Maire Claire | January 2002
michelle pfeiffer: the incredible life lesson I learned
In her new movie, I Am Sam, Michelle Pfeiffer plays a tough attorney who’s taught a lesson in love by a mentally challenged man. We invited her to spend a day with other disabled adults, who gave her an amazing perspective on our newly uncertain world.
By David A. Keeps | Photographed by Patrick Demarchelier
As friends around him painstakingly paint birdhouses and canvasses for an upcoming art show, Brad Silverman, 35, a bespectacled man with Down’s syndrome, throws his arms around Michelle Pfeiffer’s neck. “Hey, Michelle!” he shouts gleefully, hugging her. “My buddy! I saw your movie on cable, Dangerous Minds! You were awesome!”
“Thank you,” Michelle replies, sounding genuinely touched. “Did you know I was seven-months pregnant in that movie? By the time we finished filming, I wasn’t even allowed to turn sideways!”
We’re standing in a room at Inside Out, a Los Angeles art studio where adults with development disabilities come to share paint and camaraderie. And when Brad calls Michelle his “buddy,” it’s no accident: He costars with her and Sean Penn in the new film I Am Sam, in which Penn portrays Sam, a father with the IQ of a 7-year-old who must fight for the right to raise his daughter.
Michelle looks casual but still glamorous in a tailored white shirt, blue jeans, pointy-toed brown boots, and a pair of delicate, rectangular glasses with lemonade-colored lenses (she’s nearsighted). She sets down a cup of Starbucks coffee and pulls up a chair at the communal art table next to Jessie Nelson, who cowrote and directed I Am Sam. In the movie, Michelle plays successful-but-sour divorce lawyer Rita Harrison, who takes on Penn’s custody battle.
“We’re all wounded in different ways.”
Petite Konstantin, the executive director of L.A. Goal, which runs the Inside Out program, brings Lisa Yalowitz, 35, a small woman in thick eyeglasses, over to the table. Lisie, as she is known to her friends, cannot take her eyes off Michelle.
“Lisie, turn around. Why are you staring at her?” Petite says, getting into Lisie’s face and looking right at her. She’s teaching a lesson here: Starting in impolite. “How do you like it when I do it to you?” she asks.
Lisie doesn’t like it. “People always say things like, ‘Don’t let people who stare bother you. Just let it roll off,’” Lisie says. “But you know what? It’s easier said than done.”
“You’re right,” Michelle tells Lisie. “Everybody stares at me. And some days, I get mad. The older I get, the more gracefully I handle it, but some days, it just bugs me. I actually said to a woman the other day, ‘Are you going to stare at me all evening?’ I was upset about what was going on in the world and my defenses were down, and it just came out. Anyway, it passed, and I felt kind of shameful.”
“When I went to school,” says Elaine Hartman, 46, who identifies herself as a “slow learner,” “kids used to look into the windows of our classroom to see what we were doing. And when the bell rang, they ran away. I guess they thought we would be like animals coming out of there. It was very uncomfortable.”
“And sometimes,” adds D’Marcus Baptist, a 25-year-old African-American man whom everyone calls “doctor” because he wears a lab coat while he paints, “you feel shut out from the world.”
Michelle’s eyes narrow and she swallows hard. “When I was in elementary school, it was just like you said,” she says. “We didn’t know anything about the mentally challenged. We didn’t have any kind of interaction with them at all, just on the playground. And they were tortured by the children. It’s ignorance.”
“WE’RE AFRAID OF THINGS WE DON’T UNDERSTAND.”
“Because I have disabilities, I get judged,” says Scott Aaronson, 31, who is autistic. “I have a hard time coping with it; it’s overwhelming at times. Sometimes, I feel like crying. Sometimes, I feel too uncomfortable to deal with people at all.”
“So,” Petite prods gently, “you chose to do what, Scott?”
Scott is silent.
“Where were you for two months, Scott?” she asks.
“I was away,” he answers.
“You were in your apartment, and you were afraid to come out, but now you’re brave and you’re here, right?” Petite says proudly.
“Right!” Scott shouts.
I look at Michelle, and our eyes meet. Here’s an actress who has portrayed all kinds of complicated emotions on-screen, but in this case, her overwhelming surge of empathy is no act. Her lower lip slides underneath her top pone as she struggles with this heartbreaking exchange.
“One of the things I thought about a lot when I was making this movie,” Michelle says softly to the group, “is that we, as people, are afraid of things that are different or that we don’t understand.
“When I’m feeling my most philosophical, I say to myself, Everyone has their story and the things they’re blessed with, their talents. For example, you are artists; you have heart and instincts. And then, we all have our baggage, too. We are all wounded in different ways. We are all flawed or incomplete.”
Jessie, the film’s director, points out that even though the lawyer Michelle plays in I Am Sam is materially successful, she is disabled when it comes to parenting. Over the course of interacting with Sam, she learns how to be a good mother to her own child by watching the mentally challenged man care for his young daughter.
