Instyle | February 2002
What Lies Ahead
Michelle Pfeiffer, who stars in the new film I Am Sam, isn’t fazed by the future one bit. Now that she has learned to kick back, this talented actress has everything—the breath-taking face, the dazzling husband, the juggernaut film career—but a care in the world.
By Johanna Schneller | Photographed by Matthew Rolston
Michelle Pfeiffer likes to bowl. She likes garlic and cleaning out her closets and hot baths. She liked cigarettes and wishes she could still smoke, and she likes guacamole. She likes massages and having a few projects under way around the six-bedroom Brentwood house she shares with her husband, David E. Kelley (The Practice, Boston Public, Ally McBeal), and their two children, Claudia, 8, and John, 7. she loves her family. She likes reading novels and being by herself and painting. She wishes she could paint like Renoir.
Pfeiffer dislike being cold, people who are rude to waiters, and spoiled children. “I don’t like children who are too obedient,” she says. She dislikes working out, but she does it. She hates dainty shoes on men. “Tiny penny loafers with paper-thin soles? That irritates me. That ruins a sexy man for me.” She doesn’t like getting up early in the morning or having to go to bed early at night. “Hmm, I don’t like a lot of things,” she says, laughing. “I could go on and on.”
She likes dark, quiet restaurants such as the one she’s in now, a family-owned, old-school Italian place in L.A. called Peppone’s, where the banquettes are tufted burgundy leather, bottles of Ruffino Chianti line the walls, and the waiters know her usual: swordfish with olives and tomatoes, and Caesar salad. Pfeiffer, who enjoys order and control, re-adjusts the table and her silverware, and suggests menu options to her companion. When a side of broccoli smothered in garlic and olive oil arrives, she dishes it out for both of them. Nobody bothers her here, though she is instantly recognized, even dressed down in jeans, a black jacket with four big buttons on each sleeves, and small, blue-tinted, rounded-rectangle glasses. Her honey-blond hair hangs straight and shiny, framing her perfectly symmetrical, heart-stopping face. She likes being 43, and it shows.
Michelle Pfeiffer is America’s classic screen goddess, our Catherine Deneuve. Her 32 films, from her first starring role at 24 years old in Grease 2 to last year’s thriller What Lies Beneath, demonstrate her range and depth—just line up the video boxes for The Age of Innocence, Married to the Mob, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Dangerous Minds. Yet all her characters share a mix of soulfulness and mystery. She gives a lot, but she holds back too.
“What’s fragile about Michelle is what’s tough, in her beauty and her talent,” says Sean Penn, Pfeiffer’s co-star in the new drama I Am Sam. The two shared an acting coach, Peggy Feury, 20 years ago. “I couldn’t bring myself to speak with her then, but I kept an eye on her her whole life.”
“Sometimes you forget to see past Michelle’s beauty to how intelligent her choices are,” says Sam co-writer Kristine Johnson. “The camera loves her so much, you overlook how truly excellent she is.”
“I was watching one of her movies on TV with my dad once, I don’t remember which—but he kept talking about her,” Penn says. “I said, ‘So, Dad, you really like Michelle Pfeiffer?’ He said, ‘What’s not to like?’”
Though she’s impeccably friendly, Pfeiffer dislikes being interviewed, and every now and then a spike of caustic humor pokes its way into her answers. “Oh, nobody reads these stories anyway,” she says to a writer. Or, when asked if she ever feels compelled to give something back to society, she sighs and yes, “When I’m rested.” But each time she lets her humor loose, she doubles back to make sure it’s understood she’s joking.
“Michelle is a very complex person,” says I Am Sam director and co-writer Jessie Nelson, who also wrote The Story of Us, in which Pfeiffer co-starred. “She’s both optimistic and pessimistic. She has tremendous joy and innocence, but she sees through things quickly and doesn’t take any bull.”
For a woman whose profession is about being looked at, Pfeiffer is surprisingly shy about being the center of attention. When she laughs, which is often, her head falls back and her mouth opens, but she barely makes a sound. She hates being photographed and has only recently been able to watch her own movies. “I used to not breath,” she says. “I used to catch myself not breathing.” Now she can watch her films—once. Posing for photos, though, is still a chore. “It’s diametrically opposed to everything about me,” she says. “My goal is to make the camera disappear.”
For the photos that accompany this story, Pfeiffer and her brother Rick’s wife, Rona Pfeiffer, who recently started designing jewelry, came up with a novel idea: Michelle would wear jewelry from several different jewelers that In Style readers could buy, and the profits would go to the WTC School Relief Fund, which aids New York City schoolchildren affected by the events of September II. “She’s the best-hearted person, the most honorable person,” Rona says. “She loved the idea of wearing my peace-sign pendant in the form of a teardrop, because even though we’re mourning now, we hold out hope that eventually peace will come.”
“It was my way of answering the question that everyone was struggling with after September II, which was, How do I proceed?” Michelle says. “Then the first thing the photographer said to me was the worst thing anyone can ever say to me: ‘Relax! Have fun!’” She rolls her eyes. “Normally, that would have sent me, but I thought, OK, he’s right. I am a little stiff, and it’s for a good cause.”
