She is Hollywood’s eternal beauty and a true silver screen icon. Following the release of fantasy blockbuster Stardust, the ‘magical’ Michelle Pfeiffer talks exclusively to Enigma in London.
Michelle Pfeiffer has just been voted the woman who has grown most beautiful with age. The stunning 49-year-old actress topped a recent poll which asked readers to name a female celebrity who has become more attractive with each passing year. But Michelle has always been beautiful. In fact, according to scientists, the Hollywood actress’ face perfectly matches a complex ‘beauty formula’ which uses ratios of facial features to define true beauty. But the Hairspray star is unimpressed by looks and in her latest movie Stardust, she plays a hideous witch in a part she feels “pokes fun at society’s obsession with beauty and perfectionism.” And yet it was Michelle’s perfect beauty that propelled her into the limelight.
After working as a checkout girl in a supermarket and a court stenographer, Michelle won the title of Miss Orange County in a beauty contest in 1978. She then entered the Miss Los Angeles pageant, and although she didn’t win, she was spotted by a Hollywood agent. After attending audition after audition, while living around the corner from the star studded pavement of Hollywood Boulevard, she finally landed the lead part in Grease 2, followed by an iconic role in Cool Rider.
But it wasn’t until 1982 that Michelle hit the big time in Brian De Palma’s Scarface opposite Al Pacino. As she explains, “Scarface gave me a bit of legitimacy that I didn’t have before.” The actress won critical acclaim for her role as a gangster’s drug addict wife, and went on to win roles in The Fabulous Baker Boys, Love Field and Dangerous Liaisons – and she earned Oscar nominations for her brilliant performances for all three (IS THIS ACCURATE?). She was even offered the lead role in Evita before Madonna took the part – but turned it down because she was pregnant. Michelle explained, “I would have liked to do that film, but realised that I couldn’t leave home for the amount of time that they wanted because I was just huge!”
And of course, she will always be remembered as the ultimate sex symbol after donning a PVC catsuit to play Catwoman in Batman Returns. But despite her massive success, Michelle is keen to shun fame. In fact, the actress was reluctant to become famous at all and found it difficult to make the transition from starring in commercials to becoming one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. As she recalls, “Getting comfortable with being famous was hard – that whole side of it, the loss of anonymity, and the loss of privacy. Giving up that part of your life and not having control of it is difficult.”
Michelle stays out of the spotlight to spend time with her family – producer husband David E. Kelly, daughter Claudia Rose, now 14, and 12-year-old John Henry. Michelle adopted Claudia in 1993, the baby daughter of an African-American nurse living in New York who already had four children. Two weeks later the single 34-year-old was set up on a blind date with successful Ally McBeal and Chicago Hope producer David E. Kelly. Mutual friends arranged for the pair to go bowling and 11 years later they are still happily married and have a son, John Henry, together. After starring in horror film What Lies Beneath in 2000 and the emotional drama I Am Sam in 2001, Michelle more or less retired from the spotlight for nearly five years, vowing to dedicate all her time to her children and husband.
Yet this year the lure of Hollywood proved irresistible and she finally went back to work; starring as a domineering mother in the remake of cult musical Hairspray, and now as wicked witch Lamia in Stardust. Michelle even admits, “I think bad guys have more fun. I don’t know about real life, but let’s just say actors playing bad guys definitely have more fun.”
The fantasy epic Stardust centres on a falling star, played by Claire Danes, whom everybody wants to catch. The cast includes Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Peter O’Toole and Robert De Niro, who plays a cross-dressing pirate. Michelle herself plays hideous old witch Lamia, who believes that by eating the star she will gain eternal youth. The film is a stunning magical adventure full of action, humour and drama, but also contains a lot of metaphors for Hollywood, the world Michelle is so keen to stay away from.
Everybody wants a piece of the star, and all hope to gain different things from her, just like the modern cult of celebrity demands of today’s stars. And of course Lamia’s desire for youth has an obvious parallel with the pressure on women in Hollywood to look young. Michelle – who still looks incredible – is able to mock this fascination with self preservation and also shows that despite her time away from filmmaking, she can still act with the best of them. She certainly has nothing to prove, but her appearance in this movie shows she still has everything it takes to be a star.
You’ve been out of the limelight for some time. What made you choose to accept the part in Stardust?
I loved that the script wasn’t your typical fantasy. It has so many genres. It was adventure, romantic, magical, dark, incredibly funny and very epic, all in one. And at the same time it had a very contemporary, modern feel to it and a modern sense of humour. Then director Matthew Vaughn told me the comment he wanted to make with this movie was about society’s obsession with youth, beauty and perfectionism. He wanted to really poke fun at that and see how far we could take it. I thought, ‘Well that’s kind of risky,’ and incredibly courageous and unusual for a young man, who honestly shouldn’t really be thinking about those issues. So that impressed and intrigued me. And I thought if I don’t do this, I’m really going to regret it and I really don’t want to see anybody else playing this part!
