Michelle Pfeiffer Woman who runs with the wolves
Interview by Graham Fuller | Photographed in the wilds of Malibu by Herb Ritts
A reluctant film star who’s an astonishing actress
Michelle Pfeiffer’s journey from surfer chick to Hollywood duchess has been dissected in so many magazine profiles that another would be superfluous. It’s time for a reassessment of this outstanding actress, who has shaped her career with an intelligence and mettle that few once credited her with. Shrewd, versatile, independent, discerning, driven, sincere—Pfeiffer is all these things. Her stardom, though, owes as much to her resistance to celebrity as it does to her talent and her grave beauty. No matter that she’s a family woman now, our Michelle—the very private public figure—has, like Garbo, always wanted to be let alone. Yet solitude depends on the existence of others, and even the shiest star needs silent masses in the dark to watch her flare on screen at the end of the projector’s beam.
Pfeiffer didn’t flare at first, but then neither did Marlene or Marilyn. Commercials and ABC’s Delta House led her eventually to Grease 2 (1982). She was a snow princess in Scarface (1983), a larcenous mystery woman in Into the Night (1985), and the soul of fecundity in The Witches of Eastwick (1987). She had worked hard to dispel the notion that she was just another SoCal golden girl making it in the movies, but without showing a crack in her icy façade.
Then, in 1988, came Pfeiffer’s personal perestroika. As the revitalized Mafia widow in Married to the Mob, the emotionally empty L.A. restaurateur in Tequila Sunrise, and the virtuous Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons, she was asked to abandon herself to the camera in each role, and her aloofness fell away like icicles in the spring. Subsequently, as the smoke-cured lounge singer in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), the rattled Moscow book editor in The Russia House (1990), the lonely waitress in Frankie and Johnny (1991), the idealistic Dallas beautician in Love Field (1992), the schizophrenic Selina Kyle/Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992), and the worldly Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence (1993), she didn’t so much extend her range as reinvent the concept. These were all fine performances and all tinged to a greater or lesser degree by Pfeiffer’s trademark melancholy—another link to Garbo.
Pfeiffer’s latest film is the Jack Nicholson vehicle, Wolf. Future projects include a biopic of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe and, possibly, Oliver Stone’s Evita. Pfeiffer adopted a daughter, Claudia, last year, prior to her marriage to television producer John Kelley; she will give birth to their next child in the fall. With family on her mind, she sounded more serene than aloof when we chatted one afternoon in May.
GRAHAM FULLER: How’s your day going?
MICHELLE PFEIFFER: it’s going O.K. I just got back from Baby Gap, getting some bathing suits for my daughter, that’s probably the most eventful thing that’s happened today.
GF: You’ve just finished My Posse Don’t Do Homework, in which you play an inner-city schoolteacher, right?
MP: It’s from the book by LouAnne Johnson, who is the teacher I play. It’s about this woman’s commitment to her students and the investment that takes. LouAnne’s approach to teaching is very psychological.
GF: What made you do the film?
MP: For my money, education is the most pressing issue today in this country. I think we’re just losing entire generation of children,. You can’t legislate how people raise their children, and the only chance is by reaching them through the schools.
GF: Here in New York they are toughening the high-school curriculum. There’s a sense that things have got to improve.
MP: All the countries that give their kids good educations have national curriculums, and I personally think we should have one. It’s the only solution, although I’m not sure LouAnne would agree with me about that. We need to pay teachers more. We need to have less-crowded classrooms. We need to have more teachers like LouAnne. And there does need to be more parental involvement, although you obviously can’t go into people’s homes and tell them how to rear their kids. Federally, I think there’s a whole lot more that we can do.
GF: Have you thought about the education of your daughter and the child you’re expecting?
MP: I think about it all the time. Nowadays you have to think about it when they’re in the womb. You have to put them on waiting lists; it’s kind of frightening. I would ideally like to see my children go to a public school, yet I know they won’t get a good education that way, so you’re forced to turn to private schools. But I don’t really want them growing up around that kind of elitism. One thing I’m grateful for is that I grew up in the public-school system. I didn’t get a topnotch education, but I did get a real cross section of life that has certainly been beneficial to my career. I don’t want my own children to miss out on that. My feeling is that the most you can do for your children is to prepare them for life in some way. If you can prepare somebody to be a functioning, thinking, capable human being, then you’ve given them the gift of life—next to, I guess, God giving them birth.
GF: Do you feel any resentment that you didn’t get a better academic education yourself?
MP: I don’t think I resent it. I got enough education to get by. I went to a sort of open, experimental school, but it didn’t work so well for me. When I tried to get into college, I was completely at sea. I didn’t have any studying habits. I was maybe a little too clever at knowing how to get decent grades without really learning. [laughs]
GF: Have the last six years, since you became a movie star, been important in your intellectual growth?
