After five decades of acting, Michelle Pfeiffer is a Hollywood untouchable. She speaks exclusively to Stylist.
Words: Debbie McQuoid
Despite the many times I’ve waited in a hotel lobby or visited a set to meet an actress, that pre-interview hour elicits a certain apprehension. Waiting to speak to Michelle Pfeiffer, a Hollywood legend and personal idol, has me positively unstrung.
This is where I will briefly go overboard on the superlatives: Michelle is polished, accomplished and flawless. On that last point, science backs me up. A study in 2001 decreed Pfeiffer had the exact facial proportions for feminine beauty, based on the ratio of her mouth to the width of her nose. A boyfriend of mine once complimented me by telling me one of my eyebrows (the left one) was like Michelle Pfeiffer’s. I’ve carried that with me for nearly 15 years.
But she’s also starred in some seriously good films. In 1988, Married To The Mob convinced me to get a perm and dream of having a bath in my kitchen. Others in the Stylist office can still remember whole scenes of dialogue from Grease 2 or have Makin’ Whoopee as their karaoke song of choice based on the style she sang it in on top of Jeff Bridges' piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys. In fact, Michelle has 33 years of film back catalogue to choose from making her incredibly influential.
The industry loves Michelle. Directors who have worked with her often praise her for her skill at disguising her emotions which means a transatlantic telephone call isn’t ideal for an in-depth interview. She’s calling from her ranch in California; I’m picking up in my study in Hertfordshire. We are worlds apart.
To add to my anxiety, there is a slight coolness to Michelle. It’s not an unfriendliness; far from it. One of the reasons why she has made the transition from A list to legend is not only her longevity, but her accessibility. However, she doesn’t seem to enjoy giving interviews much and, starting out in the relative PR innocence of 30 years ago, means she never had to deal with a paparazzi car chase or announce a divorce on Twitter. Later, she will liken present day Hollywood to the Wild West.
When she was cast as Al Pacino’s cocaine-snorting trophy wife in Scarface, she became internationally known
In the meantime, she starts by apologising. She hasn’t seen the final cut of the film that we are sitting in our respective living rooms to discuss: Dark Shadows, Tim Burton’s latest gothic offering based on the Sixties US TV show of the same name. Luckily, I have, and alongside another inspired performance from Burton’s perma-lead Johnny Depp, Michelle lends her sophisticated nonchalance to play Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the matriarch of a family fallen on hard times, brilliantly. “I’m in charge of things,” she tells me in her measured, almost sleepy, tone.
But not watching her own films is nothing new for Michelle. “Never,” she states. “I’m just so critical. I’m always expecting perfection and then I end up disappointed and embarrassed. For many years, when I had to watch my films [at premieres], it would finish and I would realise that I had stopped breathing. I would wonder how long it’d been since I took a breath. It hasn’t gotten any easier.”
I try to empathise. It must be hard to watch yourself on screen. Most people would hate it and women in particular can be torturously self-critical. “No, I think actors are just as vain as actresses,” she says, matter-of-factly.
Vanity, or beauty to be exact, is a major contributing factor to Michelle’s allure. Whereas the sharp sculpture of her bone structure made her look slightly more mature in her early films; her wide eyes, full lips and fair hair have kept her looking the same age for the past 15 years.
She tells me she was self-conscious about her looks, especially when she was young. An early role as a character called ‘The Bombshell’ (in 1979 US TV series Delta House) can’t have helped. Was it hard to convince people she was more than just a pretty face?
“In the beginning,” she admits, “but I was pretty lucky. I didn’t have to fight that struggle for long. Married To The Mob was a critical turning point for me. I was so surprised [director] Jonathan [Demme] gave me the opportunity to play the part. He was able to see past how I looked and trust that I could create this other woman, because there was nothing really in my body of work that would’ve given him an inkling I could do that. Not that I hadn’t done some good work – I had – but I hadn’t really transformed myself in that way. All of a sudden I couldn’t really be pigeonholed anymore.”
