Michelle Pfeiffer returns to the big screen in Cheri, a film based on the novel by Colette. Buzzine had a chance to sit down with her to discuss what drew her into this Parisian role, why she loves to act, and what may or may not be in store for the future.
Emmanuel Itier: Rupert Friend was talking about you and the caliber of talent you bring to the role. Do you find yourself intimidating your fellow actors?
Michelle Pfeiffer: It never occurs to me that I carry any weight. In fact, sometimes I’ll be really perplexed about the way someone is behaving and I’ll think, “Oh, I must have done something. I don’t think they like me.” It never occurs to me that someone might be nervous around me. I guess you can take the girl out of Orange County, but…
EI: What was the mood like on the set?
MP: It was fun. We laughed a lot. Stephen (Frears) set the tone, and he’s funny. He walks around like a Detective Colombo all day, scratching his head and looking confused, getting in everyone’s business. He never sits still — always on the move, and Rupert is really funny. I think it was a fun set.
EI: Being a period piece, everything was so beautiful, especially the bed. Did you want to take that bed home with you?
MP: I know — everything was so lush, and the photography — Darius (Khondji, the cinematographer) — was so beautiful. The design team in every department and every level were meticulous perfectionists down to every minute detail — even my costumes by Consolata (Boyle), who is one of the true geniuses of our time. She is such a purist, and down to the second, she never stops. I was literally headed to the set and she’s going, “Wait, wait, oh, oh…” And she brings this tiny little bow that she would stick at the nape of your neck that nobody was going to see.
EI: Were those actual locations?
MP: Some of them were locations — all of the boudoir, in the bedroom, the staircase…
EI: How was it reuniting with Stephen? It’s been awhile since Dangerous Liaisons…
MP: I did Dangerous so long ago and had a smaller part, I don’t honestly remember him paying that much attention to me. He was more focused on John (Malkovich) and Glenn (Close), and Christopher (Hampton, the screenwriter/executive producer) was there almost every day, which is unusual for writers to be on the set. This is probably their fourth project together, and what I remembered is that over the years, they’ve formed a real partnership. In a way, they almost co-direct, work off each other. So that was something I noticed that worked differently.
EI: Between this and Stardust, you really had to de-glamorize yourself. Is that tough as an actress?
MP: No, not really. I started to say that when I first put on those prosthetics, it was really upsetting. It was just so hideous, but there’s a part of you in there because they sort of take your face and then go, “If she was 200 years old…” and you see your mother and your grandmother in there. But I did have a rather strong reaction in the beginning, seeing all those prosthetics on me.
EI: This character is from a hundred years ago, but do you see a contemporary element in her?
MP: Only if you reduce it down to its most essential element that is love, really, and staying true to your passion. For all intents and purposes, these people are really made to be together, but because of the social mores of the time, even in that insular set of people where they had their own rules that they followed… In any period movie, you try to [relate it in a contemporary way] and boil it down to its most essential elements that are universal and timeless.
EI: Can you talk about your exchanges with Kathy Bates in the movie?
MP; We’ve worked together before where I also played the lover of her son. Kathy and I, our planets are crossed in some weird way I don’t understand. I love her and have loved working with her on both films. She’s really smart and all those other things you think she’s going to be. All the things that are great about her come through in all her performances.
EI: What was it about the character Lea that made you want to bring her to life?
MP: Honestly, primarily, it was working with Stephen again, and then I loved the script and it was a great part. They don’t come along very often.
EI: You did a brilliant job of portraying someone whose exterior no longer matches her inside…
MP: Remember Christopher is brilliant, but he had Colette guiding him. He stayed really close to the novel. We all paid homage to what she wrote. Whenever there was any doubt and we’ve be on the set, Stephen would say one thing and Christopher would say something, and it was quite satisfying it was always in the novel. Can I talk about the novel? First of all, I was really daunted by the fact that it was a piece of French literature that I’d have to claw my way through. You know, “This is going to be really dense.” And then I got this tiny little novel, at first blush kind of frothy. I read it in a day. The second time through it, you realize how profound — it is so specific and so economical that you miss the wisdom and the depth. It’s like watching a Jeff Bridges performance — he is so good, it makes it look so easy. Her writing is the same way. He’s so good, that he’s overlooked over and over again and he’s one of the greatest actors of our time. That’s what her writing is to me.
EI: What would you say to the person you were 20 years ago, in terms of advice about the business? How have you evolved?
MP: Twenty years ago? I would have been 30 then. It wouldn’t have done any good because basically, what I have now, I enjoy the process a lot more. A couple of different reasons: I don’t have anything to prove to anyone but myself, but I’m pretty harsh, and I guess there are other harsh critics out there. But you learn not to be so affected by that, because I have family.
Before I had a family, my work was everything to me and I didn’t feel balanced unless I was working, but now I do. As a result of that, I think I enjoy my work a lot more, so it is a lot different in that respect.
EI: How was it doing Hairspray?
MP: It was a lot of fun.
EI: Is there going to be a sequel? I heard they are working on it…
MP: I hear. You guys were probably talking to Adam (Shankman).
EI: Do you have any inclination to sing more?
MP: No, not really, because my first love is really acting. If you’re going to be a singer, you have to really commit and put a lot of time into it. I don’t have a natural gift. I’m a crammer. In fact, when I took Hairspray, I had to take in a voice coach, and also with The Baker Boys. So I do a lot of cramming. Hence, I probably don’t enjoy it as much because I feel pressured. The vocal chords are a muscle that can develop only so quickly, whereas if I trained year round, I’d not only sing better, but it would be more fun. I’ve never really been able to split my artistic inclinations. I’m a painter, but when I act, I don’t pick up a paintbrush.
EI: Who sees your paintings?
MP: My family or whoever happens to wander into my basement.
EI: What is your painting style?
MP: I love impressionistic, but I’m more realistic and I can’t seem to paint any other way, as much as I try.
EI: You must have some amazing family portraits then…
MP: No, I don’t. I painted one picture of my kids and it’s sort of cartoon-y.
EI: Age-wise, there seems to be a paragon shift in movies like The Reader. ”Cougar” has become a popular term...
MP: It seems that either the public or our industry doesn’t want people of the same age being together in a love relationship. They just don’t like that. One or the other has to be 20 years older. Maybe that’s why I didn’t work for four years. I had to wait until it shifted so I could be the older woman.
EI: Where does your passion for acting come from?
MP: I don’t know. I think it’s a hard thing to put words to because it’s visceral. I remember (I’m quoting from Jeff Goldblum) him saying — his advice to actors starting out — that if there isn’t anything else in the world you can do, be an actor. It’s something I just have to do and I don’t know if you can explain it.
EI: Is there one film you’re most proud of?
MP: There is, but I wouldn’t want to say and make a lot of people feel bad. Sometimes my favorite film is my favorite performance. I might like a performance of mine that was in a film that wasn’t so good. Usually, it’s favorite elements or favorite scenes.
EI: In today’s scene, people are doing more comedy, such as people like DeNiro…
MP: For me, comedy is harder because it’s about music. With drama, anything goes as long as it’s real. With comedy, there’s a certain rhythm that the writers write with and you have to find that. It’s a bit more challenging.
'Cheri' is in theaters now from Miramax Films