Michelle Pfeiffer Teases Real-Life Origins of 'French Exit' Socialite Character

Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges in 'French Exit.'
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges in 'French Exit.'

The actress and co-star Lucas Hedges open up about capturing the "specific" tone of Azazel Jacobs' film, which had its world premiere on the closing night of the New York Film Festival.

Michelle Pfeiffer has been receiving rave reviews for her role as a well-to-do New Yorker who flees to Paris with her son (Lucas Hedges) as she burns through her savings in the New York Film Festival's closing night movie, Azazel Jacobs' French Exit.

The Hollywood Reporter's Jon Frosch wrote in his review that the actress "sucks the juice from each line like a Louisianan devouring a crawfish."

"It's a full-on diva turn — a smorgasbord of side-eye and shade, of lacerating one-liners dispatched between drags on cigarettes and slurps of martinis," he said. "Fans of French cinema may feel they're beholding an American grand dame worthy of comparisons to Isabelle Huppert or Nathalie Baye, while Sex and the City buffs will detect a bit of Kim Cattrall's indelible vamp Samantha Jones in Pfeiffer's patrician purr. But the sense of tremulous vulnerability beneath the campy hauteur — the mix of warmth and cold, softness and steel — is very much the actress' own. Pfeiffer's performance in this uneven but charming adaptation of Patrick deWitt's 2018 novel certainly isn't her subtlest, but it ranks among her most captivatingly Pfeiffer-ian."

But while Pfeiffer creates a distinct character of her own, she revealed in a virtual press conference for the film ahead of its world premiere, that she was inspired by numerous real-life people, who will remain unnamed, in her portrayal of the fictional Frances.

"It is this sort of odd world filled with these odd people. Aza, you said they're sort of, in some ways, likened to people marooned on an island who end up finding each other," Pfeiffer said. "But it's also what I love about both Patrick [deWitt]'s writing and Aza's direction, what could in some ways on the page seem caricaturish, both of them have this knack and ability for bringing you into other worlds that I know. In this particular world, I knew, I had friends who grew up in this world, these sort of New York socialites. I'm a girl from Orange County, California so I always felt weirdly outside and especially when they all got together, and I somehow felt very pedestrian when I was around them. But you somehow manage to bring people in and bring you inside and make them three dimensional in a way and then you realize all of us…you really realize that we're all living in our own little bubble and depending on what bubble you grew up in, you develop certain survival skills and they’re different depending on what your experience has been."

Pfeiffer later added when asked if she drew on anyone in particular for the character of Frances, "it wasn't any one particular person; I would say it's a compilation of a lot of people. And we worked on specific dialects, but there's one woman that I know, who will be unnamed, who sort of speaks like this, so I just know a lot of women. From just being in the film industry there are crossovers, there are a lot of younger people from that world in our business, so I've met people over time."

Pfeiffer, who Jacobs said was the first to be cast in the project, praised the director on what she said is one of her top five filmmaking experiences, for nailing the "specific" tone of the story.

"The concern for me, having read the script and the novel, was the tone was so specific and yet really hard to describe," she said. "This has to be exactly right because it could go wrong so quickly. I knew Aza just hit it on the head."

Jacobs said he thought of Lucas Hedges for Frances' son, Malcolm, after seeing the actor onstage in The Waverly Gallery, even though it meant making his character younger.

"And [deWitt and I] thought if there's anybody at that age who could bring that type of understanding to Malcolm, it would be Lucas, just based on the work he'd done in the past and suddenly it did interesting things to the story, having Malcolm at a different age, just what that meant for his future, especially toward the end of the film," Jacobs said.

For Hedges, he was drawn to the world of the film and the voice of the script in the first 10 pages of the screenplay, he said.

"I was just really taken by the ways in which the characters thought and spoke, and there was one thing in particular about Malcolm that I loved, which is, there is something that Patrick wrote, which is sometimes when he's processing thoughts or listening, he says like, 'all right' or 'OK,' while he's taking in someone else's monologue," Hedges explained. "Just that little piece is so unique and different. All I need is one moment in every scene that's unique and different and idiosyncratic in a way that feels true to human nature to me, and every scene is that in Patrick's writing."

French Exit is set to be released by Sony Pictures Classics on Feb. 12, 2021.