Thirty years of stardom would be feat for any actress, let alone one who turned down hit after hit, admits to being too stubborn for her own good and spent part of her twenties in a cult. So how was Michelle Pfeiffer managed it? She talks to Nisha Lilia Diu
Photographed by Ruven Afanador
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” says Michelle Pfeiffer as a flock of waiters fusses over the two-storey silver cake-stand they have set before her. “Ms Pfeiffer, it is a big honour,” says the chef. He is flushed and shiny-eyed and actually bows when he speaks to her. She accepts this spread – enough madeleines and macarons to feed a table of eight – without a flicker of surprise or embarrassment. “Thank you so much.” This must happen to her all the time. Must have been happening for 30 years, in fact. It really is that long since she rode a glass lift, teasingly turned away from the cameras in a barely there backless satin dress, and made her entrance in Scarface (1983) – and into film history.
Pfeiffer is 55 now and will be dropping her youngest child off at university a few days after we meet. “I’m a little nervous about it.” She makes a face that says eek! “It really hits you when your children leave home. ‘OK, I’m really in a new chapter here.’”
We’re having lunch at one of New York’s grand restaurants, a place with white-jacketed waiters and a swirly fern-patterned carpet where Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow used to come to have dinner and fight with each other.
Pfeiffer is as beautiful now as Farrow was then. It’s not that she looks younger than she is – she doesn’t particularly – it’s the symmetry of her bone structure, the flashing aquamarine eyes and those lips, the top one much fuller than the bottom. It’s the kind of beauty you find yourself involuntarily taking a moment to marvel at mid-conversation. That must have been happening to her for years too.
She might be “a little too close to 60” (her words) but she still makes a fine gangster’s moll. She stars opposite Robert De Niro in The Family, a mafia farce directed by Luc Besson, who directed The Fifth Element (1997) and Léon (1994), about a Brooklyn mob family living under witness protection in rural France. There’s a great scene in which Pfeiffer, irked by a shopkeeper who mocks her request for peanut butter (“peanuts are good,” he says to a colleague, “for monkeys”), coolly blows the place up. “They do have anger management issues,” she says.
‘The loss of youth, the loss of beauty – it definitely plays havoc with your psyche. But it’s kind of liberating’
Her recent films include two roles that focused on a very beautiful woman’s pain in the face of ageing, roles she said struck her because they echoed her own experience. In Chéri (2009), based on the Colette novel, she played a fading courtesan; in Stardust (2007), she was a 5,000-year-old witch obsessed by the hunt for gory potions to restore her looks. She wanted “to play with our obsession with youth and the ludicrous degrees to which women will go to reclaim it”, she said of Stardust at the time.
“The loss of youth, the loss of beauty – it definitely plays havoc with your psyche,” she tells me today. “There’s this transition from, ‘Wow, she looks really young for her age,’ to, ‘She looks great for her age.’ And there’s a big difference. I’m now at, ‘She looks great for her age.’” She laughs a little ruefully. “There is certainly a mourning process to that. But, you know, it’s kind of liberating. I don’t need to look younger than I am, because it ain’t gonna change anything.”
Does that mean no cosmetic surgery? “I used to think I would never have surgery but it’s really hard to say never. I’m in the ‘never say never’ camp now.” Has she had anything done? Any Botox? Fillers? Pfeiffer shakes her head. She’s an intense conversationalist, scrunching up her face and narrowing her eyes to think. Her skin moves and crinkles up. I think she’s telling the truth.
It’s New York Fashion Week but Pfeiffer isn’t attending any shows while she’s in town (she lives near San Francisco). She’s stylishly turned out in a camel trouser suit and wears a lot of unshowy but very expensive-looking jewellery: a thick band studded with tiny black diamonds around one finger; several diamond eternity rings stacked on another.
Pfeiffer has two children. She was in the process of adopting her eldest, Claudia Rose, now 20, when she met her husband, David E Kelley, the producer of Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal. (She scotches long-standing rumours that Ally McBeal was based on her. “No, that’s totally made up.”)
What led her to adopt on her own? “I’d been really desperate to start a family for a long time. And then I was 33 and I just thought, ‘You know, I don’t want to wait anymore.’” Pfeiffer’s first marriage, to the actor Peter Horton, ended in 1988. She then had a stormy romance with John Malkovich, her co-star in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). (She was Oscar nominated for her performance. She was also nominated in 1990 for her role in The Fabulous Baker Boys, and again in 1992 for the little-seen Love Field.)
Relationships with the actor/producer Fisher Stevens and Michael Keaton, who was Batman to her Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992), followed. But her desire to have children “was colouring my relationships. I was maybe hanging on to some relationships that I shouldn’t have.”
As it turned out, she met Kelley on a blind date (they went bowling) in January 1993, just two months before bringing her daughter home. In November of that year they married and nine months later their son, John Henry, now 19, was born. Still, adopting a child as a single woman was brave. “One thing I’m not short on is courage,” she says.
