THE PFEIFFER FACTORby Paul Fischer in Toronto.
EXCLUSIVE Michelle Pfeiffer/White Oleander Interview
Looking at Michelle Pfeiffer, even as she is wearing minimal make-up, one can understand why she was cast as the fiercely beautiful and manipulative mother in White Oleander, the film version of the best-selling novel. Wearing a simple, rainbow-coloured blouse, draped over jeans, there is flawlessness to Pfeiffer's physicality and remains every bit the movie star. While in White Oleander she plays a woman who uses her own beauty as a weapon, the youthfully 44-year old actress is reticent about discussing the pros and cons of being a beautiful actress in today's Hollywood. It is a double-edged sword, she says, choosing her words carefully. "I kind of feel like it is a no win conversation because no matter what I say I am going to sound like a jerk." Pfeiffer pauses, uncomfortable but realizing that there are parallels between the themes of her latest film and real-life perceptions of one of Hollywood's most luminous stars. She slowly admits that beauty "can also be blinding, but like everything I think it just has its advantages and disadvantages."
In White Oleander, Pfeiffer plays Ingrid Magnussen who poisons her ex-boyfriend and ends up in prison. Meanwhile, her teenage daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman) is forced to live in foster homes. She must deal with very different foster mothers, played by Renee Zellweger and Robin Wright Penn, while coming of age and when the opportunity to have her mother back, Astrid must make some difficult choices. Pfeiffer's character is consistently unsympathetic in her determination to retain a sense of individuality for both her and her daughter. It was one of Pfeiffer's toughest challenges and admits that while the character comes across as being frightening, the actress admits having had problems trying to figure out who this woman is "which baffled me and quite frankly, still baffles me. I can't profess to understand really fully who she is." Yet Pfeiffer still had to try and play her just the same. "However destructive, narcissistic, selfish and annihilating she might be, she is also very truthful and I think there is a lot of truth to what she says," Pfeiffer explains. "I think that I stood behind the truth in what she was saying in that she was so relentlessly steadfast in her beliefs and willing to pay the price for that."
While she cannot relate too much of this character, she doers identify with the selfishness of the artist which is inherent in this character, up to a point. "Except when that selfishness comes, I am not willing to sacrifice my children for that and I think that is where we really part. At the same time, I think I can be kind of judgmental at times and I don't like that about myself," she confesses.
Pfeiffer has played a gallery of flawed women on screen, but nobody quite like this mother from hell. She was keen to step up to the challenge, she says, because "it was a challenge and liberating to play somebody that ultimately it didn't matter how sympathetic she was to the piece. In the best of all worlds I felt like I really want people to see that she is a complicated person and she is not all evil and you know she is many, many things and ultimately her behaviour is out of fear and having to be totally and utterly in control and constantly on alert because of the fear of being vulnerable."
Pfeiffer's own vulnerability has to do with not only the power of beauty that she lives with, but in equating that with her status as Hollywood star and celebrity. .Always uncomfortable in the spotlight, Pfeiffer agrees that "the whole celebrity thing" is something she gets more and more used to "but it never is normal and I think the fuller your life is, the more you are able to just kind of call a truce with it on a good day." What keeps her reality in check, she adds, "is my family, absolutely", which includes husband, TV producer David E. Kelley, her adopted 9-year old daughter Claudia Rose and 8-year old son John Henry.
Her family is a priority which is why Pfeiffer works less than in her heyday. Yet when she works, she manages to find strong women to play, and the actress says that it's a waiting game, waiting for the right part to come her way. "There are times when there are all of these great scripts coming and then you will hit a spot where you know everything is sort of bad and not very good." Pfeiffer smilingly concedes that while waiting for the cream of the crop to arrive, patience is not her best virtue. "I am not by nature a very patient person but I have learned to be more patient, "she says. "I don't want to work unless it is something I really, really love, or something that is truthful and because I really feel that I am enjoying the process and the work more than I ever have. So I just don't want to kind of invest all of that into something that is ultimately going to be so disappointing and then does this really warrant time away from my family?"
A working actress since making her professional debut in 1979, Pfeiffer has fought hard against being stereotyped as the glamorous beauty. She has proven her diversity through work as distinctive as Scarface, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Russia House, Dangerous Minds and last year's I am Sam. Yet now, in her forties and some 40 films later, Pfeiffer is enjoying her profession more now than ever, because, she says, she doesn't need it as much now as she once did. "I guess it is like when you are younger and you are kind of desperate, you need approval, you NEED to work and you have to work. Also I think early on my identity was so wrapped up. When I wasn't working I didn't know what to do with my self and I sort of didn't exist in a way when I wasn't working so I was like two different people. I am not like that anymore so it is just different. As a result it has freed me up to enjoy the work in a much less desperate way so I can be more playful with it."
After all that Pfeiffer knows about this acting thing, she remains divided as to her children pursuing an acting career. "I definitely won't let them do it when they're children. At the same time sometimes I say to myself: Why you are so against this when it has only been good for you? My life is so much better than it would have been had I not become an actor so what is it that you are so resistant to? I guess I sort of just feel like I am lucky." It doesn't seem that Michelle's luck is likely to run out any time soon.
WHITE OLEANDER opens nationally on June 12 2003.