Michelle Pfeiffer TALES OUT OF SCHOOL
THE RETICENT STAR OPENS UP ABOUT MOTHERHOOD, MOVIES AND HER NEW CLASSROOM DRAMA, ‘DANGEROUS MINDS’ BY ROB TANNENBAUM | Photographs by Brigitte Lacombe
IT’S A LONG WALK to the far end of Culver City Studios, where Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford are working on a new movie. Each identical white-stucco building houses a movie set, and the blacktop pass way is all but empty. Suddenly, a platoon of burly Secret Service agents with fresh buzz cuts and sober gray suits strides purposefully out a studio door. For a moment, it seems as if some unseen tripwire has been set off, alerting a security brigade to detain a journalist nearly within microphone range of Pfeiffer. Snarling attack dogs will arrive soon. In fact, it’s only a lunch break for some of the actors in costume for Oliver Stone’s Nixon.
Though armed guards and unfed Dobermans aren’t her style, Michelle Pfeiffer is one of Hollywood’s most reluctant and uneasy figures. These days, most celebrities eagerly proffer an emotional X-ray; ask an actress her age and she’ll take off her clothes, and it’s only a matter of time before some savvy star opens his therapy sessions to a press conference (“Hi, I’m from the Enquirer, and my question is for the shrink”). Think about Pfeiffer’s peers, and your first associations will likely be their public renown, whether it’s Demi Moore turning each pregnancy into a photo spread or the romantic-disaster movies lived out by Julia Roberts and Sharon Stone. With Pfeiffer, you think of her work, partly because it’s excellent, partly because you know little about her.
Pfeiffer, 37, joins me in her tidy trailer during a lunch break and, explaining that she’s prone to spilling her food, changes from her costume into brown sweat pants and a man’s pajama top. There are fax machines carrying urgent messages from her agent, and also two cribs and a bunch of toys, signs that her young children—one adopted, one birthed—have been around. A lunch of grilled fish, steamed broccoli and a salad is prepared by a burly man she introduces as her driver and assistant, failing to note that he’s also her bodyguard; the term is too imperious to suit her.
Her eyes, which come from her father’s side of the family, are blue or something gray, with a ring of lightning yellow rimming the pupil. Viewed straight on, she has the prototypical California beauty of Cheryl Tiegs, but as soon as she tilts her head, you see the flare of her cheekbones, the color and sheen of fine Caribbean sand.
Pfeiffer portrays a high school teacher assigned to a troubled English class she initially describes as “rejects from hell” in her new film Dangerous Minds. Unknown actors were cast as Pfeiffer’s students, and many of them give wonderful performances. The film was based on My Posse Don’t Do Homework, a nonfiction book by LouAnne Johnson, a former Marine who taught “at risk” students in Belmont, Calif. Dangerous Minds recalls such past teacher-tribulation films as To Sir With Love, Up the Down Staircase and Stand and Deliver, with maybe a touch of Room 222, but adds contemporary turns. At times, the plot seems drawn from recent transcripts of Nightline: abortion, guns in school, spouse abuse, teen pregnancy and racial victimization all emerge, as well as meager education budgets that call to mind the shadow of Newt Gingrich’s scythe. “There are entire generations of children slipping through the cracks,” Pfeiffer declares earnestly, her passion for the film’s themes evident. Like a lot of new parents, she’s concerned about education and agrees that her film has a rather apparent liberal bent.
I DON’T RUN FROM PAPARAZZI ANYMORE. I HAVE TWO KIDS WEIGHING ME DOWN NOW.
When the subject turns from work to her life, though, Pfeiffer speaks haltingly and seems to consider each word before releasing it. To deflect attention, she asks questions: “How did you like the movie?” “Did I look pregnant?” “Where did you go to high school?” “Do you have a napkin?” After all, lunch must not be neglected.
But Pfeiffer isn’t guarded only with the press. “It’s almost impossible to get close to Michelle,” notes Cher, a good friend since they were in The Witches of Eastwick. “She’s just very, very private.”
