The real life of Michelle Pfeiffer
A self-confessed control freak, Michelle Pfeiffer explains how she handles her love-life motherhood and the Hollywood system.
By Adam Platt
WATCH HER ON FILM AND YOU’LL notice certain things. Her heroines play the world at a distance, mostly, and are often wise beyond their years. They get romanced, but are not overtly romantic. They may be trashy (Angela in Married to the Mob) or sultry (Suzy Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys) or downright fearsome (Batman‘s Catwoman), but they all retain an air of invulnerability, a certain classical poise.
This sophisticated actress has sent similar brittle signals to the press over the years. Pfeiffer was supposed to be skittish, edgy, reticent, “the journalistic equivalent of covering geology as it happens,” as one writer put it.
So imagine my surprise when Michelle Pfeiffer, with no elliptical silences or ruffled Hollywood pauses, leans into my tape recorder and offers: “I realised that I needed to embrace my aloneness before I was ever going to make any relationship work. It took me a long time to work that out. I knew that intellectually, but until you know it in your heart, nothing happens. Once I was really OK about that, then it all came to me. It all came flooding in.”
Pfeiffer is wearing a bright white T -shirt and no make-up and she appears, on this day, neither invulnerable, nor awkward, nor even very shy. When she says the word ‘heart’, she touches her shirt lightly, then sits back and smiles.
Her hair is tied back with a piece of blue wool, and she’s wearing black slacks with her T-shirt and clumpy, well-worn round-toe ankle boots.
She’s just beamed down into Santa Monica from the sprawling home she shares with her husband of three years, the prolific TV writer/producer David E Kelley (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope), and their two children in the hills of West LA. Her car is choked with the detritus of motherhood: beat-up car seats, lunch boxes and toys.
“I was really thinking a lot about how much I wanted children,” she says. “I’ve always felt very self-motivated in terms of my work, in terms of going
after what I wanted and finding a way. I was trying to start to incorporate that into my personal life, because I wasn’t always very successful at it in that area.”
Pfeiffer is discussing the most momentous decisions of her recent life: the decision she made nearly four years ago, as a single woman with an established career – and a string of romantic misfires–to adopt her child, Claudia Rose, on her own.
The joys and tribulations of single parenthood inform her newest film, One Fine Day, produced by Pfeiffer’s own company, Via Rosa. It ‘s all about Melanie, a Manhattan divorcee dealing with the demands of motherhood and her formidable career as an architect. It also stars gorgeous . George Clooney, playing a similarly challenged parent, and follows the two as they navigate with their children through the complications and pitfalls of one hectic, angstridden working day.
”I’m a control freak, I know many women who behave like this, and it’s mostly out of necessity. There’s just no time to wait for somebody else to come around and clean up every mess, so you clean it up yourself.”
”I’m a control freak, much like Mel [her character] in the movie,” says Pfeiffer, forking her salad with gusto. Mel is another one of
Pfeiffer’s nervy, righteous heroines – the kind that have earned her three Academy Award nominations and a pair of recent box-office successes (Dangerous Minds, Up Close and Personal). “I hope I’m slightly less annoying about it, but actually I’m probably not. I know many women who behave like this, and it’s mostly out of necessity. There’s just no time to wait for somebody else to come around and clean up every mess, so you clean it up yourself.”
I ask what it’s like arranging a normal, everyday routine around the demands of being a Hollywood icon, and she gives a little squawk. “No, no, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Cher, Jack Nicholson, Madonna, those are icons.”
So far, Pfeiffer’s day has been: Rise at 8am, then run Claudia Rose to school (“She’s been having separation problems, because I’ve been working”). After that, play hockey in the dliveway with two-year-old John (her son with David E Kelley), begin an hour-long work meeting, run back to get Claudia Rose, put her down for her nap, finish meeting, zip off to this lunch.
Last night, she attended the premiere of her husband ‘s film To Gillian on Her Thirty-Seventh Birthday, in which she plays Peter Gallagher’s ideal wife, who’s unfortunately dead. Plus, she’s deep into work on the film adaptation of Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres (with Jessica Lange and Jennifer Jason Leigh), which she’s also producing.
When I ask where her husband fits into this schedule, she cries, “He’s working, of course!”
When I ask why he’s not at home, helping out, she looks amused. “It’s always left up to the woman. That’s why women are great producers. To produce a house, to produce a family, to get all that organised, to keep everything running – it’s a different kind of thinking. That’s why we’re good administrators , much better than men, really.” And then she says: “You don’t have to be married to know that!” Comments like that reveal Pfeiffer’s mettle. “Michelle has astonishingly good values,” says Linda Obst, producer of One Fine Day. “She wants her work to be just that – work. I don’t think she sees it as a glamourous, fabulous enterprise full of glory. I think she sees it as a struggle and a commitment to some kind of excellence and meaning.
