IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Pfeiffer returns to the big screen, learns she is funny

Michelle Pfeiffer tells TODAY that she surprised even herself when she learned she could be funny, after years of being regarded as a serious actress.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Michelle Pfeiffer has been described in many ways — sultry, sexy, serious, cool, aloof. But seldom has the word “funny” been associated with the actress, either on the screen or off. Her portrayal of the evil Velma von Tussle in the big-screen remake of “Hairspray,” however, is changing that.

“I’m surprised that I’m funny,” Pfeiffer told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira with a laugh during an interview Tuesday. “I don’t consider myself funny.”

She’s always been something of a mystery woman among Hollywood’s elite, reluctant to open up when she was starring in film after film and racking up Oscar nominations. Lately, she’s just been somewhat of entertainment recluse, choosing to limit her work while raising her two children, adopted daughter Claudia Rose, 14, and son John Henry, 13.

Vieira asked her whether her self-image is dominated by the fear — not uncommon to artists — that one day people will “discover that you’re a fraud?”

“Yeah,” Pfeiffer agreed. “I’m an impostor.”

“Why is that?” Vieira asked.

“I don’t know,” the actress replied. “Bad potty training. Something deep and dark, and I don’t want to share.”

There’s plenty dark about the character she plays in the film. Velma, she admits, is “hateful,” a big-haired blonde who will stop at nothing to see to it that her daughter, Amber, wins the teenage talent contest on “The Corny Collins Show.”

That includes a comically futile attempt to seduce Christopher Walken, who plays the nerdy, joke-shop-owner father of Amber’s rival, Tracy Turnblad.

“I do need a fellow,” she purrs to Walken, who is oblivious to the come-on, instead reaching for a novelty and instructing her, “The way to man’s heart is through his funny bone.”

It’s also the way to the audience’s heart. The movie has an all-star cast that also includes Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle and John Travolta in drag as Edna, the oversized mother of the film’s heroine, Tracy, played by newcomer Nikki Blonsky.

Pfeiffer, still gorgeous at 49, admits Velma is not the type of role she normally plays.

“I’m grateful that people think it’s against my type,” she said. “I guess it’s nice to surprise yourself and to surprise others and to venture into dangerous territory. Certainly, it wasn’t within my comfort zone, the character. Even though I’ve done ‘Grease 2’ and I’ve done ‘Baker Boys,’ this was for me the first real musical that I was considered for.”

Committing to the role, she admitted, “was a little scary. That’s why I wanted to do it. It was a lot of fun.”

The film’s New York premiere was Monday night, and Pfeiffer said it was the first time she wasn’t so nervous she forgot to breathe.

“It was fantastic,” she told Vieira. “It was by far the funniest premiere, not only in New York, but in Los Angeles as well, of any movie I’ve ever done. I was never nervous with this. It was such an audience-pleaser. People applaud and they’re laughing and yelling — it’s just fantastic.”

Vieira concurred, confessing to singing and dancing with her daughter as they previewed the movie at home.

Long and varied career
Born in 1958 and a high-school dropout, Pfeiffer’s first screen role was in 1982 in another musical, “Grease 2,” which did not approach the success of the original “Grease,” but did give her a chance to sing and dance.

By 1989, she had her first Oscar nomination, for best supporting actress in “Dangerous Liaisons.” Another nomination for best actress came the following year for “Fabulous Baker Boys,” and a third came in 1995 for her work as the lead in “Love Field.”

In between, she showed her talent for high camp with her portrayal of Catwoman in the 1992 release of “Batman Returns.”

Married to actor Peter Horton in 1980, she divorced in 1988 and in 1993 adopted her daughter. That same year, she married David E. Kelley, a Boston attorney-turned-screenwriter whose first work was for “L.A. Law” and who later created “Boston Legal” and “Ally McBeal.” Together, the couple had John Henry in 1994.

When the children were young, she has said, she’d just “throw them in a backpack” and take them with her on location. Kelley, who could do his writing anywhere, traveled with them.

But for the past several years, she’s severely curtailed her acting career.

Asked by Vieira where she’s been, she said, “I’ve been in car pools. I’ve always wanted to spend more time, not necessarily at home. I don’t care where I am; I want to be with the family,” she said. “I‘ve been busy, and before I knew it, all this time went by, and my kids were even starting to say, ‘Mom, are you ever going back to work?’”

So she agreed to do “Hairspray,” and followed that with “Stardust,” which has yet to be released, in which she plays a witch.

She was able to share her work with her children, bringing back Polaroid snapshots of her on the set to show them. “Their eyebrows would raise,” she laughed, “and Claudia would say, ‘Mom — a little over the top?’”

And, for the first time, she brought them with her to the movie’s premiere.

“Hairspray” is a fun movie, but it deals with the battle to integrate in 1962 Baltimore, and it has a message.

“Without being too heavy-handed, it has this important and powerful message that just sort of washes over you the entire film,” she told Vieira. “It turns all those stereotypes on its head, in terms of what is beautiful, what is socially acceptable, and it does it in such a delightful, entertaining way.”

“Hairspray” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday.