Interview | August 1988
Is Michelle Pfeiffer Hollywood’s next screen dream? by Peter Stone, photographs by Herb Ritts.
BLOND, SULTRY, AND ETHEREAL, Michelle Pfeiffer has floated across the screen for less than a decade, but her face has proved unforgettable. Harper’s Bazaar named her one of the ten most beautiful women in the world, and Time called her “drop-dead gorgeous.”
The slow but steady arc of Pfeiffer’s career began in Orange Country, California. She was a regular Southern California girl, who surfed at Huntington Beach, hung out at Life Guard Station 17, and went to boarding school in Colorado Springs. After studying stenotyping and working the check-out counter in a local supermarket, she won recognition—and an agent—when, at 19, she was chosen Miss Orange County. She became a model/actress and, after a few acting classes and a TV debut, landed a feature role in Falling in Love Again; later, she played a carhop in Hollywood Knights, a debutante in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, and a Pink Lady in the less-than-successful Grease 2, finally winning a leading role opposite Al Pacino in Brian de Palma’s Scarface.
The critical acclaim Pfeiffer received for Scarface and her subsequent performance in Ladyhawke was later matched by the commercial success of The Witches of Eastwick. This season, she stars as the red-headed, gum-cracking wife of a Mafioso in Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob, her first real character role, and in Robert Towne’s Tequila Sunrise, costarring Mel Gibson. Currently, she is busy on the set of Stephen Frears’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses in Paris, in which she plays Madame de Tourvel.
Introspective, self-doubting, and private, Pfeiffer keeps asking, who am I? Peter Stone caught her at The Wyndham and tried to find out.
PETER STONE: We’ll start with the premise—which I believe is true—that nobody really knows very much about you. You’re not a person whose private life has been talked about.
MICHELLE PFEIFFER: That’s true.
PS: And I congratulate you on that. One of the reasons I was interested in talking to you was that I just knew nothing. I’ve seen eight of the nine films you’ve been in, but I just don’t know anything at all about you. How old are you?
MP: I just turned 30.
PS: Was that difficult?
MP: Actually, I think that turning 29 was more difficult, because once I turned 29, I anticipated 30 came around it really wasn’t that bad. Also, I was very busy at the time. I was flying to New York on my birthday.
PS: When is your birthday?
MP: April 29. I’m Taurus. To the bone.
PS: What does being a Taurus mean?
MP: Well, I’m very stubborn. I think I have common sense; I’m probably at times a bit tunnel-visioned, but I’m strong.
PS: You were born in California—not Los Angeles but Orange Country. What particular little place?
MP: Midway City. It’s between Westminster and Huntington Beach.
PS: Were you a beautiful child?
MP: I looked like a duck.
PS: Like a duck.
MP: I still look like a duck.
PS: Well, you do look like a duck in one way. There’s an odd cut in Married to the Mob—you’re in Miami, walking across the hotel suite, there’s been a lot of shooting and a lot of carrying on, and I don’t know whether you’re injured or not—it looks almost as if you’ve been shot—it’s just there’s a ducklike walk, but I figured that wasn’t your normal walk.
MP: Well, I have to tell you that it is, but it’s an exaggerated version. My walk is consistently made fun of.
PS: By whom?
MP: By men, By people who watch my walk. I should have been Howard the Duck. When I was very young and I never thought I was attractive, because I was a tomboy and I was always the biggest girl in the class. Suzette was the little girl with the long ringlets, and I had a pixie and was always beating up the boys—if anybody ever needed someone to be beaten up they would come and get me to do it. When I was in fourth grade, all of a sudden, for some unknown reason, this very popular, very cute boy—who of course came up to my knees—decided he had a crush on me. That was the first time any boy had paid any attention to me, ever. But I never dated. That’s actually difficult for me now, because I’m newly separated.
“When I was very young I never thought I was attractive, because I was a tomboy and was always the biggest girl in the class.”
PS: You were married to Peter Horton for seven years. How old were you when you married?
