George Clooney (“The Midnight Sky”) and Michelle Pfeiffer (“French Exit”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here.
In Netflix’s “The Midnight Sky,” George Clooney — also the film’s director and producer — plays dying scientist Augustine Lofthouse. The year is 2049, the setting is the Arctic Circle, and before he dies, Augustine desperately wants to tell a spaceship returning to decimated Earth to go back to the inhabitable moon of Jupiter it had been sent to explore. In the forthcoming Sony Pictures Classics farce “French Exit,” Michelle Pfeiffer plays the arch socialite Frances Price, who also plans to die — after her money runs out, that is (thus the film’s title). Augustine and Frances would have nothing to say to one another, but Clooney and Pfeiffer chatted up a storm — about being working parents, their new movies and, of course, the 1996 comedy “One Fine Day,” which flopped at the time, but has since become a beloved rom-com.
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Michelle Pfeiffer: It’s been so long. I don’t think I’ve seen you since the premiere of “One Fine Day.”
George Clooney: I think that was a plan of yours, actually. That’s called the restraining order. I met you in 1982 when I was dating your sister, Dedee. You were living in Santa Monica, and she was living above the garage. I remember because it was so exciting watching your career take off. All of a sudden it was “Scarface,” and “Ladyhawke.” I just remember thinking, I met someone whose career had just exploded.
And you were the last person I ever had to audition for, for “One Fine Day.”
Pfeiffer: It was a reading, to see if we had chemistry.
Clooney: “One Fine Day” was my first studio film I’d ever done, and I was very nervous about coming in and reading through it with you. It’s funny, because now people look at that film and they like it — they were really tough on us at the time.
Pfeiffer: Really tough. In fact, I looked, and I think we got a 50 rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Clooney: And it bombed too. It opened to $4 million, and —
Pfeiffer: Didn’t we get beaten by “Beavis and Butt-Head”?
Clooney: Yes. You were producing it too. Remember they came back, and they’re like, “It tested higher than any movie”?
Pfeiffer: Yeah, then they got a little cocky. We weren’t supposed to come out until February. Then they thought, “Ooh, this is so good. Let’s release it sooner.” There was no time to do any real press, and then of course we got blamed. And you had gone off to do “Batman.”
Clooney: We’ve both done a sequel that wasn’t the greatest of sequels. I remember we were doing press, and somebody asked you about “Grease 2,” and you were like, “I don’t want to talk about it.” I was like, “Oh, come on!” I was in the middle of shooting “Batman,” which is now written as the worst film of all time.
I want to talk to you about this film, but I also have questions about your choices in your career. You were gone for four or five years in your career to be with your kids, and to raise your family. In those periods of time, did you miss working, or were you just really happy being home?
Pfeiffer: I think you understand a little bit about what that’s like now, because when we were working together, about a zillion years ago, there was basically broadcast television, movies, and there were a few cable shows. Now we’re in this streaming universe, and you have twins.
Clooney: Remember the bet? You bet me that by the time I was 40 —
Pfeiffer: “Oh, I’m never getting married.” In the meantime, I would watch you with Mae [Whitman] and Alex [Linz] on the set. Because you’re a kid at heart, and you’re like Peter Pan. It used to irritate me because you would get really upset when they wouldn’t behave and do what they were supposed to do. We would spend 30 minutes getting them settled down, and then you would disrupt the whole thing and you would get them going. You’d do some practical joke and then undo the whole thing, and then you’d get upset they weren’t behaving. Do you remember that?
Clooney: That’s why I shouldn’t have been a parent then. I had to wait till I was elderly — I’m like Tony Randall having children now. Did you miss acting in the middle of all that?
Pfeiffer: I didn’t honestly — not for the longest time, and it wasn’t by design. We moved out of Los Angeles just for a change of pace, and that entailed so much more than I ever anticipated. Before I knew it, it had been five years. It was my children who actually said to me one day, “Mom, are you ever going back to work?” They missed craft services.
I realized when we started talking about college for my daughter, and I started seeing the writing on the wall, I thought, “This empty nest thing is real. I better get my toe back in.” I started doing smaller things. I did “I Could Never Be Your Woman”; then I did “Stardust.”
It’s hard when you’ve got little ones at home. You were in Iceland, but they’re small enough now where they can travel with you?
