As she approaches 50, Michelle Pfeiffer pays far more attention to the lines of a script than the few that exist on her timelessly beautiful face. It's no wonder, then, that playing her latest role, Velma Von Tussle, a vain stage mother in the movie adaptation of Hairspray, was a big stretch. Not that she wasn't up to the challenge.
Off set, the three-time Oscar-nominated star is one of the most hands-on mothers in Hollywood, not to mention a devoted wife to husband of 14 years David E. Kelley, a TV writer/producer who's hit shows include Ally McBeal and Boston Public.
Michelle adopted her now 14-year-old daughter, Claudia Rose, just before she met David. She gave birth to their son John Henry, 13, less than a year after they married. While she and her brood live far from the bright lights of Tinseltown, she's more than comfortable being back on the big screen after three years away.
What were your first impressions of your husband David?
We got off to a rocky start. I thought he was attractive, but that was almost a detriment at that point. I wasn't into cute. Fortunately, he had a couple of good scars on his face, and he'd broken his nose once playing football. That got me through. We had a bigger problem with conversation; he was quiet and so was I. We really had to work at it because we're so much alike that way. In fact, when his agent heard we were dating, he asked David, "What's she like?" When David answered, "She's real quiet",' his agent said, "Then who talks?" But now we've discovered we can both talk a good argument. I thank God I met David when I did because I wouldn't have been right for him any earlier. I just wasn't evolved enough as a human being. David was the healthiest person I'd ever dated. He's really grounded.
What's the secret of your 14-year marriage?
I think compatibility is important, and respect. Because that's sexy to me. We're both homebodies. I'm not sure about the opposites thing. It may attract initially, but it's what eventually breaks people apart. We love being parents. He has a wonderful family and a real feel for family, as do I. We're similar in our approach to everything, and he's romantic and cute to boot.
Where people surprised you can sing and dance, as you do in Hairspray?
I sang in The Fabulous Baker Boys
and I sang and danced in Grease 2
so it shouldn't come as a huge surprise. But I'm better known for my dramatic roles. I like playing trashy girls, though, like I did in Grease 2.
That's despite the fact you're really shy?
I've always been shy. I used to be paralysed when I had to make small talk. I was the kind of person who entered a room, found the nearest corner and hoped no-one noticed me before it was time to go home. Now I'm better at socialising.
Are you into the 60s fashion from the movie that's becoming popular again?
Fashion is so confused today. I don't even know what to say about it. You can see it's just like leftovers or something. I'm not loving it right now.
Does fashion interest you still?
You know, honestly, that era (the '60s) is not my favourite for women. I think the clothes are beautiful, but when I look at women back then, all I can think of is how uncomfortable they look. Everything is so fitted, so pressed. The make-up is so heavy and the hair is all sprayed and the clip-on earrings, the shoes. It just looks like it hurts and it did.
Your character in Hairspray is racist. Was that a challenge?
It was hard. That was the hardest thing. I've played some evil characters before. I've played some killers and I signed on to do this … then one day it registered, oh my God I'm playing a racist. I understood that the message of the piece was really important and certainly it's about anti-racism and anti-bigotry. I had to talk to the kids. I wanted to make sure they understood that, look, this is what the movie's about. It's a really important movie and in order to do a movie about racism, somebody has got to be the racist and it's me. They were OK, they got it and I'm so glad I did it because I had a lot of fun playing the part, even though there were some lines I honestly couldn't remember because they were so hateful.
How do you feel about how you are perceived in Hollywood?
I was always the biggest girl in my class. I was always taller than the boys and considered large-boned. That's why it's always surprising for me when I hear myself described by adjectives like "delicate" and "fine-featured", because I'll always think of myself as that big-boned girl.
Does motherhood affect your career choices?
Yes, as a mother I relate to different projects than before.
Do your children see your films?
I showed them Grease 2
and they got bored with it. Most of my movies aren't suited for kids. And I'm pretty strict about television, so they don't really come across my movies.
You sold your estate in LA for $19million and moved to a sprawling ranch outside the city with a menagerie that includes numerous dogs, a cat, a pair of miniature donkeys and horses. Has the change helped your family life?
I think it helps a little bit, but then again, it's not just living outside Hollywood. You can pick a worse place than Hollywood (laughs). I think it's helped us as a family to be less distracted, and David and I to be less distractive as parents, even though I think we were pretty good when we lived there. I think we wanted to have more land and we wanted to have animals on our property and you couldn't do that there. So I think it's just a different kind of lifestyle we were looking for.
When did you stop smoking?
Fifteen years ago. I used to smoke three packs a day. Not good.
What's your attitude to plastic surgery?
I guess as long as people keep saying I've had it, I can continue to put it off for a few more years. I'm hoping I'm courageous enough to age gracefully. So much of the way I look depends on the photographer. I think the years have been kind to me, but I know they're taking their toll. For a while, it seemed like the only actress who was ageing gracefully was Susan Sarandon. But now, thank God, look at Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep and Catherine Deneuve.
Would you ever go under the knife?
If I did, I wouldn't tell. I'm very near-sighted and that makes ageing easier. I can't see what I really look like. I can't see anything!
For more of this interview, see this week's Woman's Day
(on-sale September 10)