ESQUIRE | SEPTEMBER 2007
After five years away, it needed something special to tempt Michelle Pfeiffer back. British director Matthew Vaughn was the man with the film, and the questions, to do it
Photographs by Rankin | Interview by Matthew Vaughn
YOU DON’T NEED TO GET UP CLOSE to see that the years have not been kind to Michelle Pfeiffer. The once flawless skin has all the elasticity of a wet pillow, that famous blonde mane has been reduced to wispy, stringy clumps and those iconic lips that once parted to reveal one of the great Hollywood smiles now resemble a deathly rictus. Is it any wonder she will soon be seem lamenting. “Youth, beauty—it all seems so meaningless now”?
But before you examine the evidence of these pictures and conclude that Pfeiffer looks as good now as she did when she writhed on a piano for the Bridges brothers in The Fabulous Baker Boys, it should be noted that the alarming physical decline we speak of is not down to the onset of age, but to the hours spent in the make-up chair for her long-awaited comeback. It is typical Pfeiffer, a woman who has been voted the most beautiful in film, that after five years out of the spotlight she should choose to return to centre stage with a role that requires her to look 5,000 years old.
Pfeiffer’s willingness to play on—and against—her looks has been a recurring aspect of her career. In Matthew Vaughn’s fantasy adventure Stardust (out 19 October), the California-born actress plays a time-ravaged witch called Lamia who must cut the heart out of Claire Dane’s fallen star to guarantee everlasting youth and beauty. The same actress turned down The Silence Of The Lambs to play a hapless, self-loathing waitress, opposite Al Pacino, in the widely panned Frankie And Johnny. One of the main criticisms of the film was that the audience couldn’t believe her in the part, but her argument was then as it is now: “Everyone can be damaged. And pretty people can be just as damaged as ugly or fat people.”
Everyone can be damaged. And pretty people can be just as much as ugly ones
The one-time supermarket checkout girl who entered, and won, a beauty pageant in 1978 because she wanted to meet a Hollywood agent, learned her craft via a string of small television and film parts before making what was meant to be her big breakthrough in 1982, landing the lead role in the much-hyped Grease 2. “Starring” in one of the worst films ever made would have snuffed out lesser talents, but her ascent to the big time was delayed only a year; in 1983 Pfeiffer was cast as Elvira in Brian De Palma’s Scarface, and lit up one of the greatest gangster movies of all time as the embodiment of aloof cocaine chic—and the pinnacle of mobster Tony Montana’s ambition.
She has made more than 30 films since, earning Oscar nominations for Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) and Love Field (1992), turning down further era-defining roles in Basic Instinct and Thelma & Louise, and filling a leather catsuit like nobody before or since in Batman Returns. In 1993 she married the uber-successful TV and film executive David E Kelley (her second husband and the creative force behind LA Law, The Practice, Ally McBeal and Boston Legal) and soon after made the conscious decision to withdraw from the “black hole” that enveloped her when she was working, diverting more of her energies instead to being a wife and mother of two.
Pfeiffer was surprised how much she loved her new role. She has not adorned the big screen since 2002 but after throwing herself back into work in the last two years she has three films scheduled for release in 2007. Other than Stardust, she had a supporting role as Velma Von Tussle, the scheming mother of a child TV star in Adam Shankman’s remake of the John Waters musical Hairspray, and plays the female lead in the romantic comedy I Could Never Be Your Woman.
It was always all or nothing for Michelle Pfeiffer and instead of acting, she explored alternative creative outlets in photography and painting. Now, without that total immersion, she says her work is different: “I’m more apt to make mistakes but also to surprise myself.”
As Lamia, the second witch of her career (she was also in 1987’s The Witches Of Eastwick), Pfeiffer is as surprising as she is captivating. She continue to toy with notions of her fabled beauty, uttering a memorable “bollocks” at one point when her tits comically plummet, but even as a haggard old crone she manages to eclipse her younger castmates. Here, Stardust director Matthew Vaughn, who fell under Pfeiffer’s spell making in the film, talks exclusively to the elusive star. Dan Davies
MATTHEW VAUGHN I’ve been looking at hundreds of pictures of you in my research and it has just astounded me how little you’ve changed in the last 30 years.
MICHELLE PFEIFFER Well, that’s very sweet of you to say.
MV Which, of all your films, do you think had the biggest impact on me? If you can guess, I will buy you a case of your favourite wine—I know you like wine.
MP Grease 2? No, I’m kidding.
MV Grease 2.
MP No, stop it!