Clooney: We’ve gone everywhere together — we were doing “Catch-22” in Sardinia together. The pandemic, if there’s anything good to come out of it, it’s been that I get to put them to bed at night and wake them up every morning, and there’s something really amazing about that. I’ve only taken one acting job in the last four years. How was it coming back to work? Was it like riding a bike or …
Pfeiffer: No. I felt rusty. But I think in some ways it was good, because I think the longer you do it the more you start to use your same bag of tricks, and maybe start to get a little risk averse. You didn’t act for four years — not until you did “The Midnight Sky”?
Clooney: This is the first film I’ve done in four years.
Pfeiffer: I don’t know if I saw an interview that you did that you were retiring from acting.
Clooney: For about 20-some years now, I really focused on other elements of the industry, because I didn’t want to worry about what some casting director or director thought about me at 60 years old, which I’m going to be this year. I wanted to have more control of my career. I like what we do for a living. I didn’t really walk away from the business; I just have walked away from the front end of the camera.
I think you’re right — you tend to start to repeat yourself, and I was looking to get away from that. I think about early on in your career, and the things that you were doing, and how you switch things up so quickly. How it went from “Married to the Mob,” where you’re this wild, insane character, and it blew everybody away. And “Fabulous Baker Boys,” which was so amazing. I saw somewhere where you were the only person to be nominated as a lead actress six years in a row with the Golden Globes.
Pfeiffer: Was I? I had a question for you: Practically everything I’ve ever done I feel this way about, but is there a part that you have played where you’d like a redo on it?
Clooney: I think with the exception of one or two times, probably every one of them. Time is a really interesting thing: You start to be able to look at things and go, “Oh.” You can see where you’re pushing. You can see where you’re trying too hard. Couple I’d keep. I think I did my job in “O Brother” and in “Out of Sight,” but there’s a lot of stuff I’d change in almost every other performance. Do you have a part that you’d do differently now?
Pfeiffer: There are a couple. I would like a redo on Madame Olenska for “The Age of Innocence.” Sometimes I just feel like I missed it. My whole approach was wrong. That character that I played is fine, but not maybe the right choice.
Clooney: Are you a good judge of your performances? Because I see that as a wonderful performance.
Pfeiffer: I’m not. Because the performances when I’m like, “Oh wow, I’m pretty good in that actually. I did a good job” are usually the ones I will get raked over the coals for by critics. Performances that for me are cringe-
worthy are the ones I typically get the best reviews for. So I’ve given up.
Clooney: It was really fun to watch how you, as an actress, change things up. “French Exit” — this is very different. You’re removed and colder: Was there somebody that you modeled it after?
Pfeiffer: This character is the last of a dying breed. And it’s this particular era of uptown New York socialite, where the glamour has faded a long time ago. I didn’t grow up in that world, so it was something that wasn’t all that familiar to me, but I had some close friends who were from that world — they always made me feel like a potato in the room.
Clooney: I read a lot of scripts, and I don’t know how you read that script and think, “Oh, I know what this is going to be.”
Pfeiffer: Pretty much everything but the talking cat. That gave me pause.
Clooney: Was somebody talking off-screen?
Pfeiffer: Yeah, the script supervisor. I often think about directing, and part of me would like to direct one day, and then I think, “Oh God, but it’s just so much work.” How do you have the stamina to do that, especially now that you’re a father, and you’ve got — they’re 3-year-olds, right?
Clooney: Yeah, they’re 3. This was a story I knew I had an idea of how to tell. It’s a tricky balance, because I had to lose 25 pounds because I’m dying, but you need to be really strong when you’re directing. But it’s fun to do.
You were a producer on “One Fine Day” way back, and you were very involved in the filmmaking of it, much more so than I understood at the time. You always understood story, and you had such great ideas. The kids are out of the house. You got some time now. You might think about directing.
Pfeiffer: Well, I don’t actually, because I started this fragrance line — I’ll send you some. It’s been a lot. I started it 10 years ago, and it finally launched about a year and a half ago. Talk about a steep learning curve.
Clooney: So you’re not going to direct then? You’ve got too much to do.
Pfeiffer: I can’t do that. But I created something that wasn’t there, and I think that’s when I’m happiest.
I saw “The Midnight Sky” in the last few days, and I really loved it. I love filmmaking where the director isn’t afraid of silence, and you certainly were not afraid of silence in this film. I have to be honest; it’s my very favorite performance of yours. I was really just sitting there and just watching, just feeling so proud of you.