“She gives everything to it, but doesn’t think it means she has to take anything away from her family. She’s Calvinist, in that way, and kind of conventional.” Pfeiffer was born in Orange County, California, where her father worked as an air-conditioning contractor. She was the eldest of three daughters (one brother was older) and also the most rebellious. “I was kicked out of things. I was considered the black sheep of the family. Neighbours didn’t want their kids playing with me.” After a helter-skelter, fast-lane adolescence (“I had that long, stringy, straight hair, hip-hugger jeans, short tops and thongs; I drove a red Mustang, I smoked”), she found herself living at home, bagging groceries at a supermarket.
She’d tried junior college, had even put in time studying to be a court reporter. “I was floundering around,” she says, “but I knew I wanted a career and I just asked myself one day, ‘What do you want to do? If somebody said, Here, whatever you want, you can have it, what would it be? ‘ And it was acting.”
She pursued that goal with a quirky resolve. On the advice of a neighbourhood hairdresser, she entered a beauty contest to catch the eye of an LA agent who was one of the judges. She became Miss Orange County, got the agent, did a string of commercials, TV work, low-budget films. Her break came in 1982, when Brian De Palma cast her as Al Pacino’s moll in Scarface. The part was much sought-after and the audition process took two months. Pfeiffer thought she was out of the running when De Palma called her in one final time. “I stopped on the way to the test and I threw up, I was that scared. I’d gotten so low that I actually didn’t care.”
So she let the pressure go, the acting really flowed and she got the much-wanted part. With Scarface, Pfeiffer, like Jessica Lange before her, rose above the bimbo label and made herself into an actress.
With Witches of Eastwick she became a box-office commodity; Dangerous Liaisons and The Fabulous Baker Boys made her into a Hollywood star. Along the way she earned a reputation for competence, control, and hyper-preparation (to this day, she marks her scripts up with different coloured pens, according to some runic, professional code).
Control in her private life proved more elusive: “I think one day they’ll find out there’s a huge hormonal change that goes on with women in their late twenties,” she says. “It’s this transitional time, when you stop being a little girl and turn into a woman, and it’s such a state of upheaval for so many women I know. You’re going along and everything’s fine; then you hit 27, and it all blows up. It’s a good thing, ultimately, but it’s a weird time.”
In her early twenties, Pfeiffer says, she was involved with a New Age health group that she now calls a cult. She met and married actor Peter Horton, of thirtysomething fame, and credits him with extricating her from that mess. He served as a kind of parental figure for seven years, until they drifted apart. “When we split up, I was convinced I was going to fuck up my life, because that’s what I had been doing up until then,” she says.
“It was a really long process for me to know that wasn’t true. Not only was I capable of managing my own life, I was probably more capable than a lot of people.”
After the divorce, she endured what she calls a string of romantic “disappointments”. There were semi-publicised flings with dangerous Hollywood males like Michael Keaton and John Malkovich. “I tend to be shy, ridiculously shy. I think at the time a lot of the decent men were probably a little more reluctant to approach me. Those who did approach me were the absolute ones I should never have been with.”
Which brings us back, in a looping way, to the issue of adoption, why she decided to take the huge step on her own, and all that followed. Pfeiffer was living with actor Fisher Stevens when she decided to purchase her own house. “Fisher was a great guy,” she says, “but I knew it wasn’t going to be a lifetime thing.” Implicit in her decision to find a home was the realisation that she might always be alone. She couldn’t wait around for the perfect man to give her everything she wanted; she was going to build it for herself.
“I was 35 years old. I hadn’t given up hope that I would meet the man of my dreams, but I was open to the fact that I might not. I think that was what prompted me to go through with the adoption – this idea that maybe I’m just going to have a series of serious relationships in my life, and that ‘s OK, but in the meantime, I want to have a family.”
She broke up with Stevens, went to Mexico for a month with her actress sister, Dedee (who’s on TV’s Cybill), took some art classes, returned to LA and hired an adoption lawyer.
She thought she would do best with a girl, but didn’t demand one. She decorated a room, complete with a crib and curtains, kept it locked and waited for motherhood. “I had this little secret, it was so amazing,” she says, sounding amazed still. Then she was introduced to Kelley on a blind date and another wonder occuned.
The couple met two weeks before Claudia Rose came into Pfeiffer’s life. She had her family already, but was obsessed with finding the perfect man… and the perfect man appeared. “I’ve never, ever been in a relationship like this where, truly, I’m more in love with him today than the day I married him. I would hear about it, but I didn’t think people really had it.”
Since her marriage, Pfeiffer’s career choices have been dictated by family – most notably, giving up the role of Evita because it would have meant too much time away from home. Today, she’s warned that this interview will have to end at 2.30pm so she can pick up Claudia Rose and take her to computer class. But she lingers over coffee.
She sips her coffee, glances around the room and begins asking me about my life. I tum off the tape recorder, her shoulders lighten and her tone turns conspiratorial in a playful way. “Would you mind terribly,” she asks, “if I tried to set you up with someone?”
“Here in LA?”
I mumble about living in New York and the tragedies of long-distance relationships and she shrugs: “It’s just that I know so many wonderful single women these days,” she says, sounding hopeful about the situation, but not at all wistful.