Love Comes First
Hollywood icon Michelle Pfeiffer shone brightly in some of the biggest movies of the ’80s and ’90s. Yet after raising her children and running her own production company she has returned with a vengeance, now starring in leading roles in films like French Exit, starting a fragrance company, doing charity work ... and always following her inner light.
It’s rare for a glamour icon to enjoy a career past their 40s, but the much-celebrated beauty of Michelle Pfeiffer, now 62, has barely waned. While her exemplary good looks undoubtedly served her well in her ingenue days (think Scarface or Tequila Sunrise), she never leaned into them. Rather, Pfeiffer left the heavy lifting to her undeniable talent and, with an array of award trophies to her credit, she has unmistakably proven that beauty and talent are not mutually exclusive.
It’s unfortunate that the conversation about ageing in Hollywood is a given when speaking to any actress ‘of a certain age,’ but it’s also an increasingly hopeful one, given the extraordinary spectrum of good roles now available to older women. “Yes, it’s changing, not in the way that I’m going to be the sexy lead any more, and that’s fine,” she smiles. “I’m not sure that I ever really enjoyed that anyway, but I do feel there’s a lot more opportunity now for women of my age, women in their 60s and even their 70s. And even though you’re not the sexy romantic lead, the parts are actually a lot more interesting.”
But before we collectively celebrate the demise of ageism, she offers, “When I did The Russia House , I was playing opposite Sean Connery and I think he was 60 and I was in my early 30s,” she says, shaking her head. “I don’t think that [dynamic] has really changed.” Another of her famed male counterparts, George Clooney, with whom she starred in One Fine Day (1996), comes to mind. Of his recent turn in The Midnight Sky, in which he dons a full mountain man beard, she notes, “He’s still sexy. I’m sorry, even with this big beard and skinny old self, he still looks pretty great.”
I have met Pfeiffer on many occasions and the same descriptions spring to mind each time – not least, understated and self-deprecating. She is devoid of the usual bells and whistles, no extended entourage nor diva-like demands. Instead, this actress-producer and mother of two is softly spoken, thoughtful and honest. Her refusal to present a curated version of herself is refreshing.
“Look, I’m really hard on myself. I overthink everything and so that’s always been my nature. I hate to admit it but I think I’m a ‘glass half empty’ kind of person. At the same time, I do feel that I’m hopeful. It’s complicated, and I think I’m my own worst enemy. I have to watch out for myself.”
She’s fortunate enough to have acclaimed husband screenwriter/producer David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies, The Undoing) by her side, to also watch out for her, as well as their two offspring: adopted daughter Claudia Rose, 28, and biological son, John Henry, 26.
A good marriage is certainly a product of communication, but it’s also a partnership that should be able to sustain healthy conflict, and Pfeiffer’s appears healthy on all fronts. “We’ve been together for a long time now, 26 years, I think. And we actually don’t argue all that much. I mean, we’ll have a strong difference of opinion a lot of the time, but I think we communicate pretty well.”
She is speaking via Zoom from her home in Los Angeles – practically makeup free, and dressed casually in a white shirt and trousers. There’s no doubt she exemplifies the ‘looks younger than her years’ platitude, but Pfeiffer is honest about how she feels about her age.
AGEING WITH GRACE
“It doesn’t matter if I don’t look 35. There’s a shift. Take exercise, for example. At one point it was all about vanity, but then you get older and you start to worry about your brain. There’s also a sense of relief in a way about your 60s. Initially, not so much,” she leans forward, chuckling. “It’s a tough pill to swallow, that threshold. You realise that you have less time ahead of you but the good news to that is that your priorities begin to shift and you think about what’s really important to you. There’s a thing where you go, ‘Okay, I’m 60. There’s no fooling anyone.’” She pauses.
“But I would probably say that I speak my mind a little more than I used to when I was younger. I’ve always been fairly reserved and careful about what I say, but even as careful as I am, I’m still always putting my foot in my mouth, so like, what’s the point? I may as well speak my mind if I’m going to get in trouble either way,” she smiles.
She talks about her priorities. “These days I’m focused on making sure that I have time to invest in people that I love.” Most notably, those people she’s referring to are her daughter and son. “The older they are, I’m finding that I’m really enjoying a kind of a friendship and a connection on an adult level,” she says.
Pfeiffer has always let her instinct lead the way when it comes to her professional and personal life. “That inner compass is what told me to pursue acting to begin with,
“I’M FOCUSED ON MAKING SURE I HAVE TIME TO IN INVEST IN PEOPLE I LOVE.”
