PREMIERE | September 1999
The Story Of Her
Michelle Pfeiffer, the movies’ most mysterious superstar, talks about her new romantic comedy, The Story of Us; the perils of the Internet; and what she means by ‘semiretirement’
By ROBERT ABELE | Photographed by BRIGITTE LACOMBE
MICHELLE PFEIFFER MAY JOKE ABOUT THE SECRET TO AGING GRACEFULLY in Hollywood—“Don’t look in a mirror!” she blurts out, laughing—but somehow you know this really won’t be a problem for the 41-year-old actress. Few above-the-title movie stars of either gender have so firmly established the kind of acting credentials (three Academy Award nominations, for Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and Love Field) that allow career longevity and killer looks—in Pfeiffer’s case, a transcendently feline visage—to coexist. (Let’s face it: Her justly lauded Catwoman in Batman Returns was, for all intents and purposes, crafty typecasting.)
According to Michael Hoffman, who has directed her at her most harried and contemporary (One Fine Day) and her most hypnotically radiant (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Pfeiffer’s screen power is akin to Greta Garbo’s. “There’s such a perfection on her beauty, and at the same time a kind of impenetrable melancholy,” he says. “Because of her superior architecture, people have an anxiety about her being cold or distant, but she’s so much the opposite of that. She’s got a lot of soul and depth.”
Lately, the former Southern California checkout girl and beauty-pageant queen has been on a mother kick, both in movie roles and in real life. Pfeiffer’s emphasis on maintaining a smooth-running family with her TV impresario husband, David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice, Chicago Hope), and their kids, Claudia, six, and John, five, has coincided with a spate of maternally inclined films. These include the missing-child saga The Deep End of the Ocean, as well as such lighter fare as One Fine Day and her upcoming fall release, The Story of Us, a divorce-themed comedy directed by Rob Reiner and costarring Bruce Willis. Regarding the latter film, Reiner hints that you can see a bit of the real Pfeiffer, a.k.a. the Mon and Wife (thought he’s not referring to the film’s shouting matches and splitsville theme): “Talk about being the designated driver in [her] own marriage,” he says of the Pfeiffer-Kelley union. “Michelle is, according to her, very much that way. She’s very detail-oriented, organized, and everything’s together. There’s a lot of Michelle in that character, a very regular, down-to-earth person.”
As a seaside Santa Monica hotel, a casually radiant Pfeiffer, sporting a summer-mom look—sleeveless white top, olive-green pants, and pulled-back hair—settles down to talk about movies and her family. Having wrapped The Story of Us in late spring and set to begin Robert Zemeckis’s What Lies Beneath in a few weeks, this dedicated mother recently hasn’t had as much home time as she’d like, so she’s doing her best to “lay low.” And as she explains here, movies will always be a part of her future, but laying low might well become her new priority.
before I had a family, making movies was my family. It was so much how I defined myself. I still love making movies, and I take pride in them, but I take more pride in my role as a mother and a wife.
The three big names involved in The Story of Us are real-life veterans of divorce: you (from Peter Horton), Bruce Willis (well, almost), and Rob Reiner. Did this make for interesting discussions on the set?
Mine was so long ago, I can’t remember the dynamics of it! [Laughs] You know, we pretty much kept our inspirations to ourselves and let it fly. We talked about each scene having a different level of anger…depending on the different phases of the relationship and [the characters’] ages. You know, the fights take on certain characteristics the longer you’ve been together. We pretty much knew where we were going every day.
This movie examines the fine line between acknowledging and harping on your beloved’s flaws. When you signed on, were the husband’s and wife’s points of view balance to your liking?
In the beginning, she might have been a little more strident. It’s sort of the cliché, you know, that women nag, so the challenge was bringing a level of empathy to her. What makes a woman nag? “Well,’ cuz you turn us into your mother!” [Laughs] I just didn’t want [my character] Kate to be a downer.
The source of the couple’s friction is that husband Ben is the carefree dreamer while wife Katie is the realist, the unweaving schedule-keeper. Since you’re a self-professed control freak, like Katie, what insight do you have into such folk that others don’t?
I was just thinking about that this morning. Being a control freak is another version of being a perfectionist, really. On the one hand, thank God we have them because they keep the world moving forward and progressing. But on the other hand, they’re the biggest pains in the ass.
In your own marriage, if you’re more like Katie, what does that make David?
Well, he’s a lot more fun than me. But I want to be more like Ben, and I think I’m more like Ben now than I’ve ever been in my life.
Becoming a mother didn’t turn you into a responsibility machine?