You had to go an incredible transformation for this film, how did it feel?
I really hate it when I hear actors whine about things, but it was difficult I have to say. The first time they applied the prosthetic makeup, it took about six hours. It never occurred to me how that would feel and the claustrophobia that would set in. My entire face, head and neck were encased in rubber and the only thing left of me was the tip of my nose and my eyeballs. And I panicked! I immediately thought, ‘How do I get out of this?’ But all these people had worked so hard and so long on this look so I didn’t want them to know how upset I was. So I went into the bathroom and cried. I called Matthew on my mobile, I think it was the middle of the night where he was, but he talked me off the ledge.
Then there was getting it off. It took an hour to get it off because they had to literally peel it off me and it could only go so quickly because the faster they went – you could literally lose a layer of skin. So I listened to a lot of books on tape, and fortunately I had a great crew, and we laughed a lot. I think it was the sense of humour in the trailer that kept me sane. But I was out of my comfort zone as an actress because I didn’t know how to act through the mask, how my facial expressions would come across. But it’s important to always take on new challenges and I learned to act in a new way.
Was it hard filming on location in Scotland?
I had never been to Scotland and the landscape was spectacular but I have to say very rugged and not the easiest location. The hotel we were staying at was a little bit like The Shining. The weather was fierce, too. But apparently we had to go at that time of year because if we waited much longer there were these little bugs that eat you alive. So it was a choice between being hailed and rained on or being eaten alive. It was brutal, very dramatic. But that’s one of the gifts of being in this business; you get to go places that you may not normally see otherwise.
Did it wear you out?
Other than the wear and tear of the prosthetics, there were the action scenes and the sword fighting. We learned that very last minute, but I managed to pick it up, and I really enjoyed it. I think I did my own stunts with that, I was sure they would get somebody else in afterwards, but they tell me it was 80% me in the final cut.
Was it hard leaving your family behind to go on location, after spending so much time not working?
The kids were actually asking me, ‘Mom, are you ever going back to work?’ Here I am, thinking I’m making this big sacrifice for my family. I’m like: ‘What do you mean? Isn’t it nice having me home?’ And they said: “Well, yeah. But we like visiting you at work, too.’ But it’s better that they’re having to kick me out of the house now, rather than telling me I was never at home for them!
Lamia will do anything to get eternal youth. Was that something you could
Well, I don’t have the secret to eternal youth, and I don’t want it. Lamia’s desperate quest for youth is a metaphor for what is going on in society today. No one is going to be condemned for getting a bit of work done these days, but I feel people have forgotten what true beauty is. Having surgery to look younger or to conform to the idea of what is beautiful is not necessarily going to be an improvement.
What do you do to look after your looks?
I don’t do that much to preserve myself. I used to get a lot of sun when I was younger but these days I really have to stay out of it as it irritates my skin. Sometimes I hear about some miracle product and I think ‘That’s sounds so great, I’ll have to give it a go,’ but then I forget all about it. I can go years without a manicure. I never pluck my eyebrows – the makeup artists do them when I have a film to promote. I don’t even get my hair cut when I’m not working.
Are you happy with your looks?
I’ve always had a boyish figure and I used to be teased about being flat chested and having skinny legs. I never liked wearing a bathing suit on the beach . I still don’t –I’m rather self-conscious.
Would you ever consider surgery?
I don’t have anything against it and I think there is a lot of pressure on women these days. It’s hard to get old when everyone else is getting work done. I toy with the idea. When I’m relaxed I think I look pretty good and the facelift can wait a few years. But if one day I look in the mirror and I can’t stand what I see, maybe I’ll go for it. I’ve seen some amazing-looking plastic surgery. But who knows what you’ll get? I hope I have the courage to grow old gracefully.
Do you believe, as woman, it’s harder to survive in Hollywood the older you get?
The older you get, the less likely you are to get the scripts, but it’s important to keep trying. But when I was younger, it was harder for me to get a good part too. When I went to an audition I had to be a better actor so people could see past my looks.
This year you were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, how did
you feel about receiving such a prestigious honour?
It’s funny because I used to live around the corner when I first moved to Hollywood. But honestly, it wasn’t something I ever thought about…well maybe when I first started acting, but I never spent a lot of time thinking about it. When the day came, I was really surprised by the enormity of the event. It was such a big honour to be included in this old Hollywood tradition. I haven’t had it that long so I haven’t been to check it out yet, but I might. They also gave me a little miniature one to keep at home which is pretty cool.
Is an Oscar your next goal?
It’s never really been a dream of mine. I think I’ve done all right and there are still a few good parts out there, but I’m happy with the way things have gone so far.