Michelle Pfeiffer for “I Am Sam”

Michelle Pfeiffer looks nothing her 43 years would suggest. Beautiful and glamorous, she has an old-fashioned Hollywood sensibility: Movie star remains emblazoned in her move. Simply dressed, he eyes are covered by up-market designer glasses.

She is quietly spoken but eager to talk about her latest film, I am Sam, in which she plays a singularly obsessive lawyer who reluctantly takes on a case in which a mentally retarded adult [Sean Penn] is fighting for custody of his seven-year old daughter. It’s a risky role for the acclaimed actress, and one she was terrified to play. In this interview with Paul Fischer, Pfeiffer discusses the film, as well as her own thoughts on parenthood and and Hollywood.

Question: I was told by your director that you were an extremely brave actress to take on a role like this.  What makes you so brave to take on such a role?

Answer: It’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity you know. I had some trepidations about this part, and I knew that one had to fully commit to being completely unlikeable in the beginning in order for it to work and I think I just trusted Jessie, and I was always trying to talk, her into softening her, just a little bit.  I’d say: Well, maybe I should just play this, you know, a little bit softer here, and she’d say, no, I don’t think so.  And, um, and then toward the end, she was saying, I think you should pull it back a few notches.  And I was getting a little carried away, enjoying it a little too much.  But I think I just, you know, when of her strengths as a director is instilling trust in the actors, and you just feel so safe, and you also trust her taste, and you know that if you go out on a limb and you fail, you know, in a huge way, it won’t end up in a movie, and I think that you can’t take those chances. 

Question: Can you relate to some of the driven, more obsessive aspects of her character?

Answer: Not really.  You know, I could relate to her struggles with trying to balance career and trying in a very disabled way to be a good parent, and feeling that you’re failing, and I feel all parents think, at times, that they are just completely and utterly failing their kids and that they totally messed up their lives forever.  And, you know, there are some women in the world like this, and I think for a woman, what a woman has to face for climbing up the corporate ladder, and some times what women have to BECOME, is a much tougher version of men, and that’s sad, and I’ve seen that a lot. 

Question: Is there a parallel between that character and the kind of the pressure of what it is like to be in this business as an actress, and especially for you?

Answer: No.  I think it would be more in other aspects of this business, so I think more, maybe the production end of the business.  You know I love acting, and there’s a kind of purity to it.  I mean they can take your performance and they can completely change it in the editing room, but they can’t really control what you do.  It’s sort of all yours, and the producing end of it is really a whole different ball game, you know, particularly being a woman producer.

Question: You’re talking about balance.  Where do you use the balance in your life between work and the pressure of work, there’s always pressure, where’s my next role going to be, is this project . where’s the balance between that and over here where you’re talking about?

Answer: I guess for everyone it’s different and then, you know, at different times it’s different.  I mean I always put my children first and at the same time trying to satisfy my selfish needs because I do love to work, but I also love being a mom and I love being at home. 

Question: Why do you love that? What is it for you?  What connection?

Answer: I don’t think you can articulate it.  It’s not something that you can articulate, and I think it’s something that for a lot of people that I’ve talked to, it may come by surprise.  How deeply, how deep your love runs for a child.  I think it takes everyone by surprise. 

Question: It’s interesting that you should say that because when we talked to you about .Deep End of the Ocean,. you said that you felt the path you were taking, that the emotion of your feeling about your children, you did the script because you could relate in some ways to that script.  Is it hard to, in a film like this where you are being so much of that person, is it hard to leave that emotional baggage behind when you go into this role as well, and is it to be completely clear as&

Answer: Yeah, because I was also trying to soften the relationship with HIM a little bit in the beginning, you know.  Had I been able to do some of the later scenes early on, I think I would have felt . I think ultimately I mustered up the courage to do it but it was . it was difficult, but had I done some of those later scenes earlier on, I would have felt a little more courageous in the beginning to really, to really, you know, be nasty.

Question: What’s interesting I found here is that your character is not only unfulfilled as a mother, but  obviously unfulfilled  professionally.

Answer: Oh, she’s very fulfilled professionally in terms of success.

Question: Yes,  but I mean she’s at the end of her tether in other aspects.

Answer: Well, no, I don’t think so, not professionally, but it seems that . well, I mean she’s just barely holding things together. 

Question: She’s living on her nerves.

Answer: Yes, absolutely.  Yes.  You’re right.

Question: She’s about to crash.

Answer: Oh, yeah. 

Question: What’s the best part about your life right now, and what’s the worst?

Answer: Gosh.  I think the best part of my life right now is there’s so much harmony in my family.  I mean not only my IMMEDIATE family, but also my extended family and I don’t know exactly why that is, and I’m not going to ask any questions, and the worst thing? I don’t have a lot of bad things right now in my life. 