You know what? You have to give up control when you have kids. It will kill you. It is such an improvisation, and they challenge you so much every single day.
You’ve played a mother in four of your last five films. Were those conscious decisions?
I just chose the projects because I liked them, and I happen to be at an age where I’m more right to play a mother. Of course, when I did The Witches of Eastwick, I was how old? In my 20s? And [my character] had five children! [Laughs] I hadn’t a clue about how to be a mother and what that meant. Now I know what I’m doing. I think there’s a way you deal with children that’s just different. When I look back at myself in witches, oh, brother! I was sort of one of the children.
Does that make it harder to watch again?
Well, actually, I don’t ever watch my movies once they’re out anyway, so…
What happens when you’re flipping channels and you catch one?
I just go by it…Ugh! Scary!
Do Claudia and John ever see your movies on TV?
No, because I’m pretty strict about the television. Actually, I’ve had to educate them a little bit because now they’re in school, and their friends have seen more of my work than they have, and that is a bit of a problem. I haven’t made that many movies that are appropriate for them to see, but I showed them Grease 2, and they got kind of bored with it. Actually, it’s good they’re seeing it now, when they don’t really know how bad it is. [Laughs]
Is there a portion of your brain still relegated to remembering the lyrics to your Grease 2 solo number, “Cool Rider”?
I know most of them. And, no, I will not sing it for you.
You were a bit more successful when you slithered on Jeff Bridges’ piano singing “Makin’ Whoopee” in The Fabulous Baker Boys. How did you make it look so effortless?
It was a little tricky. We had to work out there heels, and the slippage, and getting up and getting down. The day we shot, it really hit me that I had to actually be on top of the piano singing, and I thought how foolish I was going to look. I shared my reservations with Steve Kloves, the director. He said, “I promise I will not embarrass you.” So I did it. And he didn’t.
Let’s imagine something called The Fabulous Baker Girls starring you and your sister DeDee. Who would the boy be?
I don’t know, Rickey Martin? [Laughs]
Good casting. Your upcoming film with Harrison Ford, What Lies Beneath, is a scary supernatural thriller. Do you generally like fright flicks?
I do, and you know, they don’t make a lot of truly scary movies anymore. They make movies with shock value, gross movies, but there aren’t a lot of suspenseful scary movies, which I grew up with. I would love to be able to revisit that. Scream was sort of both. Scream genuinely scared me.
Scary movies can get pretty racy these days, but it strikes me that you’ve rarely done nudity in films.
I can count twice, really: Tequila Sunrise, and I did a little heinie shot for Into The Night.
That said, you’ve got little to worry about as your kids become more familiar with Mom’s part. What was the motivation behind your no-nudity policy?
Now the reason is my children, but back then it was my father. He would have disowned me. My dad would have killed me.
What are you thinking when you see other actresses do nude scene?
I don’t like seeing actresses exploited, but I also think that nudity is life and art is imitating life. I have the utmost admiration for women who are uninhibited and proud of their bodies. I am not one of those women, and I think if I felt better about my body I would have probably done more nudity. [Smile sheepishly; pauses] Maybe it had nothing to do with my father. [Laughs]
As somebody who makes a living in film, yet is raising two children, are you appalled by or in favor of the recent crackdown on movie violence?
I’m for it. You know, studios and advertising people and networks and sponsors are willing to pay a lot of money for advertising because they know how much it influences people and children watching TV, and yet they’re not willing to admit that violence that comes into the home has as effect on children. You can’t have it both ways.
i have the utmost admiration for women who are uninhibited and proud of their bodies. I am not one of those women, and I think if I felt better about my body I would have probably done more nudity.
But your resume does include an iconically hyper-violence film, Scarface. It’s an established favorite of gang members.
Yeah, but that was also antidrug, and it’s an adult movie. In a way it spiraled out of control at the end, but I think that was also the effect they were going for. You know, the other thing is, it used to be that you could somewhat control and protect children from these types of movies, and that’s not the case anymore. The accessibility of these movies to children didn’t used to exist. There’s also the internet, which has grown so rapidly that there are no laws, really, to protect children.
Are you Internet-savvy?
No. I’ve actually been on the Internet twice.
Were these purposeful missions?
I did some research on tsunamis. The other time, I was looking up alternative options to gardening, without harsh pesticides. That is an overwhelming website.
Whoa, go back: tsunamis?
I have these recurring tidal-wave dreams. It’s my big fear in life, and somebody said, “You know, if you’re really afraid of something, learn as much as you can about it, and it dispels your fear.”
Can you describe these dreams?