“I believe that being a good parent means taking risks and challenges and being able to learn,” Brad declares, slowly and deliberately. “My parents were loving. They took good care of me. They did things for me. They took me places when we got together, and we did family things.”
“The core of being a parent is love,” Michelle tells him. “I remember once I was having an issue with my kids, and I talked to my doctor about it, and he said to me, ‘Just love’em up!’ It was the best advice anyone ever gave me.”
“Like Michelle said, justy ‘loving someone up,’” Brad repeats loudly. “Feeling for one another is one of the greatest gifts that God has given us in life.”
Michelle looks at me. It would be a massive understatement to say that we are both chocked up. I am so close to crying I have to walk to the back of the room.
It was Michelle’s idea to come to Inside Out today. After working with some of the program’s participants in the film (Brad plays one of Penn’s pals), she brought her kids, Claudia Rose, 8, and John, 7, to see a production of Peter Pan that the artists here were putting on. “I was just blown away by it,” she says. “I get weepy even thinking of it.”
It’s just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks, and Michelle wonders aloud how much Brad and Lisie and the others know about the events in New York City and at the Pentagon. Petite tells her that when she explained to the group that we all needed to be nicer to one another now, because everyone was scared and confused, they answered back, “Welcome to our world,” Michelle nods. Their simple, plain truth, she says, “completely disarms you. It’s like you enter into their open-heartedness.”
“I DIDN’T REALIZE I’D SHUT DOWN.”
We go next door, to another office in which a VCR is set up, so the artists can watch a rough cut of I Am Sam. After closing the blinds so they can see better Michelle and I head to an empty office to talk. She says that filming I Am Sam helped her through the loss of her father, who died nearly two years ago. “I was functional, but until I did this movie, I didn’t realize how shut-down I felt.”
Consequently, she says she had a strong affinity for the role of Rita, the attorney who is so wrapped up in her law practice that she slows her marriage to fall apart and alienates her child. “The character is a little scary, because she starts out a but deranged,” Michelle says, “People were actually nervous about her; they said, ‘She’s so unsympathetic, so mean.’ I feel she’s tragic. Rita is a classic over-achiever, but ultimately, she’s living the lie of perfectionism. I trend to be drawn to really dysfunctional characters. I find them endearing.”
Growing up in Midway City, CA, a small, conservative town outside of Santa Ana, the liberal Michelle always felt like a fish out of water. The eldest daughter of an air-conditioning and heating entrepreneur and his wife, she studied to be a court reporter and even thought about becoming a psychiatrist. In what has now become part of Hollywood lore, she worked as a supermarket-checkout girl and won a local beauty pageant before summoning up the courage to move to Los Angeles.
She married actor Peter Horton in 1981, but the couple separated in 1988. After a three-year romance with another actor, fisher Stevens, she was unwilling to wait for a husband to start a family, so she adopted Claudia Rose. “I think she was an angel,” Michelle says of her daughter, whom she brought home in March 1993. “From the say I started waiting for her to come, I’ve had a completely different life.”
Michelle then met writer David E. Kelley, the creator of Ally McBeal and The Practice, on a group bowling date. They got married in November 1993 and had John the following August.
“IT’S LIKE A REFUELING FOR THE SOUL.”
Every New Year’s Eve, Michelle makes—and then breaks—the same resolution: “To simplify. I always have too many plates spinning. Of course, I create it myself, but it’s sort of like, ‘Somebody stop me!’ I thrive and function better when I have way too much to do. I just finished building a playhouse for the kids. I even made the walls—everything but the roof.”
I’m getting a great mental picture: Michelle Pfeiffer in a tool belt brandishing a Black & Decker nail gun.
“Yeah, I have my own power tools,” she says matter-of-factly. “Feel my calluses if you don’t believe me!” She waves her hands in my face.
Naturally, I oblige. They are, indeed, a little bit rough. “OK,” I say. “And, for the record, IeeewI!”
“I know,” Michelle laughs heartily. “Really sexy, isn’t it?”
She says motherhood has taught her “to take things in stride better. It has made me more social. I’ve had to interact with people with whom I normally wouldn’t, just because I’m a little bit uncomfortable, so it has actually enriched my life. I now have relationships that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s made me think about things more seriously, like the environment and the future we’re leaving for our kids.”
She’s happy that her children go to a school where there are mentally challenged people, and that the school “really stresses embracing differences from day one. If anything, when they leave, they’ll be prepared for what it’s really like out there in the world.” She wasn’t that fortunate herself. “I consider myself fairly evolved as a human being, but I realize that my ignorance resulted in bigotry about mentally challenged people. Growing up, the only thing I was told about them was, ‘Don’t stare.’ So I looked away. No wonder they feel like they don’t exist.
“Well, I’m very happy to have been here,” she says, glancing around the art studio where so many little dreams are painted every day. “It’s made me want to spend more time here, because, selfishly, I probably get more out of it than they do. It’s like a refueling for the soul, you can’t come in here and not walk away feeling fuller.”