Michelle Pfeiffer: the actress for whom ageing holds no fear

Feature As her new film Chéri is released, the actress regularly cited as one of the world's most beautiful women talks about her movie career, marriage and children.

Actress Michelle Pfeiffer in a portrait session at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York.
Michelle Pfeiffer, LA Times, June 27, 2009
New York, NY United States
June 14, 2009
Photo by Jennifer S. Altman/Contour by Getty Images

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Regularly cited as one of the world's most beautiful women, Michelle Pfeiffer is the actress for whom the ageing process holds no fear. As her new film Chéri is released, she talks to John Hiscock about her movie career, marriage and children. It is intriguing to watch the way Michelle Pfeiffer wrinkles up her nose when she is about to smile, which she does frequently. She has the gift of being able to see the funny side of most situations, and the one she finds particularly amusing at the moment is the ages of her leading men.

For most female stars, turning 50 is the beginning of the end of their careers. With few exceptions, the roles they are offered become smaller and fewer, and they find themselves portraying either eccentric old ladies or the mothers of the male stars. But just the opposite is happening to the still alluringly beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer who has just turned 52: her leading men are getting younger and the roles she is being offered are the ones Hollywood usually reserves for actresses in their twenties.

In 2008's little-seen I Could Never Be Your Woman her co-star was Paul Rudd, then aged 36; last year she filmed Personal Effects in which her love interest was Ashton Kutcher, who is 20 years her junior, and in her new film Chéri, which has just opened here, she stars alongside Keira Knightley's boyfriend, 28-year-old Rupert Friend. "I didn't anticipate it happening but my leading men just keep getting younger and younger," she laughs. "If this trend keeps up I'm going to get into some illegal territory.

"Ashton was so beautiful and perfect and I thought, 'You know, I am not doing this again.' Then Chéricame up with a beautiful script and an even younger, beautiful young man, so now I guess I've grown accustomed to it." Her nose wrinkles and she laughs. Chéri is set in early 20th-century Paris and Michelle plays Léa, a Frenchwoman who gives lessons in love to a young man, played by Friend. It is based on a book by the French novelist Colette, who scandalised Paris with her love affairs (see box on p21).

"Colette had a relationship at one point with a younger man, which created a bit of havoc, but I think it's a lot more acceptable today, which is terrific," says Pfeiffer. "Also, we're living longer, which doesn't mean that everyone is meant to fall in love only once or have just one serious relationship in their lives." Pfeiffer is talking about something she knows well. She has been happily married for the past 16 years to David E Kelley, 53, the television producer who created Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Legal and many other shows. But she was previously married to an actor, Peter Horton, and had a series of relationships with other actors before meeting Kelley when she was 34.

"Life is made up of the choices that we make and I've not always made good choices, but I picked the right guy," she says of Kelley. "If you don't pick the right one, there's not much you can do about it. It took me a long time to figure that one out and I'm glad I did because I did pick the right one." Pfeiffer, tall, green-eyed, slender and looking 25 years younger than her true age, is talking in a hotel suite in Beverly Hills. Unlike most Oscar-nominated movie stars of her stature, she does not take herself too seriously and is happy and even anxious to take roles that do not rely on her beauty. In her last two films, Stardust and Hairspray, she played a ruthless, decrepit witch and a villainous, hag-like former beauty queen respectively.

She is refreshingly un-fashion conscious and confesses that she does not know the designer of the multi-coloured long-sleeved blouse and black trousers she is wearing. "I have no idea," she laughs. "I show up, they throw things on me and here I am. If it fits, it's good." (She later remembered her blouse was designed by Sienna Miller and the trousers by J.Brand.)

When she is at home in San Francisco or at the family's ranch in Northern California, she much prefers to wear sweat pants. "I like loose-fitting clothes. I don't like anything tight," she says. "Sometimes I try to put on a pair of those skinny jeans because they look so good on people and I convince myself that I should wear them, too, but they last about seven minutes and I just can't wear them." Still considered one of the most beautiful women in cinema, she is embarrassed when people compliment her on her looks and ask what it is like for her to be so gorgeous. "I usually dodge it and be flip and try to make light of it because although it's flattering it makes me uncomfortable," shesays, adding jokingly, "Can't you see I'm squirming?" But she is more than happy to discuss her feelings about ageing and to share her beauty secrets.

