she had. She did farce and melodrama and light comedy and romantic comedy. If you threw it at her, she did it—same with me.... My feet fit in her footsteps all the way. But the other day I suddenly realized that I don't see those footprints so clearly anymore, and for the first time in my life, I get to make some independent choices."
Jamie Lee and Kelly are now facing another heartache: Their stepfather, retired stockbroker Robert Brandt, now 77, who was married to Leigh for 42 years, is suffering from Alzheimer's. The sisters have arranged for him to be cared for at home. "We love him very much," Jamie Lee says. Their father, Tony Curtis, 79, didn't attend Leigh's private funeral. He was "very upset" over Leigh's death, Jamie Lee says. "My mother was his first wife, and he still has strong feelings for her." Jamie Lee's own relationship with her father, she says, revolves around "a lot of humor and respect."
Curtis's goal for now is spending as much quality time as possible with her two kids and husband Guest, 56, director of such mockumentary classics as A Mighty Wind and Best in Show. "We're coming up on 20 years in December," she says proudly. "Our relationship has gotten deeper, closer and much more intimate. He's a wonderful father and a wonderful person." High school senior Annie, an avid volleyball player, spent part of last summer working in the slums of Bangkok ("When I was her age, I was putting Bain de Soleil all over my body and listening to Boston," says Curtis with a laugh), and third-grader Tom is a videogame whiz.
Besides teaching Curtis the finer points of outwitting evil robots, he also served as the muse for It's Hard to Be Five. "At the time, he was having those typical motor-frustration issues that 5-year-old boys have," says Curtis, who calls her books "self-help for kids." Her series has sold around 3 million copies. Though her screwball turn in last year's Freaky Friday earned her a Golden Globe nomination, she feels that writing is a more natural fit for her. "Acting is when I'm pretending to be other people," she explains. "But writing is who I am. It's how I view the world. And it's gratifying to have people respond to what I think."
She chose her latest movie, Christmas with the Kranks—based on a John Grisham novel about a family that decides to ignore Christmas—because "it popped out of the blue and fit right into my life," she says of the three-month project that filmed last spring just before her kids started summer vacation. "It had all the things that I require for a job right now. It was fun, I could fit it in with my family, and there was absolutely no vanity involved."
So what does the near future hold for Curtis? With no movies or book releases in the works, it should include a whole lot of blissfully mundane nothing. "I'm looking forward to a year where I don't hear my name or see a picture of myself anywhere," she says with a weary grin.
No doubt, Diglett the rat will be thrilled.
Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles