Bolder and sexier than ever, Michelle Pfeiffer sounds off on style (what works and what doesn’t), the necessity of being selfish, and combating the worst relationship advice she ever heard.
BY JOHANNA SCHNELLER | PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARK ABRAHAMS | STYLED BY ELIZABETH STEWART
Michelle Pfeiffer has always had a knack for nuance. So when she raises an eyebrow and says, “I have to be honest, for a woman there’s not a lot about turning 50 that is fun,” you know she’s kidding. She has a long list of things she likes about her age. But she also possesses a sly sense of humor, at once deadpan and wise. And these days she’s more intent on telling the truth than ever, “The overriding, positive thing about turning 50,” she says, “is that you go from ‘You don’t look your age’ to “You look pretty darn good for your age.’ There’s this tremendous pressure off—you deserve to have a wrinkle, you deserve to have a little pooch on your tummy.”
“The worst thing is to look as if you’re trying too hard. It’s better to think, Who cares?”
Pfeiffer, now 51, looks good for any age. She arrives for coffee at a hotel café in Beverly Hills dressed casually in a gray Nation Ltd. T-shirt, a dark gray Habit cardigan, and dark blue straight-leg jeans, but her radiant blond hair is seriously styled in full, loose ringlets. Though she has a few lines on her forehead and around her eyes, they only increase her sense of warmth and openness.
Everyone in the room is trying not to stare, including basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal, who is having lunch in the corner. But even he can’t restrain himself. “I’m such a fan, I just had to come tell you.” O’Neal says. She practically has to do a back bend to look up at him. After he leaves, she says, “He was so sweet to my son [John Henry, 14] at a game a few years ago. We have this great photo of him sitting by Shaq’s feet, and I swear my son and his feet are the same size.” She laughs. “How tall is he? Seven feet? I’m going to ask David right now.” Pfeiffer reaches for her phone and taps a message to her husband, television producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal). “We love to text,” she says with a slight smile, as if she and her Blackberry are sharing a private joke.
The three-time Oscar nominee is used to causing a stir in public, but one thing never gets old: She hasn’t tired of being told she’s beautiful. “Who would?” she asks bluntly. “When I was first starting out, I was a little sensitive about it because I hadn’t really proven myself. I was careful to not wear a lot of makeup; I’d show up for interviews in men’s clothing. It took about eight years for me to feel it was OK to look my nicest. To think, I’m just going to enjoy this. And now, the older I get, the more I like hearing it.”
“Michelle is a force to be reckoned with. She brings true beauty and absolute gravity to every role she plays. She is a generous acting partner and a gift to any story that will have her be its voice.” ASHTON KUTCHER Personal Effects
Pfeiffer has been thinking about appearance a lot lately. In her last three films, her characters have romanced younger men: Paul Rudd in I Could Never Be Your Woman; Ashton Kutcher in Personal Effects; and now, Rupert Friend in Cheri, which reunites Pfeiffer with Dangerous Liaisons director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton. Based on two novels by the French writer Colette and set in Belle Epoque Paris, Cheri is about a high-class courtesan and a young man who think they’re too sophisticated to fall in love but, painfully, discover otherwise.
“It was a progression,” Pfeiffer says about her youthful co-stars. “Paul is 11 year younger. With Ashton [20 years younger], I thought, I’m never going younger than this again. Then Stephen called with Rupert [24 years younger], and I thought, Oh my god. But at my age you either play the insane mother-in-law, the wife of the leading man, or the older woman. So of the three, it’s the most interesting choice.” She adds, “It helps if you have a sense of humor about it. Fortunately, all three men are really smart and really funny. And really cute.”
“She is so beautiful you might forget what a talented actress she is…but then you watch Married to the Mob or The Fabulous Baker Boys or a dozen other films, and you remember that she’s a world-class actor…who just happens to be beautiful.” GEORGE CLOONEY One Fine Day
Just don’t mention the world “cougar.” “I so hate that term!” Pfeiffer says. “Men are sugar daddies and women are cougars? Men are strong and women are bitches?” She rolls her eyes. “Colette wrote these novels so long ago, but even today they’re ahead of their time in the way we perceive women’s power and sexuality.”
Here’s Pfeiffer’s own perception: She feels sexier now than she ever has. “I’m not saying I’m sexier to other people,” she says. “But part of feeling sexy is feeling comfortable in your own skin, and less inhibited, and that goes along with getting older. Feeling more confident, dropping a lot of the BS.” Her philosophy about plastic surgery had been “Never say never.”
These days she has a different take. “Well, I think your face should still move,” she says. “And you should be recognizable to your friends. One actress I knew years ago, a really lovely person, had some stuff done, and literally, every time I run into her now I don’t recognize her. Every time!”
