New Woman | July 1996

New Woman | July 1996

Michelle Pfeiffer

The thinking man’s (and woman’s) sex symbol on swapping leather for nappies

By Hillary Johnson | Photographs Andrew Eccles/Outline

Are you having more kids?’ she asks.

‘No,’ I say. ‘I think I’m done.’

Michelle Pfeiffer nods. ‘I think I’m done too. I’m 80 to 90 per cent sure I’m done.’ She’s half an hour late, as people with small children always are. I’d have been late too were I not interviewing Michelle Pfeiffer. She apologises, saying that she and her husband, TV writer-producer David Kelley (creator of Chicago Hope), and their two kids are playing host to Pfeiffer’s sister and family, which includes a seven-week-old infant. ‘David looked at me this morning and whispered, “Man, I don’t want another of those right now.’” She explains, ‘Because all you can think about is how tired my sister is when you look at her face.’

It can be jarring to encounter movie stars in the flesh; there’s always some weirdness about the physical person that translates on the screen as star quality, even if it’s just an oversized head or an unseemly abundance of energy. Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t jar. She comes across as an exquisitely proportioned human being, inside and out. It creeps me out, usually, when movie stars go on about the bliss of parenthood. So I like the fact that Pfeiffer sounds frazzled. ‘But they’re very seductive,’ she sighs, ‘little babies.’

For our meeting, Pfeiffer is dressed like anyone else in jeans, brown corduroy jacket, black T-shirt. Many people had a hard time buying the notion of her as an inner-city teacher in Dangerous Minds. To me, she looks like she actually could be a teacher, and not just because she’s wearing corduroy. She carries herself with easy conviction; you wouldn’t want to mess with her, but you’d definitely trust her.

Frankly, I was expecting Pfeiffer to be more neurotic than she is, more like the character she plays in the just released Up Close And Personal, which is loosely based on the tragic life of American TV newscaster Jessica Savitch (who died in a car crash in 1983) and in which she stars with Robert Redford.

‘The thing about LA is you can carve out your own world, which is nice. For better and for worse, Los Angeles is a place where anything goes. I really do like that… it’s very nonjudgmental

Still, I can’t help thinking she must go into an interview feeling pre-screwed, having had her personal life probed by the tabloids (for example, in 1992 the American magazine People gleefully interviewed the 17-year-old with whom her then-boyfriend Fisher Stevens had allegedly had a tryst). As a result, Pfeiffer has been described as Garboesque in her pursuit of privacy.

When she married Kelley in 1993, they sprang a surprise wedding on friends who thought they were attending the christening of the couple’s newly adopted daughter Claudia Rose. This strikes me as more romantic than paranoid, and there were, reportedly, no other celebrities in attendance. The couple now have two children, Claudia Rose, three, and John, one-and-a-half. Which may be why Pfeiffer is obsessed with the pros and cons of living in Los Angeles.

‘The thing about LA is you can carve out your own world, which is nice. For better and for worse, Los Angeles is a place where anything goes. I really do like that. sometimes you feel that it lacks a moral fabric in the sense of community, and yet what I really like about it is that it’s very nonjudgmental.’ She gives a half-smile and drops the punch-line: ‘But I don’t want to raise my kids here.’

‘But you grew up here,’ I point out.

‘I didn’t grow up in LA. I grew up in Orange County [California],’ she corrects. ‘It’s very different. It’s almost the Midwest –  and I wouldn’t want to bring my kids up there either!’ Pfeiffer grew up one of three daughters of Donna and Dick, a heating contractor. She whiled away her teens as a surfer girl and grocery store clerk, and got her first acting break – a bit part on an episode of Fantasy Island – after winning a beauty pageant. Sounds like an excellent bimbo biography, but Pfeiffer is the least bimbonic blonde you could ever hope to meet.

After Fantasy Island and the colossally awful movie sequel Grease 2, she fought hard to get herself cast opposite Al Pacino in Scarface in 1983. But she had to wait until 1988 before she could clock in a really terrific year: starring in Married to the Mob with Matthew Modine, Tequila Sunrise with Mel Gibson and Dangerous Liaisons with John Malkovich, which also brought Pfeiffer her first Oscar nomination. Since then she’s risen, with hardly a hitch, to a point where Hollywood perceives her as one of the only actresses who can open a movie without a leading man.