MP: I was 22. For me it was too young. I think my husband and I were both too young, and as we started growing up our needs changed. We’ve always been close, even up to the separation, which was very difficult on both of us because we have never stopped caring for each other. We didn’t have an angry breakup—he even helped me pack my car. [laughs] It wasn’t bitter, and we talked every day on the phone. It was, in that sense, really difficult because we didn’t have the anger to hide behind, the anger that covers up all the pain. But we’re like best friends when we see each other.
PS: You know why you look like a duck? Because your mouth stats out going down, and at the very end, in the corners, it turns up a little. And it’s that turn-up in the corners that does it.
MP: You just figured it out [laughs]
PS: Well, it’s fascinating because one does watch that a lot on the screen. One finds oneself looking at your mouth most of the time.
MP: Well, good, then you won’t realize how bloodshot my eyes always are.
PS: Now, you say you didn’t date. Did your family have something to do with that?
MP: My father was very strict, but mostly I just didn’t know how to behave on a date. I’ve always had a very ectreme personality, which gets me into major trouble. I’m always all or nothing, and I don’t know the word “balance.” I’m desperately trying to learn it because I think as you get older it becomes very important.
PS: In one of your interviews you talk about feeling like a different person every day.
MP: I’m always amazed at how consistent people find me and my behavior, when in fact I do feel different all the time. I guess I do a really good job at covering.
PS: Have you ever been analyzed?
MP: I’ve dabbled in that a little.
PS: Did you find out anything about yourself?
PS: Did it surprise you?
MP: You know, I’m always surprised.
PS: Did it help in your work?
MP: Yeah, I think that is has a tendency to color everything.
PS: In that interview you said you were sadomasochistic. Do you think actresses have a sadomasochistic streak?
MP: I think all actors have, because acting is kind of brutal, you know.
PS: Well, you’re putting yourselves on the line. More than anybody else.
MP: I don’t know. I can only speak for myself, but almost daily I say to myself, why are you doing this? There are movies that I have done, people that I’ve worked with, performance I’ve given that make me say, “That’s why I’m doing this.” There are certain scenes you do in a movie that are like catching a wave, and you leave work feeling elated—almost as though you’ve purged something. That’s rare, but you do live for those moments.
PS: Do you think you are difficult to work with?
MP: That depends on whom you talk to. I can be, but most of the time I’m not. I think I was difficult on The Witches of Eastwick, but I feel there have been very few times when I’ve been difficult.
PS: Was Jack Nicholson tough on George Miller, the director?
MP: Jack was an angel. Jack, with all the knowledge he has, never oversteps the boundaries of his job. George Miller was the director, and he directed.
PS: I think there is a major difference between actors and actresses. All of the men I’ve worked with have been really difficult, whereas the women have always been extremely cooperative. I began thinking about that, and I think it comes down to a question of comfort with vanity. Men do not take to vanity, because they are taught at an early age that it is wrong to be vain. I went to school with Paul Newman, and we are very old friends. Finally, we did a picture together, and one day, after a lot of beers, Paul said, “You know, my recurring nightmare is that one morning I’m going to wake up, and my eyes will have turned down.” Paul saw his whole success in terms of the color of his eyes. Not as an actor, but just the fact that he has these beautiful eyes. Men are not comfortable with that. Women are brought up to think it’s acceptable to pay attention on their faces. Men translate their discomfort into their behavior.
MP: Well, maybe I haven’t done enough movies, but I haven’t found that men are more difficult than women. I’ve worked with very few actors who have been at all difficult.
PS: The relationship between an actress and her director is often a very close one. I’m not asking this because I want names. I don’t want gossip, but has it ever become romantic?
MP: No. Except when my husband directed me in something.
PS: Well, that doesn’t count. Has it gotten close?
MP: I’ve had infatuations, but that has happened to me very few times.