Pfeiffer’s reserve can seem haughty. “When I first met her, I thought she didn’t like me,” says Winona Ryder, who starred with Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence, the 1993 film of Edith Wharton’s tale of manners and cruelty among wealthy 19th-centurt New Yorkers. Ryder, then still in her teens, was in the midst of breaking up with Johnny Depp. “I was having a rough time, and she really took me under her wing and took care of me. It did take a while to get to know her, but I respect that, I meet so many actresses in L.A. who want to be my best friend immediately. I’ve had actresses I don’t even know call me and say, ‘We’re both famous, let’s hang out.’” Now, says Ryder: “It’s one of the most trusted friendships I have. She’s incredibly loyal and honest.”
“She’s a good egg, I’m crazy about her,” testifies Jack Nicholson, who worked with Pfeiffer in The Witches of Eastwick and again in Wolf. Her reserve, he says, “is part of her appeal. You couldn’t really say Michelle in glacial, but there’s obviously something oscillating below the surface there. Michelle’s first look at people is, ‘Yeah, well, what do you want?’ It’s a form of protection, because she’s very sensitive and thin-skinned.”
Pfeiffer has never mastered the casual banter and offhand revelations that make colleagues so quotable in interviews. Nicholson, she observes rightly, “says very provocative things, but he doesn’t really tell you anything about himself.” She censors herself, she adds, because her first instinct is “to tell everything.” And with someone to unknown, there are bound to be lots of surprises.
ON HER PRODUCER: “I PROBABLY CALLED HIM AN A–HOLE. I DON’T LIKE NOT GETTING MY MAY.”
FIRST SURPRISE: SHE HATES WRITERS LESS THAN SHE USED TO.
Up Close and Personal, which will come out next year, began as a biography of Jessica Sabvitch, the doomed and drugged newsroom starlet of the ‘70s. “Jessica’s life was pretty dark. And that’s not always something you want to make a movie about,” says Pfeiffer. Now, she plays an ambitious, stormy Miami TV reporter who falls in love with Robert Redford, a news director, ironic roles for two noted mediaphobes.
“I have a new-found respect and appreciation for journalists,” Pfeiffer says with a ready laugh. Until now, she admits, “I haven’t been terribly sympathetic” to those sent to quiz her.
“I don’t hate media people,” she insists. “I’m scared of them. It’s just my unwillingness to be studied. My job is to observe, and when the roles are reversed, it makes me a little squeamish.” Onscreen, of course, she’s observed by millions. “That’s different, I control that,” she says, invoking a phrase that’s likely arisen in her therapy sessions: “I have control issues.”
SECOND SURPRISE: SHE’S NOT AFRAID TO YELL AT DON SIMPSON.
For a long time, Dangerous Minds was called My Posse Don’t Do Homework. The title was changed by producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, famous throughout Hollywood for their dictatorial ways. “I hate the title,” Pfeiffer moans. “it’s really dumb. And it’s misleading. It’s just…” She stops, swallowing the criticism that was about to follow. “It’s not a big deal.” But if it wasn’t, she wouldn’t have fought over it.
She admits she was “nervous about working with Don and Jerry,” whose reputations come from loud blockbuster flicks like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop and Bad Boys, in which men triumph and women disrobe. “This movie was uncharacteristic for them,” she says. Did she voice her objections to them? She laughs, says yes, pauses, laughs again and pretends to change the subject: “Want to see some really good stills of my movie?”
She wasn’t happy, either, when Andy Garcia’s role as her boyfriend was eliminated after audiences test-screened the film. “That’s another battle I lost.” (“They had no chemistry,” says a source who viewed the original cut.) She acknowledges she argued with Simpson and Bruckheimer, “probably more than I’ve ever battled for a movie. I was pregnant – the last thing in the word I wanted was to battle with people. But sometimes I can’t keep my mouth shut, either.”
“We want to be in-your-face with the title and grab your attention,” says Don Simpson, who estimates he created 240 possible titles for Dangerous Minds. Simpson minimizes the conflict with Pfeiffer, saying only that their disputes got “combative” at times. (Pfeiffer: “I probably called him an a—hole.”) And he chooses a basketball analogy to describe the balance of power in which producers triumph over actors: “She’s gonna take it to the hole. And if I didn’t want her to score, because I’m not in agreement with her, she ain’t gonna get it in the hole.”