Pfeiffer has always resisted goddess-hood. She has never opted for in-your-ace fame, though it easily could have been hers. “I took from [success] what I wanted, what was important to me,” she says. “I was offered better and better parts; creatively I had lots of choices; I worked with interesting people.”
“The other elements, the celebrity elements, I dealt with as best I could,” she continues. “You can’t know what fame is like until it hits you. It’s a big package. I think I’ve gotten more graceful at it as I’ve gotten older, but for me to try to be anything other than what I am, I would have come off looking really silly. Like a little girl in her mother’s dress. Stardom looks right on some people. It wouldn’t on me.”
Her latest film, I Am Sam, is evidence of Pfeiffer’s resistance to playing it safe. Her character, Rita Harrison, a high-powered attorney who favors Armani suits and dark lipstick, looks as if she has it all: successful husband, adorable son, stunning house, Porsche. But after she takes on a developmentally disabled client, Sam Dawson (Penn), who is fighting for custody of his 7-year-old daughter, Harrison is forced to confront the chasm of self-loathing beneath her glossy surface.
“In many ways, Rita is more disabled than Sam,” Pfeiffer says. “But her disabilities are socially sanctioned. At first I wasn’t sure I should do it. A lot of people around me thought my character was irredeemable and were nervous for me. But it turned out to be one of the great working experiences.”
“I know it could be interesting to explore Michelle’s dark, manic, edgy, compulsive, discombobulated qualities,” Jessie Nelson says. “And even though she was nervous about it, all the changes she suggested were bold ones that made her character even darker and less attractive.”
“Michelle is seamless,” Penn says, “as complete an acting partner as I ever wanted. There wasn’t one moment I didn’t like working with her, and that never happens.”
Right now, this minute, is the happiest Pfeiffer’s ever been. Eight years ago she was beginning to suspect she wouldn’t have a conventional family life. She was beginning to doubt that love could last, “because, well, it hadn’t lasted,” she says she’d had long-term relationships with actors Peter Horton and Fisher Stevens).
Then, in the space of a year and a half, she found herself with a husband and two children. “I feel we have arrested development, so we’re still in the honeymoon period,” she says. They celebrated their eighth anniversary on November 13, but Pfeiffer and Kelley still go on a date every Saturday night, usually dinner and a movie. “We’re really compatible and just opposite enough to make it interesting,” she says. “We both have the same amount of adventurism, which is a lot. And we’re both ready to go home from the party at the same time.”
Kelley is famously prolific, but, Pfeiffer insists, “he so doesn’t have a problem taking time off. He can relax at the drop of a hat. I get asked that a lot, ‘Do you ever see him?’ He doesn’t concentrate on buying the milk, no. But he takes the kids to school every morning, is home at a reasonable hour every night, and doesn’t work weekends. I don’t know how he does it, but I don’t question it.” She pauses. “It took a long time to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. I finally have.”
That doesn’t mean the adjustment has been easy. Pfeiffer still struggles to mitigate her lifelong perfectionism by achieving some balance. “Balance is not my nature at all. It was always all or nothing for me,” she says. “In the past when I worked I went into a black hole. Nobody saw me, my mail wasn’t opened, phone calls weren’t returned. You could be in the room talking to me, and I’d be in this other world. And then I’d complain that I didn’t have a life.”
She laughs another silent laugh. “That’s just too intense, to live that way. Now, without that total immersion, my work is different. I think I’m more apt to make mistakes, which is not great. But I’m also more apt to surprise myself, which I felt was lacking in my earlier work.”
While Rita was breaking down in I Am Sam, Pfeiffer had a revelation of her own. “I suddenly realized how shut down I’d been since my father’s death two years ago,” she says. “I saw how I had stopped letting things in.” Her father, Dick, a hearting and air-conditioning contractor who’d raised his family in Midway City, Calif., near Disneyland, “was very formidable, the real epicenter of the family. He was hard on the four of us”—Rick, Michelle, Dedee (also an actress) and Lori. “He had high expectations and would let us know if he thought we were being sloppy. He really believed in trying to be the best.” He thought Michelle, who liked to cut class and hang out with surfers, was “terribly behaved”—even though she graduated early, with honors.
Pfeiffer’s homemaker mother, Donna, “is the heart, the one who taught tolerance and forgiveness.” Michelle’s own parenting style is a combination of the two: “If I could say that any one thing is the key to my success, it’s my ability to survive anything. I want to instill that strength in my children, in a healthy, nurturing way.
“The notion of women struggling to get everything right”—career, motherhood, marriage, friendship—“interests me, personally and in general,” she continues. “The way we beat ourselves to a bloody pulp because we can’t get it perfect. But the act of trying to get it right is moving to me.” She recently built a playhouse for her kids out of discarded shutters. “Of course, I thought I could do it in a day, and it turned into a three-week project. But that’s how I do everything.”
Pfeiffer believes in making choices that are right for her, “as opposed to those that are expected or acceptable to others,” she says. “It’s hard when all those voices are screaming at you, those voices that have been programmed into your head. But I think if you hold on to what you want, then good things come from that.” She is fully, warily, radiantly herself. And what’s not to like about that?