PS: There are some actresses who cannot function on the set without having a close relationship with their directors. Their way of communicating with the director is through intimacy. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with any physical act; it has more to do with achieving a closeness that they find very valuable. But you’ve never had a requirement for that?
PS: The idea of the rehearsal period on a film, you know, basically only came about in the last twenty years. Films just started shooting, and you’d get to a master scene and the director woild say, “All right, I want everybody off the set except the cameraman, the gaffer, and the assistant director, and I want to rehearse the scene that we’re going to do.” And then everybody would leave, and you’d rehearse the scene. You’d discuss it a little bit—whatever was wrong and whatever was uncomfortable—and then you’d call everybody back on the set and shoot it. Now, there is this two-week—sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more—rehearsal period. Do you like it?
MP: Well, sometimes. With Jonathan Demme we didn’t rehearse.
PS: For writers that rehearsal period is death. It is the most destructive thing of all to a script.
MP: Well, I haven’t really found it to be all that useful, because I tend to hold back until I’m on the set that day and ready to do it. I don’t want to hit it in rehearsal.
PS: The rehearsal period is so far away from the time when the scene will actually be shot that very little is remembered. You have, as Mike Nichols would say, only a dim racial memory of what was rehearsed. O,K., you started the way a lot of starlets do: you entered a beauty contest. And you won it.
MP: Well, I won the first one. I won Miss Orange Country, and then I went to the Miss L.A. contest, which I didn’t win. I was very pleased, actually I didn’t want to win and be opening drugstores. The reason I went was that I wanted to meet one of the judges, who was a commercial agent. He became my first agent in Los Angeles.
PS: Then you did Falling in Love Again with Elliott Gould.
MP: Actually, I never had any scenes with Elliott, because I played Susannah York as a young girl. She was also very involved in producing the movie, so I got to know Susannah a bit, which was nice.
PS: Then you did Charlie Chan and the Curse of Dragon Queen, which we’ll pass over, and then Grease 2.
MP: That was really weird for me. I’d been taking singing lessons and I had taken dance, because I loved dance., but I had never considered myself a professional at all. I went on this audition as a fluke, and somehow, through the process of going back and dancing, and then going back and singing, I ended up getting the part. I went crazy with that movie. I came to New York and the paparazzi were waiting at the hotel. I know the producers put them up to it. I’m basically very private, and I’m really nervous about doing publicity. Every time I set up an interview, I say, “That’s it, this is my last one. I’ll do this because I committed to doing it, but I’m never doing another one.” It was insane.
PS: Well, there’s an old saying in the theater that there are two kinds of actors: those with one job too few, who have to take every one that comes along, and those with one job too many, who can always turn down the one they don’t want.
“I’ve always had a very extreme personality, which gets me into major trouble. I’m always all or nothing.”
MP: But how about being the actor with one job too few and still turning them down, which is what I did?
PS: Well, that’s very rare. How did you live during that period?
MP: Well, I’ve been working since I was 14, and my father, being very conservative, has always been strict about my having a savings account. Also, when I first went into the business, someone told me that being able to turn down a part was the only thing that would ever give me power.
PS: Have you ever turned down a picture and afterward regretted it?
MP: Yes. I’ve also turned down some that became huge successes, and when I’ve gone to see them I’ve thought, I know this is a huge success and that it would be really great if I were in a big, successful movie, but I don’t get it and I don’t like it. So I’m glad I’m not in it, I never wanted to have to take a job because I didn’t have any money.
When I first started out, I said to myself, if this doesn’t happen there will be something else that I can do. That seemed possible because I knew how to do so many different kinds of jobs.
PS: Any one of them you really liked?
MP: I liked checking groceries for a while. [laughs] I liked getting up at 4 in the morning, driving on the freeway, and going to and stocking shelves and laughing with the stock clerks.
PS: How much of it was just not having to take the job home with you? It seems to me that everybody who’s a success has made a decision to out themselves in a situation that eats away at their privacy. Their hours just don’t end, Now, with actors it’s extreme, because their private is almost nonexistent. But when you leave a supermarket, you’re through and you don’t worry about it. You don’t go home and say, “Gee, I think there was a better way to pack the box.”
