the Hollywood icon on anxiety, ageing and being who she is
By Charlotte Edwardes | The Sunday Times Style | October 20, 2019 | photographed by LUKE GILFORD
At 61, the actress has had a career that most actors can only dream of – while remaining fiercely private. In an exclusive interview, she gives Charlotte Edwardes a rare glimpse into her complex and seductive world
Michelle Pfeiffer is broken. Literally. Her wrist is bound in a black splint, which she wags in gesticulation and which looks heavy on her slim arm, as if made of concrete. She broke it stepping out of a marble bath (in my mind, Pfeiffer is endlessly stepping out of marble baths) and onto a marble floor (which we both agree is too much marble). “I wasn’t in a hurry,” she says. “It was a slippery marble floor and I was getting out of the bathtub and I looked at the floor and said, ‘Slippery floor, be careful, mental note!’ And I had one foot out and down I went.” Oh, Michelle. “And I knew immediately, of course,” she continues. “I broke my fall with my hand. And I hit my head a little bit. But you know, I could’ve been …” Concussed? “I had stitches here.” She points to her forehead, fortunately now healed smooth. “I don’t really understand why they love putting marble floors in bathrooms. I always look at them and go, you know, this is really dangerous. Or in showers, right? It makes no sense at all.”
I expected the glamour, the handlebar cheekbones, the wasp waist: she’s Michelle Pfeiffer, after all, three-times Oscar nominee and star of The Witches of Eastwick, Dangerous Liaisons and The Fabulous Baker Boys, and at 61 she’s still one of the world’s most celebrated beauties. But I hadn’t expected her to be quite so, well, fragile; quite so fizzing with anxiety, quite so overdressed, in a grey turtleneck and brown check jacket, on this muggy afternoon in her publicist’s office in Los Angeles.
And she hasn’t yet finished with the accidents. The other day she nearly broke her toe (one that she had broken in another, earlier injury). “I was in the shower when I remembered about a meeting, and I was overwhelmed and overloaded,” she says. “It was a big meeting that was really hard to put together. And I get out of the shower and I go right into a panic and slip and fall. I’d broken my toe and that had just healed, and then I almost broke it again.” Oh, Michelle.
“Then it’s that snowball thing.” Her voice has a whispery quality, with a touch of urgency. “I left my hair dripping wet, went downstairs, forgot my phone, went back upstairs, couldn’t find my phone, finally got into the taxi, left my make-up bag in the taxi…”
My hand is at my mouth. I’m thinking, “Jesus, and I thought I was bad,” but also, “Shouldn’t we have a paramedic on hand?” Certainly, no one I ask can conceive of Michelle Pfeiffer the Hollywood actress as anything other than serene. She looks like she spends her life in soft focus, wafting in and out of sun-bleached rooms. She’s lyricised in Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk: “This hit, that ice cold / Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold.”
To find her on the edge — “overwhelmed and overloaded” — is unexpected. She says she gets this all the time: “I’m always surprised at people’s perception of me.”
So, what’s the real Pfeiffer like? She has a temper, she says. Is it closer to the simmering rage of, say, Catwoman in Batman Returns, or the chill of Elvira Hancock, the glassy-eyed moll she played in Scarface? “It depends. I can be both people. On a really bad day I’m more Catwoman, yeah. But if I get icy, then I’m really mad. And if I lose it, I’m a wreck. I’m overwhelmed. It’s a different kind of anger: I don’t have control over my life. I’m actually feeling sort of like that at the moment. I feel like I’m on the verge of that every moment lately.”
An unwillingness to show her anger makes it even more explosive. She internalises it, “takes it home”, until “it eats away at me. And then I go and tear my closet apart or something.” (I’m thinking of that scene when Catwoman, armed with a black aerosol, spray-paints a picture of kittens to death.) “But I think I’m getting better,” she says. “In fact I know I am getting better.”