It’s always a little bit different. But it’s always somewhere near the beach. There’s a big wave coming, and I know it’s coming. Nobody else does. And no one will listen to me, of course. This is the control-freak part! [Laughs] it’s the water. It’s sort of…so intimidating for me. The unpredictability of the ocean and the sea. I just don’t like it that much.
Wait a minute. You grew up in California’s Orange County, as a beach kid, hanging around surfers—
I know, but I didn’t go in the water. I liked to sit on the shoreline and look out at the water.
What did you learn, then, from your website detective work?
Quite a bit. If I go someplace where they’ve been hits by tsunamis, I’ll know where all the evacuation routes are. And it’s helped—I’m not quite as afraid.
Better living though Internet research. Doesn’t it make you want to explore more?
If I had time on my hands, I would be one of those people who was only on the Internet, because first of all, I’m really happy to be alone. And I love research and gathering information. I think that’s what intrigues me about acting. But it’s good thing I don’t have too much time on my hands.
Are you saying mom duties might be neglected?
Really. [In a pleading-child’s voice] “Maahhhh-mm, I’m hungry!’ [Switches to a glazey-eyed cyberstare; gestures dismissively to an imaginary offspring] “Uuh-huhh, there’s some baloney in the refrigerator.”
So you haven’t checked out your fan websites?
[Shakes her head] I’m so afraid to go there. I know my head is on some naked body that’s not mine. Somewhere. And I don’t want to know. And they have my age wrong. I know that. They have me a year older than I am.
For the record, how old are you?
I turned 41 in April.
Glad to clear that up. Now, when it comes to acting, how was motherhood affected your priorities?
In many ways, before I had a family, making movies was my family. It was so much how I defined myself. I still love making movies, and I still take a lot of pride in them, but it take more pride in my roles as a mother and a wife.
Do you see yourself eventually making fewer movies?
Yes, I do. I’m dissolving my production company. I just don’t want to be that busy. [Pause] I’m scaling down.
Does this mean retirement speculation will swirl around you again?
Nobody ever really took me seriously when I would say, “Oh, I’m gonna retire”—until I had children. But no, I don’t think I’ll ever retire, because I love working. I’ve worked since I was 13, and I’m a firm believer in people who define themselves by the work they do. I’m not really happy or fulfilled unless I feel as though I’m contributing to something. But I’m going to do less.
Does your husband’s ever-increasing workload—overseeing five series this coming season—help take the pressure off?
It certainly gives me the freedom to work or not.
Maybe you could scale way, way back and only make special appearance on his TV shows.
I actually did that on Picket Fences. I surprised him. Did it behind his back.
My husband is a really big practical joker, and [one of the Picket Fences directors and I] planned to get back at him. It’s the episode where a masseur dies a mysterious death, and they have to interview all these women, and I’m one of the women. I snuck in on the set, did my little thing, and left. And then a lot of time went by, and I had forgotten about it, and I was in the bed-room breastfeeding John when [David] came back after seeing the first cut. He said, “Is there something you want to tell me?” [Laughs]
Well done. It’s hard to plan a stunt like that when you’re working out of town, though, and What Lies Beneath is shooting in Vermont. How did you let this happen?
I would have preferred to wait, but the opportunity presented itself to work with Harrison, and Zemeckis is such a visionary. And we’ve worked it out so I’m not away for more than three weeks at a time, and the separations won’t be more than maybe four days. The first three weeks the kids will come, then I come back to Los Angeles, then I go, then they’ll come for part of that, and then I’ll come back. [Pause] I’ve really micromanaged this.
I was going to ask what special challenges this movie will present, but I think I know.
Stamina! Can I be in every scene in a movie—it’s very physical—and, you know, still be a mom and do all of that? it’s going to be very tiring.
Last subject: How do you feel about your salary in Hollywood?
How can I complain?
Some people still complain, you know, equal pay—
You know what? I think that gap is closing. There are actresses whose movies are making as much or more than some of the actor’, and their salaries are showing that. so I think that it’s equaling out. I mean, I don’t really follow it that much because I’m not interested in it.
For you, Dangerous Minds was a big step in that respect because you were the only star in it.
True, true. But it also didn’t open to $50 million, and the people who are making what you’re talking about—$20 million a movie—their movies open to those kind of numbers, and I think those people deserve a different salary.
Well, now that you’re gonna be in a movie with Harrison Ford, are you thinking, “Wow, I have a shot at being in one of those movies that opens at $40 million”?
Yeah, but [Laughs] I’ll be semiretired so it won’t matter!