MP: To tell you the truth, I have a feeling I would do that no matter what my job was. It’s my personality. I also went to court-reporting school to study stenotyping. After a while, whenever anybody spoke, in my mind my fingers would be punching it out. Even two years after I quit, my mind still did that.
You know, when I went to Italy to do Ladyhawke I had a lot of time off. It was a very difficult movie, and I was away for five months. It was the longest and the farthest I had ever been away from home. I decided I needed something that I could feel as passionate about as acting, and something in which I could completely lose myself. I started painting, and I’m still doing it. But it’s just like with stenotyping: I’ll be lying in bed and find myself thinking about how I could have handled that shadow differently. Finally I can’t sleep, thinking about how to paint this or that, and I say to myself, what are you doing? You got into this so that you couldn’t drive yourself crazy, and now you’re doing the same thing with it.
PS: You’re describing a compulsive. Actually, you’ve got a lot of compulsive things. You were a vegetarian.
MP: I think that I am a compulsive person, but now I’m learning to put those compulsive things into healthy things.
PS: One interview I read said you used to do drugs.
MP: I used to do drugs in high school. I’ve been living in L.A. for almost ten years, and shortly after I arrived I cleaned up pretty much. Stuff goes on on the set, stuff goes on at parties.
PS: It’s very hard in that society to avoid it, since it became part of the school intercourse. You’d go to a dinner party and the trays were passed.
MP: Well, I never actually saw any of that.
PS: Tell me about your arrival in Hollywood. There you were, only two or three stops away on the bus; it’s not like you were shipped in form the East, the Midwest, or the South.
MP: Let me tell you something, though: being from Orange Country is in a lot of ways very much like being from the Midwest.
PS: And now you live and work in Hollywood.
MP: Yeah, I guess, but I don’t really know what Hollywood is. I’ve never really known.
PS: Hollywood is a cottage industry involving a very small number of people, and around the edges are enormous numbers of people trying to get into it and work. But you’re in it. And you’re what’s called a “financible element.”
MP: I’m not. I don’t know what it is.
PS: Yes, you are, because if anyone sits down in that office and says, “Let’s male a picture,” and they say, “All right, who’s going to be out female star?” if the role is in your age category, your name will inevitably come up. Your agent doesn’t need to come forward and say, “Hey, Michelle could play this.” Not now.
MP: There’s an A list, a B list, and a C list.
PS: That’s right. You’re on the A list now.
MP: I just made it to the A list.
PS: No, I’ll tell you when you made it to the A list: with Scarface.
PS: Yes, you did. I’ll tell you why. There are only two images one came away with from the whole movie: one was Al Pacino with powder all over his face, and the other was your face, because that was the first time someone found in your face what is in your face. In Eastwick you advanced, and I think in the Demme picture you’ve made an acting breakthrough. But Scarface was very important to you. Tell me about Brian de Palma.
MP: Well, there’s a lot of talk and a lot of written about Brian’s views on women and all that—you know, in his movies he’s always killing women. People tend to think that means he has a warped view of women, but I found the exact opposite to be true. I found him generous and very gentle; I liked working with him very much. It was a hard movie for me because Grease 2 had been my last credit, and I was really terrified. I was very excited work with Al Pacino, but I was also intimidated by him. Other than me and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, it was all men. I had to play a very cold and aloof woman—very different from my personality and a difficult character for me to hold onto.
PS: It was the character that you got hired to play for a while. The character in Ladyhawke, for instance. How did it go with [director Richard] Donner?
MP: Dick will tell you I’m difficult.
MP: Sure. We fought.
PS: Dick is usually putty in the hands of an attractive woman.
MP: Not in my hands. [laughs] When I read that script, you know, the idea of playing a beautiful princess romping through the woods was not my idea of a good part.
PS: But that wasn’t in the picture.
