NEW YORK – Be careful what you say around Jamie Lee Curtis (search). She's a very sharp listener, and the conversations she overhears are the basis for her best-selling children's books.
Her newest, "It's Hard to Be Five: Learning How to Work My Control Panel" (search) (Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins) was inspired by her 5-year-old son's frustration as a castle he built tumbled over.
Meanwhile, her first book, "When I Was Little," (search) was about her daughter's boasting about "the good old days" when she was 4, and "Where Do Balloons Go?" was a question Curtis overheard at a birthday party.
The star of "Trading Places," "True Lies" and "Freaky Friday" isn't leaving film behind. She co-stars with Tim Allen and Dan Aykroyd in the holiday release "Christmas With the Kranks" — after all, as the daughter of actors Janet Leigh (search) and Tony Curtis (search), acting is literally in her blood.
But right now she's focused on her role as an author. Curtis spent a rare day away from her children, who were at home in Los Angeles, so she could promote her books on the "Today" and "The Tony Danza Show" in New York.
She gave a lot of thought to her outfits — and changed between the two tapings — in an effort to appeal to the audiences: a professional blouse for Katie Couric (search) and crew, and a pink sweater draped over the shoulders of her crisp white shirt for Danza.
Her Manolo Blahniks, however, never left her feet. She's clearly proud that she got the fashionable, pricey shoes dirt-cheap by calling the store and asking what they had in her size (a 9 1/2) that was on sale.
Salmon pumps? No problem. She bought them "at like an 89-percent discount," took them to a shoemaker and dyed them black for a few bucks.
AP: What's so hard about being 5 versus 6 — or 45?
Curtis: 'It's Hard to Be Five' is not a book about 5. It's a book about self-control, it's a book about teaching children about what it means to have self-control, to have their own knowledge about right and wrong. Five is the age when they start school, and 5 is the age when all that self-control comes into play. It's because they're expected to have it ... and therefore, it's a book for birth to 8, because it's about the development of self-control, or a book for birth from 80 because there isn't an adult I know — not one — who doesn't have a form of a self-control issue or a myriad of self-control issues.
AP: Are six your children's books entertaining storybooks or morality tales?
Curtis: Someone referred to them the other day as self-help books for kids. It would be obnoxious if I coined the phrase, but it was a lovely compliment and I took it.
AP: Was becoming an author a conscious career change?
Curtis: I sat down and wrote something that I didn't know was a book until I finished it. As soon as I finished it I knew it was a book because it made me cry. I thought 'Wow!' ... I had no delusions or illusions that I was an author — I'm a well-educated uneducated person or an uneducated well-educated person, one of the two. And, it was not my intention when I started this 12 years ago that this was a career path. It was not an attempt for attention, it was not an attempt for money, it was the first pure expression that I've ever been able to tap into.
AP: What do you think of the whole celebrity kiddie-book author phenomenon? (Among those who've written recent children's books are Jay Leno (search), Billy Crystal, LeAnn Rimes and Billy Joel.)
Curtis: (When I started) I hadn't done 'True Lies' yet, so the biggest success I'd had at that point was 'A Fish Called Wanda,' and although it was a big success, I was not a big celebrity or a media darling on any level, I was a very low-level movie actor who'd had a little success.
AP: Do your kids, 17-year-old Annie and 8-year-old Thomas, think you're cool because you're famous?
Curtis: They don't care, maybe when they're older they'll care. Maybe when they're older they'll take some pride that they were the catalyst for all this creativity. My son doesn't want to see the movies I'm in, my daughter could care less. They participate grudgingly in the dance of it, but when people go up to them and go, 'It must be cool to have a movie star for a mom,' my kids look at them like 'Shut up!'
AP: Why haven't you worked onscreen with your actor-filmmaker husband Christopher Guest (search), whose credits include "A Mighty Wind," "Best in Show" and "This Is Spinal Tap"?
Curtis: I don't work with Chris because — officially — I don't do what he does. He's a very successful director of improvisational comedy. The only words I ever made up in my entire life as an actor was 'Make good choices' in 'Freaky Friday,' which turned out to be in the trailer of the movie, so I felt very buoyed by my improvisational skills ... but I'm not funny, I'm a smart aleck.