MP: I don’t know that I would give the last six years any more importance than any other time. It’s really an accumulation.
GF: The work that you’ve done in that time was obviously required more sophistication than your early films.
MP: That has to do with my playing more mature roles, don’t you think? In my own personal experience and my observation of others, particularly women, I think you grow a great deal in your thirties. Drastic changes. But I don’t think I’m exceptional in any way. It just happens at that phase of life.
GF: What about wisdom?
MP: Aaaaghh! [laughs] I guess the most wisdom I’ve gained is realizing I don’t really know that much. I think that’s probably the wisest thing that I can say.
GF: One thing that occurs to me is that you’ve made a transition from being an actress who initially had appeal for men to one who’s become particularly interesting to women in the last few years. Do you agree with that?
MP: It’s a bit of a surprise to me, I have to say, because I don’t really think about who I appeal to and why I appeal to them. But since you mention it, yes, I have noticed more attention from women. I think it’s because I’ve reached an age now where I’m playing women. I’m not playing girls any more.
I remember looking at movie stills of myself in Love Field—which is just horrifying because it’s not normal for people to have to look at themselves all the time—and I realized that a drastic change had happened in my face. Basically, I’d become a woman, and I couldn’t see the little girl anymore. She was gone. I mourned the little girl for a while. But now that I am older and I am playing woman, I feel a certain responsibility to represent women in a respectful way.
GF: I want to talk to you about this. In some of your early movies you were cast as much for your looks as your abilities. Latterly, in films like The Russia House and Frankie and Johnny, you’ve played women who clearly aren’t there as objects. Susie in The Fabulous Baker Boys and Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence are objects of desire, but they’re much more resilient than the men who desire them.
MP: Sometimes, though, by playing an object you can actually say more about objectifying women than if you play somebody of strength. I felt that Elvira in Scarface was a complete object. She was hood ornament, like another Rolls-Royce or something, for both of the men that she was with. I felt that by playing something that mirrors someone’s life in that way, I could make a kind of feminist statement. It depends on the way in which it’s presented. If you’re glamorizing or glorifying it, then I object to that.
GF: You initially turned down the role of Laura in Wolf because it was a “girl” role. What persuaded you to do it in the end? Were you able to find something satisfying in the part?
MP: Yeah, we worked really hard for that, but in the end, it’s Jack Nicholson’s movie and I’m the love interest. I think the mistake they were making along the way was trying to camouflage my character with a lot of bullshit to make it interesting to someone to play. But bullshit is not playable! So I said, “Let’s not pretend here,” and we made her into somebody who grew up not ever having any place in society other than being the daughter of a wealthy man, kind of a wanderer and a lost soul who’d probably never be more than that in this lifetime. That was interesting to play and a good match for Jack’s character.
GF: Were you happy with what you did?
MP: I haven’t seen it, so I can’t answer that. I only know that I did the best I could. I was a new mother at the time and I was very nervous about working and being a mom, because I always completely submerged myself in my work—letters go unopened, phone calls go unanswered. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn how to get my feet wet as a working mom.
GF: Somewhere between The Witches of Eastwick and Married to the Mob, you became an A-list star. I remember sitting next to you during the press junket for Married to the Mob, and I thought you handled yourself wonderfully well, given the types of questions that get asked at these things. I also thought then that you were shy, and it makes me speculate about the dichotomy you must face being a very private person and someone whose job means they get looked at and analyzed all the time. Have you tried to reconcile those two sides?
MP: It’s been a struggle for me, but I feel that in the last few years I have come to terms with it. I don’t even know how or why it happened now, but it did. I just remember saying one day, “if you don’t get a handle on this, it will ruin your life.” It’s not even like you can say, “Come to terms with it or quit,” because you can’t become unfamous. All you can do is become a has-been! [laughs] If I quit it would have been, “What happened to Michelle Pfeiffer?” “Oh, I saw her at the grocery store. She looked really bad.” Coming to terms with fame enabled me to draw really distinct and severe and thick lines about what I will and won’t do. You have to do that because if you don’t the lines are murky, and because this is about your person—it’s not a product you’re selling. You have to know which parts you can control and which parts you can’t. very few of them are controllable, but if you can grab on to the ones that are, it helps to balance it out. I am very stingy about [publicity] and I am really a pain in the ass about it. But to me there’s just no other way to have any kind of life that resembles a normal life.
GF: Does the creative reward make up for the intrusiveness?
