Returning to movies after years off to raise her children, the actress said she had to tell herself, “You cannot bomb in front of Judi Dench.”
ByPhotographed by Olivia Malone for The New York Times
Michelle Pfeiffer has been missed. The actress, 59, dipped in and out of movies as she raised a daughter and son with her husband, the television writer and producer David E. Kelley. Now that her children are grown, she’s returned in a head-snapping way this year: In “The Wizard of Lies,” the HBO movie, she played Ruth Madoff to Robert De Niro’s Bernie; opposite Jennifer Lawrence, she was the houseguest from hell in Darren Aronofsky’s allegorical thriller “Mother!”; and she’s the sexy widow in Kenneth Branagh’s remake of “Murder on the Orient Express,” due Nov. 10.
Sitting cross-legged and barefoot on a couch in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, her Birkenstocks nearby, Ms. Pfeiffer was soft-spoken except for the occasional ripping laugh. Offscreen, she’s a D.I.Y. maven, complete with tool belt; it’s how she grew up. “My dad was a contractor,” she said. “He’d literally give me a hammer and some nails and some piece of wood, and I would just go make something.”
After a memorable turn as Catwoman in the 1992 film “Batman Returns,” she re-enters the comic book universe next year in “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” And she’s singing again too — that’s her voice over the closing credits of Mr. Branagh’s film.
One role she’s not revisiting is producer. Ms. Pfeiffer, who once had a successful production company, is content with acting. Though she never worked with Harvey Weinstein, she was hopeful, she said, that Hollywood would change after the allegations against him. “It has to,” she said.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Your character in “Mother!” was meant to be Eve. Did you think of her that way?
[Darren Aronofsky] was very careful not to make those references to us. I was just a woman who was still, after all these years, madly in love with my husband, and who is having a lot of family difficulties. A very real, very human place. And every now and then I would give Jen a really weird look [laughs loudly], just because.
Do you have to like your characters?
I have to find a way to like them. The character I found the most difficult was [the murderous mother in] “White Oleander.” She was evil. I couldn’t find anything to relate to. I remember counting the days that I didn’t have to be in [her] skin.
Ruth [Madoff] is very heroic in her own way. She’s a survivor. I understood completely her love for her family and devotion to those children, to her husband. That was really the crux of that character. We weren’t able to tell her story because it’s the Bernie Madoff story, but I actually encouraged her one day to tell it. But I understand why she wouldn’t want to.
Are there physical qualities about characters that you find difficult?
Absolutely, I never wanted to see that cat suit again. [After the 2007 fantasy film] “Stardust,” it’s like, never prosthetics to my face. My face was completely encapsulated; it was just so claustrophobic. It was maybe the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been.
Would you have done a Catwoman movie?
Are you kidding me? In a heartbeat. I loved that part. I felt like I was just getting comfortable and getting used to the claws and the mask, just figuring out how to move in all of that. There was a little bit of talk about that, then that kind of faded away.
Does it feel natural to get back to acting after time off, or do you have to warm up those muscles?
I had been off maybe five years, and I did “I Could Never Be Your Woman” with Paul Rudd, and I really felt rusty. I was surprised because I never felt like that. So I haven’t actually taken that much time off since then. I’m enjoying [acting] now more than I ever have, actually. Maybe because I don’t watch dailies anymore. I’m not really eager to look at my films. I’ll look at them once and not usually ever again. It’s better for me because I’m very critical and scrutinizing.
Some actors believe they should withhold a little bit on screen, so that the audience wants more of them.
Maybe I should try that. I don’t feel like I withhold, but I may not know that because I’m a little withholding as a person, so my gauge might be a bit off. I feel like I’m exuding all kinds of things. My husband has such an active inner world, the writer in him, that I think a lot of times he feels like he’s communicating to me when it’s just in his head. It makes me nuts. [Laughs]
You’ve said that you’re happiest when you’re working, so how did you find balance when you weren’t?
I tinker. I’m an oil painter — usually figure and portrait. I like to build things. I get out my tools, my hammer and my electric drill. When the kids were young I built them a playhouse. I redid the front of one of my fireplaces. I got this idea, I went into Home Depot or something, like, ‘Hey, I want to redo my fireplace, can you guys tell me how to do that?’ They looked at me like, what?
When you took a pause from acting, was it also because the roles were thin?
It seemed like it was harder and harder to say yes, and the roles didn’t warrant leaving my family. I didn’t want to disrupt their routine over and over again, so I started being very picky about when I worked, where, how long I was away, so it limited my choices. It may be that I just also didn’t want to work on a subliminal level. After five years I started to really yearn for the work and even my kids were saying, ‘Mom, aren’t you going to go back to work?’ Which kind of hurt my feelings.
Around the time we started looking at colleges, I realized how it was going to hit me really hard [to have an empty nest] and that I better get something going. I really need to feel like I’m creating something and that my life has meaning. I’m not just going to start playing bridge.
Early on, you said you had the guts to act because you weren’t afraid to fail. Do you still feel that way? Some people think failure is a building block.
It is for sure. And I’m always afraid of failing. Every new part I do I’m afraid I’m going to fail. I’m afraid I’m disappointing my director and you should have gotten someone else. I said to Steve Kloves [the writer-director of “The Fabulous Baker Boys”] when I started “Murder,” I said, “I’m ruining the film.” He laughed.
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Why did you think that?
It’s challenging doing a period piece like that. The character is much more extroverted than I am, and so you have to really push yourself outside your comfort zone. It just takes jumping into the deep end, but it’s hard to trust that in the beginning. And so I was at that stage and I’m acting in front of Judi Dench, and I’m thinking O.K., you cannot bomb in front of Judi Dench. This just can’t happen.
[She’s] salty but salt-of-the-earth. She exudes this warmth; she’s lovely. When I met her, I just cried.
In front of her?
Yeah, tears coming down my face. Wah. I was just completely star-struck and moved by meeting her.
Did they have to cajole you to sing?
They didn’t, but they didn’t give me a lot of time to prepare. I got an email from Ken, and he was like, ‘I have this wacky idea, how would you like to sing this song?’ I haven’t sung since “Hairspray,” my vocal cords are rusted shut. I said, ‘I’ll give it a try, but you better have a backup.’ I don’t really consider myself a singer. I consider myself an actor who can sing just good enough in movies. If I really trained, I could be much better.
Do you feel an artist should reflect society or push ideas forward — or both? Do you feel any responsibility to do that?
I do. It’s because of owning that responsibility that I’ve actually passed on a number of projects that were very hard to turn down. I certainly don’t want to be putting out any more toxicity. I wouldn’t want to do anything, for instance, that was misogynistic.
When I did Elvira for “Scarface,” that was a very misogynistic relationship and that character obviously was pathetic. She was just an armpiece for her man. But by playing that part, you actually can say more sometimes than by getting up on your soapbox. I think it’s all in the way that’s presented. But I am always aware of that. Even at that [early] point.
Did you have any trepidation coming back now? There’s a lot more social-media scrutiny.
The only trepidation was I think I took for granted how nice it was to not be under the spotlight and just having a life. I remember thinking, ‘Do I really want to step back into this?’ And I just realized that I’m not done. I have a lot more to do, and a lot more to say. I’m never going to be one that retires.
A version of this article appears in print on November 5, 2017, on Page AR26 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘I’m Always Afraid Of Failing’.