"There's no question that as you get older the maintenance gets more and more," she admits. "I remember the days when I could get up and out of bed and out of the door in ten or 12 minutes. "But the good part about turning 50 - because that's the big number that everybody dreads - is that it's really not such a big deal. You spend so much time dreading it and there's so much talk about it and then it comes and goes and it's over and for me it's been incredibly liberating. It is really letting go of the need to stay young for ever and the need to be perfect. I think I've become more relaxed about those things.

"There's so much pressure on women to stay and look young but the truth is, yeah, you can go out and have plastic surgery and I guess the good plastic surgery is the stuff you don't notice, but it's the bad stuff I'm worried about. I think, yeah, maybe you can look younger, but do you necessarily look better? Not always. And I think the older I get, the easier it becomes. It's like I've got over a hump and I'm now on the down slope." She laughs.

For someone on the down slope she is exceedingly meticulous about her health and her eating habits. "I try to eat well, I exercise and I was a real sun worshipper when I was younger but when I started working I stayed out of the sun, not because I was avoiding it but because I left home before the sun came up and got home when the sun had set." "We are as organic as we can possibly be at home. There's this amazing website called Cosmeticsdatabase.com - go on, spread the word," she urges. "Basically, you log on and they test different products and they give you the toxicity level. It's fantastic because we don't know how toxic some of the products we are using are and I'm very concerned about that."

Michelle Pfeiffer was born in the Southern California town of Santa Ana, one of four children of Richard Pfeiffer, an air-conditioning contractor, and his wife Donna. She grew up a pretty but aimless adolescent. She has often described herself as being "out of control" in her youth, wrecking her first car, a '65 Mustang and skipping school to hang out at the beach with surfers. "I was a surfer girl," she recalls.

Her first job was as a cashier at a local supermarket and although she occasionally daydreamed about one day becoming a famous actress, it was a fantasy she knew she had little chance of attaining. "Where I came from it just wasn't realistic," she remembers. "But my mother always told me I could do anything I wanted, and one day I was checking out groceries and a customer was giving me a hard time about the price of cantaloupes or something and out of a fit of frustration I said, 'Okay, I don't know the first thing about how to go about being an actor but I'm going to try and if I fail I'm going to do something else.'

"I come from a blue-collar family, and my father raised all of us to have a very traditional kind of work ethic that if you applied yourself and worked hard you could do anything. I started working when I was 14 - probably younger if you count babysitting - and I loved it. I've always loved working and it's just in my blood." Her hairdresser gave her an application form for a beauty contest to find the 1978 Miss Orange County, which she entered. She didn't win but she was spotted by an agent and within a year had landed her first television role, a bit part in the series Fantasy Island. She made her film debut in 1980 in Hollywood Knights and a year later she won the leading role in Grease 2, which received poor reviews but earned her critical praise and attention.

At the same time she married Peter Horton, whom she had met at an acting class. They separated in 1988 and were divorced two years later. She embarked on a series of relationships with other actors, including Michael Keaton, John Malkovich, Fisher Stevens and Val Kilmer, who published poems he dedicated to her. But none of them lasted. "They ended because they weren't meant for a lifetime," she explains.

Roles as Al Pacino's wife in Scarface and in The Witches Of Eastwick established her as an international star and then, in 1993 when she was 34 and at the peak of her career and long before Madonna and others made it fashionable, she decided to adopt a child as a single mother. The adoption process was under way when she met David Kelley on a blind date. They hit it off and Michelle recalls: "I had a growing suspicion he was the right one for me and he wasn't going away but I was nervous about telling him I was adopting a child. Then I thought, 'Well, this will separate the men from boys really quickly.' And he loved the idea and I loved the way he handled it."