MP: That’s the way it was written. I didn’t want to be running around in a flowing white gown, with long tresses hanging down.
PS: And Donner wanted you to do that?
MP: Initially, but then he changed his mind, I think. I agreed to do the picture because it was the most charming script I’d ever read.
PS: Without Matthew [Broderick] it would have been one of your basic medieval spear-them-in-the-middle pictures. But Donner took a kind of twentieth-century slant on a medieval subject; he’s one of the great practical jokers of the world.
MP: I never knew what a goofo was until I met him.
PS: You know how I met Donner? I bought a house, the first time in my life I’d ever bought a house—a difficult thing for a man, because it’s such a “father” thing. I had just come out to Hollywood, and I didn’t know Donner. The day I bought the house, my wife and I were sitting at a table at the Bistro with a lot of people, and at my corner of the table, I overheard someone saying, “You know, I looked at a house today, and I discovered as I was just about to buy it that the swimming pool was cracked. It would have cost a fortune to fix it.” As I listened I realized he was describing the house I’d just bought, but doing it quietly and softly, as though I was not supposed to hear him. I was turning white. I was so mortified that finally I turned around and said “What?” Of course the whole thing was a setup, just Donner doing a practical joke. And I didn’t even know him. Someone had clued him in.
I’ll tell you another great Donner story: he was making Superman with Brando, who was getting something like $5 million for sixteen days’ work. Brando behaved like an angel during the shoot. He did everything he was supposed to do, and he caused no trouble. You know, Brando can cause a lot of problems. All during the picture, Donner—who got to do Superman because he had just done The Omen with Gregory Peck for nine beans, and had made a lot of money for the studio and made his reputation—was anxious to find out what Brando thought of The Omen. Donner was very proud of it, but Brando never mentioned it.
Now, it’s the last day, Brando’s six-teeth day, and it’s the big scene—the destruction of Krypton. Donner’s got 600 extras on the set and five cameras, including the main camera up on a big tower. That day Brando decides to show Donner what it could have been like had he not behaved well. The whole day Brando hasn’t appeared. The extras are there, the cameras are there, everything is there. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon, the light is going, and still no sign of Brando. In Brando’s contract it says if you go past the sixteenth day you’ve got to pay him pro rata, which means you’ve got to give him $300,000 or whatever the ridiculous figure is for every day you go over.
Finally, Brando walked out onto the set. Donner is on the tower, with the first camera. The sun is going, and Dick is desperate about the whole thing, and finally he yells, “Action!” At that point, Brandon walks out into the scene and suddenly stops. He looks up Donner on the tower and says, “Richard, in The Omen, in the scene where all those baboons start jumping up and down on the car and pounding on it, and menacing all the people…how did you get them to do that?” The set has gone quiet. Five cameras are rolling. Donner shouts down to him, “It was simple, Marlon. I yelled, ‘Action!’” Well, there was a moment of silence. No one quite knew how Brando was going to take this. He thought it over, decided that it was a great answer, and laughed. They had lost the sun, but he agreed to give the extra day for free. And he came back and did it.
MP: That’s great.
PS: What came after Ladyhawke?
MP: I did Into the Night.
PS: Into the Night was an interesting picture. John Landis directed it. Was this before he had gotten into trouble for the Twilight Zone accident?
MP: No, he was in the thick of things. He hadn’t gone to trial yet.
PS: Was he very distracted?
MP: No, actually he wasn’t. I was amazed.
PS: Now with Witches you did something difficult. You tested.
MP: Well, the thing that was infuriating to was that [director] George Miller wanted me for the role of Sukie all along. But the producers wanted me to test. Then, in the middle of the testing, one of the producers comes up to me and tells me that I have the part. Then they asked me to stay and read another part because there were other girls testing. So I have to read with other girl who’s testing for a part that I thought I had. I felt it was awful. I was sore as hell. You know, if I want to do something, I’m really not that proud—I’ll go in and read; I’ll go in and test. If I really want to do something, I’ll go in and do whatever the director feels that he needs me to do.