Born in Santa Ana, California in 1958 to Dick (an air-conditioning contractor) and Donna (a housewife), Michelle had what seems like a storybook rise to stardom. After leaving school and working as a check-out girl, she entered a beauty pageant (Miss Orange County) and soon after started auditioning for acting roles. An early marriage to actor Peter Horton was short-lived, mainly due to their careers – Michelle flew back early from her honeymoon after she landed the part of Stephanie Zinone in Grease 2. When she was cast as the cocaine-snorting trophy wife in Brian de Palma’s remake of Scarface with Al Pacino, she became known internationally. What followed was an uncompromising work ethic, but sadly the end of her marriage. Michelle then worked solidly, averaging two (blockbuster) films a year for nearly two decades.
Soon, though, Michelle wanted more. And, in lieu of a stable relationship, she started proceedings to adopt a daughter, Claudia Rose, now 19, as a single parent. A few months in, she met her future husband, Ally McBeal writer/producer David E Kelley. They adopted Claudia Rose together, married in 1993, and Michelle gave birth to their son, John Henry, the next year.
The catsuit was not pleasant to be in and the physicality of it all was exhausting. But, even so, I really didn’t want it to end
“My privacy is obviously really, really important to me, it always has been,” she says. “[When we moved] the paparazzi had just started heating up and they were beginning to cross boundaries in ways they hadn’t before. You could always predict when they would start bugging you, like, when you had a movie out, or there were certain places you would avoid. But suddenly they just started following you for no reason. It was becoming a kind of free for all.”
“No. It’s never easy to turn down work if it’s something you want to do and you’re torn,” she explains. “I’ve had to turn down some things I really wanted to do. But I don’t regret it. I know it was the right decision. Because I can’t complain, I’ve had a great career and a great family and I’m incredibly blessed that I’m able to juggle it all.”
As a woman, did she find herself over-thinking things; her responsibility towards family, but not wanting to give up her career as well? “Of course,” she says. “I think all women who work and have families struggle with that; finding that right balance. I’m such a control freak and I was able to juggle a lot until I had my first child. It was a rude awakening for me. It was the first time in my life I couldn’t do everything. I realised at that point that a person could have it all, but they can’t do it all. That was a really hard adjustment for me. But there’s nothing more unpredictable and harder and humbling than being a parent.”
This is possibly the 10th time Michelle has mentioned ‘control’ during our interview. She’s pretty unapologetic about it; determined. Of course her film experiences have mostly been enjoyable, but the way she talks about certain projects, it’s clear she doesn’t enjoy experiences where she has to do things. Like, the five hours of make-up and prosthetics she went through daily on the set of Stardust in 2007 – “It seemed intolerable” – or wearing that catsuit for Batman Returns, her first time working with Tim Burton.
It’s hard to believe its 20 years since that iconic, PVC-clad performance as Catwoman/Selina Kyle. In a recent interview, the director admitted Michelle as Catwoman was one of his favourite performances in any of his films, but the tension of action scenes in high heels and filming on rooftops means they had a better working relationship this time around on Dark Shadows.
“That catsuit was not pleasant to be in,” she admits (she reportedly went through 60 during the sixmonth shoot). “It was a real chore. And the physicality of it all, the training and everything that went into it, was exhausting. But, even so, I really didn’t want that one to end. Tim is such a joy to work with.”
Acting doesn’t have the retirement guidelines of more conventional careers, but after 45 films, a four-year sojourn, and a triumphant return to our cinema screens, does she always hope to work?
“I can’t see myself ever retiring. Ever,” she says. “I started working part-time when I was 14 and still at school. And I’ve never stopped. From the moment I started, I loved it, and I feel like I always need to be productive in some way. When the kids were growing up, it was challenging and creative and a big project. But who knows? I may not always be acting; I hope I am”.
Dark Shadows is in cinemas nationwide from 11 May