Michelle Pfeiffer rarely says exactly what she’s thinking.
So it came as a burst of fresh air to play a widowed socialite who does just that in French Exit.
In the film, out Tuesday on demand, Pfeiffer, 63, plays Frances Price, a New York dowager who uproots herself, along with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their talking cat, to live out the rest of her days in Paris and spend her dwindling fortune.
“I try to be polite, but sometimes it’s exhausting,” Pfeiffer says with a trace of a laugh. “She has this take-no-prisoners attitude, and she can be rude and curt at times. But I think what’s appealing about her — which is always appealing with all of these types of people we might run across in life — is her ability to speak her truth and live a life without apology. There’s something liberating about that.”
The part landed Pfeiffer a Canadian Screen Award for best leading actress last month and is the latest in a long line of disparate roles that, over the past few decades, have seen her veer between wrenching period pieces (The Age of Innocence, Dangerous Liaisons), decadent crime pictures (Into the Night, Scarface), stirring dramas (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Love Field) and Hollywood blockbusters (Batman Returns, What Lies Beneath, Hairspray).
After two breaks, one in the early aughts and another in the 2010s, to raise her children with her husband, writer and producer David E. Kelley, Pfeiffer has returned anew, booking roles in Marvel’s Antman series, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and Disney’s Maleficent.
She’s also set to play Betty Ford on Showtime’s upcoming First Lady series and continues to run her own fragrance brand, Henry Rose.
“I was missing it,” the threetime Oscar nominee says of her return to acting in a Zoom interview. “So I started to dip my toe in again and ease my way back in.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Pfeiffer spoke about her playing a fallen society queen in French Exit, reflected on her career, and opened up on a nearly 30-yearold Batman Returns whip stunt that went viral for the first time earlier this year.
Every single project I start I’m convinced in the first few days or the first week that I will be fired. I always brace myself for that. But look, everyone gets the new-job jitters. Whatever kind of job that you have.
Screen legend Michelle Pfeiffer says she’s still afraid to fail.
Frances is a unique character in a career that’s been full of them. How did you respond to her when you first read this story?
“Frances wasn’t like anything I had read before. I think I read the book in one sitting. I just couldn’t put it down. I thought it was such beautiful writing and I loved stepping into this very strange and wonderful world of these eclectic people longing for human connection, really, in many different ways.
“What I loved in many ways was how (the story was about) finding that with complete strangers and building this very unusual community.”
Did you like her?
“I did. I don’t think I could have played her without liking her.”
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Do you have to like everyone you play?
“I do. I have to find it. Sometimes it’s harder to find than others, but those are always the most fun characters to play.”
How do you know when you’re turning in a good performance?
“The truth is you don’t. At least I don’t. I used to think that I did. For many, many years I came away feeling unsure about some performances and nervous, and they ended up being much better than I anticipated. But I’ve also walked away from films thinking, `Whoa, I’m sure I’ll get an award for this,’ and nothing happened, and I got raked over the coals by critics. So I’ve learned I’m really the worst critic of my own work. All I can do is the best that I can in my own way and try not to think about it.”
What’s the thing that makes you say yes to a character?
“I typically respond emotionally. I’m not sure that’s always the best thing (laughs). But I ask myself if this is a character that I feel some connection to.”
There’s an exchange in the movie where the characters are talking about luck and their belief in luck. Looking back on your own career, are you able to see where you got lucky in the roles you chose or the movies you got to be a part of?
“I do feel I’ve been really lucky, but at the same time I worked really hard for everything. I’ve studied hard. I’m probably the hardest-working person on set always. (Hairspray director) Adam Shankman used to say about me that I was like the Energizer Bunny, I wanted to go again and again and again. But I also think I’ve been given a lot of great opportunities. So I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying that it’s a little bit of both.”
You took two acting breaks — one in the early 2000s and again in the mid-’10s. What led to those and what brought you back?
“When my kids were little, I could take them anywhere. That worked for me. But when they started establishing their own routines, I was reluctant to uproot them and the family unit. I thought I could work in the summer … but then it just became too complicated to hire me. It’s not that I went into an official hiatus. It just became harder and harder for me to say yes, and easier and easier for me to say no. Then I was ready after a while when the kids got older.”
I remember seeing a quote from you about how you are afraid to fail. Is that still something you think about?
“I do. Every single project I start I’m convinced in the first few days or the first week that I will be fired. I always brace myself for that. But look, everyone gets the new-job jitters. Whatever kind of job that you have. Everyone gets nervous and anxious and probably not going to perform their best in the first few weeks of a new job because of their anxiety. Actors get new jobs two, three times a year. So we’re no different than anyone else.”
What’s it like to be part of the MCU in the franchise?
“They are such a great group of people. So fun. We’re starting up another one in August and I’m really excited to revisit Janet Van Dyne and see my Ant-man family. It’s fun, but you forget how uncomfortable the suits are, and it’s exhausting having to do those types of films. But I’m looking forward to starting up again.”
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You went viral earlier this year when a video surfaced of you doing a whip stunt as Catwoman on the set of Batman Returns. What did you think of that?
“I had forgotten about that scene. I thought it was really cool that someone dusted that off and posted it. It was really fun.”
Would you want to play Catwoman again?
“Sure I would. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but yeah. I felt like at the end of that shoot, because there was a lot to contend with — there was the whip and the claws and the boots and the suit — I felt like toward the end of the shoot I began to fall into something and get comfortable, and then it was over. So that would be fun, but unlikely.”
French Exit is available across all digital and on demand platforms this Tuesday