'I'm a survivor. I always have been': Michelle Pfeiffer talks ageism, career and 'French Exit'

Patrick Ryan

Michelle Pfeiffer is no stranger to feline co-stars. 

In her offbeat new comedy, "French Exit," the actress plays a penniless socialite who thinks her late husband was reincarnated as a talking cat. And in 1992's "Batman Returns," Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle is memorably licked back to life by alley cats on her way to becoming Catwoman. 

"It's a little weird having cats eat off your face. That was probably the creepier part of it," Pfeiffer recalls with a laugh on a Zoom call. But "when you're working with animals, they're so well-trained and the trainers are right there. I've worked with wolves (in 1994's "Wolf"). I put birds in my mouth (in "Batman Returns"), which was really disgusting and stupid. I don't think I would ever do that again." 

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In dark comedy "French Exit," Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a martini-swilling widow who's forced to relocate after spending all her dead husband's money.

The tabbies are the tamest part about "French Exit" (in select theaters nationwide Friday), adapted from Patrick DeWitt's absurdist 2018 novel. Pfeiffer's character, Frances Price, is an acid-tongued Manhattan heiress who discovers she's broke and flees to a friend's empty Paris apartment with her grown son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges). There, they encounter other outcasts – a psychic (Danielle Macdonald), an expat (Valerie Mahaffey), a private detective (Isaach De Bankole) – and try to mend their own strained relationship. 

It's a deliciously tart performance that earned Pfeiffer her eighth Golden Globe nomination in February: all withering stares, incisive one-liners and spiteful outbursts. At one point, she sets a table on fire while impatiently awaiting a restaurant check. 

"I mean, how many rude waiters have you really wanted to do that to?" Pfeiffer jokes. "It was one of those moments in the script where you're like, really? Who lights floral arrangements on fire in a restaurant? And yet, you kind of believe it." 

Michelle Pfeiffer iconically played Catwoman opposite Danny DeVito's Penguin in "Batman Returns."

The biggest challenge was grounding Frances in the zany, farcical world of "French Exit." "Her humor is her coping skill," Pfeiffer says, but it masks a much deeper fragility and anger at her dead husband, a ruthless litigator whose fortune she spent. She admires Frances' steely resolve and take-no-prisoners attitude.

"The first part of our lives, we're sort of programming ourselves to learn how to behave and fit in and be polite," Pfeiffer says. "It seems like the second half you're trying to undo a lot of that, and be more honest, be more authentic, and speak your mind more. I think I could use a little bit more of that."

Hedges says Pfeiffer is "delightful and charming," but never overbearingly so: "For somebody whose character takes up a ton of space, she takes up the polar opposite amount as a person. She is so quiet and reserved, and never speaks unless it's what she wants to say." 

Pfeiffer, 62, was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, the daughter of an air-conditioning contractor. After high school, she worked as a supermarket cashier and briefly trained to be a stenographer, before pursuing her passion for acting.

"Unlike Frances, I wasn't born into wealth, so I know what it's like to get by on very little," says Pfeiffer, who has two children with her TV magnate husband, David E. Kelley ("Big Little Lies"). "I think I always have a sense of, if I were stripped of everything right now, I would be OK. Ultimately, I'm really rich in love and relationships in my life. And I'm a survivor. I always have been. So I'm actually incredibly grateful for my background, even though at the time, I didn't feel so lucky because all my friends had more than I had. But now I realize it was a blessing."

Michelle Pfeiffer was 25 when "Scarface" was released in 1983.

Her first leading role was in 1982's now-cult classic "Grease 2," as a popular Pink Lady pining for Maxwell Caulfield's "cool rider." But it was "Scarface" the following year that made Pfeiffer a star, playing Al Pacino's spiky, cocaine-addicted wife, Elvira Hancock. Oscar nominations soon followed for "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988), "The Fabulous Baker Boys" (1989) and "Love Field" (1992), as did middling reviews for "One Fine Day," her 1996 rom-com with George Clooney. 

Judging by audience exit polls, "people really loved it, but it just flopped," Pfeiffer says. "I wish that could have another chance." 

Four decades on, she continues to get plum roles in a variety of genres, balancing superhero ("Ant-Man and the Wasp") and fantasy movies ("Maleficent: Mistress of Evil") with more challenging art fare ("mother!" and "Where Is Kyra?"). 

"I think Hollywood is changing finally," Pfeiffer says. "There are more and more women over 50 who are in positions of power, who are able to green-light projects and who are directing and producing. It's been a slow build over time, and I think we're seeing the fruits of that. And I'm really lucky that here I am, at the right age at the right time."

Michelle Pfeiffer walks the red carpet at last year's Golden Globes.

Still, she bristles at phrases like "ageless," "age-defying" and "has not grown old" – terms journalists have used to describe her "French Exit" performance, as well as her red-carpet looks and makeup-free selfies

"They never say that about men," Pfeiffer says. "It's gotten a little better, but it's irritating. You would never hear them say 'age-defying' about an actor."

Along with "Ant-Man 3," Pfeiffer will next star in Showtime anthology drama "The First Lady," featuring Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Pfeiffer as Betty Ford. The actress says she's excited about diving into Ford, a trailblazer who raised awareness about addiction and breast cancer in the 1970s. 

"She was very quietly spoken in a way, but she lived by example and really moved mountains," Pfeiffer says. "And I think living by example and seeing how powerful that is and the impact you can have is really an important message right now." 

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