US | November 1993
THE ‘US’ INTERVIEW: MICHELLE PFEIFFER
The ‘Age of Innocence’ star hates looking back. She’d much rather show you some baby pictures. By Mark Morrison. Photographs by Peggy Sirota
WHEN YOU MENTION Michelle Pfeiffer to anyone who’s never met her, the question is always the same. And so is the answer. Yes, the 35-year-old actress is really that beautiful, as drop-dead gorgeous as she appears onscreen. Even sitting in the late-afternoon light in her quiet office on the Sony lot in Culver City, California, wearing nothing but a white T-shirt and jean shorts, Pfeiffer is ravishing. But it’s not just the honey blond hair, the arch of her eyebrows, the curl of her lips. As Edith Wharton wrote in The Age of Innocence about Countess Ellen Olenska, the character Pfeiffer now tackles in Martin Scorsese’s dazzling screen version, “There was about her the mysterious authority of beauty, a sureness in the carriage of the head, the movement of the eyes, which, without being in the least theatrical, struck him as highly trained and full of a conscious power.”
Right now, Pfeiffer’s own conscious power is distracted. “I think I’m getting a cold,” she says, her voice slightly nasal. Or maybe it’s hay fever: She’s not sure. All she knows is that her seven-month-old daughter, Claudia Rose, has yet to show the slightest sign of a sniffle. Pfeiffer knocks on wood, gently rapping on the pine table in front of her slip covered sofa. Because these days her greatest focus is on the well-being of her biracial (half-black, half-white) baby.
For Pfeiffer, the single motherhood that came with adopting Claudia Rose last winter marks a new kind of maturity. An age beyond innocence. The former Orange County, California, surfer chick and beauty queen who often appeared skittish in interviews – presumably unwilling to appear trivial or trite – now speaks adoringly of her child and the balance that sleep deprivation and changing diapers have brought to her life. Thirteen years, eighteen movies and three Oscar nominations after making her screen debut (in the forgettable Elliott Gould movie ‘Falling in Love Again), Pfeiffer is finally taking time to have a whole grown-up existence, which also includes her fianci, David E. Kelley, creator of CBS’’ highly acclaimed Picket Fences.
She’s certainly earned it. At the moment, Pfeiffer is arguably the most versatile actress on the Hollywood A-list. Savvier than Julia Roberts, sexier than Jodie Foster, tougher than Meg Ryan. She is admired by women, desired by men, even loved by kids who know her as Catwoman from Batman Returns. Unpredictable and uncompromising, she’s made good on the promise of those early roles she can no longer bear to watch – Grease, Scarface, Into the Night.
In The Age of Innocence, Scorsese’s adaptation of Wharton’s Pulitzer Prizewinning novel of manners, Ellen Olenska is an American aristocrat who returns home after a disastrous marriage to a European count only to find herself an outcast in Old New York Society. Yet her unbridled air attracts the ardor of proper Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), an attorney who is engaged to her cousin (played by Winona Ryder). Though Scorsese recaptures the lost elegance of 19th-century galas and multicourse dinners, it is Pfeiffer who is the movie’s emotional centerpiece. “She’s SO perfect,” says Scorsese. “Michelle has the beauty and the ability. She can use any one of those 70 forks with the same nature1 as she would chew gum.”
Though her movies have never been blockbusters (except for the Batman sequel), Pfeiffer has remained picky about her parts (even turning down The Silence of the Lambs and Sleepless in Seattle) and has continually employed a range of accents and wigs to modify her appearance and test herself as an actress. In 1988 she won her first Oscar nomination, for the costume drama Dangerous Liaisons, then became a full-fledged star with the deliciously comic Married to the Mob. She nabbed her second nomination for the 1989 romantic drama The Fabulous Baker Boys, making makin’ whoopee look easy as a call girl-turned-chanteuse. And last year she earned a third Oscar nod for the racial drama Love Field, wearing a Jackie pillbox and a Marilyn wig. She’s also reteamed with The Witches of Eastwick co-star Jack Nicholson in Mike Nichols’ upcoming thriller, Wolf.
“The secret about Michelle is she’s one of the great character actresses working today,” says her friend Steve Kloves, who directed her in Baker Boys. “She doesn’t reveal clues about the character in one big rush of emotion. She slowly drops you crumbs throughout, and still there’s mystery at the end.”