Pfeiffer praises the final version of the film, yet she admits, “I don’t like not getting my way.” She has a reputation for being demanding about scripts – after Tequila Sunrise, director Robert Towne called her “the most difficult” actor he’d worked with. “And proud of it,” she responds tartly, her dislike for Towne still fresh. At the time, she’d separated from her husband for seven years, actor Peter Horton, and agreed to do Tequila Sunrise, immersing herself in work as distraction, even though she thought the part was mere decoration for the plot. “I paid the price. And so did Towne.”
Since then, her increased star power allows her more input into movies. According to source, Pfeiffer made her participation in Dangerous Minds contingent on the hiring of screenwriter Elaine May, who was paid $100,000 a week, with no time limit; added to Pfeiffer’s fee of about $7 million, the cost of the movie escalated quickly. May, who has written such comedies as Tootsie and Ishtar, isn’t exactly known as an urban dramatist, but Disney, which is trying to establish an enduring relationship with Pfeiffer, wanted to please the actress. One studio executive wonders about Disney’s wisdom: “It shouldn’t have cost $30 million to make this movie. It should have been made with Holly Hunter for $8 million. This is not how people want to see Michelle Pfeiffer, teaching school kids.”
Says Jack Nicholson: “You never could steamroll Michelle. She’s always very tough in that sense.” Toward that end, she’s got a production deal with Disney to develop films. She’s already been “producing by default,” she says, because she can get a film approved just by committing to appear in it. “I really enjoy the process of producing: figuring out the best crew and the best writer for a particular project.”
WHILE SHE’S EATING A RADICCHIO SALAD WITH her fingers, the phone rings. “Hey! Hi!” Judging from the magnitude of her smile, it’s husband David Kelley, an Ivy League lawyer and hockey jock who created Picket Fences and Chicago Hope. “Listen, I’m in the middle of an interview.” She laughs gaily. “No, I’m not talking about you.”
She met Kelley on a blind date. “I was so against that,” she says. After a marriage to Horton and relationships with actors Val Kilmer and Fisher Stevens, “I’d kind of sworn off dating,” she says. “I’m not very good at small talk.” Kate Guinzburg, her best friend and partner in their production company, was the matchmaker; Pfeiffer panicked 20 minutes before the date when she found out Guinzburg hadn’t even met Kelley, despite having raved about his great qualities.
Pfeiffer and Kelley went bowling; each brought a friend, “We didn’t speak to each other. I was petrified. David is probably the only person I ever met who was quieter than me. His agent found out he was dating me – because david is also the only person I know who is more private than me – and said: “So, you’re dating Michelle Pfeiffer? Uh, who talks?’”
She soon became “very intrigued” by Kelley. “He has an odd sense of humor. If you’ve seen his shows, I guess you would surmise that. He likes practical jokes.” When asked for an example, she claims a memory lapse.
Then she admits, “I probably don’t really want to tell you.”
Pfeiffer realized she was in love with Kelley after only a month, when he took her to see The Wizard of OZ, which is “one of my favorite movies.” In the meantime, Pfeiffer had already begun an adoption and was offered a biracial child, Claudia Rose. “I don’t talk about the specifics of the adoption,” she says. After dating less than a year, Pfeiffer and Kelley were married at a small ceremony in late 1993, in which Claudia Rose was also christened.
The newlyweds agreed they wanted kids.
“We had planned on trying right away – we kinda had started already,” she chuckles. “I got pregnant on my wedding night.” When the couple finally took a honeymoon, in Fiji, Pfeiffer was seven months pregnant. And they brought Claudia. “Very sexy honeymoon,” Pfeiffer says dryly. Their son, John Henry, named for Kelley’s dad, was born in the summer of 1994.
Thus, in a little over a year and a half, Pfeiffer gained a husband and two children, a process that usually takes several years. What has she given up for motherhood? “My social life. Well, I didn’t really have one before anyway. Antique shopping, reading the newspaper, painting, sculpting, sleeping – that’s a big one!” She laughs. “Now that I think about it, I kinda miss a lot of things.”
