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Michelle Pfeiffer on Her Hollywood Hiatus and Return to Superhero Films

The cinema gods broke the mold when they made Michelle Pfeiffer.

In her greatest performances, as say, Susie Diamond or Catwoman, she’s achingly beautiful and unapologetically ballsy. Whether slinking across a grand piano while crooning “Makin’ Whoopee” or fending off Batman with a bullwhip, Pfeiffer conveys an inner strength, but also a flicker of vulnerability. In the late 1980s and ’90s, few stars blazed brighter. But as the aughts dawned, Pfeiffer stepped away from Hollywood to focus on raising her two children.

“It wasn’t a conscious choice to not work for five years,” Pfeiffer says. “It was just as my kids got older it got harder. They were school age, and I couldn’t schlep all around the world and disrupt their routines. I set down so many restrictions about when and where I could be on location that I became kind of unhirable.”

Variety Power of Women Cover 2017 Michelle Pfeiffer
CREDIT: Art Streiber for Variety

From 2004 to 2007, for instance, she didn’t appear in any films, and from 2013 to 2017, there was another gap without a big-screen turn. When she has popped up, it’s largely been in pictures that aren’t a match for her talent. “Dark Shadows” and “The Family” may have their fans, but they’re no “Dangerous Liaisons.” That could change. At 59, an age when Hollywood has been known to force actresses into retirement or a purgatory of grandmother roles, Pfeiffer is busier than ever. She’s picked up an Emmy nomination playing Ruth Madoff in HBO’s “The Wizard of Lies” and earned raves for her work as a creepy houseguest in “Mother!” Next month she’s part of an all-star cast in Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” playing opposite Johnny Depp, Judi Dench and Daisy Ridley.

“There seems to be a lot of me out there at the moment,” says Pfeiffer. “My kids are older, and I’m an empty nester. I just decided to revisit going back to work now.”

When Pfeiffer spoke to Variety, she was set to start shooting Marvel’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” for her highest-profile role in years. She’ll play Janet van Dyne, the original Wasp. Her research has entailed poring over old comic books.

“I just started reading them, and I’m having a really hard time,” she says. “There’s so much information on a page, and it’s not linear. When I’m skim reading them it’s difficult to know that this part comes after that and who is talking in what bubble.”

She decided to do her first superhero movie since “Batman Returns” partly because she enjoyed director Peyton Reed’s take on “Ant-Man.” “It had this great sense of humor about it and just this unusual tone,” she says. “This new script has the same thing. It’s nicely written.”

She’s also pleased that more than 20 years after its release, “Batman Returns,” with its grim take on Gotham City, is still held up as a high point of cinematic Dark Knight tales. “It was all Tim Burton,” she says. “He was able to bring this heart and darkness and humor to it.”

Pfeiffer says she would love to reprise her Catwoman character, though she won’t repeat the lengths she went to in playing Selina Kyle. In the pre-CGI era, a scene where Catwoman sticks a bird in her mouth before releasing it required her to perform with a live animal. “I can’t believe I did that,” she says. “I could have gotten a disease.”

Count “Mother!” director Darren Aronofsky among those rooting for a Pfeiffer comeback. He tells Variety he’d like to work with her again, and believes the roles she’s receiving may eclipse the ones that put her on the map. “I remember taking this class on directing actors, and the teacher was awful, but one thing he said really stuck with me,” says Aronofsky. “He said, ‘Michelle Pfeiffer — it’s rare to get such talent and beauty in one package.’ I was always aware of her abilities, dating all the way back to ‘Scarface.’ But in many of her performances there was a lot that was untapped. I don’t think the roles back then were necessarily that great for women. I’m excited to see what she’s going to tackle now.”

Hollywood didn’t always know what to do with Pfeiffer, saddling her with an underwritten role in “Wolf” or putting her in romantic comedies such as “The Story of Us” that skimped on the laughs and the romance. But as Pfeiffer notes, she also was choosy, turning down “The Silence of the Lambs” and “To Die For,” which scored awards for other actresses. Some of those decisions rankle. She passed on “Thelma & Louise,” for instance, because shooting conflicted with “Love Field,” a drama about the Kennedy assassination that earned her an Oscar nomination. “I still can’t watch ‘Thelma & Louise,’” she says. “It was a direct conflict, so it was one film or the other. It still kills me. You can’t always do everything. You’ve got to give something up.”

Reviews singled out Pfeiffer for her work in “Mother!,” but the film divided audiences. It’s one of the only movies to receive an F CinemaScore. Pfeiffer isn’t surprised.

Kenneth Branagh and Michelle Pfeiffer ride the rails in Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” one of four projects in which Pfeiffer appears this year.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/NICOLA DOVE

“It’s what Darren set out to do,” she says. “He set out to make a controversial film that was going to engage people and enrage people and provoke people. It’s certainly thought-provoking and got people talking.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” looks to be more of a crowd-pleaser. Pfeiffer plays a widow who is viewed by some of the passengers on the train as a husband hunter. In a cast of heavy hitters, she stands out.

“There’s almost a tomboy quality in her easy humor and warmth, and then the next moment she stuns you by an entirely womanly femininity that takes your breath away,” says Branagh. “A third of the time, I laughed a lot with Michelle; a third of the time, I marveled at her wondrous command of camera and scene; and a third of the time, I just tried to get the image of her sliding across the piano in that red dress in ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’ out of my mind.”

Pfeiffer confesses that before shooting began, she was nervous that she wouldn’t be able to hold her own. “I have to say acting with all of them kind of intimidated me,” she says. “The amount of talent in the room was not lost on me. I didn’t get over that for the first few days.” It’s odd to think of Pfeiffer, who has three Oscar nominations and a case of iconic roles, getting butterflies about meeting anyone. But one actress in particular left her cowed.

“It’s Judi Dench,” she says. “I cried when I met her. My eyes kept filling with tears.”

Watch a behind-the-scenes video of Pfeiffer’s Power of Women L.A. cover shoot.

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