Michelle Pfeiffer is Back (as if She Ever Left)
On a cold, miserable January day, Michelle Pfeiffer is at home in Northern California preparing to post on Instagram for the very first time. For an actress who has guarded a nearly Garboesque privacy, this is a big moment.
"It's been terrifying for me, honestly," she says of the rise of social media. "I've spent my entire life avoiding, doing as little as possible, in terms of exposure — literally the least that I could get away with as an actress." Last May, when it was announced that Pfeiffer would be joining Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning in the cast of Maleficent 2, Fanning posted a welcome message. "It was so sweet, and I wanted to respond, but I couldn't," Pfeiffer recalls. "I had no format. I didn't tweet. I didn't have Instagram. I had nothing. But I've started paying more attention. And I've been following other celebrities who I think are as private as I am, and even they are venturing into the Instagram world. So I'm dipping my toe in. I'll be very tentative in the beginning. But in a weird way, I'm kind of excited about it."
And actually, Pfeiffer has something to trumpet: She is about to launch a collection of fine fragrances called Henry Rose. The idea reaches back decades. "When the kids were young, I began to look at the world in a different way," she explains. "I started reading labels and looking at ingredients lists in a way I hadn't done before. That opened my eyes. I found myself looking for a fragrance I could feel good about putting on my body and that smelled amazing. Those two things were difficult to find. So I decided I was going to see if I could develop a fragrance that would raise the bar on both quality and safety. I didn't realize what a challenge I had set out for myself," she says, laughing. "Which is typical of me."
She is, she admits, much busier than she expected she would be at age 60. In 2017, after a five-year absence from the screen, Pfeiffer returned in Darren Aronofsky's stylish horror film Mother!, Kenneth Branagh's remake of Murder on the Orient Express, and Barry Levinson's Wizard of Lies, which earned Pfeiffer her first Emmy nomination, for her portrayal of Ruth Madoff, the wife of financier and convicted felon Bernie Madoff. Last year she joined the Marvel Comics juggernaut in Ant-Man and the Wasp, her first foray into superhero territory since her legendary turn as Catwoman in 1992's Batman Returns.
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Though Pfeiffer is known for having stepped away from her career for long stretches — mainly to raise a family with her husband, television producer David E. Kelley — the time away was never a conscious decision. "There were certain points in my life where priorities shifted, and that made it that much more difficult to say yes to roles," she explains. "For a long time I felt as if I wasn't liking what I was reading, but the truth is that I probably didn't want to work very much. Honestly, the years just flew by. Actually, it was my kids who said, 'Mom, are you ever going to go back to work?' I was like, 'What do you mean? I'm home! Isn't that great?' It kind of hurt my feelings. But then I sort of looked back, and wow, it was five years."
Pfeiffer grew up in Orange County, Calif., and rose to fame in a sequence of now-classic '80s films, including Scarface, The Witches of Eastwick, and Dangerous Liaisons. Although this year marks the 30th anniversary of The Fabulous Baker Boys — in which she gave her most widely lauded performance, as the lounge singer Susie Diamond — Pfeiffer will not be taking a trip down memory lane anytime soon. In fact, she never looks at old work. "I'm not tempted at all," she says. "I don't like watching myself ever, whether it's 30 years later or the rushes from the day before. I'm just so critical. I'm a perfectionist, and there's nothing perfect in what I do." She laughs. "So I'm happier when I don't watch."
She does not look at scripts any differently than she ever has. Maybe she is drawn to a project because it features an actor she's always found intriguing or a director who captures her imagination (Pfeiffer would love to work with Alfonso Cuarón); maybe a part feels like uncharted territory. "More and more, the actual experience of filmmaking comes into play," she says. "As lucky as we are to make movies, there's a certain amount of suffering that goes along with it. I'm still willing to suffer a lot. I'm a really hard worker. Adam Shankman [who directed her in Hairspray] called me the Energizer Bunny. I used to exhaust the dancers because I'd just want to rehearse and rehearse. You just want to make sure the experience is worth it because, ultimately, you never really know how it's going to come out."
In fact, Pfeiffer took on the character of the unabashed bigot Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray because she believed in the inclusive message of the film. To this day it's among the movies she is proudest of, though she knows it will never be regarded as the high-water mark of her acting. "Villains are just more complex, and that's fun as an actor," she explains. "It's interesting to figure out how to bring humanity to the part. That's real life. Things are never black and white."
Pfeiffer is almost as famous for the films she has turned down as for the roles she has taken on; the list includes Pretty Woman, Thelma and Louise, Silence of the Lambs, and Basic Instinct. Her agent's nickname for her is Dr. No. While she confesses that passing up Thelma and Louise stings a little, she doesn't think she'd decide differently if given a do-over. "You never really know what's going to tip the scales for you," she says. "There are a lot of variables. It's your mood."
Pfeiffer is pleased to see how the Time's Up movement has not only exposed the systemic problem of sexual harassment but also brought women in Hollywood together. Her own catalogue is remarkable for its numerous strong female ensembles, but she hopes for even more opportunities to collaborate with women.
"I really enjoyed working with Elle and Angelina last year," she says. "It's hard to describe the connectedness you feel working with actresses. It's a different kind of energy and excitement. The efforts now to support each other and to come together have been incredible, but it's only the beginning, really. I anticipate that more and more women will be given the opportunity to be in blockbusters. In the past only men were believed to be able to bring in those big numbers, but as we're seeing with films like Wonder Woman that's just not true."
Since Pfeiffer's kids left home, she is busy enough to scarcely have noticed that the nest is empty. "When my daughter went off to college and I realized I had only a few years left with my son, I thought, 'OK, this is going to be really hard for me, and I'd better get something going here, because I'm going to feel really empty,' " she recalls. When Pfeiffer isn't shooting a film, Henry Rose consumes most of her days. She'd like to return to oil painting, a favorite hobby, when things quiet down. She is famously handy and still embraces any opportunity to get out her power drill. "I love to build things," she says. "My sister was just teasing me about how she came over one day and I was building a stucco hearth. Whenever anybody in my life has to put something together, I'm the person they call. It's just meditative for me. I have a very busy mind, and so anything that can pull my little gremlins away from driving me nuts is a good thing."
For now, Pfeiffer has enough on her plate to keep the gremlins away without putting on her tool belt (she really does have one). "Starting a business at the same time as I started working again — look, I'm not complaining," she says. "It's a high-class problem. It's better to feel as if there's not enough time in a day than to wake up wondering how you're going to fill it."
Photographed by: Ben Hassett. Styling: Julia Von Boehm. Hair: Richard Marin. Makeup: Brigitte Reiss-Andersen. Set design: Daniel Horowitz. Production: Rosco Production.
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 15.