Her day job helps — she runs a fragrance company called Henry Rose, which she launched in April this year. “Having a company has taught me that you can’t just go round screaming at people.” She adds quickly: “Which I don’t do anyway.” In truth she sees herself as a better employee than employer. “I’m a really good worker bee. In all honesty I’m not interested in being a boss.”
Nor, arguably, is she interested in giving interviews. The journalist Barbara Walters once said of a chat with a 34-year-old Pfeiffer (curled up and hissing like a cat): “Some people think Michelle Pfeiffer was being a bit difficult with me, but she wasn’t. She simply hadn’t done enough interviews to be well versed in the ways of dodging questions.” I’m not sure practice was the issue.
Sitting in front of her, I feel like I am handling a particularly fine-blown vase: pressed hard, it might shatter. She says she’s not comfortable or “terribly good” at answering questions. Regrets plague her. “I’ll go to bed and think, ‘Oh God, why did I say that?’ ” (And yes, she later emails to correct small points.) She’s not comfortable or “good” at “photo sessions” either. “They’re so awkward. My hat goes off to models, because they make it look so effortless. I’m just a stiff.”
Indeed, the only moment of relaxed joy I glimpse is when she spots a copy of American Vogue with Olivia Colman — with whom she co-starred in Murder on the Orient Express — on the cover. “Oooh, look at that,” she coos almost to herself. “Olivia on the cover of Vogue. I love her so much. She is one of my favourite people. She is hil-ar-ious.” And then: “I’m sorry, what did you ask me?”
We’re here because of her part in the film Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, sequel to the 2014 film about the villainous godmother from Sleeping Beauty. She plays a “formidable” (brittle?) queen and says, “I love that in this film we have three strong females exerting their power. In different ways they fight for what they believe in without apology, and they all exhibit unwavering strength.” (This I find amusing when, later, I hear rumours that filming at Pinewood was beset with rows between Pfeiffer and her co-star, Angelina Jolie.)
Who, though, can blame her for being prickly after 40 years in a world of extreme institutionalised sexism? Who can blame her for being angry? How many of us could bear the harsh spotlight of Weinsteinesque 1980s and 1990s Hollywood and walk away unscathed? “It was challenging for women of my generation to find their voices,” she says. “And even though slowly, over time, we have been given more permission to speak up, if you grow up not really having your voice valued or heard or encouraged, the way you view yourself and your place, it’s pretty set.” She cites as rare — and comic — the director who turned to her in her twenties, after she made a point about the script, and uttered with surprise: “Wow, you’re really smart.”
Like most, she has re-examined her past in the light of #MeToo. “First, I thought, ‘Well, I didn’t experience that,’ but then as time went on I started going, ‘Well, actually, there was that one time.’ There’s that process you go through — denial, self-blame, ‘I shouldn’t have worn that dress,’ ‘I should’ve known.’ You look at it through a grown-up lens and think, ‘Wow, I was a kid.’ There were a number of situations that were not good.” She pauses. “Like one incident — I am not going to share — but I look back and I cringe. I was really uncomfortable and it was inappropriate. I put it in a drawer. I was 20, and it was with a high-powered person in the industry.” She thinks if he’s still alive, she will write to him.
It helps that women are now talking to each other “without shame”, she says. They are being kinder. “More supportive. I think we haven’t always been.”
In general, she believes she can do a lot with her acting. For instance, Elvira was in an abusive relationship. “Sometimes you can make a bigger statement by representing someone you wouldn’t ever want to be, rather than hitting people over the head by preaching and getting up on your soapbox. Sometimes it’s a more effective and interesting way to get things across.”
Acting, she loves. Oil painting, she loves. DIY, she loves. Hiding away with her husband of 26 years, the writer and producer David E Kelley (who created LA Law, Ally McBeal and Big Little Lies), is what she did for five years while they raised their two children — Claudia, now 26, and John, 25. They live now in a house in Los Angeles.
