Jamie Lee Curtis recalls how John Landis fought for her casting in 'Trading Places': 'Studio didn't want me, nobody wanted me'

"I'm a bit of smart aleck, I'm a flirt," Curtis says. "You know I'm inappropriate every second of my life."

(Everett Collection, Getty Images)
Jamie Lee Curtis (pictured center alongside Eddie Murphy and Dan Akyroyd in Trading Spaces) says being "inappropriate every second of my life" helped her move from horror to comedy. (Photo: Everett Collection, Getty Images)

It didn’t take long for Jamie Lee Curtis to be anointed a “scream queen.” Between 1978 and 1981, the rising young actress starred in six horror movies: Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Prom Night (1980), Road Games (1981) and Halloween II (1981). After that stretch, though, Curtis — the daughter of late screen greats Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh — was over it.

“I moved away from horror at the time,” Curtis, who won her first Academy Award in March for Everything Everywhere All at Once, told us during a Role Recall interview (watch below). “The only decision I ever made in my life, literally, career-wise, was [when] I literally just said, ‘After Halloween II, I’m done.’ ’Cause I knew show business pretty well. And I understood that if I didn’t try for something else” her career would suffer.

Still, it was Curtis’s horror cred that led to her first big break outside of the genre: the 1983 comedy Trading Places, directed by John Landis and starring Dan Akyroyd and Eddie Murphy as a snobby investor and slick street hustler, respectively, who swap lifestyles. The film opened in theaters 40 years ago, on June 8, 1983.

Landis, best known at the time for helming the comedies Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980) as well as the 1981 horror hit An American Werewolf in London, was enlisted to direct Coming Soon, a 55-minute documentary highlighting scenes and trailers from Universal’s deep catalog of monster movies. Landis needed someone to narrate the doc, and thought of Curtis because of her role as the go-to scream queen at the time.

It was on the backlot of Universal Studios that Landis got the full Jamie Lee Curtis Experience.

“I’m a bit of smart aleck, I’m a flirt,” she says. “You know I’m inappropriate every second of my life.

“I spent three or four days with him on the backlot at Universal cracking wise, and being who I am — besides doing this very sort of boring narration in this documentary. So he spent four days with me. And by the end of that, he was the one who gave the part in Trading Places to me.”

That part was Ophelia, the savvy prostitute who helps Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe III attempt to regain his elite status.

Curtis says Landis had to fight the film studio to cast her. “[Paramount] did not want me,” she says. “Nobody else wanted me. I guarantee you, John Landis was the only person who said, ‘She’s going to play this part.’ And without that moment I wouldn’t have now the career that I get to have.”

Curtis has the receipts to back up that claim. After seeing Trading Places, John Cleese called her to join 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda — another seminal moment in her career, and another role that proved she had so much to offer beyond the screams.

“You know, Halloween gave me a film career,” she says. “Trading Places gave me the expansive film career that I’ve had. And it's all because John Landis saw something in the four days that we spent on the backlot at Universal. He felt I could be Ophelia in Trading Places, which then changed everything.”