Now that she’s more than arrived, Pfeiffer appears almost-God forbid-bored with stardom. She turned down Evita to stay home with her husband and kids. And instead of going for big, commercial roles, she’s developing projects on her own, including A Thousand Acres based on Jane Smiley’s novel. And as for those occasional (rent-paying) big, commercial roles, there’s Up Close And Personal.

In typically understated fashion, Pfeiffer gives me only one anecdote about making Up Close and that has to do with the first time for her children visited the set. ‘I had to wear five different wigs for this movie,’ she recalls, ‘and my son burst into tears the first time he saw me. You know that kids recognize people by their hairline?’

Michelle Pfeiffer is more interested in talking about other projects further down the pipeline. ‘You’re always looking for a good part, preferably one in a movie that won’t embarrass you,’ she says without a roll of the eyes.

She seems so genuine and personal that I decide to risk my one Potentially Annoying Question. ‘This may drive you nuts,’ I begin, ‘but a lot of people say that Catwoman in Batman Returns was your best role.’ (It’s certainly one of her best remembered.)

‘I worked my ass off,’ she says. ‘Here I thought, I’ll just go do this comic-book movie. How hard can it be? But between the training and the whipping and the costuming and the character…’

Her voice trails off in exhaustion. ‘Finally everything was fitting and nothing was choking me and I could walk in the shoes, then it was over. I felt like I was just getting started, so I’d like to pick up where I left off.’ Batman director Tim Burton and Pfeiffer are indeed kicking around the notion of a Catwoman movie.

‘Tim and I had this kind of simpatico,’ she continues. ‘We’re both from this sort of middle-class, white bread background, lived in sweet little middle-class neighbourhoods, so we had this immediate connection with each other, feeling like we definitely don’t belong.

‘Catwoman was a very interesting character, very fun and very difficult. Tim and I approached her as a schizophrenic, somebody who was desperately trying to keep things under wraps, who was always trying to be Debbie Reynolds. She’s oppressed, suppressed, and depressed. She implodes, basically.’

‘That’s why I take people seriously when they say Catwoman was your best role,’ I say. She gives me a bemused look that says, basically, that she’ll never admit it in a million years.

‘Well, I was nominated for an Oscar that year for Love Field,’ she says instead, ‘and I was really disappointed that it wasn’t for Batman, even though I knew it was ridiculous. I mean, nobody gets nominated for Batman. It just doesn’t happen!’ She laughs heartily and I realize that this is how she sees Hollywood.

When I ask Michelle why she’s so drawn to such schizophrenic materials as A Thousand Acres, which is King Lear set on a Midwestern farm told from the point of view of three sisters, Pfeiffer first mumbles something to me about being one of three sisters herself.

‘My daughter used to think any woman wearing a black dress and black stockings was me. I had to teach her that it wasn’t exactly appropriate to go up to strange women and rub their legs’

Then, finally owning up, she blurts out, ‘You know, there’s really nothing more perverted than the American family. It’s like the best kept secret, but it’s very twisted. We still have this Father Knows Best notion that’s the norm, when in fact it’s not, and it never has been.’

Given Pfeiffer’s dry view of the all-American nuclear family unit, having a happy family must be a really subversive act. ‘I think for a long time I was more attracted to dark material and tortured characters,’ she says. Pfeiffer is only now shooting her first romantic comedy, One Fine Day written by Ellen Simon (daughter of Neil) and co-starring ER’s George Clooney (see our interview in the men’s section). ‘You just have to suspend reality a tiny bit when it’s a romantic comedy. When I real scripts, I always looked for everything to be based in reality. And when it veered off, I’d lose interest. With comedy, you have to be willing to go there. I’m more willing to go there now.”

Becoming a mum may be one reason. ‘One Fine Day is based on a kind of reality, for me,’ she says. ‘It’s about what it’s like being a single parent who has a career, and how having kids is hysterical. They’re funny in what they do and the predicaments they get you into.’

For a moment we get back to trading parental war stories, the way people with small children do. ‘My daughter used to think any woman wearing a black dress and black stockings was me,’ Pfeiffer recalls. ‘She would go up to strangers in the store, women who had black stockings on, and go “Oooh” and start petting them. I had to teach her that it wasn’t exactly appropriate to go up to strange women and start to rub their legs.’

‘But who wouldn’t want Catwoman for a mum?’ I ask. Pfeiffer gives a wry, maternal frown.

‘I’m doing The Muppets,’ she offers. ‘But my daughter doesn’t seem to like Muppets.’ What kid of Michelle Pfeiffer’s would?

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