Telegraph Magazine | April 18, 2009
Michelle Pfeiffer is often praised for the way she disguises her feelings, something she uses to great effect in her period roles. But she was happy to open up about cults, her perfectionism and ageing gracefully.
By Mick Brown
We are in Berlin, where Cheri is receiving its first public screening at the Berlin Film Festival. Distributors, producers and industry outriders swarm the lobbies of the grand hotels, every entrance staked out by photographers and cameramen; the ‘talent’ are sequestered in their suites.
It is 3pm. Pfeiffer arrived from America with her personal publicist the evening before, managed only five hours’ sleep, and is now about to embark on the first of what will be ‘an assembly line’ (her words) of interviews over the next two days. These ordeals – and that is clearly how Pfeiffer sees them – used to drive her to distraction. But she has mastered the art of appearing serene, composed, polite – even interested. She is whippet-thin, encased in tight blue jeans and a modest V-neck sweater – nothing fancy. Only her startling, cornflower-blue eyes reflect the signs of inner conflict.
Beauty has long been, if not exactly Pfeiffer’s curse, then certainly a defining characteristic in her acting career. She has said that early on her great challenge was to persuade casting agents that she was more than just a pretty face. (The cast-lists on the International Movie Database website for her first three professional appearances, in forgettable television series, show that her characters did not even warrant a name: she is simply listed as ‘The Bombshell’.) When, at one point in the conversation, I remark that someone once wrote of her that she was ‘a character actress in a screen siren’s body’ a broad smile creases her face. ‘I take that as a compliment,’ she says – and it’s the ‘character actress’ part she’s referring to.
Beauty – its price and its passing – looms large in the story of Cheri. Based on the 1920 novel by the French writer Colette, the film reunites Pfeiffer with Stephen Frears and the scriptwriter Christopher Hampton, the pair responsible for Dangerous Liaisons, for which Pfeiffer won her first Oscar nomination, for best supporting actress, in 1989.
Sumptuously dressed and filmed, Cheri is a vivid and very witty evocation of the opulent and decadent world of the courtesans of belle époque Paris, a small number of whom earned fame – and fabulous wealth – through their affairs with archdukes and crown princes. Frears describes it as a film ‘about people who have no feelings learning to feel, and as soon as they do it’s a disaster’. But for the character of Lea it is also about a moment of dawning self-awareness, and the loss of illusion – the realisation that the beauty on which she has built her fortune has passed and can never be recaptured. It is a particularly piquant role for an actress who for so long has been regarded as the one of Hollywood’s great beauties, and who was on the threshold of turning 50 herself as Cheri was being filmed.
‘Being in that stage of life wasn’t something I really had to do a lot of research for,’ Pfeiffer says with a smile, ‘because I’m already there. Although in some ways it’s a little bit harder to really understand and articulate to yourself, because you’re right in the middle of it. Probably 10 years from now I’ll be able to look at this phase of my life and be able to understand her journey more. But I think for a lot of women 50 is a very particular age. I’m not one that’s ever really thought about birthdays, but this was a big one and I was not looking forward to it. But surprisingly it has left me feeling liberated in a strange kind of way. Sort of, the pressure’s off. And it’s actually quite wonderful. I wasn’t expecting that.’
Stephen Frears says that Pfeiffer was his first choice for the role. ‘It’s quite a short list… She is exactly the right age, and just by being beautiful herself, that struggle has been a large part of her. And she wears it very gracefully. She puts jeans and a cap on and she looks about 16. I remember saying to her when I met her, “I think we’re going to have trouble making you look old.” But she was just very good about it. She wasn’t saying, “Oh, go on, make me look younger,” like you might imagine Hollywood actresses do. She wasn’t asking to conceal anything. The main problem was this great, great cameraman [Darius Khondji]
who had been trained to make beautiful women look even more beautiful, and who was completely soppy – he kept saying, “I can only make her look beautiful.” She was much more straightforward about it. I took my hat off to her.’
In fact, Frears says, Colette wrote two Cheri novels. ‘In the second Lea is old and fat. We should have done an old and fat scene.’ He pauses. ‘But I think Michelle might have drawn the line at that.’
Pfeiffer says she has always been a perfectionist. ‘Which has never been easy for me, or anyone else, to live with.’ It is a trait she thinks she inherited from her father, Richard, who ran an air-conditioning business in Midway City, in the bland suburban hinterland of Orange County, California, where Pfeiffer grew up. She was one of four children, and by her account the family rebel, constantly at loggerheads with her father, frequently playing truant from school, hanging out with the bad crowd at the beach getting stoned. ‘Lots of stuff…’ She smiles cryptically. ‘Looking back, I guess it was just ordinary teenage rebellion. Although what is ordinary?’
