PARADE | May 6, 2012
Michelle Pfeiffer greets me with an air kiss and introduces her husband, TV writer-producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice, Harry’s Law), at whose office in Burbank, Calif., we are meeting. Kelley—handsome, bemused—kisses his wife. “We won’t be long, I promise,” Pfeiffer tells him as she leads me to a room across the hall, laughing flirtatiously, a woman used to handling men.
By Dotson Rader | Photographed by Jason Bell
She settles in next to an open window, looking ethereally beautiful in the afternoon sun, casually dressed in slim, tailored black jeans and a beige silk blouse worn unbuttoned over a fitted white T-shirt. A diaphanous, flowered silk scarf hangs loose against her elegant neck. Everything about her, from her appearance to the sound of her soft voice, seems exquisitely feminine, like costly perfume. We talk for several hours about things that matter greatly to her: family, friends, the career that serendipitously brought her from a grocery checkout line to enduring stardom.
Pfeiffer, 54, grew up near Los Angeles, one of four kids in a working-class family. Her mom was a homemaker, her dad an air-conditioning contractor. An indifferent student, dreamy, a bit lost, she hung out with surfers at the beach. She thought about becoming a court stenographer someday, maybe a psychologist—she wasn’t sure. In 1978 she entered the Miss Orange County beauty pageant and won; a pageant judge who was also a talent agent took her on. Her first notable films were 1982’s Grease 2and, a year later, Scarface, opposite Al Pacino. But she says it wasn’t until 1987 and The Witches of Eastwick that people started recognizing her and stopped asking, “Are you Debbie Harry?” Oscar nominations for Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and Love Field followed. Her latest film is Dark Shadows (opening May 11), which reunites her with Tim Burton, who directed her as Catwoman in 1992’s Batman Returns. It’s an adaptation of the gothic soap opera that aired from 1966 to 1971 and with which she was “obsessed” as a kid, she says. In late June, she’ll costar in the family dramaPeople Like Us.
Before Kelley, Pfeiffer was not especially lucky in love. An early marriage to actor Peter Horton failed, and she was romantically linked with Val Kilmer, John Malkovich, and Michael Keaton. After a three-year relationship with Fisher Stevens ended, Pfeiffer decided to start a family on her own, initiating adoption proceedings. A couple of months before finalizing the adoption of her daughter, Claudia Rose, in March 1993, she met Kelley on a blind date; they married later that year, and she got pregnant with their son, John Henry, on their wedding night. The family is now based near San Francisco.
PARADE You and your husband will celebrate your 19th anniversary this year. How do you judge whether a person in your life is going to be that solid for you, whether they’re worth the effort?
I haven’t met a ton of people who meet that criteria. [laughs] It takes years for me to trust; I know that about myself. A lot of it is because I am so private, and so reluctant to make myself vulnerable. You have to be vulnerable to have real intimacy with people. It’s a two-way street, you know? Eventually I do get there, but not with very many people. I have it with David, of course.
Why the fear of vulnerability?
Well, it is part of the hand you’re dealt when you become a celebrity. Nobody would consciously decide to become guarded and self-protective. I was very open when I was younger, but celebrity teaches you. You learn to cope with the intense scrutiny.
How do you know if a man really loves you?
Sometimes you know and sometimes you don’t. All humans are subject to denial. Everybody is vulnerable to being in relationships where they get fooled. I’m no different. It’s just human nature.
But you are different. You’re rich and famous.
Yes. Well, like my daddy used to say, “Trust everyone, but cut the cards.”
You had other relationships before you married David. …
Some were relationships, some were encounters.
Why didn’t they work out?
This is the thing I’ve learned, after a lot of couch time: There are always red flags. You need to look for those red flags along the way so you don’t continue to make the same mistakes with another person. Really look back and ask, “How was I so hoodwinked here? Why did I do this?” From the beginning you have to choose well. If you choose badly, no matter what you do, it’s going to fail and you’re going to be unhappy. A lot of it is luck. I chose really well with David. I got really lucky.
You met on a blind date?
Yes, and for once it was the right person at exactly the right time! [laughs] And 19 years later, I never take him for granted. I’ve never met a person who has more integrity than my husband. I respect that. There’s his humor and intelligence, too, and he’s really cute, all those things—but if you don’t respect your partner, you’ll get sick of him.
Your first marriage, to Peter Horton, failed.
I married Peter at a very young age. I’m not the same person I was then. I forget I was even married before.
It’s a hard thing to forget.
I do forget. Actually, I didn’t tell my kids for the longest time. They were old when I finally said, “Oh, by the way, just FYI, I was married once before.” They were like, “What?!” It had never occurred to me to tell them.
In 1993, when you were single, you adopted your daughter. Was that because you said, “To hell with men—I’ll do it alone”?
