NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly talks to actress Michelle Pfeiffer about her new film, French Exit.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Her plan was to die before the money ran out. In her new film, Michelle Pfeiffer plays a rich widow who is suddenly less rich – in fact broke. She’s spent it all and is being forced to sell her gorgeous Manhattan townhouse and the jewels and art – everything – and move into a slightly less gorgeous apartment in Paris. Cue the tiny violins – I know. But what Pfeiffer does with the role of the legitimate, unbearable celebrity is worth seeing. The film is “French Exit”. And Michelle Pfeiffer is here now. Hey there.
MICHELLE PFEIFFER: Hello.
KELLY: Hi. I want you to describe your character for us. Her name is Frances and it is a piece of work.
PFEIFFER: It is a piece of work. But I think that was what was interesting and challenging about the role. And I loved their attitude of not taking prisoners.
KELLY: Yeah, she really doesn’t care what you think of her (laughter).
PFEIFFER: No, she really doesn’t care. And there is something about – you know, we – certainly I do. I spend so much time being polite and not hurting people’s feelings. And to be honest, it’s kind of exhausting. And so I don’t know. It’s always fun to follow in the footsteps of someone like this.
KELLY: Just to give people a sneak peek at them, Frances seems to take a nasty delight in asking people what they’ve heard about their sanity. And they all seem to have heard the same story, the story of how she discovered her husband’s body. Would you say it
PFEIFFER: She’s getting ready for a ski trip. And marriage isn’t really in a good place, and it won’t even tell him it’s going, but rather decide at the last minute that it will. And she goes upstairs and finds him, her husband, dead in bed. And it looks like he’s been there for a while and with a cat, a stray cat, not her cat. And she goes into some kind of shock and behaves in a way that is not really understandable to us. She goes and goes on her ski trip.
KELLY: Can we stay with the cat for a second?
KELLY: The cat is a very important character throughout the movie. And your character, Frances, believes the cat was owned by her dead husband. Throughout the film there are crazy scenes with you and the cat where for example the cat disappears at some point and you hire a fortune teller to communicate with Small Frank, as he is called.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “FRENCH EXIT”)
TRACY LETTS: (as Franklin Prince) What do you want?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as character) Just to speak to you. I’m here with Frances and Malcolm.
PFEIFFER: (as Frances Price) Hello Frank.
LETTERS: (as Franklin) Hello.
PFEIFFER: (as Frances) How are you?
LETTERS: (as Franklin) Well, you know.
KELLY: Were you concerned about assuming a role that would require you to conduct seances with your grumpy dead husband who was reborn a cat? I mean it’s weird (laughter).
PFEIFFER: I did it. I did. It’s the only thing that made me stop. And one of the first questions I asked Azazel Jacobs, our brilliant director, was, OK, what’s wrong with that talking cat?
PFEIFFER: And he kind of rolled his eyes and looked up, and I could see that he hadn’t quite figured that out himself. But you know it’s so strange and wonderful that all of these adorable and eccentric characters – I mean, they all just take it for real. I mean, maybe a little with a grain of salt. Maybe they just think that Frances is really deviating from her rocker until they actually communicate with Small Frank themselves (Laughter) …
PFEIFFER: … in one of our seances.
KELLY: I love that because in a way it is – we are all – you know you accept whatever you are willing to accept. We’re all off our rockers in our own way, I suppose (laughter).
PFEIFFER: It is sometimes impossible to penetrate other people’s minds and motivations. And at a certain point you just have to leave, well, I’ll never understand that.
KELLY: There’s a scene in Paris where Frances and her son were invited to dinner at another widow’s house. And Frances was just spectacularly rude to this woman. And then you see them softer.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “FRENCH EXIT”)
PFEIFFER: (as Frances) I’m sorry I was rude to you. My life has completely fallen to pieces and I am upset about it.
KELLY: And I wanted to ask you about that scene. I loved it because she is a total nightmare and then with that one line you pierce the facade and let’s just see her utter vulnerability.
PFEIFFER: What I love about these types of characters is the total commitment to being improbable until you have a moment when you – exactly that – pierce you and see the vulnerability and fragility underneath. And what I found with the audience – and of course with me as an audience. When I look at other actors’ performances, some of my favorite performances have been the ones who do. And I keep realizing how forgiving the audience really wants to be. You can play the most despicable, unlikely, most unforgivable character and in a moment – in a moment – you can win them over.
KELLY: There have been many rave reviews of this film and your acting. Let me introduce you to one that was less than luminous and let you answer. This is the Guardian critic who called it – and I quote it – “an irritating and indulgent story of rich people getting less rich”. And he adds, there comes a time when that prospect sounds even less appealing than usual. What do you hope the audience will take away from the film?
PFEIFFER: Well, it really is – I think I read this review. Ouch, that hurt. This one was bad. But I – look; Would you have lit this film in green today? Maybe not. However, film and entertainment cannot cover everything that is relevant to the world at this moment. I think I was drawn to the general and timeless themes of the film. I don’t think it’s about a rich woman who is honestly losing her money because we – I mean honestly, who cares? I don’t even care.
But you know there is a feeling of being stranded and then discovering other people on the same island, you know? And I think it’s really about – you know, we’re more the same than different.
KELLY: Michelle Pfeiffer – your new movie is “French Exit”. It’s available in theaters in New York and nationwide in April. Michelle Pfeiffer, that was so great. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us.
PFEIFFER: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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