MV Deadly serious.
MP You are lying (laughing).
MV You can ask me any question about that movie and I can answer it.
MP You must be even younger than I thought. I don’t even remember that movie. It was so long ago.
MV I know every frame of that movie. It had such a huge impact on me.
MP That is hysterical.
MV I was 11 when it came out and I was totally obsessed by it. I wanted to be Maxwell Caulfield; it was my dream to be the English kid who goes to the American school and picks up the blonde chick.
MP That’s funny. Well, you got the blonde [Vaughn is married to Claudia Schiffer].
MV It came true eventually. I liked Grease because I was younger and I loved seeing you in those hot pants.
MP I wasn’t wearing hot pants!
MV You were, weren’t you? You know, those little trousers that came to just below your knee.
MP Oh those—they were Capri pants.
MV Well, I loved those.
MATTHEW VAUGHN When did you decide you wanted to be an actress?
MICHELLE PFEIFFER I always wanted to be an actress, but it wasn’t a reachable star in my mind, it was like a pipe dream. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I actually started to do acting. I didn’t know anyone in show biz and didn’t know any actors.
MV Did you find things easy in the beginning?
MP No, I tried getting work in television, smaller movies and commercials, and zigzagged between all of those things. I didn’t find acting easy—in fact I was terrified. I really believe that I learnt how to act in the public eye, which is not the best way to do it. I actually still have this feeling—and you’ve seen it—that I might get found out, that I really am a bad actor and I’ve just been fooling people the whole time. You saw me [on the shoot of Stardust] and didn’t I just want to re-do my whole performance?
MV What I have learnt as a director is that there is no harm in trying things. I thought that your performance in Scarface was flawless. When did you last watch it? 1984?
MP Probably around then. I cannot bear it when I’m channel surfing and there I am, suddenly popping up.
MV If you had to watch one of your films with friends, what would it be?
MP Married To The Mobs. I recently watched television with my kids and it was on. I was able to watch it for 15 to 20 minutes and it was OK.
MV You had dark curly hair and looked so different. I am starting to sound like a pre-pubescent God-knows-what, so let’s move on the The Witches Of The Eastwick. Jack Nicholason is a hero of mine.
MP Mine too—he’s been a really good friend to me. I loved working with Cher, Susan [Sarandon] and Jack. It was a very long and arduous production and I am still really close to all those actors.
MV Dangerous Liaisons—surely that was a great performance…
MP I thought I was OK. The most I can ask is that I don’t embarrass myself.
MV But if you are holding your own against actors like John Malkovich and Glenn Close, that must give you the confidence? The incredible thing about your career is the truly brilliant people you have acted with. Not only have you held your own, you’ve sometimes stolen films from them. I am trying to make you admit that you are good.
MP I know, I know, but I can’t. You are right in that I have worked with some amazing talent and it is thrilling. When you work with people like Sean Penn [I Am Sam] and Jessica Lange [A Thousand Acres] it really does raise your game.
MV Sean Penn has asked me to ask why you never call him.
MP Where would I call? He is never in one place for more than a day.
You’re lucky I didn’t do a Jim Carrey and make you put the make-up on for one day and direct
MATTHEW VAUGHN We haven’t seen you in movies for years. Would it be fair to say that film’s loss has been painting’s gain?
MICHELLE PFEIFFER Painting is one of the things that contributed to my hiatus. It wasn’t a conscious decision in any way, I just get immersed in whatever it is I am doing. When I make movies I don’t paint and when I am painting it’s hard to get me to read anything. Whatever it is that I get from acting I also get from painting. I was perfectly happy, and to be honest, I didn’t realize that so many years were passing.
MV I have this image of the great painting you might have done if you hadn’t had to spend all that time in the make-up chair for Stardust.
MP I could have done a mural! You’re lucky I didn’t do a Jim Carrey and make you put the make-up on for one day and direct, which is what he did to Ron Howard. It was because I like you so much.
MV You know what, the weird thing is that what scared me the most was when they took the make-up off.
MP Well, thanks! You mean that I’m actually scarier without the prosthetics?
MV No, no, no. I mean the process of taking it off is what terrified me. It looked like they were doing an operation.
MP I will actually never forget the look on your face.
MV I felt guilty.
MP I would tell that. I have to say, Stardust was really the hardest film I’ve done, but it rekindled my passion for acting and got my engines going again. Maybe it was the intensity of the part. Or maybe it was because I love you.
For more images by Rankin from this photo shoot, please visit our GALLERY!