There are celebrities, and there are movie stars. It’s difficult to imagine the latter lugging their grande-soy-mocha-kombucha through The Grove, or toting a tiny dog to and from yogalates class, truly madly deeply not really avoiding the cameras; movie stars occupy the sensibility of a different age, a more mysterious approach to acting, and a complicated relationship with fame. Michelle Pfeiffer is, unquestionably, surely, a movie star.

 Michelle Pfeiffer in  Dark Shadows

Michelle Pfeiffer in Dark Shadows

The “character actress in a screen siren’s body”, Pfeiffer’s physical beauty is the full stop (or, maybe, question mark) that has always followed her name. She fought hard to move beyond the “pretty face” roles that typified her early work.

Recently, her work has explored what happens when beauty fades, or is no longer currency: the nightmarish stage-mother and ex-beauty-queen Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray (‘07), the youth-craving witch Lamia in Stardust (‘07), Colette’s ageing courtesan, Léa, in Chéri (‘09), and this year she peers out from behind the broom-thick false lashes of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, in Tim Burton’s big screen revival of the 1960s “gothic soap opera”, Dark Shadows.

At the age of 54 in an industry that prizes youth, such choices are perhaps not surprising. It’s true, Pfeiffer is still captivatingly beautiful - her wide-set eyes, the colour of Wedgewood stoneware, and feline pout even more arresting in real life than on screen - but the actress has relaxed into her features, using them as a tool of character rather than visual effect.

“I love that I’m getting back to [character roles],” she says with a genuine enthusiasm. “I feel like I did more of it earlier on. That’s what I really love, to really lose yourself in something. I never really have anything in mind. I’m just always looking for good material.”

If her fame has guaranteed her the luxury of choice, her personal life has ensured that those choices are carefully considered. From 2003 to 2007, Pfeiffer removed herself - along with her husband, writer/producer David E. Kelley, and their two children, Claudia Rose and John Henry - from Los Angeles to Northern California.

“It’s not like I said ‘Oh, I’m going to take a four-year hiatus’, it’s just that as it turned out, we made a huge move out of Los Angeles, a huge resettlement, and I think I just underestimated the needs of the family,” she recalls. “And then when they became of school age and I couldn’t just uproot them - and I was unwilling to - I really tried to take jobs that either didn’t take me away for a long period of time, or that I could do during the summer. So, as it turned out, there was a long stretch there where I didn’t work because I couldn’t quite get that all to work.”

Throughout our interview (shared with another journalist, who insists on asking inane questions like “What do you sing in the shower?” and “Who killed Kennedy?”), Pfeiffer fiddles with a teardrop-shaped marquesite ring, removing it and putting it back on, twisting and turning it. It’s the only glitch in her carefully composed public persona, one that hints at a more complicated inner-life than those blue eyes let on. A long-time analysand, in 2009 Pfeiffer described herself as “controlling” who would live like “a hermit” if given the chance. I ask if she still paints in her downtime, surely a meditative activity, and she nods.

“It helps me. I’m not good with idle time; I’m not good with not being productive. I feel the need to always be creating something. I loved it when the kids were little, because I’d get into an art project with them and of course I’d end up finishing it. You know, whenever we’d start building Lego, I’d get really obsessive: ‘Hey, that’s my piece! I need that piece for my house!’ I think that painting, when [I’m] not acting - which is always my first choice - it really fills a gap for me. And now that the kids are older, a lot of my creative energy went into them, they don’t need me so much anymore, so I gotta put it somewhere.”

As she becomes more selective in the roles she chooses, I wonder aloud if there are other aspects of filmmaking that appeal to Pfeiffer. “I wish I could write,” she confesses. “I am interested in writing, but I’m not a very good writer. It would take a lot of work for me. I do want to direct one day. Maybe there’s one good screenplay in me! But I see how all-consuming it is for directors; you really have to be prepared for that, and I’m not quite prepared for that yet.”

A self-confessed “total geek” with a broad range of favourite TV shows, she takes time out to praise HBO’s Girls, written, directed by and starring Lena Dunham, 25. “I think it’s really amazing, and I think this young woman who’s writing and directing and starring is a phenomenon. I can’t believe she’s so talented and so together at such a young age,” she says, adding, in a motherly yet surprisingly stern fashion, “good for her.”

In the few interviews she has given on the topic, Pfeiffer has admitted to being the “bad cop” in the household when it comes to parenting - "I am definitely more of the disciplinarian, the strict one, by default,” she told Good Housekeeping in 2007 - but it’s clear that her and Kelley’s dedication to giving their daughter and son a secure and relatively “normal” upbringing has been the overarching theme of both her personal and professional life since Claudia Rose’s adoption in 1993 (Pfeiffer had just begun the single-parent adoption process when she met Kelley; Claudia, adopted at birth, was christened on their wedding day, and gave birth to John a year later).  

