Michelle Pfeiffer really loved going weird for French Exit

The legendary actress' meatiest role in years also happens to be her wildest: "There's something really exhilarating about doing a film kind of down and dirty."

Not for the first time, Michelle Pfeiffer stars in a literary adaptation as an unconventional woman compelled to flee New York high society — but this is no Age of Innocence. “I just thought it was so unusual,” she says of Patrick deWitt’s 2018 novel French Exit (billed as a “tragedy of manners”), the basis for her new film. “I was so entertained. These weird people!”

Azazel Jacobs’ darkly comedic adaptation had its premiere earlier this month as the closing night selection of the New York Film Festival, where its arch tone divided critics — though few could resist Pfeiffer, 62, in all her glamour. (The film hits select theaters Feb. 12.) The actress plays Frances Price, an eccentric widow who, after squandering her fortune, crosses the Atlantic with her meek adult son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and cat Small Frank, in whose body resides the resentful soul of her dead husband (Tracy Letts). In present-day Paris, they form an unlikely crew with a psychic medium, a French investigator, and a fellow expat in desperate need of a friend.

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“There’s a feeling of being marooned, then discovering other people on the same island. Strangely enough, sometimes it's easier to do that with complete strangers than people you've known all your life,” Pfeiffer observes of the band of misfits. There’s more than a whiff of the absurd about them, but “the best comedy is always rooted in some kind of reality,” she says. “I think it’s actually a true depiction of life and relationships.”

That sense of humanity is more profoundly felt in the film — adapted for the screen by deWitt — than it is in the sly novel (which struck Pfeiffer as "wickedly smart and funny"). The focus also shifts slightly from son to mother, though the singular bond between the two of them remains the heart and soul of the story. “From the moment I met [Hedges], I just felt maternal about him,” Pfeiffer says of the Ben Is Back star. “He’s so adorable and he’s so talented. We had a pretty lengthy rehearsal, so we were able to get to know each other, but it really wasn’t hard. It just became.”

To find the martini-sipping, velvet-bathrobe-wearing Frances within herself, Pfeiffer researched New York socialites to develop her attitudes and speech patterns as well as drawing on her own relationships with friends in that world. When in doubt, however, she'd always look to deWitt: “When I couldn’t make sense of a moment or piece of dialogue, I’d go back to the book and it would be there — there would have been one little paragraph or even one sentence left out [of the script]. A light bulb would go off.”

With a character so rich (in personality if not assets), Pfeiffer stands to make a French entrance into the Oscar conversation for the first time in 28 years; despite three nominations (for 1988's Dangerous Liaisons, 1989's The Fabulous Baker Boys, and 1992's Love Field) and near-universal admiration after four decades in the industry, the actress has never taken home a coveted statuette. And though this is hardly her first foray into literary territory, Pfeiffer’s most recent credits have been franchise entries like 2019 titles Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Avengers: Endgame (she’s the MCU’s Janet Van Dyne, a role which “brought memories back from being in that catsuit. I was like, ‘Oh, man, I forgot about how uncomfortable this thing is!’”). After those well-costumed adventures, Exit marks a delicious return to character-driven fare for the actress.

“It’s really fun to mix it up. I love different things about those experiences," she says. "There's something really exhilarating about doing a film kind of down and dirty, for the love of it. And then also something really nice about doing a bigger-budget film where, you know, you don't have to suffer.” She makes her choices not based on scope, but "on a visceral level," and in the case of Jacobs' movie, Pfeiffer responded to Frances, with her peculiar combination of chic and morbidity. “I liked her strength, that she’s feisty and smart — and damaged. I always like playing those characters.” So there’s something else in common with Countess Olenska, after all.

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