No, I said, “To hell with figuring out the man thing before I start a family.” I really, really wanted to have kids, and I think my desperation to do that was messing up my relationships. It was skewing my perceptions, causing me to judge things too harshly or maybe deciding they were better than they were. Finally I thought, “Wait a minute! I don’t have to have a man to become a mother.” It was like a lightbulb went on.
And when I met David, all of that pressure was off. It was really just about, how do David and I work together? As a bonus, I got to see how he was as a father as he developed a relationship with Claudia.
What led you to acting?
I knew I wanted a career. I’m a worker. I loved it from the moment I entered the workforce, when I was 14. My mother really harped on me, “You have to have a career.” She never worked [outside the home], and it was important to her that we had careers. I was working at Vons supermarket as a checker. It’s a good job, but I was having a particularly bad day. Some man was complaining about the price of his cantaloupes, and that was my breaking point. I looked up to the heavens and asked myself, “If you could be doing anything in the world, what would it be?” And it was acting. It kind of surprised me.
You’ve said that parenting is much harder than acting; do you still feel that way?
Being a parent is the hardest thing in the world. Sometimes I feel like I have to go back to work to get some rest, and we work a minimum 12-hour day making a movie! None of that is nearly as exhausting as parenthood—the psychological toll it takes on you because these lives are in your hands. I take it very seriously. Just when you think you’ve got your kids figured out, they change on you. For somebody who’s controlling, you can’t control it. Of course, I don’t think I’m controlling, but that’s what I’ve been told! [laughs]
Your kids are now nearly grown.
People make a lot of jokes about the empty nest. Let me tell you, it is no laughing matter. It is really hard. Claudia’s in her first year of college. She’s doing great. My son is applying to colleges now. I remember reading an interview with Dustin Hoffman; his first child had just gone off to college, and he said, “Nobody talks about their [empty] room.” I feel like I’m going to cry just thinking about it. [pause] Are you hot? I am. Or am I having a big hot flash? Did I really just say that? That will be a headline; I can see it. [laughs and opens the window wider]
Let’s talk about Dark Shadows. What did you like about this project?
I had this memory of loving the TV show; I’d sprint home from school so I didn’t miss one second of it. I just wanted to be in the movie, work with Tim Burton again, and work with Johnny Depp. One day I called Tim and said, “Look, I don’t know if there’s anything for me, but I’d love to do it.” A year went by, maybe more, and I thought, “It’s never going to happen.” But it did. I had so much fun making it! [Pfeiffer plays the matriarch of the Collins family, and Depp the ancestral vampire, Barnabas.]
In films like Personal Effects with Ashton Kutcher and Cheri with Rupert Friend, you play opposite leading men younger than you. …
Maybe a tad. [laughs] They get younger and younger. I went from Ashton to Rupert to Zac Efron in New Year’s Eve. If I keep on like this, I’m going to get into X-rated material! Well, that’s what happens with men and their leading ladies, right? I was acting in The Russia House opposite Sean Connery when he was turning 60. [Pfeiffer was 32.]
Are there more roles now for experienced actresses?
There are fewer movies being made, so there are fewer movie roles overall. There aren’t really enough to go around—there just aren’t. But TV has opened up a lot of parts for women. Some of the best work, in fact, is on cable.
Have you ever thought of doing a TV series?
I might. When I started out there were “TV actors” and “movie actors,” and they didn’t let you cross over. Big movie stars weren’t going to get on a television series. I’ve never understood that. Now actors are crossing over all the time, which is really exciting.
Would you do a series with your husband?
I’d worry about coming home and complaining to him about the people I work with. I wouldn’t want to bring my work home with me like that. But it doesn’t mean we won’t do something together one day. I couldn’t ask for anyone better. David’s the best in terms of developing things for women. I watch [his shows] and I turn to him and say, “I hope these actors realize how lucky they are.”
Your dad passed away a while back. How has that affected you?
My father was a force to be reckoned with. And we battled because I’m also incredibly strong-willed. The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, and so we went around and around; but as cantankerous as it was, I think that’s how deep the love and the bond were between us. He was strong farm stock. I really thought he’d outlive us all, but I lost him about 12 years ago. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t get his life story before he died. I didn’t dig it out of him. He was really private.
And your mother?
We all share the care of her. She lives in Orange County, where I grew up.
Does it make you think in terms of your own mortality? Is that frightening?
It’s scary, yes. It really hits you that you are now definitely in the second half of life. I feel that way with each friend or family member who gets ill or passes away. It can be very lonely. I’m lucky that I have family and friends, a great support system.
What drives you to succeed?
I don’t know if it’s naïveté or just narcissism, but I start out with this notion that I can do anything. It’s not until I get into it that I realize what I’ve thrown myself into, and then I will do anything not to humiliate myself. And that, I think, is the secret to my success.