MP: It does, and, obviously, the good outweighs the bad, or I wouldn’t have been doing it for all this time. I must be getting more out of it than I’m losing. And in spite of all I just said, at the end of the day I feel so lucky to be successful at what I’m doing, to have the choices that I have, to work with the people that I work with. I wouldn’t change it for the world. It does present its problems and there are sacrifices to be made. But I am very grateful to have found my niche, because otherwise I’d be like Laura in wolf, wandering around in life.
GF: Do you think the things that originally fueled your desire to become a good actress have changed?
MP: I don’t think that what fuels you ever changes, really. The passion is the same but perhaps the ambition is less and perhaps the desperation is less.
GF: Do you think you had a need for approval in the early days?
MP: Yeah. I’m sure that was a lot of it.
GF: I believe your Georgia O’Keeffe project is very dear to you. Is that because of her art of because of her personality?
MP: I think it has more to do with her personality, her spirit. That sort of fighting spirit I tend to respond to. She was a kind of maverick.
GF: I want to read you something that Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to Mabel Dodge Luhan around 1925:”…a woman who has lived many things and who sees lines and colors as an expression of living might say something that a man can’t. I feel there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore. Men have done all they can do about it. Does that mean anything to you—or doesn’t it?” And I guess that’s my question to you.
MP: Men during that time were not exactly that interested in the exploration of women, so I certainly can understand how she came to that conclusion. I think passion drove Georgia, yet I’m not sure she had a conscious need to express the power of women. Except if you look at her flower, they certainly look like certain parts of the female anatomy [laughs], but she denied completely that that’s what she was painting. When I look at her work, I can see why she would say, “I’m just painting a flower,” but there something very erotic about her paintings.
GF: Do you indentify with her?
MP: I must, or I wouldn’t have hung in there so long with the project, because it hasn’t been an east one to get off the ground; it now looks like it really might happen. Georgia had an independence and an obsessive drive about her work that I’ve had. It’s a really hard thing for me to verbalize, because it’s emotional. When something drives you to that extent, it’s beyond putting into words. I think if you were to ask Georgia O’Keeffe about painting, she would say, “I love to paint, it’s my life.”
GF: I’m just speculating about the parallels between you and her because it made a perfect sense to me that you would want to play Georgia O’Keeffe.
MP: There’s a kind of backbone that I have that is similar to hers. My father’s mother was very much like this, she grew up during the depression and raised five kids by herself, and once the kids were out of the house, she threw her sewing machine in the back of a truck and drove to California. She worked to a very old age. It wasn’t until my family convinced her that she was really too old to work that she went senile, and she died two years later.
GF: What was her name?
MP: Dorothy Neal.
GF: Were you close to her?
MP: I was a little too young to be real close to her, and my family is a little disjointed in that way. But she was a very powerful influence on me. She was very spunky and willful and stubborn and obstinate and pigheaded—drove my mother insane. And I adored her. We all did, I think in many ways she was ostracized for the life that she led—she wasn’t particularly conventional in her relationships with men. I have her hands—and she had Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands.
GF: I know that you paint, too. What kinds of things?
MP: Pretty boring stuff. I’ve never been able to get into still lifes like Georgia. I have done them a little bit, but I’m more interested in faces.
GF: Are you any good?
MP: Oh, I haven’t painted for a long time, because I don’t have time. It can be pretty consuming, so I tend to resist getting into it. I may not paint for another eighteen years because my passion now is with my kids.
GF: Are you enjoying your pregnancy?
MP: I an, actually, much more than I thought I would. I thought it would kind of bother me, having my stomach all big. It doesn’t bother me at all, except I have an acute case of heartburn. I keep asking all these women about it, and nobody seems to have had it like I do. But there is something about being pregnant that is so empowering and so centering. I can see how women become so addicted to it that they just keep having babies.
GF: Going back to Georgia O’Keeffe, there’s this story about how she once went to Elizabeth Arden in New York and had her face made up. And when she saw it she washed all the make up off and said she’d never do it again.
MP: That reminds me of some photo shoots I’ve been on.
GF: Georgia said of herself, “Well, I wasn’t bad to look at.” I don’t think I’m wrong in suggesting that you share er modesty and that you admire people who are modest.
MP: I’m sure I admire modesty more than vanity. But there’s something to be said for both. Actually, I kind of admire people who are able to be vain, too. There’s something healthy in that, having such a sense of celebration about yourself. I, for one, have never really been able to have that, though I have it more now than I ever have.
GF: You said in 1988 interview for this magazine that you felt you’d always had an extreme personality. I wonder if you still feel that about yourself.
MP: Not so much anymore. I guess the edges are kind of rounding off. The pendulum doesn’t swing quite so far.
GF: Do you feel comfortable with that?
MP: Yeah. I didn’t think it would ever happen. [pauses] Do I feel comfortable with it? I’m thrilled!