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Michelle Pfeiffer On Her Role In 'French Exit'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Her plan, such as it was, was to die before the money ran out. In her new movie, Michelle Pfeiffer plays a rich widow who suddenly finds herself less rich - in fact, broke. She has spent it all, and she is forced to sell her sumptuous Manhattan townhouse and the jewels and the art - everything - and move to a slightly less sumptuous flat in Paris. Cue the tiny violins - I know. But what Pfeiffer does with the role of entitled, insufferable socialite is worth watching. The movie is "French Exit." And Michelle Pfeiffer is here now. Hey there.

MICHELLE PFEIFFER: Hi.

KELLY: Hi. So I want you to describe your character for us. Her name is Frances, and she's a piece of work.

PFEIFFER: She is a piece of work. But I think that's what was so interesting and challenging about the role. And I loved her take-no-prisoners attitude.

KELLY: Yeah, she really doesn't care what you think of her (laughter).

PFEIFFER: No, she really doesn't care. And there's something about - you know, we - certainly I do. I spend so much of my time trying to be polite and not hurt people's feelings. And honestly, it's kind of exhausting. And so, I don't know. It's always fun to step into the shoes of somebody like this.

KELLY: Just to give people a little taste of her, Frances seems to take wicked delight in asking people what they have heard about her mental health. And they all seem to have heard the same story, which is the story of how she discovered her husband's body. Would you tell it?

PFEIFFER: She is getting ready to go on a ski trip. And the marriage is not really in a good place, and she isn't even going to tell him that she's leaving but decides at the last minute that she will. And she goes upstairs to find him, her husband, dead in bed. And it looks like he's been there a while and with a cat, a stray cat, not their cat. And, you know, she goes into kind of a shock and behaves in a way that is not really understandable to us and leaves and goes on her ski trip.

KELLY: Can we stay with the cat for a second?

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: The cat is very much a character throughout the film. And your character, Frances, believes the cat has become possessed by her dead husband. There are crazy scenes throughout the movie with you and the cat, where, for example, the cat disappears at one point, and you hire a fortuneteller to communicate with Small Frank, as he's known.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FRENCH EXIT")

TRACY LETTS: (As Franklin Prince) What do you want?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Just to speak with you. I'm here with Frances and Malcolm.

PFEIFFER: (As Frances Price) Hello, Frank.

LETTS: (As Franklin) Hello.

PFEIFFER: (As Frances) How are you?

LETTS: (As Franklin) Well, you know.

KELLY: Did you have any hesitation about taking a role that would require you to hold seances with your grumpy dead husband who has been reincarnated as a cat? I mean, it's weird (laughter).

PFEIFFER: I did. I did. It is the one thing that gave me pause. And one of my first questions for Azazel Jacobs, our brilliant director, was, OK, what's the deal with this talking cat?

(LAUGHTER)

PFEIFFER: And he kind of rolled his eyes, and he looked up, and I could see that he actually hadn't quite figured that out himself. But, you know, it's so weird and wonderful that all of these kind of delightful and eccentric characters - I mean, they all just sort of accept it as true. I mean, a little bit maybe with a grain of salt. Maybe they just think Frances is really off her rocker until they actually themselves communicate with Small Frank (laughter)...

KELLY: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: ...In one of our seances.

KELLY: I love that because in a way, it's kind of - we're all - you know, you accept whatever you're prepared to accept. We're all off our rocker in our own ways, I suppose (laughter).

PFEIFFER: It's sometimes impossible to get inside of other people's heads and motivations. And at a certain point, you have to just go, well, I'm never going to understand that.

KELLY: There's a scene in Paris where Frances and her son have been invited to another widow's house for dinner. And Frances has just been spectacularly rude to this woman. And then you see her soften.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FRENCH EXIT")

PFEIFFER: (As Frances) I'm sorry I was rude to you. My life has fallen completely to pieces, and I'm upset about it.

KELLY: And I wanted to ask you about that scene. I loved it because she is being a total nightmare, and then with that one line, you pierce the facade and let us just see her complete vulnerability.

PFEIFFER: What I love about these types of characters is the total commitment to being unlikable until you have a moment where you - exactly that - where you pierce and you see the vulnerability and the fragility underneath it. And what I found with audiences - and certainly, even myself as an audience. When I watch other actors' performances, some of my most favorite performances have been those that do that. And I realize over and over again how forgiving audiences really want to be. You can play the most despicable, unlikable, unforgivable character, and in a moment - in one moment - you can win them over.

KELLY: There have been a lot of glowing reviews of this film and of your acting in it. I want to put to you one that was less than glowing and let you respond. This is The Guardian critic who called it - and I'll quote - "an irritating and indulgent story of rich people becoming less rich." And he adds, it arrives at a time when that prospect sounds even less appealing than usual. What do you hope the audience will take from the film?

PFEIFFER: Well, it's really an - I think I read that review. Ouch, that one hurt. That one was nasty. But I - look; would they have greenlit this movie today? Maybe not. However, film and entertainment can't cover everything that is relevant to the world at that moment. I think the overall and timeless themes of the film for me are what attracted me. I don't think it's about a rich woman, honestly, losing her money because we're - I mean, honestly, who cares? I don't even care about that.

But, you know, there's a feeling of being marooned and then discovering other people on the same island, you know? And I think that it really is about - you know, we are more the same than we are different.

KELLY: Michelle Pfeiffer - her new movie is "French Exit." It's out in theaters in New York and out nationwide in April. Michelle Pfeiffer, this has been so great. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

PFEIFFER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.