Good Housekeeping | October 1997
A Change of Luck
After years of longing, Michelle Pfeiffer took a leap of faith that brought her happiness, a loving husband, and two precious children. Now, she’s showing Hollywood how to value grown-up women.
By Liz Smith
I was meeting Michelle Pfeiffer at the offices of her movie production company, Via Rosa, which turned out to be just a few modest, unassuming rooms at and address in the Santa Monica section of Los Angeles. Pfeiffer is known to be one of the most publicity-shy of all the major Hollywood stars, so I half expected her to be late. But she was right on the dot, greeting me warmly and offering iced coffee.
This fabled otherworldly beauty seemed taller than I’d remembered, more willowy and trim. And she hasn’t succumbed to having fake implants attached to her chest like so many other leading ladies in Hollywood. At 39, motherhood hasn’t thickened her figure and stardom hasn’t thickened her head. She is an eminently sensible, well-mannered, thoughtful soul.
Pfeiffer sat straight and tall in her black jeans and tank top that showed off her long arms and blonde hair. We gossiped a bit about the first time we’d met, in Venice, and talked about how she’s been blessed with good fortune since her marriage, nearly four years ago, to David F. Kelley. Kelley, 41, is a “star” in his own right, the highly respected producer and writer of such acclaimed TV series as Picket Fences and Chicago Hope.
Even though my tape recorder misfired, she wasn’t ruffled or impatient. She tried to fix it, sent out for new batteries, and pretended to be impressed later when I said, “To heck with it, I’ll brush up on my shorthand.” But when I asked where she and Kelley and their two children, Claudia Rose and John Henry, live, she waved her hand vaguely at the window and said, “On the west side, toward the beach.”
She was more forthcoming about her new movie with Jessica Lange, A Thousand Acres, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley. Few stories have such rich material: rivalry between sisters, family secrets, the breakdown of American farm life. Pfeiffer pursued the project determinedly, acquiring the rights to the book after she read it several years ago. And she always had Lange in mind as her costar. “I admired Jessica and wanted to work with her,” she said.
Pfeiffer is extraordinarily close to her own sisters, Dedee 9who plays Cybill Shepherd’s older daughter on TV’s Cybill) and Lauren (an aspiring actress and a mother of two). She talked of how she’d drawn on her own connections and quarrels with them for her portrayal of Rose, the middle of the film’s three sisters.
As she’s done in the past with Dangerous Minds, The Age of Innocence, and Frankie and Johnny, among others, Pfeiffer has chosen a role that is demanding and meaningful, not just a showcase for her beauty.
Liz smith: how did you get involved with the film version of A Thousand Acres?
Michelle Pfeiffer: I read the book itself, not a screen treatment, and it just shattered me. I responded to the theme of three sisters because I am the oldest of three sisters myself. I also have a brother. My parents were from North Dakota, farming people. So I instantly wanted to play Rose. And every time I reread the book, I’d find more and more layers on it. Jessica and I took a long time to meet on it, even though we knew we wanted to work together. We had problems: both of us had to be available and find the right script and the right director. After I finished One Fine Day with George Clooney, I had about eight weeks for myself. I was so tired. But I knew if I didn’t take the plunge and go right into A Thousand Acres, I would lose the chance, either I had to do it right then or let it go so someone else could do it. So we got director Jocelyn Moorhouse and went forward. I wish I had been more rested, but I am actually thrilled with it.
Who are the other actors in this movie?
Jason Robards is the father. Keith Carradine plays the husband of Ginny—that’s Jessica’s part. Kevin Anderson plays my husband, Pete. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is the youngest sister, Caroline.
Your character, Rose, suffers from breast cancer. How did it feel to play a young woman who has had a mastectomy?
It was daunting. I just wanted to do it respectfully and realistically, and I even did some research at the University of California, Los Angeles, before the movie. I was so impressed by the women I met and how none of them presented or thought of themselves as victims. Some even felt that the quality of their lives had improved after the experience. I hope we can do something in the breast cancer fight with this movie.
You’ve said that before you had your two children, Claudia Rose and John Henry, you had lived a narcissistic existence. Don’t you think perhaps young people deserve a bit of a selfish narcissistic existence before they settle down?
Yes, I remember. But it’s the kind of mistake I would have made myself. And it happens all the time because people just don’t think. Most people don’t stop to realize that if a child hears over and over that she is adopted, it leaves her with some feeling that she is different. But she really isn’t. Claudia Rose came into my life when she was an infant, and I instantly felt it was just so right. I asked myself then. “What were you so afraid of? Why didn’t you do it sooner?” When I first started adoption proceedings, I panicked. I started second-guessing myself, asking “Will I be able to work if I have a child? Will I be a good parent?” I was 35 and wondered if I had waited too long. The minute I had Claudia Rose in my arms I realized I was oh, so ready to be a parent. I had been anxious about it for a long, long time.
And then you found yourself pregnant with John Henry?
Yes, and I was thrilled. I think I got pregnant the night of my wedding to David or only two days before or after. I hadn’t anticipated that.
How did you pick the names for your children?
