Michelle Pfeiffer Chooses Carefully
By Rachel Sym
In 1992, writing about Michelle Pfeiffer on the set of “Batman Returns,” the writer Gerri Hirshey described her as a person who has “snapped gum more than she’s sipped champagne.” This was primarily a reference to the roles Pfeiffer had played at that time—mostly a collection of diffident California girls (like the caustic clique leader Stephanie Zinone in “Grease 2”) and East Coast vamps (like the slinky Elvira Hancock in “Scarface” or the big-haired Angela de Marco in “Married to the Mob”). Pfeiffer was already an Oscar nominee twice over, for playing the temptress Madame de Tourvel in “Dangerous Liaisons” and an escort turned torch singer in “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” but, as Hirshey’s comment showed, critics didn’t quite know how to characterize her work without undermining it. Focus would inevitably zero in on Pfeiffer’s striking visage, as if her beauty and talent were opposing forces that needed to somehow be reconciled: “a character actress in a screen siren’s body,” one line went. (“It’s a no-win conversation for me,” Pfeiffer told me, of the topic of her looks. “No matter how you answer those questions it doesn’t come off well.”) She played characters that were both ditzy and wily, high-femme and high-maintenance, scrappy and—especially in the case of Catwoman—armed with claws. Pfeiffer went on to star in critically lauded dramas—her turn as the doomed Countess Olenska, opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, in Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” is a highlight—and proved herself to be one of the great actors of her generation, despite never having formally studied the craft. Still, Pfeiffer has yet to have the kind of fawning career renaissance that rocketed Laura Dern into memes and onto T-shirts in recent years.
This may be because Pfeiffer is self-effacing; she intensely dislikes doing press or talking about her life (a fact she readily admitted in our interview), and she bats aside questions she’d rather not answer with a kind of graceful but firm resolve. She took a hiatus from starring in movies for several years in the two-thousands, choosing to focus on raising her two children with her husband, the television producer and writer David E. Kelley. (Kelley, who has created such recent hit miniseries as “Big Little Lies” and “The Undoing,” “writes for women like nobody,” Pfeiffer told me, but the two don’t really work together. “I’ve seen a lot of couples where they seem to have a really great marriage, and then they work together and next year they’re filing for divorce,” she said.) When she returned to work, she took on challenging, often prickly roles: a campy ghost in Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” (2017); the irate Ruth Madoff in “The Wizard of Lies” (also 2017); and, most recently, the delusional, haughty, and potentially mad heiress Frances Price in Azazel Jacobs’s upcoming adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel “French Exit.” (It comes out on February 12th.) Frances is a plum role for an actress solidifying her second act; she is viperous, pampered, and tragic. She also happens to believe that her cat can speak to her in the voice of her dead husband. In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, Pfeiffer spoke about starting out as a supermarket clerk, her love of the late director Jonathan Demme, and the enduring appeal of “Grease 2.”
I was nervous preparing for this interview, because in every past interview I’ve read you start by saying that you don’t like doing interviews.
I’m sorry. I guess it’s better just to say that up front. When I make a film I always tell my director up front, including Aza [Jacobs], “I don’t like looking at my work. I’m never satisfied, so this will be no different. Please don’t take it personally.” Because that’s just who I am. I’ve been at this a long time.
So I take it you don’t watch dailies on set.
When I was younger I did, but then over the years I realized it was just so torturous. Then what I did was, I narrowed it down to watching maybe the first week-ish to make sure that I’m in the right movie, I’m in the right tone. Now, I didn’t see any of the rushes from “French Exit.” They’re available to me, but I rarely watch anything now, and I’m happier. It’s sort of, “O.K., if I watch an hour of rushes, that’s an hour less I could be sleeping.”
You’ve given different reasons over the years why you don’t love being interviewed, but the one that stuck with me is that you were always afraid people would “find you out.” That if you told too much, you’d be exposed as a fraud.
Well, that’s typically my fear about my performances, that this will be the performance I will be discovered as the fraud that I have known all along that I am. That really comes from not being classically trained. I didn’t go to Juilliard. I didn’t study a lot. I studied in workshops and things like that, but I didn’t come from the theatre. There was a real snobbery when I started acting. In fact, one of my first jobs was a television show, and I played the blonde bombshell where I had fake breasts and was in hot pants, I didn’t even have a name, she was just called “the bombshell.” I was working with a lot of actors who were all from New York. I just felt really unworthy, and I think that never leaves you.
In terms of my discomfort with doing interviews, I think it’s early on not understanding the difference between things that you say, and the way things look in print, and things coming off in a way that was not your intention. I think you just get really guarded. I just had a hard time even formulating a sentence because I was so guarded.