While Claudia Rose is at home with the nanny (who works weekdays, with the actress doing the rest), Pfeiffer downs another cup of coffee – she’s become addicted to the stuff since quitting smoking more than three years ago – and steadies herself for questioning.
Much of “The Age of Innocence’ takes place in the 1870s. Does the idea of living in the 19th century appeal to you?
Not for me. I’m really contemporary. I like blue jeans and T-shirts. I’m a creature of comfort. Corsets aren’t very comfortable.
Countess Olenska likes to shatter conformity and convention. Is that true of you?
I don’t know. Perhaps shattering things, yes. [She laughs.] I don’t know that I’ve ever consciously gone about doing that. I know that I’ve fought in my work against being pigeonholed. I think when I first started trying to get work, there were certain conventional views of the kinds of roles I could play. At the same time, my craft wasn’t terribly developed, either. I had a ways to go. All actors are limited to a degree by the way they look. I think if you want to reach beyond the obvious roles that somebody might cast you in, you have to work for it.
Are you happy with the movie?
[Nodding] Uh-huh. I don’t say that very often. So much depends on what my anticipation is, going in to view it. The first time you see a movie you’re filled with so much dread –you’re so sure you’re going to be a big failure.
Do you watch your movies?
I can’t watch anything before Married to the Mob. I can’t watch my newer work, either, for that matter! It’s best for me to see a movie once when it’s finished and not see it again. I’m just too critical.
Watching ‘Grease 2,’ there was no way to know this young blonde would ever be where she is now.
Who would have thought? [She laughs.]
What’s your perspective on the path your career’s taken?
Sometimes I get this wave of disbelief. But that really has to do more with where I come from than even my beginning work. I’m a girl from Orange County who used to check groceries at a supermarket and worked my way up through the ranks. My biggest goal was to pack a really good bag of groceries -which I’m still very good at. [She laughs.]
You still do that at the market?
Well, I stopped doing it a couple of years ago. But I actually kind of miss it.
You gave Countess Olenska a contemporary touch. What did you use from your own personal experience?
Her unwillingness to allow her spirit to be broken. [She pauses.] I had a problem growing up and feeling like the odd man out. Not that I was. Maybe everybody feels this way. I just felt that there are two kinds of people -those who participate and those who observe. I was always an observer, on the outside looking in, which is probably why I became an actress.
But weren’t you always in the cool crowd?
I was more with the beach crowd, and the beach people don’t mingle with the sports people or the theater people. I was in the cool crowd, in that sense. I dated one athlete in my junior year, a baseball player named Mickey Swenson, who’s a wonderful guy. But I met him in the theater class.
You’ve referred to yourself as a survivor. Why?
I think that I’m able to overcome a lot of obstacles if there’s something that I’m trying to achieve. I’m pretty persistent. Actually, most of the time, I’m really stubborn. I’ve become more stubborn about the way I live my life and less stubborn about my career. If there was a part I wanted, I would campaign, I would do anything to get that part. Now if I find any resistance, I’m like, it’s OK, there’ll be another movie.
Is that because you have more choices?
That has a lot to do with it. Also, my focus has changed. My life is my first priority now. My life and my career were so intertwined a while back. My career is still important to me – 1 get great gratification from what I do. It’s the way I express myself. But after achieving a certain amount of success, all of that time you spent obsessing over your career you now turn on yourself. You don’t have the lack of a career to blame for your inadequacies or feelings of self-worth, so the focus naturally has to come back to you. I think it’s making a choice – deciding that you want a life. That comes with getting older. It was definitely just a choice with me.
Is the choice defined by adopting a child?
No, the child was a result of that choice.
Was that an impulsive thing?
[Shaking her head] Uh-uh. I’d thought about it for a long time. I always knew I would adopt. I assumed I would give birth first and then adopt. But it came time to be a mother, and I just reversed the order. I always think about something for a long time, and then I appear to do it on impulse. But being a mother does feel like just jumping off and doing it, because there’s no other way.
Did you want a girl?
I didn’t specify. But I did secretly want a girl. Just because, I think that when you’re a single parent, being a same-sex parent is really important. I felt it would be a little easier having a daughter.
Does having a child complicate or simplify your life?
Both. It dramatically shifts your perspective. In that way it simplifies it – now all the choices I make are about the child. Before, they were all about me. And certain things that were an issue before just Aren’t. The bottom line is always what is best for the child.
