Her question is directed to Annie, her 15-year-old daughter, who has joined us at the table and is munching a falafel burrito. The girl tries to answer, but she is laughing too hard, which makes Curtis look at her fondly, and then point at me. “She’s going to write, ‘Her daughter laughed knowingly,’” she warns. Annie keeps giggling. “What did you say?” Curtis presses. “You’re allowed to tell me now. Totally allowed.”
“I said,” Annie says finally, “you’re neurotic.”
“I am neurotic,” Curtis agrees, smiling.
There’s a lot of laughter in the Curtis/Guest household. It’s a place where visitors are sometimes greeted with the cheerful salutation, “Welcome to hell!” and where for years there was no dishwasher because—to her family’s amusement—Curtis insisted that housework made you feel good about yourself. It’s a place where, even in summer, there are holiday gifts hidden away on top of bookshelves (“I buy Christmas presents in April,” she says), and where a framed New Yorkercartoon depicts a bearded man in a carriage drawn by two cheetahs (“Amish Midlife Crisis,” the caption reads). It’s also a place where, in the middle of an interview, Curtis will suddenly dash out of the room, retrieve a camera and start taking your picture.
“Stop,” she commands when I protest. “The light is pretty.”
Curtis loves photographs. They’re all over her house—ones she took, plus others by such famous photographers as Sally Mann and Dorothea Lange. Upstairs, in the hallway outside her children’s bedrooms, every class picture from each year of their upbringing is displayed. In a drawer in her study, she keeps a greeting card of her mother, screaming in the shower in Psycho. Beneath it is a 1971 school portrait of Curtis, age 12, with feathered hair, braces and a floral print dress (“That’s attractive,” she says sarcastically. “That was actually the dress I got felt up in first.”) There’s also an unusually geeky Polaroid she took of her husband of 18 years, his head partially shaved for a role in his upcoming comedy about folk singers. Curtis loves to get it out, roll her eyes and say, delightedly, “Here’s the guy I married!”
The actress has taken a series of self-portraits, too, all of which play with her famous image. Using a mirror, she’s photographed her back, the way the soft skin folds into creases when she twists around. She’s examined her own feet. But her favorite seems to be a black-and-white shot of another mirror, broken into shards on the ground. “You have to find me,” she says as I search for her face reflected in one tiny sliver. “I’m in there.”
“I’m tremendously immature,” Curtis announces. We’re back in the dining room, which looks out at one of Santa Monica’s windswept canyons. “I’m still the type of person who will chew my food and open my mouth.” She glances down, only to discover that her black Jil Sander jeans are inexplicably unbuttoned. She shoots me a look as if to say: See? Annie agrees with her mother’s self-assessment: “She’s the four-year-old in the family.”
But now, the actress’ immaturity—which served her well in such comedies as A Fish Called Wanda—is really paying off. She loves to get down on the floor with children. She loves the way they talk, urgently and without self-doubt. “I hear them and I think, ‘Oh, that’s just poetry,’” she says. When she goes on her book tours, she gets a charge out of talking to other parents. It feels important, she confesses, in a way that acting never has.
Curtis isn’t finished with acting. Not yet. She has optioned a memoir by a fellow children’s-book author, Leah Komaiko, about Komaiko’s friendship with a 93-year-old blind woman. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, whom the actress got to know when she did The Heidi Chronicleson TV, is adapting it for the screen. Meanwhile, though, she has no movie roles lined up.