She inherited her single-mindedness from her father, an air-conditioning engineer, she says. “We used to butt heads, because we were both really stubborn.” He died of cancer in 2000. Her mother lives in Orange County, where Pfeiffer grew up. The six of them – Pfeiffer has two younger sisters and an older brother – lived in Midway City, just south of Los Angeles.
Pfeiffer was “a tomboy. One of my favourite things was to go out to the garage and build things with my dad’s tools.” As a teenager, she took to skipping school in favour of surfing, sunbathing and “getting high” on the beach. “I think I gave my parents a lot of grey hair.”
Her mother “never had a career and she always regretted not having one”. Seeing that affected Pfeiffer. “I was sort of directionless, but I knew I wanted a career.” She got a job at the mall aged 14 – “I lied about my age” – and “loved the independence getting that pay cheque gave me. I’ve been really independent ever since. I think, for women, you’re less likely to compromise, you know? It’s the freedom it gives you.”
‘If I trust somebody and they do something to me, it’s very crushing. Very crushing. And I’m not very forgiving.’
In 1978 she entered and won the Miss Orange County beauty pageant. “I thought the whole thing was ridiculous.” But she’d decided to become an actress, “and my hairdresser said there was a judge who was an agent and he was known to sign girls. I thought it would be a good foot in the door, and so it was.”
Soon after, she moved to Los Angeles where she got a variety of television roles. It was at this time that she met a couple – “kind of personal trainers” – who sucked her into a dangerous lifestyle. “They worked with weights and put people on diets and their thing was vegetarianism. They were very controlling.” In what way? “I wasn’t living with them but I was there a lot and they were always telling me I needed to come more. I had to pay for all the time I was there, so it was financially very draining. And… You know, putting me on a diet that nobody can adhere to.” How crazy are we talking? “Well, they believed that people in their highest state were breatharian.” Wow, that is extreme. “Very extreme. I mean, I never went near a breatharian state, but… There were various levels that I did try to reach.”
Pfeiffer met Horton in this period and, almost immediately, he was cast in a film about the Moonies. “I was helping him to do research on this cult and I realised – I was in one! We were talking with an ex-Moonie and he was describing the psychological manipulation and I just clicked.” These days Pfeiffer is vegan. (I had all those madeleines to myself.)
Unlike most of her contemporaries, Pfeiffer has never stripped for a magazine or film role. “Well, I did do one scene in Tequila Sunrise where you can see my butt.” She raises an eyebrow. Did that annoy her? “Yes.”
The film’s director, Robert Towne, called her the “most difficult” actress he’d ever worked with. At one point, she tells me that her stubbornness was “sometimes to my own detriment in my career. Sometimes it takes decades to look back and think, ‘Did I really say that?’” Is she thinking of Tequila Sunrise (1988)? “Uh, No.” She laughs. “I still stand by that one.” Perhaps she’s thinking of Dangerous Minds (1995), when she demanded her own scriptwriter, at a cost of $100,000 a week, and, by her own admission, called one of the producers an “asshole”.
Pfeiffer was nominated for a Golden Globe for six years in a row from 1988, but her career lost its way a bit in the 1990s. She turned down Pretty Woman, Thelma & Louise, Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct and Sleepless in Seattle to name a few. “I don’t have an innate commercial nous,” she says. “I’m always wrong.”
She had a big hit with What Lies Beneath (2000), opposite Harrison Ford, and the 2007 remake of Hairspray. But if she could go back and say yes to just one of the roles she’s turned down, which one would she pick? “Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. I haven’t been able to work with Jonathan Demme [the director] since Married to the Mob.”
Now she’s a mob wife again, in The Family. The film features a romance between Pfeiffer’s daughter and her teacher that struck me as schlockily truthful about the mismatched expectations in relationships involving one very young partner; she thinks it’s love, he calls it “a great experience”.
“I don’t know,” says Pfeiffer. “I feel like kids are very reluctant to label themselves as having a boyfriend or having a girlfriend. There’s all this hooking up that goes on and I feel like the idea of being in a relationship seems old-fashioned to them. I mean, when I was in high school it seemed like a lot more teenagers were in relationships than they are now.”
When Pfeiffer was a teenager, her father advised her to “trust everyone but cut the cards”. Did she take that to heart? “Yeah, I think so. It takes me a long time to trust. It also doesn’t take a lot for that trust to be damaged. If I do trust somebody and they do something to me, it’s very crushing.” She makes a sound, “hah”, like receiving a blow. “Very crushing. And then there’s no turning back with me. I’m not very forgiving.”
A pink marshmallow on the cake-stand catches her eye. “That looks so good. Maybe I can have it.” She gazes at it for a while then decides it might contain animal gelatine. “Have it,” she says. “I want to live vicariously through you.” Well, it would be rude not to.
“The Family” is out on 22 November