The Simple Life
MICHELLE PFEIFFER is one of those rare beings: an actress who truly merits the term ‘icon’. Her Murder on the Orient Express co-star, OLIVIA COLMAN, talks to the 59-year-old about being intimidated by acting greats, social anxiety and that incredible Scarface wardrobe…
Photographs by BJORN IOOSS
Styling by TRACY TAYLOR
OLIVIA COLMAN: The first time we met was on [the set of] I Could Never Be Your Woman, do you remember? I’d given birth nine days before. I had sore boobs and stitches, and I suddenly found myself standing next to one of the most extraordinary-looking humans I have ever seen. But you were so funny and delicious, and I completely fell in love.
MICHELLE PFEIFFER: Aww, I’m blushing.
OC: Do you ever look back at early work of yours and wish you’d done it differently?
MP: I look back at everything and wish I’d done it differently. I’ll see a film – which is becoming harder and harder for me – but I’ll see it once it’s finished and I’m gearing up to do press and I need to know what I’m talking about, then I never watch it again. If I’m scrolling the television and [a film I’m in] is on the guide, I can’t get by it quick enough.
OC: Really? Even after a long time, you can’t just enjoy the film?
MP: No. I used to see [raw footage] pretty diligently, but I cut back because it’s torture; you see everything that’s horrible. Now I don’t watch, I’m happier. How are you about watching yourself?
OC: I don’t mind, actually.
MP: That’s because you’re so perfect.
OC: Oh, shut up, Michelle Pfeiffer. I look back at my early work and think, ‘Oh God, it’s awful.’ Do you feel like you’re still learning?
MP: Well, on I Could Never Be Your Woman, I hadn’t worked before that for maybe five years. I was really surprised at how rusty I felt; it was a little scary. So I do feel as though I’m still learning, but isn’t that the case in any kind of art form? You’re constantly trying to perfect it, but you can’t. The only thing you can do is get better. I think it’s always interesting and challenging to try to understand the different personalities that come together, the different approaches and techniques.
There’s a slight adjustment that you are all making so that you can get into some sort of synchronicity together, so it’s always altering in some way.
OC: That sort of brings us into Murder on the Orient Express – that was all sorts of different people in one small space [Pfeiffer and Colman star alongside Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad and Kenneth Branagh]. How did you feel? I sort of forgot we were meant to be doing a job because we were all having such a nice time.
MP: I was slightly anxious about being trapped on the train all day long. I need to have my own
private time and space to gather myself. I can sit for hours just
doing nothing, by myself.
OC: That would drive me nuts. For me, the train was heaven.
MP: Well, you were just amused by everyone, right?
OC: It was great, wasn’t it? Josh Gad…
MP: Oh my God, hilarious. He kept us entertained. His impersonations of Penélope [Cruz]…
OC: And of Penélope’s husband; he did a very good Javier [Bardem], which she’d film and send to him!
Do you especially like to have your quiet space when working?
MP: I’m that way in life. You know how ridiculously early our call times are? I get up two to three hours before my call just to sit for at least an hour and have my coffee by myself.
OC: How much sleep can you get if you get up that early?
MP: Not a lot! And then I exercise…
OC: That’s three in the morning, isn’t it? That’s ridiculous.
MP: I’ve realized recently that I don’t prioritize sleep enough, so I’m working on that. I’m a bit… antisocial, let’s call it.
OC: I did not have that image of you at all.
MP: A lot of social situations are torture for me.
OC: I don’t like social situations with people where they know my face but I don’t know their face. You know, where we’re out of
kilter? It makes me feel very nervous.
MP: Sometimes when you’re in a social situation where you don’t know people really well, it feels a little like you’re being interviewed all the time. It’s understandable, but somewhat exhausting.
OC: On set, however, I find myself getting quite depressed sitting in my little van on my own. I have to go and sit in the makeup van and chat to people.
MP: Oh, I understand that. I was really surprised at how comfortable I felt being on the Murder on the Orient Express set. It was a lot of fun, and the days went really quickly.
OC: Over the years and all the people you have worked with, have you learned how to behave and how not to behave?
MP: In my experience, the more accomplished and, I guess, famous the actor was, the more gracious they were to everyone around them, and the more they went out of their way to put people at ease and make people feel comfortable. Like when I met Judi Dench – she just radiates this warmth.
OC: You find yourself edging closer, you just want to be near her.
MP: I wanted to get in her lap. I want to be in your lap a bit, too.
OC: Oh, Michelle!
MP: One of my first experiences was doing this big movie, The Witches of Eastwick. I was working with Susan Sarandon, Jack Nicholson and Cher. I was terrified to meet Jack, but within five minutes he set me at ease. He was so generous, gracious and lovely – I’ll never forget it.
OC: What you just said about Jack is exactly what I feel about you. There’s something incredibly generous in your ability to make everybody feel equal, which not everyone can do.
MP: You’re so lovely. On Murder…, working in front of all of you, I found that intimidating. I had to really fight against wanting to play it safe and wanting to impress everyone. Did you?
OC: I came away from that job having had the nicest time in the world, but feeling like I’d done one of the worst pieces of acting that I’ve done in a long time because I was slightly overexcited the whole time. And nervous, like, “I don’t want them to hate me!”
MP: I think we were all feeling that a little bit. Except for Judi.
OC: Is there a project [of yours] that you feel didn’t get the recognition it deserved?
MP: One Fine Day with George Clooney. I think that on the opening weekend we got beaten at the box office by Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. That was particularly demoralizing.
OC: Oh my God, that’s awful and sort of hilarious. Mind you, I’ve never seen Beavis and Butt-Head,so possibly it was a masterpiece. Are you trained to do anything else [instead of acting]?
MP: I studied painting, but I’m amateur. It’s an escape for me. At one point, I thought I might go into psychology. It’s kind of the same world [as acting]; figuring out what people are thinking, what really goes on and what motivates you.
OC: How about your name-check in [the song] Uptown Funk – how did you feel when you heard that?
MP: I was shocked and delighted and flattered – I’m a huge Bruno Mars fan. It did get a little embarrassing when I’d be at an exercise class and it would come on. Everybody just pretended that it wasn’t happening because they knew I was so embarrassed.
OC: How do you cope with recognition?
MP: I hide. You learn how to move through the world; you become a little like a shark. If you just keep moving, people [double take] but you’re gone. At the beginning, it really terrified me. I remember when the big shift happened for me. I went to Europe and spent time with [my co-stars] Cher and Susan Sarandon and while we were away the film [The Witches of Eastwick] was released. When I came back, it was just this change, it literally happened overnight. It was terrifying.
OC: Were you aware at the time how big The Witches of Eastwickwould be? Three leading women – that was quite an event, wasn’t it?
MP: I was aware that it was going to be a big deal, for sure. I do remember it being unusual that there were three really great parts in one movie for women. [It was] one of those situations where I was cast, then I was un-cast, and I had to do a screen test, so it was a very drawn-out auditioning process. And they were moving people around, like, “Maybe you’ll be in this part.” I think at one point they switched Cher’s and Susan’s parts.
OC: I can’t imagine anybody else playing those parts! With Scarface, your character [Elvira Hancock] – that’s an iconic fashion look. Did you keep that dress?
MP: No. I could not get into that dress today, that’s all I’ll say.
OC: Are you kidding? But you must be almost exactly the same size. If you were any smaller, you’d be far too small. Sorry, I was about to segue into a massive diet conversation. I was trying to put on weight while we were working on Murder on the Orient Express and it turns out that that’s really easy, the other way is really hard.
MP: No kidding!
Murder on the Orient Express is out November 3