If you’ve noticed more pictures of Pfeiffer than before in the gossip pages, it’s because motherhood has limited her mobility. “I don’t run from paparazzi anymore. I have too much weighing me down now. I have two kids and diaper bags and strollers, so I had to cop a new attitude.”
She worries a lot about her kids, about the “state of the world” in which they’ll grow up. And here, for once, she talks at length, even rambles some: She’s outraged less by episodes of individual violence (“We all have the instinct to kill, we’ve all felt it), which can be attributed to the disturbed mind of one person, than by our culture’s celebration of violence, which reflects a kind of shared psychosis. “The people who are so-called sane,” she says, “and who capitalize on evil are more insidious than the evildoers.” She admits she considered the relative “morality” of a film before accepting a role and recalls being “shocked” when people rooted out loud for Al Pacino’s coke-mad kingpin in Scarface. “What planet am I on, and how did I get here?” she askes in wonder. “I don’t even know if I want to have any more kids.”
Is she simply not taking active steps toward having more kids, or is she taking preventive steps to avoid it? She blinks for a second – the vague euphemisms seem to amuse her – and answer bluntly: “I am on birth control pills. OK?”
SHE ADMITS SHE FINDS SWEARING VERY EXPRESSIVE. “SOMETIMES OTHER WORDS JUST WON’T DO,” SHE SAYS.
THIRD SURPRISE: SHE’S GOT A DIRTY MOUTH.
She became a star in 1987 with The Witches of Eastwick, displaying what critic Pauline Kael praised as a “soft and fluid” presence. It was already her 10th movie. In quick succession, she played a suburban Mafia widow in Married to the Mob, a luscious restaurateur who torments Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell in Tequila Sunrise, a married woman ruined by love in Dangerous Liaisons and a hooker-turned-nightclub heartbreaker in The Fabulous Baker Boys. She topped this run with her whip-yielding, rubber-encased turn as a purring Catwoman in Batman Returns.
Kael termed her “paradisiacally beautiful” in Liaisons and “a sexy dream,” reminiscent of Lauren Bacall and Carole Lombard, in Baker Boys. Pfeiffer was, by acclaim, the new standard of beauty in Hollywood.
Up Close and Personal is her 22nd film. Of all these scripts, what line of dialogue has stuck with her most over the years?
After a long, thoughtful pause, she recites a line from Scarface: “Can’t you stop saying f— all the time?” It’s a reprimand her character, a sullen coke whore, delivers to her husband, played by Al Pacino. She laughs. “That’s what propped into my mind, I don’t know why.”
Maybe it’s because she swears a lot. “Not as much as I used to, because of the kids. But yeah, I’ve been known to throw some words around. I find swearing very expressive. Sometimes, other words just won’t do.”
Many of her finest film moments are also her most profane: fighting with Jeff Bridges in Baker Boys or cussing Al Pacino for his relentless advances in Frankie and Johnny. You swear very well onscreen, I say. “Thank you very much” she replies modestly.
FOURTH SURPRISE: SHE’S NOT REALLY FROM CALIFORNIA
Sure, she grew up in Orange County, but that Republication enclave is no more typical of California than St.Patrick’s Cathedral is typical of New York City. More important, her parents came from North Dakota, which means her upbringing was Mid-western in character, if Californian by location: Her dad, a contractor, was “strict and conservative,” a disciplinarian. “I was in trouble all the time. I got a couple good spankings. I tried to behave, but either I was sneaking off to the mall or ditching school when I was older,” she recalls with a small laugh. “I was always out getting high at the beach or smoking in the bathrooms.” So friends were stunned when she entered the Miss Orange County beauty contest – “it was very uncharacteristic of me to do anything hokey like that” – and she still seems ashamed of it, claiming to remember little about. She did it only as a means of meeting a Hollywood agent, which worked. But she suffered: “I couldn’t smoke for a week.”
FIFTH SURPRISE: WE DON’T KNOW, BUT THAT’S A HELL OF CHUCKLE.
Jack Nicholson has been asked to name something that surprised him about Pfeiffer. He pauses for several moments and uncaps the laugh that’s marked four decades of movies: “I’ve thought of a few things, but I’d rather not say. Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh.”