Do you have live-in help?
No, I have a nanny who comes during the week.
So you’re there changing diapers and doing the dirty work?
It’s nothing extraordinary. I’m just being a mother.
What’s the most fun part?
It’s all so fun…. I think it’s that first look up at you from the crib in the morning, when she realizes it’s time to get out of bed. It’s the pure joy of being alive.
So are you taking pictures and recording every new step?
Oh, I’m so annoying. I’m the worst cliched mother. Kvelling over everything. I carry a brag book. [She smiles.] Yep, I’m a mom.
Where is Claudia when you’re working?
She comes with me. She’s in the trailer near the set. She loves people. People from other movies come by and visit her. She has an infectious personality.
You’ve said that your parents were strict. Will you be that way with Claudia Rose?
I don’t know that that’s such a bad thing. I was a nightmare! [She laughs.] But I think it’s good to give children some kind of structure, even if it’s one to rebel against. At least it gives them something to fight for. The worst thing is to leave them wandering around with no set of values. It’s hard. We are so intent on not doing what our parents did – we just need to relax a little bit. When you’re my age and you have your first child, you almost know too much. It’s almost better to have a bit of innocence and work more instinctually. At a certain point you have to put the books away and be a mom. A friend of mine said to me: “I’ve given up being the perfect mother. I’ve decided that every time I screw up I’m going to put a dollar in a jar, and when the kid turns 18, I’m going to say, ‘Here, this is for your therapy, I did the best I could.’” I thought that was very good advice.
Back up a second—just how much of a nightmare were you?
I wasn’t ever one to behave just for the sake of behaving. I wanted to know, Why? Don’t tell me I can’t do something. I couldn’t ever accept “Because I say so.” My father was king of the castle. “You’re living under my roof” -that kind of thing. And I pushed my parents to the limit. I could kind of get around my mom more than my dad, and it made him crazy. She did all the grunt work.
Now that you’re a single mom it’s all on your shoulders. Is that comfortable?
I’m used to having everything on my shoulders. It’s something I’m familiar with. I had a lot of responsibility growing up. I helped to raise my two sisters – they were about a year and a half apart, and I was about six when they were born. I started working when I was 14 and never stopped really. So responsibility is something that was always comfortable to me. And I’m a bit of a control freak. My friends will laugh and say, “A bit of a control freak?” I always think I should do everything myself.
Meaning you can’t delegate?
I’ve gotten better, but it’s something I have to learn to do.
Does that come from not trusting other people?
I think so. Or an incredibly inflated ego that says I can do everything better than anybody else. It’s probably a combination of the two.
Taking on the responsibility of raising a child by yourself wasn’t scam?
Certainly there was trepidation and anxiety and fear and doubt and “What am I doing?!” It’s not like I accidentally got pregnant and I thought, Well, I’ll have the baby and I’ll have nine months to get used to the idea. But I think they were all really normal fears that anybody would go through whether they were adopting or giving birth. They were normal fears any first-time parent would have: “Will I be able to do it?” “Will I lose my freedom?” “Will it change my whole life?” “What if I don’t like the baby?” “What if the baby doesn’t like me?”
Once it was reality, how did you feel?
I’m so lucky. [She knocks on wood.] She’s so happy and good-natured. I didn’t sleep for the first four months. Up until a few weeks ago I was averaging four hours of sleep a night – and that was a good night. But I was ready for it, and my lifestyle was conducive to it – other than the fact that I can’t just pick up and go. That was the biggest adjustment that I had to make. Everything is thought out now. Before, I could just pick up and be gone somewhere.
Is that your nature?
More so than I thought. But until it became an impossibility, I did it but never realized it. I’m somebody who likes to stay home. But now just getting out to a movie is a big event for me. I can’t wait to sit down with a medium popcorn and peanut M&MYs.
So, you’re engaged to David Kelley. I had read you’d broken up because of the baby—
[Laughs incredulously] Yeah, we’re still together. No, we haven’t broken up.
Claudia is your baby. How does David fit in?
We work it out. He loves her.
Is he a father to the baby?
[Firmly] We work it out.
Having been married for seven years to Peter Horton, how do you feel about the institution?
I liked being married, actually. We were just so young. I was 23. I wasn’t ready for the kind of work it really takes. I was very unformed. And I became a different person. It then became difficult. I was going from being a little girl to being a woman – which took me 1s years. Peter was really in the eye of the storm. The transformation didn’t come smoothly for me. He was more developed as a person than I was. But I liked having a history with someone.