This morning she was up at 3am. “I actually like getting up before sunrise. I find it really peaceful and meditative. I love that first coffee and watching the sun come up.” Meditative? Actually she was watching explosive political news, which turns out not to have been at all meditative but “frustrating”. “I can feel my blood pressure rise,” she admits. “It’s not good. And I was in a foul mood this afternoon. I thought, ‘Oh, you haven’t slept.’ And then I thought, ‘Actually, I think you’re upset about those [House Intelligence Committee] hearings.” In the evening she relaxes with wine “or tequila”.
She groans when asked about diet and exercise, saying that she gets “bored really quickly” and so mostly dabbles: a bit of yoga, a bit of Pilates. She runs, she walks, she bikes. “I went through a vegan phase,” now she’s “paleoish”.
Somewhere in the house is Catwoman’s bullwhip and the bowling bag from Grease 2, but “typically I don’t have memorabilia. I have this fear of living in the past and not living for the present, so I resist keeping it.”
Her earliest memory was a birthday party, perhaps her second: “In the backyard, sitting on a picnic table. I loved birthdays. I still love birthdays. Well, actually, I don’t love them so much any more.” When she talks about her childhood — in a deeply conservative blue-collar family in Orange County — it sounds oddly isolated. She describes “stray” pets and sitting alone on the porch watching the high-school girls go by in their beehives, miniskirts and go-go boots.
There’s no mention of her mum, Donna, or siblings (two sisters and a brother), except to say they were “really spread out” in age. It’s her dad, Richard, she alights on, repeating again that she inherited his “perfectionism”. What form did this take? “Well, he used to say to me, ‘No matter what you do, do it to the best of your ability.’ He would give me little projects around the house. He was in air-conditioning and heating, and would buy broken-down refrigerators and bring them home, fix them and sell them for extra income. My job was to clean them. They were nasty.” He paid her 50 cents a piece. Even though she thought she had done it well, “he would come and inspect it and be like,” she pulls a face of disapproval, “ ‘Hmm.’ And so typically I had to redo it.”
School was similarly unrewarding. No matter how hard she tried, she would always get a C. “Today they would probably diagnose me with ADHD and try to give me medication.” She was the kid tipping her chair back. “And my legs were all like …” she judders. What did her reports say? “Disruptive. Talks too much.”
She won’t tell me why she was thrown off the cheerleading squad, or in what ways she was “wild”, or how she crashed her 1965 Mustang, or what drugs she took — “I’m not going to share what I was doing in the 1970s” — just that “I wasn’t ever where I was supposed to be, and I didn’t do what I was told. I was in trouble a lot.”
Before acting there were weird cul-de-sacs, such as working as a checkout girl in a Vons supermarket and stenography school, which drove her “mad”, because whenever anyone was speaking, she would mentally transcribe “all the time, and my brain never shut off”. Weirder still, she joined a cult for a year in her early twenties — “an age when you’re idealistic and … looking for answers”.
Having children, she says, just about cured her perfectionism “because there is nothing perfect about raising children, is there?” But also, she sighs, “I’m too tired to be a perfectionist.” She still misses the baby stage: “It’s pathetic, but I will always miss the baby. But I am too tired for the baby.” I say I miss the baby stage, too, and she says brightly: “Get a puppy!”
Ageing has its pluses: she gives less of a damn. “Early on in my career, I was so terrified of fame, of stardom or being exposed, and actually terrified of failing. I regret I wasn’t able to really enjoy the process, to appreciate it and feel confident. I spent years wasting time being afraid.” (Famously she turned down The Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct). How did she overcome it? “It’s just getting older and more experienced.”
After my hour with Pfeiffer, an assistant asks how I feel and then if I “need validation”, which is the most Californian thing I’ve ever heard. Until I realise she means for the car park.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is in cinemas now
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Styling: Solange Franklin. Hair: Richard Marin at Cloutier Remix. Make-up: Brigitte Reiss-Andersen at Starworks Artists. Nails: Betina Goldstein at Lowe & Co Worldwide using Chanel. Local production: Hyperion LA