Eight months after she brought her daughter home she married Kelley and less than a year later their son, John Henry, was born. Her daughter Claudia Rose and John are now both 15, and Michelle is a typical loving and sometimes confused mother. "I find parenting one big improvisation," she admits with a laugh. "Just when you think you've got them figured out, they change and they enter into some new phase. The most humbling thing I've ever done is become a parent but -knock on wood - they're good kids and they don't give me a lot of grief."

After earning Oscar nominations for Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and Love Field and causing a sensation as the whip-cracking, kick-boxing Catwoman in Batman Returns, she continued to build on her A-list reputation with starring roles in One Fine Day, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Story Of Us, the thriller What Lies Beneath and White Oleander. When the children reached high school age, the family uprooted from Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco. "It's not that we were unhappy in Los Angeles because it's an interesting place and I've been really happy there," she says. "But there's not a real strong sense of community and we just wanted a slightly slower lifestyle for the kids and we wanted to be somewhere that was commutable for Los Angeles, so we can still come back and forth."

"It's just the right balance for us. There isn't much I don't like about San Francisco, although it's a little cold in the summer and I don't particularly like driving - going uphill and stopping at a red light because I'm always worried I'm going to roll back and hit the car behind me. But that's about it. I really love San Francisco."

After White Oleander she dropped out of the public eye for almost four years, devoting her time to her husband, children and her hobby of painting, which she takes very seriously. "In addition to acting, my big passion is painting. I love to paint with oils - figure and portrait painting - or lemons or whatever. It doesn't really matter to me. "I started painting while I was still at school and then I left it for a really long time and came back to it. I've been painting fairly consistently for the past 15 years and studied at different places and in different workshops. I took a term at one of the art colleges in San Francisco and I wish I could do it more. If I'd spent more time studying it, I'd be a lot better than I am, but I really enjoy it.

"I didn't make any conscious decision not to work, it just kind of happened, and before I knew it four years had gone by and I hadn't made a movie. I was having such a good time not working that I began to wonder if was ever going to want to work again. Then I remembered that I really still loved it." With the children in their teens, she was lured back to work by the chance to team up again with Christopher Walken in the film version of the musical Hairspray, in which she played the evil Velma von Tussle. She and Walken are old friends, having previously worked together in Tim Burton's Batman Returns. "It was really fun to work with him again; he's so funny," she says.

From there she did not take much persuading to disguise her beauty behind make-up, warts and a prosthetic nose as the ancient witch in Matthew Vaughn's fantasy adventure Stardust. "I loved that Matthew wanted to poke fun at the world's obsession with youth and the lengths that women will go to and what they subject themselves to in order to find the fountain of youth." She has no firm plans for her next project, although the actress who is uncomfortable with her beauty has a firm idea of the sort of role she would like next.

"People ask me what is the one part I haven't played that I'd like to play and I've always wanted to be completely unrecognisable in a film. I've always wanted to be in a movie and not get any credit and see if people pick me out." "Cheri' is in cinemas across the UAE now.

The film Chéri is based on the novella of the same name set in pre-World War 1 Paris by the French author Colette. Colette, right, was the surname of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette who was born in 1873 in Burgundy. She died in Paris in 1954, aged 81, but was dancing on tables and behaving badly right to the end. She is probably most famous for her novel Gigi (1945) and the Claudine series. Chéri tells the story of a middle-aged courtesan, Léa de Lonval, and her lover, Fred Peloux, whom she calls Chéri. He is a spoilt young man 25 years Lea's junior. Somehow the name Chéri suits him better than Fred: he is an alarmingly beautiful but petulant character with a penchant for prancing around in silk pyjamas and Léa's pearls. Léa and Chéri live together for six years until a marriage is arranged for him to a suitable young lady closer to his own age. Until the moment they are separated, both believe their relationship is casual. But once he leaves Léa, Chéri realises how much he loves and relies on her. He has to return to her in order to go on with married life. Chéri was written in 1920, and in 1926 Colette wrote The Last of Chéri, another novella with a much gloomier atmosphere and an almost inevitable tragic ending.