Early in your career you played a lot of working women, waitresses, and more salt-of-the-earth-type people. Obviously, there was “The Age of Innocence” and “Dangerous Liaisons,” which were a little bit more about the upper crust, but it’s interesting to me how there does seem to be a theme running through all the roles you’ve chosen. A drive, a scrappiness.
I definitely am more comfortable playing characters that are a little rougher around the edges, and the sort of more middle- to lower-class. I don’t know if you’re not really allowed to say that anymore, class, I don’t know. But I do think it’s more of a stretch for me to play Ruth Madoff or Frances Price, or “Age of Innocence.” Definitely those roles are foreign to the way I grew up. I have to work harder to personalize those parts.
Certainly with Frances it was really challenging, just even the way the dialogue is written, it’s not the way people really speak, it’s kind of a throwback. You have to give in to the stylized world and the stylized dialogue that Patrick [deWitt] has written. I actually thought I was too subtle. Then I read a review that said something like, “Michelle Pfeiffer is eating the furniture,” and I thought, Yes!
The story goes that you were a checkout girl at a Vons, and you were selling a woman a cantaloupe when you decided that you were going to be an actress. Is that really the way it happened?
It is the way it happened! That was a good job, actually. It was a well-paying job. I just wasn’t happy with what I was doing. Even when I was a kid I would go out into the garage and I’d find my dad’s tools, and I’d find an old block of wood and some nails, and some duct tape, and I would create things. I could stay out all day by myself. I made a pair of shoes out of duct tape and cardboard. I was very, very pleased with those shoes.
I’ve always been happiest when I’m creating something. So that wasn’t really the job for me, and I wasn’t very good at it. The customer was just chewing my ass about something, about the price of the cantaloupe or something, and I remember that day I just thought, O.K., if you could be doing anything right now, what would it be? Anything in the world. Just boom, snap, and it was acting. I surprised myself because I hadn’t really thought about it until I took an acting class in high school, just to get credits, really. I fell in love with the people, who I always thought were kind of odd from afar.
What did your parents think about the acting? Were they supportive?
It’s so funny because my dad was really reluctant for me to go into acting, he was scared. It was just so foreign to anything we knew. So I entered this beauty pageant. A friend of mine suggested it because he knew I wanted to act, and he said one of the judges is an agent, and he’s been known to sign girls, so that’s why I did it. So that worked out for me. The funny thing is, my dad, when he passed away, it’s been twenty years now, I was cleaning out his desk. I found this wadded-up piece of tissue paper in the back of the drawer that must have been forty years old, and I unwrapped it. And there was my beauty-pageant crown.
I know you’ve said that in the beginning you were cast as—in your words, not mine—bimbos. Did you worry, “Am I going to get taken seriously in this town?”
I had some concerns, and I know that that really influenced the choices that I made. I was very careful about when I had the option of actually choosing, because sometimes you just have to pay the rent. But when I had a choice of doing something that had nothing to do with how I looked, I would take that opportunity every time. Then I think the thing that sort of jarred everybody’s perception of me was when I did “Married to the Mob,” and I’m forever grateful to Jonathan Demme. He had no reason to believe I could do that.
You were coming off of “Grease 2,” right?
I did “Grease 2,” then “Scarface.” But still, I was arm candy. Then when I did “Married to the Mob” . . . I remember then when I met Marty Scorsese, who was considering me for “The Age of Innocence.” I remember him saying, “I thought you were this brunette girl from New Jersey.” That was probably one of the greatest compliments that was ever given to me.
If you impressed Marty with a mob project you’re doing pretty good.
I know you’ve said that working with Jonathan [Demme] was one of the highlights of your life. What made him such a special director for you?
It’s so sad to me that he’s no longer with us. First of all, he is the nicest person, he is funny, and not only is he really funny but he’s the easiest person to make laugh, so we just laugh all the time. It was a very demanding shoot, but for whatever reason I just sort of stepped into her. I don’t know why. I didn’t have to work really that hard at it, I didn’t even have to work that hard at the accent.
You just have Long Island in you somewhere? Who knew! I’m interested in what you look for in a director, because you’ve worked with so many amazing ones: Demme, De Palma, Scorsese, Burton. What do you need from them on a project?
I’m just looking for somebody who always has a really clear vision. And that also is going to be open to collaboration. I don’t do well with and I haven’t worked with that many who were like this—when somebody’s on me. I love direction, by the way, I really do. But a lot of times they’re afraid because in some sort of director’s manual, it says never to talk to actors that way. But I’m so happy with you telling me, “Do it more like this.”
You want guidance.