And now you’re marrying again.
Obviously I haven’t rushed back into another one. It’s something I’ve had to think about and be very sure about.
You were also with Fisher Stevens for three years. You seem to prefer long-term, monogamous relationships. You don’t seem to date a lot.
That’s not my nature, dating. I don’t really get it. It makes me uncomfortable. I can quickly tell if there’s any potential, and if there isn’t, I don’t see the point of going on. There are people I’ve been with where I’ve felt, I don’t think this will go anywhere, but I like them, and we can hang out for a while. But I can’t see dating somebody where I know it’s not going anywhere. And then I wouldn’t go out with two or three people at a time. I’ve never done that – ever! My friends would do that, and I thought it was so weird. It made me crazy.
Does it ever occur to you that just maybe you have everything?
Sometimes it feels strangely foreign to not be struggling. Because that’s part of it, and
I miss it sometimes. I would never want to go back there, but I miss the energy. I now have to find new ways to keep that edge. It’s not that I think my work is suffering, but I have the fear that it will – even though I don’t think it’s an appropriate fear.
The danger of achieving success is that you could become –
Lazy? Yeah, make safe choices. One of the things I’m trying to do is realize that not every part I play has to be anxiety-provoking. 1 don’t really want to cry in another movie. It’s not something I look forward to. I would love to do a contemporary romantic comedy. I’m really ready. I played a dark character in Wolf.
‘Batman Returns’ was the last fun you had?
Batman Returns was tough! It wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be. I did it, first, because I really loved the character. I was really tired at that time. I thought it was a cartoon, and I was looking to do lighter things. There’s nothing light about Tim Burton. There were special effects, costumes and the training I had to go through. I worked so hard on that movie…. I keep thinking I want to do something lighter, and I’m working so hard putting myself through all of this angst. I read comedies, and I just don’t get them. There’s a certain amount of suspended reality that many comedies take on that for some reason really bugs me. I like things rooted in reality. I read a comedy and go, “Yeah, right, like he’s really going to do that….” So that’s a bit of a problem. Audiences are much more willing to buy it than I am.
Will you be reprising Catwoman?
If a script comes along that Tim Burton and I are happy with, I would love to do Catwoman again. I really felt like toward the end of shooting I finally got comfortable with the suit, the kinks were worked out, I finally was efficient with the whip. A lot of things that were distracting me were out of the way. And I was having a lot of fun with the character. I was just getting to the point where I was finding a freedom with it. I’d like to pick up where I left off.
At a time when many of your contemporaries are taking their clothes off onscreen, you don’t seem to do nude scenes. Is there a reason?
Well, I did do one quick walk by in Into the Night. That’s about .it. I’m just a terrible prude. [She laughs.] I have no moral judgment against nudity unless it’s exploitive. Whether in a violent way or a sexual way, I don’t like women objectified. But I have nothing morally against nudity. It’s just not something I feel comfortable with. I have vet to do a part where it’s really necessary.
So you say no when asked?
Yeah. It’s not like I say, “I will never do nudity.” I’ve always said: “I’m happy to take my clothes off if the man takes his off. If you’re willing to let him run around with his willy hanging out, I’m perfectly happy to run around in the buff.” But nobody ever makes that deal with me. I think we have a bit of a double standard.
In ‘Grease 2’ you had this line, “I ain’t no one’s trophy.” Silly as it may sound, that’s the kind of woman you seem drawn to playing. You refuse to be anyone’s trophy.
I think sometimes you can say more and speak out more for women. Some roles – like Elvira in Scarface – are so obviously arm pieces, and they’re always the most fun roles to play. As long as you’re not glamorizing that role and saying that to play that role [in real life] is OK…. She’s so obviously victimizing herself. I respond to characters that have a sort of fighting spirit to them. That’s probably a running theme. Madame de Tourvel [in Dangerous Liaisons] was hard for me because she was victimized over and over again. I struggled a lot with how to make that interesting. It’’s boring to play a victim. I wanted to show what a tragedy her life was.
You accepted an award from the organization Women in Film recently and made a speech questioning the merit of the much-hyped Year of the Woman. You said: “Demi Moore went to Robert Redford for $1 million. Before that, Uma Thurman was sold to Robert De Niro for $40,000. And a few years back, Richard Gere bought Julia Roberts for $3,000. Now that’s real progress.” Why did you get on a soapbox?