Question: When you work, how do you deal withy the guilt?

Answer: I don’t know.  You just, you just take it a day at a time I guess.  It’s, you know, you just try to put in as much time, quality time with them when you are there, and I talk to them a lot about it, you know.  I talk to them a lot about . try to get some sort of a feeling about where they are, how they’re feeling about me working, and usually they’re fine. 

Question: Do you feel you have any obsessive compulsive tendencies like the character at all in terms of, you know, how everything has to kind of be ordered?

Answer: Yeah.  Yeah, a little bit, just in the perfectionism thing, I can sort of obsess on things.

Question: Do you mean work related, or is it&?

Answer: Everything.

Question: Really? So how do you, how do you counteract that, or how do you keep that in check?

Answer: Well, becoming a parent has helped it a lot, because you can’t be like that.  It will just break you because they’re just so unpredictable, no matter what you do.  Forget about, you know, controlling them in any way, so it’s really helped me a lot to sort of let go of things.

Question: The holidays are coming up, so do you cook Christmas dinner, holiday dinner, what do you like to indulge in during the holidays? 

Answer: Well, I don’t really like turkey, and also by the time you have Thanksgiving, it’s like I’m really sort of .turkeyed’ out anyway, but it’s not my favorite meal. But we do a lot of family things, you know, tree trimming, Christmas Eve, Christmas morning.

Question: Do you cook?  Do you prepare the family Christmas dinner?

Answer: We sort of do a potluck. 

Question: You went to drama school with Sean [Penn].  Can you just talk a little bit about that? Did you know him?

Answer: Well, it’s a little bit misleading because we studied with the same teacher at the same time, but you know, they had different classes at different times, and he was actually in a different class, and I didn’t really know him.

Question: I understand that on this film, you really wanted to work with Sean and he really wanted to work with you.  Was it all you expected it to be?

Answer: It was better than I really even expected. 

Question: How so?

Answer: Well, I didn’t expect him to be so much fun.  I didn’t expect him to be so generous as an actor.  I mean I knew that he would be brilliant because he always is, but I didn’t expect him to be so aware of the other actors and you know, be so giving in the process.

Question: When you’re doing a scene with Sean, what does he bring to a scene?

Answer: Well, he just brings a reality to it. I mean different actors work in different ways, and it’s artistically a lot more gratifying when you’re really relating to each other and that’s not always the case and with him, and so that sort of lends itself to sort of more surprises.

Question: Is Hollywood still in your ageist in some ways

Answer: Well, there is a sense of ageism, but I think it’s also getting a lot better and I think that, you know, a new actress’ opportunity getting much bigger than it used to be and that’s my feeling.  That’s my experience. 

Question: What age did you find most enjoyable?

Answer: Age?

Question: Yeah, did you enjoy your 20’s, 30’s, or?

Answer: I think from about the age of 34 on.

Question: Really, why?

Answer: Well, that’s when my daughter was born.

Question: When we look back throughout your movies, making Grease 2, 20 years ago, did you ever have a plan that you wanted to get to certain points in your career, or has it just kind of fallen that way?

Answer: Well it didn’t just fall that way, but it also wasn’t calculated either.  Even when I didn’t necessarily have a lot of choices, I was still picky within my limited choices that were available to me, you know, I spent a lot of time unemployed.  I was very conscious of the fact that I couldn’t do a lot of roles where I was just an arm piece for someone, you know, and it’s kind of both. 

Question: In real life, Michelle, what are you really good at?  What are you just so bad at?

Answer: I’m really good at many things.  No (chuckling).  I’m really good at sort of physical things, sort of building things and I’m sort of good at, I guess sort of figuring things out, that kind of thing.  What am I really bad at?  I’m a really bad tennis player. 

Question: Michelle, I read something really, really funny.  Well, I thought it was funny anyway, I hope you do because it involves you.  I can’t remember where I read it but . the gist of it was, it was like a celebrity sighting kind of thing.  Somebody had seen you, I think it was at Fred Eagles buying some books recently, like in the last couple of weeks. 

Answer: Let Out the Vixen in You or something?

Question: Yeah, what was that all about?

Answer: You know what, it’s a joke ad present for some friends of mine.  I did not get one for myself, mind you. 

Question: Why that book?

Answer: Because it was there, it was on the shelf.  I didn’t even really intend to get them anything for Christmas, but it was sort of this group of women, and I thought they would find it humorous, so.  Yeah.

Question: What are you working on right now?  Are you working on anything at the moment?

Answer: No, just enjoying being a mom.