Let me figure out how to get there, that’s my job. I’m not good when the director feels like they have to manipulate a performance out of me. My red flag starts waving.
You fought with George Miller during “The Witches of Eastwick,” for example.
[Laughs] Where did you hear that? That was a difficult film. We all were a little bit difficult, other than Jack [Nicholson]. Honestly, I feel like he was the calming influence on all of us. It was one of those things where the script just kept changing and changing, and there were too many cooks. I adore George Miller, I really do. He’s actually lovely, he’s not a screamer.
How about the roles you didn’t take? I know you passed on “Silence of the Lambs” and “Bugsy.” Do you ever regret things that you didn’t do?
No, but sometimes you just regret that you can’t maybe do both things. With “Bugsy,” I was also offered “Frankie and Johnny,” and I really wanted to do that. Then, with “Silence of the Lambs,” I was trepidatious. There was such evil in that film. The thing I most regret is missing the opportunity to do another film with Jonathan [Demme].
The material was just too malevolent for you?
It was that evil won in the end, that at the end of that film evil ruled out. I was uncomfortable with that ending. I didn’t want to put that out into the world.
You said once, about taking a break from acting, that it was because you became so persnickety about roles that you became unhirable.
Well, I was persnickety about roles, and also it had a lot to do with having a family and prioritizing the family, and being very picky about where I went, when did I go, how many weeks was it, could I bring the kids with me, could I get back to see them. And it became so complicated to hire me that it just probably wasn’t worth it. Then on my side it just became easier not to work most of the time.
After you did “Mother!,” in 2017, there was some sort of headline that was, like, “The Pfeiffer-sance,” or “Michelle Pfeiffer’s Back,” and then “Big Little Lies” happened, and it was the Dernaissance. There’s this phenomenon of middle-aged actresses having this new attention paid to them, like people are amazed they can still work.
I think it happens with men, too. I remember when John Travolta left for a while. With me, I think I just disappeared for a long time. All of a sudden you’re just seeing someone a lot whom you haven’t seen in a while.
Did you miss working during that time?
Not at all, actually. We had made a huge move [to the Bay Area], and I really underestimated what that entailed, starting all over in a new city, and not knowing anyone or anything, and getting everyone settled in, and that takes a long, long time. Then raising kids is just consuming, and before I knew it three and a half years had gone by, and then it was five years. I sort of started counting the last time I was in front of the camera, and then that seemed like a long time. Then I must have been hankering to work again because I started thinking about it, and then my kids were ready for me to go back to work.
Do your kids have a favorite of your movies?
They’re not that interested in my movies. I actually went overboard in separating the kids from my work, so much so that they found out through their friends how famous I was. At a certain age, I remember my daughter’s friends coming to her and asking her about certain movies, and she came home and she started asking me. I realized I’d really done her a disservice in an effort to try and protect her. The world knew more about my work than she did, and the world knew about a huge part of who I am, and she didn’t.
So then I thought, O.K., I need to educate them. And there just weren’t that many movies at that time that were age-appropriate. They were maybe six or seven years old. So I showed them something that I felt like, O.K., they can watch this. Maybe it was “Grease 2.” I don’t know what it was, but they watched about a quarter of it, and then they wandered off.
It’s funny about “Grease 2” because, I don’t know if you know this, but Gen Z loves that movie.
Yeah. People post the songs on TikTok. They have rediscovered it.
Are you sure it’s “Grease 2”?
I’m sure! They seem to love “Cool Rider.”
Maybe I’ll have to do a reënactment and post it on Instagram.
Oh, my God, people would go nuts. Please wear the satin jacket.
The music is very good, actually, in that movie.
The film was a flop at the time. I wonder how it felt to be in movies that flopped, especially early on.
I didn’t really understand what it meant. I was just so young, and you’re just so happy to have a job, and have a paycheck. One big critic . . . who was it? Anyway, he said that I “whined my way all through the film.” Maybe I did, I don’t know. But I didn’t really pay much attention, back then, to the box-office.
Do you have any younger actors today whom you really admire?
I have to tell you I’m so impressed with Elle Fanning. When I worked with her on “Maleficent,” and that’s obviously a fantasy movie. But I think there’s an effortlessness that I see with a lot of younger people coming up, and Elle, she just is so effortlessly able to tap into these places, or it seems that way, at least to the outsider. Maybe it isn’t at all to her. How she’s gone from a fairytale to watching her in, now the name is escaping me, in the recent thing that she just did. . . .
“The Great”! All of a sudden she became an adult, a young adult, and the complexity and the wickedness that’s coming out of her is so wonderful to see. I just watch it and I go, “Oh, this girl can do anything.”