This was Women in Film, so I figured I should say something about how I feel about women in film. I was talking to a friend and started making fun of the Year of the Woman. Like, “Oh yeah, this is the Year of the Woman. Who made this up?” and I just went off. I wrote it down, but I had no intention of saying it. Then I read it to my boyfriend, and he said, “You have to say that.” And I felt, Well, it’s appropriate, it’s not mean-spirited, but it’s poignant, truthful. The Year of the Woman: It’s such bulls—. The fact that they even have to say, “Year of the Woman.” The Academy decides it’s the Year of the Woman, but do they have a woman heading the Academy Awards? Billy Crystal is brilliant, but is he a woman? No. The women come out in their little black dresses looking really glamorous. It’s so full of s—. I just decided to say it.
Did Demi have a reaction?
I’m sure she had a sense of humor about it. I certainly never meant to attack the actresses I made the statement about. The point was: These are our biggest-name actresses working today, and these are the kinds of parts that are being written for us. It’s really more of a statement that I’m mad.
Normally when you get angry, how do you show it?
If I’m in a white rage, I go silent. One notch below that, I’ll yell. But I have to be really pushed. I have to reach the breaking point before I lose my temper.
You’ve said you need to lighten up. Well?
I have, definitely. I think it’s just getting older. And a lot of therapy! [She laughs.]
Are you serious?
Yeah I used to call therapy my part-time job. I think it’s a good thing. I’m in and out of town so much now, I go sporadically.
No long-distance phone therapy?
Listen, half the world is on Prozac. So if the worst somebody does is have a phone therapy session with their shrink, it’s OK. I figure most people can’t get out of bed in the morning without chemicals. It’s tough out there. I think medication’s an abused thing – though I’ve seen people have really great results, and it’s an important part of their recovery. But it’s a little too common.
You’ve worked with Mel Gibson, Sean Connery, Jeff Bridges and twice each with Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson. How do you create sexual chemistry on the screen?
It’s acting. If you’re working with somebody and you hate them, you’d better act your ass off. You have to fool people. It’s nice if you meet somebody and you like them, so you don’t want to run every time they get in your face.
When you did ‘Frankie and Johnny,’ critics said you were miscast – that even though you downplayed your looks, you still had those incredible cheekbones. Did you ever consider trying prosthetics?
I’ve thought about that, making myself completely unidentifiable. It’s interesting to me, except that it’s four or five hours in makeup. That’s a nightmare.
Are your looks changing? Are they better?
In some ways. But in some ways I miss the girl. I’m a woman, and I see it in how I feel, the way I look, the way I deal with myself. It’s a real celebration for me becoming a woman. At the same time, there’s a sense of loss saying goodbye to the child.
Speaking of young women, what did you think of Winona Ryder, your co-star in ‘The Age of Innocence’?
She’s terribly sophisticated for her age. She’s a strange combination. I felt kind of maternal toward her.
I’d like to say sisterly. But no, uh-uh. Maternal. [She laughs.] I’m crazy about her.
Who are your friends?
I don’t have many people I really consider my friends – I have a lot of acquaintances. I have about three friends from growing up.
Are you still friends with Peter Horton?
Uh-huh, but we don’t see each other that much. But we talk frequently. I’m still friends with Fisher.
Is there a common link between the men that you’ve been with?
No. [She pauses.] None. [She laughs.] They don’t even look alike. They’re all smart and have a good sense of humor. That’s something I respond to. There’s something unexpected about them.
Just as there’s something unexpected about you. For instance, if we were at a party, where would we most likely find Michelle Pfeiffer?
Where do you think? Probably out in the backyard playing with the dog.
THE ‘US’ INTERVIEW: MICHELLE PFEIFFER
The Age of Innocence star combines box office pull, glamour and dazzling versatility. And now this 35-year-old superstar has added motherhood to her list of challenges. By Mark Morrison
about the photographer
PEGGY SIROTA is also known for her portraits of stars such as Jodie Foster and Gary Oldman (her photos of the Dracula star appeared in Us’ October issue). Of this month’s cover session with Michelle Pfeiffer, Sirota says: “I connectred with her immediately. She was open, adorable and quite vulnerable.”