Michelle Pfeiffer: Into The Mind Of Michelle
In the late eighties through much of the nineties, Michelle Pfeiffer was one of the hottest leading ladies in Hollywood. Around the start of the 21st century, Pfeiffer’s career started to cool off. To some extent, that was due to Pfeiffer starting a family with TV producer David E. Kelley. In this interview from the April 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, Pfeiffer talked with Stephen Rebello about motherhood, whether or not she is difficult to get to know and how she creates chemistry with notoriously prickly leading men like Sean Penn and Harrison Ford.
Michelle Pfeiffer is easily one of the most ravishingly beautiful women in the history of Hollywood. The mere architecture of her face–those high cheekbones, plump lips and large green eyes–could have been enough to make her famous. But the reason her career has thrived for over two decades is because this girl can really act. After Grease 2, Scarface (her turn as a coke-addled golden girl mantrap is unforgettable), Ladyhawke and The Witches of Eastwick, Pfeiffer could have coasted on her surf-girl-meets-blonde-Venus allure straight through to her twilight years, but she instead shoved at the boundaries of her acting gifts, persistently ferreting out roles that required her to mine the archaeology of the soul. Playing a Chiclet-chewing, frosted-lipped gangster’s widow in 1988’s Married to the Mob revealed a certain fearlessness. Nailing the role of a virtuous 18th-century beauty who gets emotionally raked over the coals by John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons won the actress her first Oscar nomination. But it was her sultry performance as a lounge singer in The Fabulous Baker Boys (for which she received her second Oscar nomination) that turned her into a movie star and allowed her to pick the projects she desired. She next cracked a whip as a ferocious feline in Batman Returns, went for gold again in Love Field (which won her a third Oscar nomination), teamed up with Martin Scorsese for The Age of Innocence, entered a gangsta’s paradise in Dangerous Minds and shared One Fine Day with George Clooney.
By that time, Pfeiffer’s personal life had also taken a change for the better. After adopting her daughter Claudia Rose and meeting, marrying and getting pregnant with TV producer David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice,” “Boston Public”)–all within the span of one year–she suddenly had a family to look after, which caused her to reduce the number of films she was making. Still, she managed to star in one of 2000’s biggest hits, the well-crafted Robert Zemeckis thriller What Lies Beneath, and costar with Sean Penn as a type-A, Armani-wearing L.A. lawyer in the drama I Am Sam. At 43, she’s still much in demand, is highly respected and can call one of the shrewdest career dossiers in Hollywood her own. The only thing she doesn’t yet have is an Oscar, but with three nominations already behind her, it’s hard to believe there isn’t a win in her future somewhere. Perhaps her next, White Oleander, in which she plays an imprisoned mother whose daughter is forced into a gut-wrenching foster-care system, could be her ticket.
I’m set to meet Michelle at the place of her choice, Peppone, an Old World-style Italian haunt. We arrive synchronously and quickly duck under the canopy of the restaurant because it’s raining. I go to pull open the big wooden door, but it won’t budge. She looks perplexed. Another yank. Nada. “Maybe it’s swollen from the rain?” she offers. “No, it’s dead-bolted, see?” I tell her. She looks bewildered, even a tad embarrassed. “I’m sure my assistant made reservations,” she says. We then both notice the restaurant’s big brass plaque that says the establishment doesn’t open until dinner. She looks flustered. “But this place is fantastic,” she wails. And then, the skies open and we’re caught in a torrent. This can’t be happening. First, I’m wearing my really good shoes and Pfeiffer’s wearing really good everything. I’m thinking how interesting this could get. No one has ever accused Pfeiffer of flexing her movie-star muscles, but neither has anyone called her a lightweight in the emotions department, either. Exactly how will someone as legendarily enigmatic as she handle such a mix-up?
She speed-dials her assistant, learns that no reservation was made and shoves her phone in her purse. Suddenly, she laughs it off, shrugs and says, “OK, now where would you like to go?” We choose another Italian restaurant down the street and after the manager ushers us into a private dining space she says, “Now we’re happy. Aren’t we happy?”
Q: I Am Sam is very much an acting showcase for Sean Penn. What made you want to be involved?
A: I loved the writing and thought the story was so unusual. I saw the character Rita as challenging. I didn’t know what to do with her at first, I was scared. I tried to personalize her where I could, and in doing so found ways that I can be ultracontrolling. It’s not a huge reach for me [Laughs]. You know, feeling that sort of pressure to be perfect. Then there were the feelings of failure–we’ve all had days when you just feel like a total failure.
Q: How was it working with Sean Penn?
A: I’d met Sean at different times but didn’t know what to expect. I don’t know half of what’s been written about him, but I do know that sometimes when people are as gifted as he is, they can work totally alone, which is OK, but it’s not necessarily that exciting to act with. I prepared by telling myself, “OK, I’m going to work with a genius and whatever’s going to happen will happen. I’m just going to take care of myself.” But then I found him accessible, funny, really smart and incredibly generous as an actor.