SIXTH SURPRISE: SHE DOESN’T KNOW O.J.
It’s been reported that Pfeiffer sold her house on Rockingham Drive, now known as O.J. Boulevard, after tourists flooded Brentwood. She says that’s not true, she stills lives there, through she’s not O.J.’s neighbor. “It’s gotten a little weird,” she admits, “like a war zone.” On Saturday afternoons, she used to go to Mezzaluna, where Ronald Goldman worked, because it was empty, “and my daughter could make a mess and be obnoxious, and no one would care. Now, you can’t get a table.”
One other thing: “I never met kato.”
SEVENTH SURPRISE: SHE’S NOT A MOVIE STAR.
An emblem of glamour should be poised and graceful. “Michelle is the clumsiest woman I’ve ever met,” sighs Cher. “She can’t walk across the room without falling over everything. She has this angelic face, and then she gets up and wobbles across the room like a duck, so it makes you laugh.”
“When I get distracted, I do tend to bump into things,” agrees Pfeiffer.
EIGHTH SURPRISE: SHE’S FUNNY.
“What most surprised me is her sense of humor. She’s very funny,” says Don Simpson. “My first impression of her was someone who had a great sense of humor,” adds Cher, recalling the day they met on The Witches of Eastwick set. Susan Sarandon was angry that her part had been given to Cher, who arrived unaware of the tumult. “Michelle handed me a beer, and said, ‘Take this, I think you’re gonna need it.’ It was the first thing she ever said to me.
NINTH SURPRISE: THAT’S NO NEURAL DISORDER, SHE’S JUST SWEDISH.
“I had an acting teacher who used to say, ‘You have a seven-second delay: I ask you a question, and it takes seven second for you to respond.’ I never forgot it. Then I was reading about a condition called psychomotor retardation, and I thought: That’s it! That’s what I have!
“Maybe that’s the Swede in me. The Swedish always act like they have a little bit of a secret.”
THENTH SURPRISE: SHE IS CATWOMAN.
There’s a constancy to the characters Pfeiffer picks – a cautions, bruised defiance. Continually surrounded by misery, she’s the Jean-Paul Sartre of Hollywood belles. In Scarface and the ‘60s interracial drama Love Field, her marriages are ugly and cruel. “If I wanted a man in my life, I wouldn’t have bought a VCR,” she proclaims sourly in Frankie and Johnny, having endured a miscarriage and an abusive husband, a theme that reemerges in Dangerous Minds. It sometimes seems she’s been hit onscreen more than Sylvester Stallone. Her Catwoman turns from a bumbling, lonely assistant into a feline assassin in love with a man who wears tights. And in Wolf, she plays a hard-bitten rich girl whose mom died when she was 12. “You’re rude, hostile, sullen, withdrawn,” Jack Nicholson says to her, and her might well have gone on much longer. She falls in love in this movie, too, though it happens to be with a wolf man, which is typical of the romantic misfortune she finds onscreen.
Meanwhile, she turned down starring roles in Sleepless in Seattle and The Silence of the Lambs for smaller pictures like Love Field. “Sometimes she picks wacky projects, but that’s what makes her grow,” notes Jack Nicholson with a mic of bafflement and admiration. “She really wants to do films with some reasonance.”
Pfeiffer agrees the characters she’s chosen have overlapped. “They’re slightly damaged, slightly neurotic, but with an incredible determination and an undying spirit. No matter how battered and bruised they might become, they have this will to persevere.”
This could be as close as she’ll ever come to a self-description; she admits she finds “some elements of myself” in these characters.
“I’m pretty determined. I meant, there’s really no reason I should be where I am. I was in a beauty pageant. Hel-lo!” She chortles ironically and recalls some of her early acting efforts. “I was in Delta House. I did The Hollywood Knights and a really bad Aaron Spelling series. The person who could turn that around – It’s perseverance, really.”
It’s unclear what has bruised Michelle Pfeiffer, except perhaps the ordeal of spending her first 10 acting years posing in hot pants. That, she says, is only a part of the scenario. “There are other examples I could use that might be more personal, but I won’t. I would in no way give you the whole picture.” If she did, it would be the biggest surprise of all.