After high school she trained as a court stenographer, but dropped out of the course, and worked as a supermarket check-out girl. It was not until she was 20, she says, that she finally articulated her desire to be an actress to herself. ‘Where I came from, the idea of going into showbusiness was just ridiculous; in fact I didn’t tell anybody because I knew people would laugh at me. So I sort of snuck around and got some pictures and got a resumé together and, of course, lied and said I did all kinds of things I didn’t do.’
Her father, she adds, had some reservations, ‘and a few choice words to say about it, but once he saw how determined I was…He knew before I did that there was a commitment there that he’d never seen before. And he supported me wholeheartedly.’
Winning a Miss Orange County beauty pageant led to commercials and then to bit-parts in television. By her own account, Pfeiffer was a lonely and deeply insecure figure when she first arrived in Hollywood. ‘I said, going into acting, “I’m never moving to LA”, because it scared me. But there was no way you could build an acting career in Orange County.’
It was a mark of her vulnerability that shortly after her arrival she fell under the sway of a murky quasi-religious cult dedicated, as she puts it, to ‘vegetarianism and metaphysics’, that attempted to take control of her life and succeeded in taking most of her money. ‘I was pretty young and very alone. I didn’t live with them or anything – so I wasn’t that far gone. Much later I did some research into cults to try to understand what had happened to me; and the way they operate is they hook people on very intellectual and existential ideas. And people who are always questioning and thinking, that kind of personality can sometimes lead to hopelessness, and that’s where they get you.’
It also surprised her to discover, she says, that research suggests in terms of IQ people who end up in cults ‘tend to be really smart’. She laughs. ‘That didn’t make me feel quite so bad.’
She was saved by her first marriage, at the age of 22, to Peter Horton, an actor who subsequently made his name in the television series Thirtysomething. It was while on their honeymoon that Pfeiffer found out she had won her first film part, in Grease 2. A year later, in 1982, she was playing opposite Al Pacino, as his cocaine-addled wife in Scarface, but it was her appearance in The Witches of Eastwick, in 1987, alongside Jack Nicholson, Cher and Susan Sarandon, that elevated her to Hollywood’s A-list. Frears remembers being alerted to Pfeiffer’s role in the film when he was beginning to cast for Dangerous Liaisons. ‘I don’t remember the film at all, just watching her and thinking, “This woman is rather dignified and can look after herself. She’s all right”,’ he says. Then I went to Hollywood to meet her. And I thought, “This is a proper text and she is an Orange County checkout girl – I’d better get her to read for it.” So she came in and read, rather badly. But something in her registered. I remember sitting on the floor and thinking, “Oh, I can see that men would fall in love with her”.’
Two days after the reading the director Jonathan Demme showed Frears two reels from a film that he had just completed with Pfeiffer, Married to the Mob, in which she played the widowed wife of a Mafioso, being amorously pursued by an undercover cop and another Mafia don. ‘That’s when I realised she was brilliant,’ Frears says, ‘and that I was a complete idiot – you know, what was I thinking?’
Dangerous Liaisons would initiate a purple period for Pfeiffer. The following year she received a second Oscar nomination, this one for best actress, for her role in The Fabulous Baker Boys as Susie Diamond, an erstwhile ‘escort’ turned torch-singer. For men of a certain age, the memory of Pfeiffer in a figure-hugging red dress reclining on a piano, purring Makin’ Whoopee to Jeff Bridges, still occasions a moment of pensive silence, and the thought that for that brief moment in time Bridges may just have been the luckiest man in the world. (Pfeiffer received her third Oscar nomination, for best actress, in 1993 for Love Field, in which she played a housewife obsessed by Jackie Kennedy.)
By then, Pfeiffer’s marriage to Peter Horton had come to an end. They separated in 1988 and divorced two years later. Pfeiffer had affairs with the actors Michael Keaton and Fisher Stevens. But by her mid-thirties, she says, she was beginning to resign herself to the fact that she might never marry again. ‘I was on my way to convincing myself that it wasn’t important, and maybe it wasn’t in the cards, and that I’ll be one of those people who has a series of long-term relationships, and that’s OK. But at the same time, I knew I wanted children, and I wasn’t going to not have children because I wasn’t married.’
In 1993, at the age of 35, she made the decision to go it alone, and adopt a newborn mixed-race baby, Claudia Rose. She told only two people – Barry Kirsch, who has been her lawyer since Scarface, and that film’s producer, Marty Bregman – both of whom, she says, have been ‘like parental figures for me. I wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons and it wasn’t just some passing whim. These people knew me so well; they’d seen me at my worst and my best. I expected them to talk me out of it, but to my surprise they said, “You have to do this”.’
Two months into the adoption proceedings, Pfeiffer met David E Kelley, a TV producer and writer who had written LA Law and would later go on to create Ally McBeal. ‘I was nervous about telling him,’ Pfeiffer says, ‘but I thought, this will separate the boys from the men. And I think it actually made him love me more. It told him something about my make-up that might have taken him a long time to figure out otherwise. And I wasn’t interested in wasting time with people any more.’