Q: Did he insist on staying in character between shots, as he has been known to do?
A: No, he was a total goofball and practical joker.
Q: Were you surprised at being slighted by virtually all of the big acting awards?
A: I can understand why I was not included. I think there were just a lot of great performances by women this year and there are only so many nominations they can give out [Yawns].
A: I was up until late and then I couldn’t sleep all night. I have bouts of sleeplessness, it comes and goes. I used to have bouts of insomnia when I was younger. I don’t know why I have it now. Maybe because I’m so exhausted from the kids. If I’m worried about something or over scheduled, the mind never stops.
Q: Do you take anything for it?
A: No. Last night, I just put the TV on and there was this commercial for Coca-Cola that looked like an old-fashioned animated fairy tale. It was so simple, hopeful, sweet and innocent. I sat there wide awake, saying to myself, “Oh, that’s what I long for.”
Q: What else did you do while you were awake?
A: I was lying in bed kind of like, “Well, should I get up?” And I just laid there for a while thinking, “You know what one of the great things about getting older is? If you want to get up, you can just do that.” [Laughs] Another thing I was thinking about while not sleeping was that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve probably accepted more about myself. For instance, during Thanksgiving, I found myself thinking, “I don’t like turkey.” The difference is, I now realize, I don’t have to make turkey and I don’t have to eat it. That’s part of growing up. It’s liberating for me.
Q: Those sound like the ruminations of someone who might have had a strict upbringing.
A: I got into a lot of trouble. Often. I don’t want to say why. When I was very little, I remember stealing a stupid toy at a store and getting caught right there. The manager scolded me heavily, told me to get out and never come back. I thought, “Whew, what a relief.” Then when we got home, my sister proceeded to tell my mother. She ratted on me big time. [Laughs] That’s what little sisters do.
Q: Since you’ve mentioned you watch TV when you can’t sleep, what are some of your favorite shows?
A: “The Practice,” “Boston Public,” “Ally McBeal” [Laughs].
Q: Because you’re pointedly plugging your husband’s shows, you’ve just opened the door for me to ask some questions about him. How well would you say he balances the demands of being a father, a husband and a prolific producer?
A: He works hard but we see him just as much as we did in the beginning. He gets better all the time at delegating, he really manages his time well. He doesn’t write a lot at home. I don’t know how he does it.
Q: Can you remember something physical that really attracted you to him?
A: His scars. He’s messed up a little, otherwise he’d be way too cute. I don’t go for that “cute” thing, usually. It’s not really been my pattern. When I met David, I thought, “He’s got really good scars from hockey.” He’s also got the greatest mind. I just never get bored with him. He always surprises me. Just when I think I know everything about him, I learn more.
Q: How has motherhood changed you personally?
A: It’s changed me in every way. All of a sudden, you begin to see the world through their eyes and it never stops. It colors my day-to-day life, how I schedule everything around them. I can’t imagine my world without them. Not everybody wants to have children. Not everybody should have children. For me, it was a huge missing link in my life and I saw it coming for about five or six years. I always knew I would adopt at some point.
Q: About 10 years ago Cher was quoted as saying, “I told her this once, and I believe it: ‘If you came up to me one day and said, “Cher, this is my son, he’s six–I just didn’t think I could trust you until now,” I wouldn’t be surprised.'”
A: Well, that almost turned out to be true. I had Claudie for a month before anybody knew. My parents didn’t know, so Cher shouldn’t feel quite so bad. Here’s the thing about my family–we feud. Then, we get along. We’re emotional. We should be Italian. At the time I adopted Claudie, we were feuding. My parents were amazing when they found out. Claudie really brought everybody back together.
Q: Has motherhood changed the way you think about your career?
A: I have to say that it colors the projects that I do because I personally want to tuck my kids in bed. When I’m considering a role, I definitely take into account, “Is it going to take me away from them?” If it is, I think about what’s going on in their lives. Are they just starting a new school year? Not a great time. If it’s shooting on location in summer, though, it might be an interesting place for them to come. They love to travel. Ultimately, I don’t know how much energy 111 have down the line but my guess is, when my children leave the nest, I’m going to be working a whole lot because I think I’m going to have a big void to fill.
Q: Have you shied away from doing sexy movies because you’re now a mom?
A: Even though it hasn’t changed my taste in movies much, I do think about if they’re going to get teased in school about it. Would it be embarrassing for them? Are they going to pay for my having done this scene? When my father was alive, I didn’t do certain things in movies so I could avoid his wrath. Now that he’s dead, it’s the children. There’s always some¬one to answer to.
Q: Have you shown your children any of your movies?
A: [Laughs] I tried once. I’d realized that a lot of their friends at school had seen me in movies while they themselves hadn’t seen anything I’d done. I was scrambling to think of any movie that was in any way appropriate, so I showed them Grease 2. They were so bored that within 15 minutes, they were busy doing something else. At least they have good taste, right?