Pfeiffer prefers a more natural route to again well: getting lots of sleep, eating right, and exercising religiously, alternating cardio, strength training and light weights. She has to be cautious these days after old shoulder and back injuries flared up. “Usually if I wanted to move a coach, I’d move the couch,” she says. “I have always lifted my own luggage. I hate not flexible that way” –and she’s definitely not one for meditating. “I’m sure I would benefit, but the idea of it makes me anxious.” She laughs. “I’d think, I could be getting a lot done right now.”
“Michelle is like a star from the ’20s—distance and ethereal, like a beautiful, flickering image. In a way, she’s too perfect for now. She starts work 10 hours before everyone else because she’s on the bike or the Stairmaster at 3 A.M. She has such discipline. She’s very serious about getting the job done.” RUPERT EVERETT Stardust and A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Pfeiffer and Kelley live deliberately under the radar on a bucolic spread in the Bay Area with son John Henry, daughter Claudia Rose, 16, three dogs and even horses. Though they’ve been married for 15 years, one of the things she loves most about Kelley is his ability to keep surprising her. “I’d been with a lot of men who were really good at disappointing,” she says. “I’m programmed to think, This time he won’t come through. But David always rises to the occasion.” If she’s fretting about, say, construction at their house—“Those everyday stresses that I’m very good about vocalizing”—she says, “David has the ability to gauge when I’m really reaching my limit, and then he’ll just shown up. Just come home from work.”
But the surprise must be genuine. When Pfeiffer heard a so-called expert on marriage and romance advocate “keeping mystery” between partners, the actress found it hilarious. “Can you imagine, for 20 years, trying to stay mysterious in your relationship?” she asks, guffawing. “That’s the worst advice I’ve ever heard. Of all the people in your life you don’t want to hide from, it’s your partner. One of the reasons my marriage is successful, I think, is that we are completely comfortable around each other and don’t feel the need to hide aspects of ourselves. And both of us love creating, whether he’s writing script or I’m making a movie, building a fort of the kids or painting. So we’re never really standing still. We’ve always evolving. There are new things to learn about each other.” The couple stay connected through texting, having regular date nights—“If we’re out past 11, it’s like, whoa!”—and enjoying dinners with their children. “It recently hit me how little time I have left with the kids at home,” she says. That’s why she works infrequently, to mother them as much as possible while she still can.
“She’s a wonderful combination of beauty, mystery and funk. The funk factor is her ordinariness—the surfer girl from Orange County. These elements are mixed with her courage to do things she is frightened of and the talent to make us believe.” JEFF BRIDGES The Fabulous Baker Boys
Pfeiffer falls silent, tapping two fingers against her lips. “Really, the only bad thing about turning 50 was the anticipation,” she says. “Once you turn 50, you feel grateful you made it. Because you’ve lived long enough that you’ve lost people you love. You realize you’re on your second half, that your time is finite here. I want to make the time I have count.”
In the past she avoided confrontation, but now she’s trying more to deal with issues as they come up. “I have a lot of energy, but I do have these phases when I feel I’m slogging through, and usually it’s because something that I’m not dealing with is bugging me,” she says. “But I don’t want to be weighted down. I want to live a long time, and I want the quality of my life to be the best it can be. I’m not going down easy!”
She finishes her coffee and gathers her things to leave. “I finally learned how to use the GPS in my car,” she says. “And it changed my life. It took me so long because I have trust issues. I just didn’t trust that it wouldn’t get me lost. But I realized that nothing could get me more lost than me.” She’s kidding again, of course. Now more than ever, Pfeiffer knows exactly where she has been—and where she’s going.
HER STYLE EVOLUTION
Pfeiffer believes the worst fashion crime is trying to be someone you’re not. “Everyone knows my age,” she says, “so it’s like, Who are you kidding?” Here, some things that never fail, plus a few she has retired for good
“The little black dress,” she says. “I’ve worn Armani for years—he never lets me down. His lines are always right, and the fabric hangs just so.”
“Jeans are my uniform. I have about 15 pairs. I wear them with a sweater in winter or a T-shirt in summer. My gray Nation Ltd. T-shirt is one of my favorite pieces this year. It’s perfect weight, and it feels like you’ve had it for 20 years.”
“I love boots. I could never get into ballet flats; I’m not confident enough. I need something substantial on my feet. My favorite boots are chunky, high black Ann Demeulemeesters. And I wear Walter Steiger’s pointy-toe, 2-inch-heel boots like tennis shoes. I wear boots all summer long—like Stevie Nicks. Now that dates me!”
…And what doesn’t
She has given up “Funky things,” like wearing Converse high-tops with sundresses. And no more miniskirts. “It’s not that my legs are bad, it just look silly,” she says. “I have one pair of skinny jeans that I keep trying to wear, but they last all of seven minutes on me. I feel like a pork sausage.”