She was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but Michelle Pfeiffer insists she never retired – rather, she has been pursuing her passions out of the spotlight.
Two widespread beliefs about Michelle Pfeiffer have dogged her for the past several years. First is the notion she loathes giving interviews. The other is the matter of her on-screen output.
While not at the pace or profile of her zenith in the ’80s and ’90s, it has settled into a more leisurely and less conspicuous rhythm that has confounded audiences, who all but accuse her of quitting acting completely. Neither, she tells Stellar, is entirely accurate.
Let’s start with her attitude towards the media. “Oh, I’m easy,” she demurs. “I’m not a fan of interviews, but it’s easier when you love the project you’re promoting. So you’re getting me at my best.”
It helps that a task most actors find tedious is now conducted virtually thanks to the pandemic, a change Pfeiffer – sitting on a Zoom video call from her home in Los Angeles, looking criminally resplendent in an oversized white turtleneck – jokes that she loves because “first of all, you only have to dress from the waist up”.
Pre-COVID, this chat would have been one of dozens conducted in person, which would have only exacerbated her discomfort. “The rigour of that assembly line, four-minute interviews, going from one room to another… I find this way more intimate, and it seems more thoughtful. I just don’t want it to change.”
As for her workload, it may have slowed but she is hardly done making movies. It’s true that from 1980 (when she made her film debut in teen comedy The Hollywood Knights) to 2003 (when she provided a voiceover role for Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas), Pfeiffer acted at a steady clip.
She made more than 30 films in that period, many of them box-office successes and at least three of them immortalising her in scenes that will feature in best-of film (and fashion) reels for decades to come.
There she is, dancing in a blue satin dress as she shoots come-hither glances at Al Pacino in 1983’s Scarface; writhing on a piano – this time in red – as she sings ‘Makin’ Whoopee’ in 1989’s The Fabulous Baker Boys; slinking through Gotham as Catwoman in 1992’s Batman Returns, clad in a skin-tight bodysuit that even today she recalls as being “really uncomfortable… and such an ordeal”.
She was such a regular on-screen presence that when she took her first of two breaks in the early 2000s (each resulting in a four-year absence), it was treated as a kind of retirement, if not a wholescale exile.
Even now, people clamour for her return – a half-hour before the 62-year-old’s chat with Stellar, this journalist’s own mother asked: “Why hasn’t she done anything in so long? I haven’t seen her in years.”
Pfeiffer has an answer for that. “When I was working, I was working a lot,” she says.
“So I think people got used to seeing me a lot. And then I had a long break. And when I started working again, it was I Could Never Be Your Woman [which went straight to DVD in many countries, Australia included]. I did smaller parts; a lot of what I’ve been doing is maybe not on your mother’s radar? This may be her kind of movie.”
Pfeiffer is talking about her new film French Exit, a drawing-room comedy in which she plays a New York socialite named Frances who, widowed and running out of her inheritance, picks up with her son (Lucas Hedges) and moves to Paris.
It was the last movie she made before COVID hit, and while filming took her to the City of Lights as well as Montreal, the task at hand was hardly romantic. “Some parts come more naturally to me. And then there are parts like her, like Elvira in Scarface or my role in [2002’s] White Oleander… I had to work harder to find that connection.”
Over the years, Pfeiffer has often pointed out that she never received any formal training as an actor, and when asked if her decision to become one was the result of self-confidence, delusion or perhaps a mix of both, she tells Stellar with a sly laugh, “Definitely a bit of both. And that’s actually the secret of my success, in general, with everything I’ve ever done.
“It starts out with naiveté. It starts out with having a lot of courage. I realised recently how I’ve always had this little voice inside of me that said… given the opportunity, I can figure it out.
“And I realised that little voice was my mother. She didn’t have the same opportunities I had. I think she regretted never having had a career and felt a bit trapped. She never wanted that for me. She wanted me to have power – control over my destination.
“So, you know… I get myself into situations. ‘Yeah, I can do that!’ Then I’m into it and realise how little I really know what I’m doing. But then I have this sink-or-swim attitude and ultimately, most of the time, I end up swimming.”
Her mum Donna, a housewife who raised Pfeiffer and her three siblings, died in 2018; asked if she ever got the chance to talk with her about that insight, Pfeiffer sighs and replies, “I’m not sure I did enough.”
As for passing down that wisdom to her own children – daughter Claudia Rose, 28, and son John Henry, 26 – or any young actors looking for guidance, she is pragmatic.
“You can say it all you want to people, but until a lightbulb goes off… it’s timing. Maybe I wish I’d said it more to my mother, but you can’t say it until you own it, until something clicks. I just wish I’d owned it earlier.”
But if the industrious attitude her mother instilled and which she has long brought to her roles resulted in critical acclaim, box-office bankability and three Oscar nominations, it also gave Pfeiffer a level of stardom she struggled to embrace.
Reviews and articles would focus as much on her beauty as her talent; gossip wags mistook a penchant for privacy as prickliness. (It didn’t help when Robert Towne, who directed her alongside Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell in 1988’s Tequila Sunrise, called her “the most difficult actress in Hollywood”.) And then there was the omnipresent paparazzi, which unnerved her.
“A lot of times I did not maintain composure,” she says when asked how she handled their attention. “That was the thing I felt like I wasn’t very good at. It didn’t undo me, but I’d run from them. They terrified me. Honestly, it was just so invasive.”
Eventually Pfeiffer and her husband, TV producer David E. Kelley, decided to take up residence somewhere else, settling outside San Francisco on an estate with the apt street address of 100 Why Worry Way, where they raised their children.
Now she is back in the eye of the storm, living in a new LA home that she and Kelley (who Grease 2 fans will be delighted to learn she met when they were set up on a blind date to go bowling) purchased early last year.
“I’m older,” she says. “You get more accepting of the things you can’t change. So I can control where I show up. And I know there are certain spots where they’re going to be. I’m not goin’ there!”
She hasn’t had to worry about it much, anyway. The couple had owned their new digs for mere weeks when the world went into lockdown last March; nearly a year on, she says, “It still feels unsettled. Nothing sort of feels right. You have this constant sense that something’s missing, and it’s human contact. It’s your family, it’s your friends. It’s going to a restaurant. And you’re stuck. I think we’re all feeling off.”
Nonetheless, she has kept busy with her fragrance line Henry Rose, which she launched in 2019. “The silver lining was that I got to be hyper-focused on the business.” And last month it was announced she will play Betty Ford in The First Lady, an upcoming anthology TV series focusing on three wives of former US presidents.
But if the work weren’t there? Well, Kelley is. As their marriage approaches three decades, she reflects on what has kept them together, particularly as their profession can keep couples apart and in far-flung locations for long stretches.
“We’re different enough to keep each other interested,” Pfeiffer says. “But we’re incredibly compatible. I think our priorities are really well-matched. And I chose well; I picked a really good one.”
French Exit is in cinemas from March 18.