Michelle Pfeiffer didn't plan to take a four-year sabbatical. It just sort of happened. "Honest to God, I got busy." With what? "Life," she says. Throughout her 20s and into her 30s, she says she fell apart between projects, and downtime filled her with horror. "My dad used to say, 'An idle mind is the devil's playground,' and I was certainly a more balanced person when I was working. Acting's an odd profession for a young person; it's so extreme. You work, and the conditions are tough and the process is so immersive, and then it stops, and then there's nothing. So you have to find ways of making you feel productive when you're not actually producing anything. For a young person, that's really challenging."
But now, she says, her off-duty life is full to bursting with family and domesticity. "I feel I have to go back to work to get some rest, because I find real life so exhausting. Incredibly fulfilling - but just so exhausting," she says. For the first time in her life, she says, she has interests: she paints a bit, "and the other day we were driving in the car and I said to David [Kelley, her husband], 'you know, I kind of wish that I had become a scientist.'" She mimes an incredulous sideways glance. "But, you know, the science section is my favorite bit of the New York Times. I get so excited on Tuesdays when it comes out."
In 2002, Pfeiffer and Kelley, the writer/producer behind LA Law, Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal, moved with their two children, now teenagers, to a ranch in northern California. But Pfeiffer wasn't simply moving away from Los Angeles, which she describes as "too darn crowded, with too much traffic, and the paparazzi have lost their minds, so I don't want to be there"; she was also in the process of detaching from the movie industry. Having built a career on a killer combination of nervy froideur and sultriness - qualities that left scorch marks on Scarface, Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Batman Returns - she changed pace and direction. Her children were pre-schoolers, and she showed up in a few movies a year, mostly overwrought hankie-flutterers such as I Am Sam, The Deep End of the Ocean and The Story of Us.
As her children grew, her output dwindled. After White Oleander in 2002, she lost her appetite for work altogether. "I wasn't reading anything that I wanted to commit to. But it's hard to know if I was being dismissive because maybe, subconsciously, I was ready to take a break. I'm always inclined to talk myself out of work, though," she adds, shrugging. "It's a strange thing that I do. I get cold feet. I over-think."
In the past, this caution has led to some eccentric career choices.
Pre-kids, Pfeiffer turned down Basic Instinct, The Silence of the Lambs, Sleepless in Seattle and Thelma, yet despite this talent for self-sabotage, and despite embarrassments such as Up Close and Personal and Dangerous Minds, she remained - and still remains - a cast-iron movie star in the grand style: a creature with unearthly looks and lashings of old-fashioned screen magnetism, qualities that have sometimes drowned out her considerable talents as an actress.
There's a caution, too, in the roles that have tempted her back into the industry: bumper-sized cameos in ensemble pieces, such as icy racist Velma von Tussle, the darkest note in last summer's sunny remake of Hairspray. Next up, she is easily the best thing in the vast cast of Stardust, an epic fantasy in the tradition of The Princess Bride and The NeverEnding Story, which goes on general release in Taiwan tomorrow. It's an orgy of highly-colored spectacle: fallen stars, ghost princes, poisoned chalices, plumed horses, enchanted forests, voodoo dolls, sky pirates, gypsy caravans, Victorian corsetry and unicorns. Fortunately, Pfeiffer pitches it just right as Lamia, a 5,000-year-old witch hell-bent on recapturing her vanished youth and beauty. For much of the movie she has a complexion like a crocodile handbag and a matted hairdo, but in one thrilling sequence, she drops several millennia in the blink of an eye and, examining her restored glamour puss reflection in a mirror, smolders with triumph and satisfaction.