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Michelle Pfeiffer, over the course of more than 40 years in the business, has come to be regarded as one of the most talented movie stars in the history of Hollywood. She has three Oscar nominations and an Emmy nom to her name. She has been included on People magazine’s list of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World a record six times, twice appearing on the cover of the issue, including the first time it was published back in 1990. And though she has worked less frequently in recent years than she did in the past, when she does work, people always sit up and take notice. Proof of icon status? See, or rather hear, Bruno Mars‘ “Uptown Funk” and Vance Joy‘s “Riptide.”
The 62-year-old’s latest project is Azazel Jacobs‘ dramedy French Exit, in which she plays a widowed socialite whose fortunes take a turn for the worse. On a recent episode of Awards Chatter, the 62-year-old reflected on her journey to this moment.
* * * You can listen to the episode here. Excerpts of the conversation appear below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Evans, Carey Mulligan, Seth MacFarlane, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Glenn Close, Will Ferrell, Cate Blanchett, Sacha Baron Cohen, Greta Gerwig, Conan O’Brien, Jodie Foster & Kevin Hart.
* * *
Where were you born and raised and what did your folks do for a living?
I was born in Santa Ana, California, but I was raised in Midway City, also in Orange County. My mother didn’t work; she cared for the family. And my father was in heating and air conditioning.
How did acting first enter the picture for you?
I remember putting on plays in the backyard when I was very little and charging the neighbors 10 cents to come see them, so I guess I had the acting bug early on. And I remember watching old black-and-white movies late at night when I wasn’t supposed to be up — I guess they were probably, like, old Bette Davis movies — and I remember thinking, “I can do that.” Why did I think that? I have no idea. I signed up for a theater class in high school just for the credits — I always thought the theater people were a little odd, but I ended up feeling right at home with all of them. I loved it and I loved the teacher. I remember one day I did something in class and she said to me, “I think you have talent,” or “I think you should stick with it,” something like that. She doesn’t remember me at all in the class, but she had a very big impact on me. But I didn’t grow up believing that that was a real possibility.
I went to stenography school. After about a year, I decided that really wasn’t right for me. And I worked at a supermarket for a number of years — I started out as a box girl, then worked my way up to stock clerk, and then the cash register. I was not very good at that — I could never seem to balance my cash register at the end of the day. Finally, in a fit of frustration one day at work, I asked myself — I remember the day — “What is it you really want to do in life? If somebody could just hand it to you, let’s pretend you didn’t have to work for it, let’s pretend it was actually possible?” And it was acting. I sort of surprised myself. I didn’t really expect that answer.
So you’re 19 and you move to L.A.?
Not initially. In the very beginning, I was embarrassed — I thought it was really arrogant for me to think that I could become an actor and actually get work. Mostly I thought I was going to fail. But I remember thinking, “Well, I’m young enough. If I fail, I fail. I’ll do something else.” So I told my hairdresser — he was the only one I told, because I somehow felt that he wouldn’t judge me. He said, “I want to come over. I want to bring something.” And he came over with an application for a beauty pageant. I nearly threw him out of the house — this is just not something I would’ve ever done — but he said, “Wait, hear me out. There’s a judge who has been known to sign people from the pageants.” So I did it, and I signed with the agent and that was my first commercial agency. After about a year, I was introduced to a theatrical agent. So for the first year, I worked at Vons and sometimes auditioned in L.A. Then I did a couple of jobs. And then I moved to L.A.
Before long, Grease 2 comes along, there are hundreds of people going out for the female lead, and you land it. That was the first major job, right?
Oh, it was huge for me. It was huge and terrifying and nobody was more surprised than me that I was offered that role. I couldn’t really dance. I wasn’t a singer. So I’m not sure how that happened.
Grease 2 came out in ’82 and flopped, then Scarface followed in ’83. What did you make of that character?
Remember, in the end [of Scarface], she does leave him, which is not always the story with women like this. I always think back about my mother, who did not have a career, and I think always regretted not having a career. Of course, she was raising four children and taking care of a household. That’s what women did. But it was really important to her that I have a career. She always used to say to me, “Shell, no matter what you do, before you get married, you need to be on your own and you need to learn how to support yourself.” And that’s one of the things I always tell young women.
After Scarface, you were in a lot of movies that people saw and enjoyed — Tequila Sunrise, Sweet Liberty and others — but it seems like it wasn’t until four years later, with The Witches of Eastwick, that things really changed for you in terms of opportunity and celebrity.
I was in Europe when the film was released in the States. And then I came back and all of a sudden — it seemed overnight — I was being recognized, and my profile had just sort of changed overnight.
How did you react to that?
Not well. I had people chasing me and sneaking around. And I’m an incredibly private person. It really frightened me. It still frightens me, honestly. I’m much, much better at it, but I also know how to avoid it. I know places to avoid and I know if I step into certain situations, I just sort of brace myself. But I used to run from them, which is really stupid. It’s like running from a bear, you know?