“I DO FEEL THERE’S A LOT MORE OPPORTUNITY NOW FOR WOMEN OF MY AGE, WOMEN IN THEIR SIXTIES AND EVEN THEIR SEVENTIES.”
because I didn’t grow up in this industry, I didn’t grow up in LA, I had never met anybody in showbusiness, and I had no business thinking that I could succeed,” she says. “Then I figured out that I wanted to start a family. I had always wanted to adopt and I just decided one day that I was tired of waiting.” She shrugs. “So, I moved forward with that.”
FOLLOWING HER OWN PATH
She had already begun the adoption process when her future husband entered the picture and Claudia Rose was two months old when Pfeiffer and Kelley became an item. “I’m really good at following breadcrumbs, putting one foot in front of the other and just figuring things out. It’s a combination of courage and naivety really, because I don’t always know what I’m getting myself into until I am in the thick of it and then I’ve gone too far to turn back,” she says. “That’s how it happened when I started my fragrance company.” The company, Henry Rose, sells a collection of fine fragrances and was launched in 2019.
She has nonprofit endeavours, too – with the Humane Society and the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group based in Washington, for which she is a board member.
Famously press-shy, I ask her about a quote attributed to her: “The acting is for free, I get paid for doing the publicity.” She laughs, nodding in agreement that those sentiments still ring true today. “It’s a bit of a simplification I guess, but I was trying to make a point. I do think [interviews with the press] are the hardest thing that we do.
“It’s not natural to the human psyche and that applies to the whole thing, frankly, because being an actor is not natural to the human psyche, living in fantasyland,” she says. “I think having people write about you, having people scrutinise you, having people misquote you, having people follow you, having people follow your children ... all of it is really not normal and can play havoc with the psyche.”
Her fragile appearance belies a much stronger resolve. Back in 1990, when it was relatively unheard of for a female movie star, she formed a production company under the banner Via Rosa Productions, and promptly produced the following films: Love Field (1992), Dangerous Minds (1995), One Fine Day (1996), A Thousand Acres (1997), and The Deep End of the Ocean (1999).
The company, in which she partnered with her best friend, Kate Guinzburg, was a success for 10 years, but she didn’t relish every part of being an executive.
“I liked the creative part of the business, developing scripts and working with writers but I didn’t like the financial part. It created a conflict between the artistic side of me and the business side of me and I could feel myself losing my joy of the work. It was exhausting me,” explains Pfeiffer. And it was much harder work than when she
started out, in the lead role in 1982’s Grease 2, before she was cast in Scarface a year later and quickly became one of the most prominent A-list actresses of the 1980s and ’90s. Her CV includes The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), Batman Returns (1992), The Age of Innocence (1993), What Lies Beneath (2000) and White Oleander (2002).
She then took a break to raise her children and stay at home, returning to the screen in 2007 in the films Hairspray and Stardust. Lately, she has returned with a vengeance, her work including Murder on the Orient Express (2017), The Wizard of Lies (2017), Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019), Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019), and the upcoming French Exit.
PORTRAYING AN ECCENTRIC HEIRESS
In French Exit, a quirky comedy based on the novel of the same name by Patrick deWitt and directed by Azazel Jacobs, Pfeiffer plays an eccentric and unfiltered Manhattan heiress who moves to Paris with her son (Lucas Hedges) and pet cat to live out her days.
“I loved playing this character, Frances Price. There’s a part of all of us who would like to be like her, just to go through life speaking your mind,” she says.
Frances also believes her cat to be the reincarnation of her dead husband and unsurprisingly perhaps, the former Cat Woman is a real-life cat lady. I reference an Instagram post of her cat drinking water from a bowl with her paw and Pfeiffer cracks up. “Isn’t that funniest thing? At first I thought she was cleaning her paws. But then I reached out to Kate Beckinsale to ask her advice on what was happening and she said she thought she was protecting her whiskers, that she doesn’t like getting her whiskers wet.”
As the call winds up, we briefly touch on COVID-19 and how she’s coped in intermittent lockdown during the past 12 months. “I didn’t see my kids a lot but I was able to see them over the holidays, which was amazing and a real treat because they live in different cities.
“They have their own lives and so I miss them terribly and yet I’m very proud of them and happy that they are so independent and resilient.”
Like many of us during this period, Pfeiffer has discovered how little she really needs in order to be happy, and despite the way in which she describes her worldview as ‘glass half empty’, she’s evidently found the silver lining.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the trappings and thinking you need things or thinking you want things, more stuff, and at the end of the day we are realising that it’s just more stuff,” she smiles. “What matters most is what we haven’t been able to have – those relationships and those connections with people.
“I think that’s going to be a very good thing that comes out of this year,” says Pfeiffer. “There’s this sense of really looking out for each other and people looking out for you.”
Michelle Pfeiffer talks about playing one of the most reviled women in recent financial history, Ruth Madoff, the wife of infamous convicted criminal Bernie Madoff (Robert De Niro), in HBO movie The Wizard of Lies. mindfood.com/pfeiffer-role