Liberated lady

With her children grown up, Michelle Pfeiffer is enjoying the freedom to plunge back into big-screen roles, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 4:42pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 4:42pm

Right now, Michelle Pfeiffer is facing a problem all parents must endure: her children leaving home. She recently dropped her 19-year-old son, John Henry, off at university, for the first time. Daughter Claudia Rose, 20, also has flown the coop.

"I'm an empty nester now," Pfeiffer says. Is she expecting this to be difficult? "I think I'm going to get there. I'm going to arrive at that place, but I'm not there yet. Now I'm just like 'I can walk around naked!' That's kind of nice."

For 20 years, when it comes to decision-making [about] what I'm going to do, I've had this element of stress
Michelle Pfeiffer, on her criteria for accepting a role

A thought that doubtless still excites a large portion of her male fan base, not least since the 55-year-old actress still looks in good enough shape to repeat that unforgettable scene in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) - the one where she's singing Makin' Whoopee while sliding across a grand piano in a slinky red dress - or slip back into that PVC all-in-one suit to play Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992).

It's not only prancing around the house nude that living without children is offering her. "For 20 years, when it comes to decision-making [about] what I'm going to do, I've had this element of stress," she says in her suite at London's Dorchester Hotel. Among the questions she used to ask: "Where is it shooting? When is it shooting? How long is it shooting?" But now it's different. The California-based actress has just received a script that will shoot in New York. "My first response was to get excited. For the first time in 20 years, I didn't have to think about that. I'm free!"

She's earned this. A decade ago, Pfeiffer took a four-year hiatus to focus on her children and husband, Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley. Given she was then 45, that age when roles traditionally dry up for actresses, it looked like a smart move. There had been the odd hit - thriller What Lies Beneath (2000) with Harrison Ford, for example - but largely her career was not what it was in the early 1990s, when esteemed directors such as Martin Scorsese ( The Age of Innocence, 1993) and Mike Nichols ( Wolf, 1994) queued up to work with her.

Once she settled on spending time with her family, Hollywood became a distant memory. "I don't regret it at all," she says. "There's a saying - Nobody sits on their death-bed and says 'Oh God, I wish I'd been at the office.'" Also, she wasn't reading "anything" that compelled her to go back to work, so it was a while before she felt the pull of the big screen once more. "I started feeling like I was ready to go back. I was getting a little itchy."

Small roles in musical Hairspray (2007) and as a 5,000-year-old witch in Stardust (also 2007) got her back in the groove. Then came two reunions: on Chéri (2009) with Stephen Frears, who directed her in Dangerous Liaisons (1988); and on Dark Shadows last year, with Batman Returns helmer Tim Burton. Now comes Luc Besson's Malavita (aka The Family), which also feels like a reunion of sorts - this time with a genre Pfeiffer has conquered before: the gangster movie.

After playing Al Pacino's moll in Scarface (1983), Pfeiffer turned heads as a widowed mafia wife in Jonathan Demme's 1988 comedy Married to the Mob. "I loved playing that part. I had so much fun. I'd hoped I would one day revisit this world and that type of character," she says.

In Besson's film, based on Tonino Benacquista's novel Malavita, Pfeiffer plays Maggie Blake, wife to Fred (Robert De Niro), a former Brooklyn mafiaso who snitched on a fellow mobster. Now in the witness protection programme, the couple and their two children are in hiding in Normandy. The comedy comes from watching these fish out of the water as they adjust to life in rural France. "They break all the rules and we're always drawn to people and characters [who do that]," Pfeiffer says. "There's a part of us that wants to blow up grocery stores when people are rude to us. We have that savage part of us."

Pfeiffer doesn't really look the sort to get mad - though she says otherwise. "I smashed my electric toothbrush the other day in a fit of rage. I don't know what I was mad about, but I was stressed and having a bad day … and I just slammed it in the sink. I'm just like the Hulk."

While this hardly calls for anger management classes, she was a little more rebellious in her teens in California, a consequence of being raised by conservative Midwestern parents. In her teenage years in Orange County, she'd ditch class to head to the shopping mall or the beach, where her ambitions stretched no further than to be a "surfer chick". If that's not Californian enough for you, Pfeiffer entered the Miss Orange County beauty contest, which she won. "It was very uncharacteristic of me to do anything hokey like that."

She wound up working in a supermarket to pay the bills. From beach bum to checkout girl, it was hardly an inspiring start to adult life. But after winning the beauty contest, she met a Hollywood agent, who was on the judging panel, and began auditioning for commercials and bit parts.

Curiously, she met her Malavita co-star De Niro back then - when her agent put her up for the role that eventually went to Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull (1980). "I was just a newbie. I had done nothing … I have no idea how my agent got me this meeting, because I didn't know who he was." She didn't know who De Niro was? "I was young. I hadn't seen anything," she says with a shrug. "He doesn't remember meeting me! I obviously didn't make too much of an impression!"

Since then, she's racked up a remarkable series of male co-stars - among them, Pacino in Scarface, Jack Nicholson in Wolf, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence, Robert Redford in Up Close and Personal, and George Clooney in One Fine Day.

In contrast, her next role will see her sharing screen time with Diane Keaton and Viola Davis in Whatever Makes You Happy, a comedy about three friends who get fed up with their adult sons not spending enough time with them. "So they show up on their doorstep and comedy ensues."

She promises me, with her son now settled in college, she won't do the same. She's having too much fun anyway - dancing nude and jetting off wherever she pleases.

Malavita opens on November 28