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Interview of the week: Michelle Pfeiffer

By KAREN BUTLER   |   Jan. 31, 2002 at 2:28 PM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- Michelle Pfeiffer is worried that some people might have the wrong idea about her uplifting new drama "I Am Sam."

The 43-year-old actress says she is afraid some people will think the story of a developmentally disabled man fighting for custody of his seven-year-old daughter might be too sad to watch, so Pfeiffer met with reporters recently to set the record straight.

"We've now gotten this reputation as sort of the tear-jerker of the year, which is great because it means that you're moving people and you're bringing out a real emotion and that's really good," said the three-time Oscar nominee. "The danger of that is that people are going to say, 'Well, I hear that's really good, but I don't want to go see that because I don't want to be depressed' and, above all, this is not a depressing movie. It's very life-affirming. It's very uplifting in the end and incredibly funny... But it's the kind of comedy I like, like life. Some of the funniest things in my life, funniest moments have been in really tragic times."

In this film, Pfeiffer plays the emotionally closed off, obsessive-compulsive lawyer who tries to help Sam (Sean Penn,) a loving, mentally challenged father, get his daughter (Dakota Fanning) back after well-meaning, but narrow-minded child welfare authorities remove her from her home.

"I love this part, and I was scared of this part and I had always wanted to work with Sean and I knew he would be brilliant, and he is," Pfeiffer said, explaining why she took the job.

The star of "What Lies Beneath" and "The Fabulous Baker Boys" went on to say: "There were people around me consulting me that I shouldn't do it because (the character) was so unlikeable, but I tend to like unlikeable characters. But I also felt that she was unlikeable in the beginning, but that she was really more tragic than anything and in spite of her maternal disabilities and emotional disabilities, she was heroic in her efforts to still try to be a good mother, even though she's so disastrous."

Pfeiffer dismissed any idea that she might have had to take a back seat to Penn's larger-than-life character or the adorable little girl who played his daughter.

"I'm a firm believer that there are no small parts, only small actors," she said. "Some of the best parts written are supporting parts."

The California native confided that she relished this role because it required her to go to some places she has seldom visited during her career.

"It was a challenge for me in the beginning because I was resistant to really going all the way with her nastiness, but I knew I had to," she remembered. "I knew that in order for the character to work, you really had to be courageous enough, and I've always been so impressed with other actors and performances I've seen where they so fully committed to being unlikeable, and in one moment you can win an audience over, and because I didn't do some of the softer scenes until the end. Had I done those first I probably would have been more courageous, but (director) Jesse (Nelson) was really instrumental in encouraging me in the beginning, and then toward the end she was saying 'Do you think you could bring it back a couple of notches?' I was kind of having too much fun with it."

All in all, Pfeiffer said working on the film was a satisfying experience that greatly helped her grow as an actress.

"The whole tone of making this movie was such a heart-opening experience, and so we were all walking around like open wounds, and I think we all felt really safe on the set together... It was a really hard transformation once the movie ended to sort of go back into the big, bad cynical world. And you wanted to retain that. You wanted to hold onto that openness and yet, when you do, you get annihilated out there," she said.

To prepare for the part, Pfeiffer said she tried to find a way to make her character easier for everyone to relate to, rather than talking to a lot of lawyers to see how they ticked, then imitating them.

"When you approach a character like this... you really try to approach it from a more universal way, in terms of what is the universal tragic nature of her character... the connection that she has to all women," she said.

Asked if she was surprised at how good Penn truly is in the film, Pfeiffer replied that she was "more astounded than surprised."

"We have such high expectations of him as an actor, and he somehow surpassed (them)... and that's really hard to do," she explained. "I think that one of the dangers that people who are that gifted run into is when they first come on the scene we're kind of bowled over by their talent. Then we get used to it. Then they have to get better and better because we sort of start to take it for granted. And (Penn) is one of the few that actually does always, always surprise us."

Pfeiffer was also quick to point out the terrific performances offered by her developmentally disabled co-stars Joseph Rosenberg and Brad Allan Silverman.

"They were amazing," Pfeiffer exclaimed. "Not only could they improvise, they learned their lines. They were smart, funny, they have a great sense of humor and (were) very protective of me. It was so sweet.

"My last day of shooting, I was like a kid on the last day of school before summer, and I was not paying attention... and so Joe, who was sitting next to me, took it upon himself before every take to give me stage directions and tell me where I was supposed to look and what was happening in the scene because he was worried about me."

Pfeiffer will next be seen in the screen version of the best-selling novel "White Oleander."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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