She settles in next to an open window, looking ethereally beautiful in the afternoon sun, casually dressed in slim, tailored black jeans and a beige silk blouse worn unbuttoned over a fitted white T-shirt. A diaphanous, flowered silk scarf hangs loose against her elegant neck. Everything about her, from her appearance to the sound of her soft voice, seems exquisitely feminine, like costly perfume. We talk for several hours about things that matter greatly to her: family, friends, the career that serendipitously brought her from a grocery checkout line to enduring stardom.
Pfeiffer, 54, grew up near Los Angeles, one of four kids in a working-class family. Her mom was a homemaker, her dad an air-conditioning contractor. An indifferent student, dreamy, a bit lost, she hung out with surfers at the beach. She thought about becoming a court stenographer someday, maybe a psychologist—she wasn’t sure. In 1978 she entered the Miss Orange County beauty pageant and won; a pageant judge who was also a talent agent took her on. Her first notable films were 1982’s Grease 2 and, a year later, Scarface, opposite Al Pacino. But she says it wasn’t until 1987 and The Witches of Eastwick that people started recognizing her and stopped asking, “Are you Debbie Harry?” Oscar nominations for Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and Love Field followed. Her latest film is Dark Shadows (opening May 11), which reunites her with Tim Burton, who directed her as Catwoman in 1992’s Batman Returns. It’s an adaptation of the gothic soap opera that aired from 1966 to 1971 and with which she was “obsessed” as a kid, she says. In late June, she’ll costar in the family drama People Like Us.
Before Kelley, Pfeiffer was not especially lucky in love. An early marriage to actor Peter Horton failed, and she was romantically linked with Val Kilmer, John Malkovich, and Michael Keaton. After a three-year relationship with Fisher Stevens ended, Pfeiffer decided to start a family on her own, initiating adoption proceedings. A couple of months before finalizing the adoption of her daughter, Claudia Rose, in March 1993, she met Kelley on a blind date; they married later that year, and she got pregnant with their son, John Henry, on their wedding night. The family is now based near San Francisco.
30 Years of Pfeiffer: From Grease 2 to Dark Shadows
PARADE You and your husband will celebrate your 19th anniversary this year. How do you judge whether a person in your life is going to be that solid for you, whether they’re worth the effort?
I haven’t met a ton of people who meet that criteria. [laughs] It takes years for me to trust; I know that about myself. A lot of it is because I am so private, and so reluctant to make myself vulnerable. You have to be vulnerable to have real intimacy with people. It’s a two-way street, you know? Eventually I do get there, but not with very many people. I have it with David, of course.
Why the fear of vulnerability?
Well, it is part of the hand you’re dealt when you become a celebrity. Nobody would consciously decide to become guarded and self-protective. I was very open when I was younger, but celebrity teaches you. You learn to cope with the intense scrutiny.
How do you know if a man really loves you?
Sometimes you know and sometimes you don’t. All humans are subject to denial. Everybody is vulnerable to being in relationships where they get fooled. I’m no different. It’s just human nature.
But you are different. You’re rich and famous.
Yes. Well, like my daddy used to say, “Trust everyone, but cut the cards.”
You had other relationships before you married David. …
Some were relationships, some were encounters.
Why didn’t they work out?
This is the thing I’ve learned, after a lot of couch time: There are always red flags. You need to look for those red flags along the way so you don’t continue to make the same mistakes with another person. Really look back and ask, “How was I so hoodwinked here? Why did I do this?” From the beginning you have to choose well. If you choose badly, no matter what you do, it’s going to fail and you’re going to be unhappy. A lot of it is luck. I chose really well with David. I got really lucky.
You met on a blind date?
Yes, and for once it was the right person at exactly the right time! [laughs] And 19 years later, I never take him for granted. I’ve never met a person who has more integrity than my husband. I respect that. There’s his humor and intelligence, too, and he’s really cute, all those things—but if you don’t respect your partner, you’ll get sick of him.
Secrets of Rock-Solid Celeb Marriages
Your first marriage, to Peter Horton, failed.
I married Peter at a very young age. I’m not the same person I was then. I forget I was even married before.
It’s a hard thing to forget.
I do forget. Actually, I didn’t tell my kids for the longest time. They were old when I finally said, “Oh, by the way, just FYI, I was married once before.” They were like, “What?!” It had never occurred to me to tell them.
In 1993, when you were single, you adopted your daughter. Was that because you said, “To hell with men—I’ll do it alone”?
No, I said, “To hell with figuring out the man thing before I start a family.