PS: You’ve said that the experience of working with Jonathan Demme on Married to the Mob was a very happy one and that you could spend the rest of your life working under those circumstances.
MP: Yes. Jonathan has, first of all, a great deal of respect for every single person working on a movie. He lets everybody contribute, and I think that’s because he’s secure enough so that he doesn’t think that everything has to be his idea. He allows other people’s idea to come in. At the same time he never loses his overview or control of the picture, so I never feel like I’m out there all alone, and I don’t end up mistrusting him.
PS: In this film, Married to the Mob, you’re made up to look tarty, with dark hair and a terrible hairdo that only gets worse.
MP: Isn’t it great? [laughs]
PS: You are the wife of a Mafia second lieutenant. You’re living in a home the taste of which could break the lens, it’s so horrible. All the pinks and the furniture…it’s masterfully awful. And you’ve had it. Now tell me about the Queens accent.
MP: It’s actually Long Island, not Queens. I worked with a dialect coach called Richard Ericson who was fabulous, and I also went out to Long Island. The crew was fantastically helpful, too, because a lot of them were from there, and I would picks up things from them. On Long Island, Jonathan Demme’s nephew introduced me to some friends of his, who read all of my lines into a tape recorder so I could hear the way they should sound.
PS: You have an interesting quote in the press kit about your character. You say, “I frankly like Angela more than I like myself. She’s a lot more fun than I am. I am so disgustingly serious.”
MP: Maybe I’m getting better….I just wish sometimes I could be more like Michael Caine, you know—I wish that I could not take it all so seriously, have more fun with it. If I do a movie I don’t like, I don’t want to get so upset with myself.
PS: Now you’re going to do something very complicated: Les Liaisons Dangerous gereuses, Have you read the book?
MP: I’m reading it now.
PS: One of the things that disappointed me about Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the book for the play—and I gather he’s done the screenplay—was the absence of political innuendo. Although Choderlos de Laclos wrote the book some six or seven years before the French Revolution, he describes a class of people who had become so totally useless, so totally without value, that to amuse themselves they assassinated characters. What de Laclos, as a nobleman himself, was saying was that the Revolution was inevitable. This class had to be toppled because it had become useless. In the film, you are playing the victim.
MP: That depends on how you look at it.
PS: Well, it is your character and life that are being destroyed by these two people, who are bored beyond belief. Now, here’s Milos Forman out there doing one vision of this film and there’s Stephen Frears making yours, because there’s a public domain situation. I understand Milos is changing the title; I think he’s called it Valmont, after the character. Is that putting pressure on this production?
MP: No, I don’t think so.
PS: John Malkovich is playing Valmont in your film?
MP: Yes, and Glenn Close is the Marquise de Merteuil.
PS: Is it being shot in Paris?
MP: Yes. I know that we’ll be living in Paris, and I would imagine because of the script we’ll be shooting out in the countryside.
PS: Let me ask you a movie-magazine question: do you have someone in your life?
MP: Well, I see someone.
PS: Will he be in Paris?
PS: Will that make it difficult to you?
MP: I don’t know whether I want to talk about this. [laughs]
PS: You don’t have to talk about it.
MP: I’ll be alone in Paris.
PS: How sexually fulfilling is work? That’s a serious question. It can be very sexually fulfilling for artists.
MP: I think it depends on the movie, on the part. If there’s a lot demanded of you it can be very sexually fulfilling.
PS: To the exclusion of private life.
MP: If you’re working on something that isn’t very demanding, isn’t very fulfilling, then you have all this energy to burn, and you can go crazy.
PS: What do you see yourself doing after Liaisons?
MP: At this point, I have to say I’ve been working so hard for the last year that the only thing I can think of is time off. And I know that I want to wait for something that I really feel great about.
PS: Now, like Paul Newman and his blue eyes, are you still fighting being a face? Is it your ultimate dream to play the Elephant Man?
MP: You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to play a bag lady.