Pfeiffer’s children have, in a way, become one of the driving forces behind her career. I ask her about something she said in 2007, that having children “forces you out of your narcissism”, and those famous eyes become liquid, affixing on the ceiling for a moment. There’s a long pause. “I do feel, and I don’t know that I can articulate it,” she says, pausing again, “like there’s something different about my work now. I know I’m enjoying it a lot more. I think I have less angst, which I think is freeing me up.”

I ask whether the angst was creative or career-based; is she just naturally a highly-strung person? There’s another long pause. “I was just always, you know, sort of trying to get at, maybe, a deeper truth. And I think I was very hard on myself. I mean, everybody has bad days at work, but they’re not necessarily filmed. I think that I’m easier on myself than I used to be.”

If that’s hard to qualify based on her measured public persona, it certainly shows in her work. There’s a delicious amount of self-parody in Pfeiffer’s recent roles, all heavy-lidded ingenue stares and hysterical pouting; it turns out that otherworldly face has a knack for physical comedy. The serious Pfeiffer of the mid-’90s wouldn’t - or couldn’t - have allowed the facade to slide into satire. In some ways it reminds me of Brad Pitt, another pretty face who was eventually permitted to break free into character roles: it’s almost surprising to find that they are, actually, hilarious.

And yet, Pfeiffer finds comedy immensely challenging. “You’ve gotta be funny when you do a comedy, otherwise you fail. You fail!” she hollers, laughing. “There’s no middle ground; I’m really only as funny as the material, and then not so funny even then. When you’re doing a drama, if you’re convincing, then you’re okay. You can make an unexpected choice, or maybe make a choice that people don’t agree with, but if you’re convincing, and you’re basically real, then you’re safe. I still, when I watch myself, don’t think I’m funny, and I’m always really relieved when other people think I am.”    

She certainly is in Dark Shadows, Burton’s first step back towards non-green-screen filmmaking in over a decade. Pfeiffer’s scenes with Johnny Depp, who plays the immortal vampire Barnabus Collins, are great fun. “I loved working with [Depp],” Pfeiffer enthused, “we like to joke around in between set-ups, but then when the camera rolls, we’re both very serious and focused. I felt like we were very compatible in that way”. The film suffers from a weak script and at times is nearly overwhelmed by the sumptuousness of its period setting (Maine at the height of that most regrettable design movement, 1972), but is one of Burton’s more appealing works of late.

Pfeiffer’s few scenes with Eva Green, who sends herself up hilariously as the witch Angelique, are also a scream. The two actresses appear to have bonded throughout filming, as the gigantic floral arrangement in the hotel room where the interview takes place turns out to be a 54th birthday gift from Green, who is stationed down the hall. “Dear Michelle,” Pfeiffer reads aloud from the attached card. “I hope 54 doesn’t have you feeling...” is as far as she gets before collapsing into a honking laugh unlike anything in her filmic back catalogue.  

The film was a natural choice for Pfeiffer, primarily as a childhood fan of the original show (“I used to get off the bus and I would literally sprint home to get home before it started. It was really creepy and dark and kind of sexy, even though I didn’t really know what that meant”), but also because the project allowed her to “continue to mother in the way that I felt was appropriate and work doing something that I love and that I’m passionate about.”

“They were unbelievably accommodating with my schedule, and let me go back and forth. They were like, ‘Okay hey, if you’re willing to fly back and forth eight times in one week, knock yourself out’. And it was worth it to me, because even though I was exhausted most of the time, I was so energised because I was having so much fun and I was so grateful that I was able to stay in touch with my family, and then go do something I love, a little jet-lag was a small price to pay.”

That’s the overwhelming impression I got of Michelle Pfeiffer (well, as overwhelming an impression as one can get within 20 minutes on a junket): a working mother first, and a movie star second. It seems to be how she sees herself these days, too.   

“Sometimes the work, I think, suffered?” she says, her voice trailing up as though I might agree with her. “But then sometimes, the kids suffered too. You know, kids don’t like their mom being away, even if it’s for a couple of days. So there were times where I said to myself, ‘Okay, I can be away for a week’. And then it was two weeks, and then the longest - actually - has been three. But that feels like too long, for me. So it was just a constant juggling act. But all working moms feel that, I think.”

And as the door closes on our 20 minutes together, and the Brazilian bloke goes off to presumably ask another actress who shot Kennedy, I look back at Pfeiffer - wearing a black cardigan over a nice black lace frock, sprawled on the couch with a bottle of mineral water, checking her old BlackBerry - and see just another working mother. Who also happens to have the most amazing eyes.


- originally published in Sunday Life, 2013