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When Michelle Pfeiffer left Hollywood nine years ago, her career was riding high. She had her pick of leading roles and had already earned a handful of Oscar nominations for such films as Dangerous Liaisons and The Fabulous Baker Boys. But Pfeiffer and her husband, TV writer-producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal), and their two children, Claudia Rose, then 11, and John, then 10, felt the pull of a simpler, paparazzi-free life. So they packed up their Los Angeles home and moved north, to just outside San Francisco. "We got there and it was like, 'What have we done?'" says Pfeiffer. "We didn't know anyone. It was like we were the Beverly Hillbillies coming to town."
Now that both kids are in college, the former supermarket checkout girl from Orange County is ready to focus on her work. This month she costars with Robert De Niro in The Family, a black comedy about a Brooklyn mobster who enters a witness-protection program.
In a rare interview, Pfeiffer talked to us about her latest return to the spotlight, her secret for aging so gorgeously, and why -- white-hot career or not -- she always puts her family first.WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO TAKE A BREAK FROM ACTING?
I didn't decide to take that time off. It just sort of happened. When the kids were small I used to take them with me on location. But as they got older I didn't want to pull them out of school, and the idea of traveling to make a movie became harder and harder. I started putting caveats on everything -- like I'll do a movie only at a certain time of year, or in a certain location -- and I negotiated myself out of work. If I was going to do something that took me away from my kids, it had to matter. Moms often think, "Oh, I should be home when the kids are babies." But I think they need you more when they're a little older.HOW DID YOU LIKE BEING A STAY-AT-HOME MOM?
I was so busy with my kids, which was incredibly creative and improvisational and certainly challenging. But I'm a real homebody. I'm happy puttering around the house and doing my own thing, even if it's isolating. When the kids were in school I painted, mostly portraits. Both painting and acting are about paying attention to detail and seeing things in a different way. I got so immersed in painting that I didn't read scripts or return my agent's calls. I probably would have done more movies had I not taken up painting. Of course, once my kids got older they started saying, "Mom, aren't you going back to work soon?" They missed the craft services table [laughs]. We don't keep junk food at home.HAVE YOU ALWAYS FELT FAIRLY IN CHARGE OF YOUR LIFE -- THAT YOU COULD MAKE THINGS WORK OUT THE WAY YOU WANTED TO?
I have, even though sometimes I had no right to think that way. People who don't manage on their own completely baffle me. What do you mean you can't figure it out? Just do that, and then do that. I remember when I was 8 years old I asked my mother if I could cut my own hair. I said, "I promise if I mess up I'll get a pixie cut" -- which is how she wanted me to wear my hair. I had really fine baby hair that was always getting matted. So I cut it and it turned out exactly how I'd envisioned it. Of course, it looked hideous -- but it was the way I wanted.WHEN DO YOU FEEL VULNERABLE? HOW DO YOU HANDLE THAT?
I still think I'm going to be fired in the first week of every new job I take. Always. In fact, before I even start a movie I'll try to get myself fired or think of a reason I should quit. I guess it's fear of failure. I tend to choose parts that are a stretch for me. It's like I'll throw myself into the deep end and think I'm going to drown for a very long time.HAVE YOU EVER WANTED TO WORK WITH YOUR HUSBAND?
I cherish my relationship with him so much that I never want to put it in jeopardy. I've seen other couples in Hollywood do it and it seems that as soon as they do a project together, within a couple of years they're divorced. I like coming home after a long, hard day and knowing that I can bitch about all the wrongs done to me and that he's going to be on my side. That doesn't work if I'm bitching about him!FOR YEARS YOU WERE REFERRED TO AS ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMEN IN THE WORLD. WHAT PRESSURE DOES THAT PUT ON YOU AS YOU GET OLDER?
Having to watch yourself age on a giant movie screen is simply not natural. It can wreak havoc on your psyche. My dermatologist said to me once, "You know that 10X magnifying mirror that you have in the bathroom? Throw it away." It was the best advice anybody ever gave me. Of course, now my eyes are weaker and I can't see to put my makeup on without that mirror! But once you get over a certain hump there actually is less pressure. You can begin to look great for your age. You don't have to look young anymore. I've moved over to that other side -- I'm 55, which is a little too close to 60, but looking great for my age is okay now.WHY DID YOU BECOME A VEGAN? HAS THAT HELPED YOU FEEL GOOD, TOO?
A few years ago I saw a special on CNN, "The Last Heart Attack," about how to prevent heart disease. I'm not really at risk for that but my father died of cancer and my mother has advanced-stage dementia. And I have people close to me battling cancer. Seeing both of my parents suffer has made me think a lot about longevity and quality of life. And while it's open to debate, if there's any chance we can prevent a lot of chronic illnesses by the way we eat, why not try it? So I cut out meat and dairy and after two months my cholesterol shot down 83 points. I also try to exercise five days a week -- I run, do free weights. But I haven't always been healthy. When I was in my 20s I smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. I lived on Marlboro Lights and Coca-Cola.LOOKING BACK, WHAT'S THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE YOU'VE HAD TO OVERCOME?
The toughest thing for me has been balancing being a working mom. I learned early on that you can have it all but you can't do it all. I sacrificed some things in my work to be a better parent -- but I also sacrificed some parenting in order to do what I love.ARE YOU TERRIFIED OR EXCITED NOW THAT BOTH KIDS ARE IN COLLEGE? IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME SINCE YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND WERE JUST A TWOSOME.
My husband and I sit around and talk about what we want to do and where we want to live. I'll say, "Honey, should we take up golf? Do you want to play golf together?" And he'll say, "Golf? I don't know. That takes so much time." Then I'll say, "Maybe we should plant a vineyard. Why don't we make wine?" Besides working a little more, I don't know what we'll do. It's scary, but it's also exciting to think about. Once I get past the shock of having an empty nest, I'm going to be really happy with my newfound freedom.