28 years. That’s how long it’s been since Michelle Pfeiffer was nominated for an Academy Award. In that case, it was the now forgotten drama “Love Field.” Now, thanks to the attention of a Golden Globe nominations and her performance in the dramedy “French Exit,” Pfeiffer has a shot for a welcome return to the Oscar circle.
by Gregory Ellwood |
Based on screenwriter Patrick deWitt’s novel of the same name, “French Exit” centers on Francis Price (Pfeiffer), a Manhattan widow who has blown through her husband’s estate to unsettling effect. With her twentysomething son Malcom (Lucas Hedges) and a cat now inhabited by the soul of her dead husband (Tracy Letts, really) in tow, she moves to Paris unsure of where her life will take her next. The highlight of the film is that Francis is a dream role for any actress and Pfeiffer embraces her to her fullest. Francis is a blunt, take-no-prisoners dame who despite an assortment of sharp witted one liner at the tip of her tongue is hiding a suffocaiting heartache behind Pfeiffer’s steely blue eyes.
The legendary actress jumped on a zoom interview late last month before the Golden Globe nominations were announced for a quick convo regarding her latest flick.
The Playlist: Hi Michelle, how are you doing today?
Michelle Pfeiffer: I’m good. I like your t-shirt.
Oh wow, Thank you very much. So, most obvious question first: what about the script, the project, made you want to commit to it?
Well, I just fell in love with this writing and with this cast of oddball characters and this story. You never knew what was going to happen from one moment to the next. This woman, Frances, seeming kind of like she was from another time. And I also loved that she was just 100% herself all the time with her take-no-prisoners attitude, completely without apology. And there’s something that we are always drawn to that kind of character, because there’s a part of us that really wants to be a little bit more like that. You know?
Was there any personal inspiration for her?
She was kind of a compilation of people. No, I’d never met any characters like this. Yeah, you kind of have to piece them together a little bit. And then your biggest job is to try to personalize them and ground them in reality.
There are so many great lines in the script and Frances is the beneficiary of some major one-liners. Is there any line in particular that was a favorite?
Yeah, but I don’t know that I can say it. Will you bleep me out?
I’ll bleep you in this story, for sure. Absolutely. It’s a print story. It’s not video.
“Malcolm f*cked a witch on the boat, on the way over.” [Laughs.] I mean that whole kind of [no-b.s. attitude] about her. And one of my favorite lines, just sort of leading up to it. I think Malcolm says, “Can we please just find another name for her?” [Laughs.]
Did the book at all help you in terms of finding the character at all?
It was such a good adaptation. And of course, it’s always a challenge, because you can’t put everything in a book into the script. And that’s always the complaint and, “Oh, I liked the book so much better.” But I have to say, this was really successful. However, there would be times when I would have a scene coming up, or I’d be working on something, and there would be a moment that just didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know where it was coming from, and inevitably, I would to go back to the book, and it would be there. There’d be a line there that was missing. And one moment in particular was the scene in the kitchen with Malcolm, toward the end of the film. I’ll just say that it was the moment there. And there was a couple of lines that were missing [from the book] that made the whole scene for me.
Without giving too much away, one of the interesting things about Francis is that towards the end of the film she sort of becomes intent on giving away whatever money she has left. What did you think her motivation was to do this?
It’s kind of a little bit crazy what she does. So, I think it’s a hard thing to try to understand with our logical mind. You know how people do kind of nutty things, and you’re like, “What were they thinking?” And our brain just can’t find any logic whatsoever?. There’s a little bit of that going on here, but I don’t think she really even understands it when she starts. But at the end of the day, I think she realizes that money and wealth has been her blessing and her curse. She was born into wealth. She was born into money. Money has been her coping skill, her entire life. And without that, she has nothing. And I think that all of the characters in this piece are actually much more resilient than she is. And I think for Malcolm, believe that it’s actually one of the most loving things that she does for him in the film. I think she realizes this and realizes that he has a chance at a good life and a real life, and a substantial life and real love and real connections with people. And [she doesn’t] think he will have it if he’s rich.
What was it like working with Lucas?
I loved working with Lucas. There’s nothing not to love about him at all, as a person, as an actor. And I felt maternal about him, probably more than Frances, honestly. Definitely more than Frances. And he’s such a great actor, and he was perfect for this because he doesn’t speak a lot. So, he just is able to tell a story with honesty with just his face and just his being, and that was really important for this character.
It’s been announced that you’re going to play Betty Ford in this upcoming streaming adaptation about the lives of the First Ladies. What made you want to tackle that?
I was so honored immediately. [when they asked]. I’m a huge fan of the director, Susanne Bier. I think she’s so talented. And Viola Davis is producing, and she’s playing Michelle Obama in it. So right there, not even having read anything, I was in. I’m just incredibly honored that they would entrust me with portraying her, and I just really want to honor her in the best possible way that I can.
“French Exit” opens in limited release on Friday.