Pfeiffer and Kelley married in November 1993, and their son, John Henry, was born in August 1994.
Talking to Pfeiffer one senses that below the serene and composed surface there has always lurked a more conflicted individual. She happily admits to having been in therapy for many years, and once described analysis as ‘virtually my second profession’. ‘I’m really over-analysed,’ she says, smiling brightly. ‘I don’t do it on a regular basis now, but my feeling is it can’t hurt. There’s just so much to grapple with in life today, and it’s just a place to get some clarity.’
And what did she feel she most learnt about herself?
‘I was kind of surprised to learn how controlling I am. I never thought of myself in that way. I think the root of the control issues is usually fear, because you want to know what’s going to be happening at any given moment. So learning to accept and get comfortable with the unknown. I’ve got much better at that. I think children teach you that, too. Because you just can’t control them – the more you try, the more you make matters worse. Having children has changed me more than anything.’
She describes herself as being ‘almost phobic’ about crowds and avoids making any public appearances ‘unless I absolutely have to; if it’s a part of my job – if it’s a film I am in and I have to support. And I feel bad sometimes because I should go and support a lot of friends in the business, and I feel like I’m not supportive enough. But honestly, it’s taken me so long to get to this point just to support my own movies.’
She has a particular loathing for the paparazzi. Their constant presence was a major factor in prompting her and her family to leave LA five years years ago and move to their present home – a ranch in northern California. It had come to the point, she says, where she was beginning to accept the fact that when she walked out of her house in the morning to pick up a newspaper there would most likely be a camera pointing at her without her even knowing it. ‘And I remember having that realisation that I’d just accepted this as a way of life, and how terrible that was.’
Even now, she says, if it weren’t for her children she would be perfectly happy to live ‘like a hermit. Left to my own devices I’d just stay home and paint, and I’m really happy doing that. But I’ve got to get out there, because I’ve got to take them places. Being a mother has helped me get out in the world and make friends I would never have made; it’s enriched my life in so many ways, other than just having these two wonderful creatures at home to entertain me. It’s opened up my world, in a way.’
Having children inevitably caused Pfeiffer to reappraise her career. For the first year or two she continued to work as normal. ‘I could just throw them in the car seat and take them everywhere.’ But with the move to northern California she suddenly found that offers of interesting work were growing scarcer. ‘I wasn’t finding anything I wanted to do. And then another year went by; and by about year three I was thinking, “Hey, isn’t there anything out there I want to do?” And then after about four years I thought, “I just have to get back in the game,” because I was missing it.’
She has no commercial antennae at all, she says. There is a long list of films she thought the public would like because she liked them so much herself, but which proved to be commercial or critical failures – the romantic comedy One Fine Day with George Clooney (1996), and Frankie and Johnny (1991), where critics complained of finding it hard to believe Pfeiffer in the role of a washed-up greasy-spoon waitress. Conversely, she had no great expectations for Hairspray, the remake of John Waters’s spoof musical in which she played the fascistic manager of a television station, and which brought her back to box-office success in 2007. ‘I wanted to do it because I thought it was a great script and a great group of people, and it seemed like I’d have a lot of fun. Everybody kept saying, “Oh, this is such a commercial movie.” ‘ She shrugs. ‘I just couldn’t see it.’
To have a role such as Lea at this stage of her career is, she says, ‘an incredible gift’. The familiar complaint about Holly-wood being unkind to women of a certain age is true, she says. ‘But there are fewer roles for all of us in the movie industry. They’re making a fraction of the movies they used to make; and so many of them are either animation or these franchise films that you see more and more A-list actors doing. The middle-range financed film hardly exists any more.’
So the roles become fewer?
‘Everyone slows down when they get to my age, but that’s fine.’ And the pay starts to go down?
She laughs. ‘True…’
Stephen Frears has directed six women to acting Oscar nominations, and every one of them, he says, has been, in their own way, tough. ‘You always think, “Oh, Christ, this one’s going to crucify me.” I remember meeting Glenn Close and thinking, “She’s a bright woman – how am I going to get out of this without a bollocking?” At that level they have to be tough to survive.’ And in her own way, Pfeiffer is no exception. ‘She’s protected herself well throughout her career,’ he says. ‘She’s grown up.’
Pfeiffer may not recognise the description ‘tough’. But she acknowledges that she has grown up, and says she probably feels more contented now than at any time in her life. ‘Finally having such a solid homebase and having a really solid marriage and having children – things that I wasn’t sure that I would ever get – has been incredibly grounding for me.
‘When you’re into the second half of your life you really do have to live in a place of acceptance and celebration that you’re still here, and being grateful for everything that you have. You begin to see your blessings really.’
‘Cheri’ is out May 8