The year after Witches, you were in Married to the Mob, which seems like it was an opportunity for you to show that you had more range than maybe people had given you credit for before.
I was so honored that Jonathan Demme asked me to play that part because there had been nothing in my portfolio that would lead him to believe that I could play this Italian mob wife from New Jersey. I don’t know what it was about that part, but I felt so comfortable playing her, and I just loved the movie. And I think it was the thing that upset the apple cart. It confused people. Now they didn’t know where to pigeonhole me. And so that was a major turning point for me.
That same year brought Dangerous Liaisons. And then the next year was The Fabulous Baker Boys. Roger Ebert’s review began, “There is a scene in The Fabulous Baker Boys where Michelle Pfeiffer, wearing a slinky red dress, uncurls on top of a piano while singing ‘Makin’ Whoopie.’ The rest of the movie is also worth the price of admission.”
Take me back to that scene. Did you know in the moment that it was something special?
No. In fact, I was terrified. I thought I was going to make a fool of myself. I remember, I don’t know, like the week before I was sort of looking ahead at the next week’s work, and I thought, “Wait a minute. I’m going to stand on top of a piano and sing? This is the corniest thing anyone has ever asked me to do. I’m going to look so stupid.” And I talked to Steve [Kloves, the director] about it. I’m like, “Really, Steve?” This is on the day. I’m like, “You don’t want me to stand on top of the piano.” He said, “Trust me. If it’s stupid, it will not end up in the movie.” And I did. And he was right. But it took a lot of courage and a lot of trust.
In 1992 you were in two movies that couldn’t be more different, and yet both were successful in their own way. You played Catwoman in Batman Returns for Tim Burton, and then also starred in Love Field, a little indie for which you got your third Oscar nom, after earlier ones for Dangerous Liaisons and The Fabulous Baker Boys.
I remember when I signed on to do Batman, some of the responses were, “Why are you doing Batman? That’s such an unexpected turn for you to be doing right now.” But I was so excited! I don’t know that I’ve ever been so excited by art. I grew up with Catwoman. Annette Bening was initially supposed to do that part. I hadn’t even been considered for the part; it had just gone straight to her. And I was really upset. Then she fell out for the best possible reason — she was pregnant — and it came my way. I was just thrilled to do that.
You were the biggest female movie star in the world at that time, so you were probably offered everything. There have been reports about your passing on some specific projects, though, so I wonder if you can set the record straight. Pretty Woman?
The Silence of the Lambs?
True. My regret about that — and I think of that one a lot — is I loved working with Jonathan [Demme] so much, and I never got another opportunity to do that. And by the way, a lot of these films turned out amazing. Like, I loved Pretty Woman. I loved Silence of the Lambs. Some of them, it was just because it’s a conflict with something else.
Thelma and Louise?
Yes. I was producing Love Field. I loved Thelma and Louise. [Director Ridley Scott] wanted me for Louise [Susan Sarandon’s role].
Yeah, but I was pregnant with my son.
Coming back to some of the excellent films that you did do: 2000’s What Lies Beneath, 2001’s I Am Sam and 2002’s White Oleander, which was the last before a five-year hiatus.
Those were films when my kids were young and I could still work. I wasn’t in every scene, so I could still take them to work with me. And then they started having their own routines and were in school, and I didn’t want to disrupt their lives in that way. I was still reading things, but there just wasn’t really anything that for me warranted going to work. And then, before I knew it, five years had gone by.
When you come back from something like that — as you did in 2007 with I Could Never Be Your Woman, and then right after that Hairspray and Chéri — is it like stepping into an old pair of shoes? Or is there an adjustment period?
I felt a little rusty. I mean, it didn’t take me long to kind of find my footing again, but yeah, it’s not like riding a bike.
You had another hiatus from 2013 to 2017, before your kids went off to college, and then dove right back into the deep end with mother!, Murder on the Orient Express, The Wizard of Lies for HBO and Where Is Kyra? Which brings us to French Exit. It’s a pretty unusual story. What drew you to it?
I just loved Patrick DeWitt’s writing. I thought this was a very unusual piece, a very special piece. Something like this just doesn’t come across often. Frances is a complex character, very multi-layered, and exists in this world that’s filled with oddball characters, disparate people from different worlds who are reaching out for human connection and find themselves together in an unexpected way. This was actually some of the hardest dialogue that I’ve had to manage in my career — equally as hard as something like Dangerous Liaisons — because it’s very stylized. But I love how the movie turned out, and I loved the whole experience of making it.
Can you believe you’ve been acting, and at such a high level, for 40 years now? You’ve reached the status of people writing songs with you in them!
(Laughs.) I’m so grateful that I’m still working. I’m doing what I love to do. I’d always envisioned myself working as an actor, making films into old age. And it looks like that’s going to happen.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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