Clooney: It is funny that we haven’t seen each other in a long time. Amal and I were watching [“French Exit”] last night, and I was like, “You don’t age.” Literally, I’m in a movie where I’m playing a guy who’s 70, and I look like your grandfather. But it’s fun to see people that you admire and that you know just keep on trucking. There is this thing about surviving over a period of time. Careers have a sell-by date, and you don’t. The thing about “French Exit” in so many ways was it’s a film where it just relies on you, right? It relies on your madness, and your insanity in a way. If that doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work.
Let me ask you other questions. Your kids are gone; they’re away in college?
Pfeiffer: No, my kids are graduated. My kids are 26 and 27, George.
Clooney: Oh, my God. That’s unbelievable. They were babies.
Pfeiffer: We never had any socializing.
Clooney: No, it was hard to do. The other thing about the film was, with very few exceptions, we were doing two different movies. I was in one world and working, and you were in another world and working. I was in New York, I was staying at the Morgans Hotel, and my friend Rande Gerber, who is my partner now in the tequila company — I had the day off. So I had a few drinks. We stayed up and had a few vodkas or something. Then I came home at 1 in the morning, and I’m like, “Oh shit.” I was pretty hammered.
I woke up at 5 in the morning. I was like, “I feel OK.” Then I looked in the mirror, and I was like, “Oh, I’m still drunk.” I got to the set, and we walked to the trailer and I sat down and you looked at me. You go, “What?” And I was like, “I didn’t know we were going to work today.” And you go, “You’re still drunk.” It’s a scene we did in a oner where you and I are talking back and forth to each other. I kept trying to spray whatever mouth spray I could because I smelled like a —
Pfeiffer: Like a brewery.
Clooney: — like a distillery.
Pfeiffer: Then you showed up one day with a broken face. You broke your face.
Clooney: Yeah, I was playing basketball with the crew at lunchtime, and I took an elbow in the face from one of the crew members, and it broke my eye socket. And I was like, “I can still shoot.” I remember we actually shot scenes where we blocked half of my face with a kid.
Pfeiffer: Did it heal completely? Because you shattered your eye socket.
Clooney: Pretty much. Yeah. It works fine now. Only when I sneeze. You’ve joined the “Avengers” world. Is it fun?
Pfeiffer: It is. It’s different. It wasn’t quite as bad as wearing the catsuit, but it was pretty uncomfortable. You have to really fight for comfort when they’re building suits. Because they’re just not thinking that way. I’ve worked with Paul Rudd before, and he’s a joy.
Clooney: Yeah, ain’t he great? He was on “Sisters” when I was on it, years and years ago. What’s shooting like there? Because we shoot four, five, six pages a day. Is it shooting a quarter of a page a day?
Pfeiffer: It’s pretty slow going. See, “Batman” — it wasn’t a lot of special effects. But it’s a lot of the green screen and acting to things that are not there, which is challenging. It’s always fun to see it finished.
You’ve just done so many different kinds of films, but what is your main mission statement in terms of what you’re looking for?
Clooney: After “Batman & Robin” came out, and it was a big bomb — you learn from your failures; you don’t learn from successes. So then I thought, I have to focus really on the script. It’s not just about my part; it’s about the whole movie. The next three films I did were “Out of Sight,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Three Kings,” which were really great screenplays. They didn’t all do very well financially, but they were all critically well received.
It became clear to me that you can make a bad film out of a good script, but you can’t make a good film out of a bad script. I gravitate toward pieces that interest me. They don’t always end up working, because there are so many things that can go wrong, including me.
Pfeiffer: It’s interesting, because when I think of those films, I think of them as huge successes.
Clooney: They weren’t at all. I don’t remember what films opened at No. 1. I like watching films, and my hope is that you can get together and gather a bunch of films that you can look back and say, “Well, that’s a career.”
Pfeiffer: And actually “One Fine Day” is a good example of that. A lot of people really love the movie. It had great audience response — so much so they moved it into a different slot, which was the wrong thing to do. But you just don’t know. Who knew?
Clooney: My wife and her friends can’t believe that “One Fine Day” wasn’t a big hit. They love it. So don’t you think there should be a sequel to “One Fine Day”? “An Older Fine Day,” and the kids are all grown up now?
Pfeiffer: It could be called “I’m Tired Today.”
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