'I'm always afraid of failing': Michelle Pfeiffer

Returning to movies after years off to raise her children, actress Michelle Pfeiffer says she had to tell herself not to bomb in front of fellow actress Judi Dench


NEW YORK • Michelle Pfeiffer has been missed. The 59-year-old actress dipped in and out of movies as she raised a daughter and son with her husband, television writer and producer David E. Kelley, 61.

Now that her children are grown, she has returned in a head-snapping way this year: In The Wizard Of Lies, the HBO movie, she plays Ruth Madoff to Robert De Niro's swindler Bernie Madoff; opposite Jennifer Lawrence, she was the house guest from hell in Darren Aronofsky's allegorical thriller Mother!; and she is the sexy widow in Kenneth Branagh's remake of Murder On The Orient Express, due in Singapore on Nov 30.

Sitting cross-legged and barefoot on a couch in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, her Birkenstocks nearby, Pfeiffer was soft-spoken except for the occasional ripping laugh.

Off-screen, she is a DIY maven, complete with tool belt - it is how she grew up. "My dad was a contractor," she says. "He'd literally give me a hammer, some nails and some piece of wood and I would just go make something."

After a memorable turn as Catwoman in the 1992 film Batman Returns, she re-enters the comic-book universe next year in Ant-Man And The Wasp.

She is also singing again - that is her voice over the closing credits of Branagh's film.

Your character in Mother! was meant to be Eve. Did you think of her that way? (Aronofsky) was very careful not to make those references to us. I was just a woman who was still, after all these years, madly in love with my husband and who was having a lot of family difficulties.

It may be that I just also didn't want to work on a subliminal level. After five years, I started to yearn for the work and even my kids were saying, 'Mom, aren't you going to go back to work?' Which kind of hurt my feelings. ''

ACTRESS MICHELLE PFEIFFER on taking a break from acting

A very real, very human place. Every now and then, I would give Jen a really weird look (laughs loudly), just because.

Do you have to like your characters? I have to find a way to like them. The character I found the most difficult was (the murderous mother in the 2002 film) White Oleander. She was evil. I couldn't find anything to relate to. I remember counting the days that I didn't have to be in her skin.

Ruth Madoff is heroic in her own way. She's a survivor. I understood completely her love for her family and devotion to those children, to her husband.

That was really the crux of that character. We weren't able to tell her story because it's the Bernie Madoff story, but I encouraged her one day to tell it. But I understand why she wouldn't want to.

Are there physical qualities about characters that you find difficult? Absolutely. I never wanted to see that catsuit again. After (the 2007 fantasy film) Stardust, it's like, never prosthetics to my face.

My face was completely encapsulated. It was just so claustrophobic. It was maybe the most uncomfortable I've been.

Would you have done a Catwoman movie? Are you kidding me? In a heartbeat. I loved that part. I felt like I was just getting comfortable and getting used to the claws and the mask, just figuring out how to move in all of that. There was a little bit of talk about that, then that kind of faded away.

Does it feel natural to get back to acting after time off? I had been off for maybe five years and I did (the 2007 film) I Could Never Be Your Woman with Paul Rudd and I felt rusty.

I was surprised because I had never felt like that. So, I haven't actually taken that much time off since then. I'm enjoying (acting) now more than I ever have.

Maybe because I don't watch dailies anymore. I'm not eager to look at my films. I'll look at them once and usually not again. It's better for me because I'm very critical and scrutinising.

You said you are happiest when you are working, so how did you find a balance when you were not? I tinker. I'm an oil painter - usually figure and portrait. I like to build things.

I get out my tools - my hammer and my electric drill. When the kids were young, I built them a playhouse. I redid the front of one of my fireplaces. I got this idea, I went into Home Depot or something and said, "Hey, I want to redo my fireplace. Can you guys tell me how to do that?" They looked at me weirdly.

When you took a pause from acting, was it also because the roles were thin? It seemed like it was harder and harder to say yes and the roles didn't warrant leaving my family.

I didn't want to disrupt their routine over and over again, so I started being picky about when I worked, where, how long I was away, so it limited my choices.

It may be that I just also didn't want to work on a subliminal level. After five years, I started to yearn for the work and even my kids were saying, "Mom, aren't you going to go back to work?" Which kind of hurt my feelings.

Around the time we started looking at colleges, I realised how it was going to hit me hard (to have an empty nest) and that I better get something going.

I need to feel like I'm creating something and that my life has meaning. I'm not just going to start playing bridge.

Early on, you said you had the guts to act because you weren't afraid to fail. Do you still feel that way? I'm always afraid of failing. Every new part I do, I'm afraid I'm going to fail. I'm afraid I'm disappointing my director and you should have got someone else.

When I started Murder, I said to Steve Kloves (the writer-director of the 1989 Fabulous Baker Boys), "I'm ruining the film." He laughed.

Why did you think that? It's challenging doing a 1930s period piece like that. The character is much more extroverted than I am and so you have to push yourself outside your comfort zone.

It just takes jumping into the deep end, but it's hard to trust that in the beginning.

So I was at that stage and I'm acting in front of (Oscar winner) Judi Dench and I'm thinking, "Okay, you cannot bomb in front of Judi Dench. This just can't happen."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2017, with the headline ''I'm always afraid of failing''. Subscribe