John Henry is named for David’s own father. He weighed eight pounds when he was born, and he had the biggest hands I’ve ever seen on a baby. So he was like the mighty John Henry; one could just imagine what he’d do if he ever got hold of a hammer. He was like Mickey Mouse at first.
And now Claudia Rose has a company named after her—Via Rosa… But tell me about your husband, David. How did you meet? And how did he feel about Claudia Rosa?
Believe it or not, we met on a blind date in 1993. Like everyone else I had sworn I’d never go on another blind date. But my best friend called and simply insisted. She said, “This one you have to meet. Just give it a chance. I’ll never ask you again. Just this one time!”
So I got very lucky and still feel lucky. He is everything rolled into one person. Smart, a great sense of humor, his own person, a great father, and he came with no “baggage.” He has a wonderful family and a real feel for family, as I do—my parents are both still alive and I am close to my sisters, who live near us. And David is totally supportive of my career. We are similar in our approach to everything. He understands my business because he’s a director, and that makes life easier. He is very appealing and romantic. And he’s cute to boot!
As for Claudia Rose, he fell in love with her before he fell in love with me, so it all worked out.
Did it ever strike you as proof that taking a leap of faith—adopting and starting motherhood without a partner—would eventually bring you your heart’s desire? Your situation with David is almost like a reward.
Yes, I truly believe that my having already started adopting proceedings brought us together. It made me relax. I had the “baby” part of my life more or less settled, so it took the pressure off our relationship. He could also evaluate me as a human being, not as a woman who was desperate for a child. I think that could have been very unappetizing for a man. So we could still appear as romantic individuals to each other.
People were inspired by you as a role model when you adopted as a single parent. Some say you kicked off the adoption in Hollywood.
I think a lot of people had already adopted. But maybe, to some, adopting as a single parent seemed brave.
How different are your girl and boy?
Well, it’s predictable. They are very different. He likes trucks. She likes boys’ toys, too, but now has a mania for pink. She’s more like me and he’s like David.
Who is the disciplinarian, you or David?
We both are; as I told you, he is terrific as a parent. He really cares.
You gave up several film offers, like Evita, for instance, because you didn’t want to be out of the country and away from your family for weeks on end. Do you say no if you can’t take your family with you?
I try to limit my time away from them. I have never been separated from David more than two weeks and never from the children longer than four days, but only twice. I try to accept roles so that David can be with me when he’s on hiatus from his TV chores. That’s not so much fun for him, but we have worked it out. I would accept a job that separated me from them if I really felt it would be a missed opportunity. David and I have agreed on that. But it hasn’t happened yet.
What have you sacrificed in order to be a good mother?
Sleep, sleep, sleep—and sleep in important. But otherwise I don’t feel I’ve sacrificed anything.
Will you send Claudia Rose and John Henry to private schools?
Probably, but I find it quite infuriating that the public schools are so poor and the safety of your children in then is so at risk. I wish I would avail myself of public education for them, but I probably won’t be able to. David was just looking at a kindergarten fee for Claudia Rose in the near future, and he said it cost more than his entire tuition for college! I said, “Welcome to the real world.”
People who know you say you are remarkably centered these days. What do you think?
I am more balanced because of David and the children. Getting a little older helped too. Being successful helps, provided you have the kind of success you really want. And mine has been what I really wanted.
You know, sometimes people get successful but then go off on a wrong track in their careers. Problems then set in. but if you really love acting and get good parts as I have, then you can be happy and do what you’re known for.
You have somehow avoided bad press. There don’t seem to be any scandals in your life.
I think it’s because I got married. If you are single and dating, you are fair game for any speculation. If you are committed to someone but not married, then the press is just waiting for you to break up. Marriage is more solid, less interesting, I guess. But my general impression of the press is that it has become quite mean-spirited, and I just don’t understand it.
Can you cite an example?
I recently went to the Martin Scorsese tribute given by the American Film Institute. [Scorsese directed her in The Age of Innocence.] I rarely go to industry parties or premieres. But I wanted to show my love and respect for Marty. I smiled and waved as I went into the place, but that wasn’t enough for the assembled press. They booed me! I was really taken aback. Whether I want to stop and chat and give interviews is my choice. They treated me like a circus animal. So I don’t go out much and that’s why.
You are really respected not only as a great beauty but as a really truly fine actor. Have you ever done parts you hated?
In the early days I had some stupid roles on television and a few bad ones in movies. I was so embarrassed by these that I became pretty careful about what I accepted. I was happy when I finally got a part where the director said, “We are going to have to dress you down a bit,” and I knew he was taking me seriously as an actor. I’ve only had a few parts I did not like, but nothing awful. Sometimes I feel I haven’t been happy with my own results as I am very self-critical. I may feel I haven’t done justice to a character, but I have been very lucky. And yes, I have worked hard too.
Will there be a Catwoman movie? You were so great in Batman Returns.
I’m so pleased you think so and yes, I hope there will be, because that character is one of my favorite of all time.
What was your unhappiest time in life?
It was around the time of the end of my first marriage [to Peter Horton in 1987]. But I’ve been blessed since then.
Well, my dear, what do you want to accomplish and what do you expect of life in the future?
I’d be happy with more of the same.