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NEW YORK, Sept 13, (Agencies): When Michelle Pfeiffer first read Darren Aronofsky’s script for “mother!” she had an understandable initial reaction.
“I thought: What the hell is this?” recalls Pfeiffer.
Aronofsky’s film is not in any way typical, nor is the kind of project you’d expect a long-absent actress like Pfeiffer to join as her first big-screen performance in five years. The film, intentionally shrouded in mystery, is a wild and weird odyssey by one of the movies’ expert conjurers of dark, surreal dream worlds that suspend its viewers — and often its performers, too — in a vividly atmospheric state of paranoia.
“You don’t even know, really, how to talk about it,” says Pfeiffer, as if throwing up her hands, in a recent interview.
But one of the many mysteries worth pondering in Darren Aronofsky’s allegorical thriller is a simple one: Why don’t we see Pfeiffer more often? The good news is that “mother!” represents the start of what may be a kind of renaissance for the 59-year-old actress, whose steely beauty and cool, piercing intelligence remains just as devastating.
“I’m really excited to be back,” says Pfeiffer. “Especially having worked with these exciting actors and these directors who I so admire. The most exciting for me is all of these really talented people that I’m able to do movies with.”
Along with “mother!” which Paramount Pictures will release Friday, Pfeiffer co-stars in Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming, more old-fashioned mystery “Murder on the Orient Express.” She has joined the cast of the “Ant-Man” sequel and earlier this year premiered the Sundance Film Festival entry “Where is Kyra?” in which she plays a woman struggling to survive in Brooklyn on her ailing mother’s income. She also received an Emmy nomination for her chain-smoking Ruth Madoff in Barry Levinson’s HBO movie “The Wizard of Lies.”
It’s a flurry of activity for Pfeiffer, who says she pulled back partially to focus on family. She and her husband, the TV producer David E. Kelley, who live in northern California, have two children. Now an empty-nester, Pfeiffer has eagerly returned to regular work.
“She wasn’t on my mind because she hadn’t worked for a while,” says Aronofsky. “My casting director mentioned that she was interested in working again. I was immediately excited and interested by the idea of it. It’s been a while so I wasn’t so sure where she was at. But once we started to talk, it was amazing.”
Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream”), long a fan of Pfeiffer, was impressed by her still sharp skills.
“I just wanted to applaud her at different times during the movie because she does things that are so hard to do,” he says. “Like those things where someone says something in the moment and you’re supposed to react in the moment with surprise or embarrassment and she was doing it take after take.”
Jennifer Lawrence stars in the film as the sweet and sensitive wife to Javier Bardem’s poet. They live in beautifully natural, labyrinthine house in the country, but they are soon beset by visitors, beginning with a man who shows up at the door (Ed Harris), who’s followed by his wife (Pfeiffer) and then others. The movie grows in intensity with the sensation of invasion; Aronofsky conceived it as a kind of allegory for an overrun Mother Earth.
“I have these dreams sometimes,” says Pfeiffer. “I’m in some house and I have to be somewhere or I have to do something and I can’t get out. I can’t find my way out. I know there’s some disaster looming ahead and I know it’s coming and no one will listen to me. This is like a really, really bad nightmare. It’s like your worst nightmare and you can’t wake up from it.”
After her Oscar-nominated breakthrough role in 1989’s “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” Pfeiffer became one of the top actresses in Hollywood, stringing together a varied filmography including “Dangerous Minds,” “Batman Returns,” “The Age of Innocence” and “What Lies Beneath.” That made her intimidating to her younger co-star.
“It took me two days to get over her beauty, and to go up to her and say hi,” Lawrence told reporters at the Toronto International Film Festival. “She’s very normal. She’s a mother. She’s a very smart woman.”
She is also a still-adventurous actress who was willing to go well out of her comfort zone for “mother!” Pfeiffer considers the film “a real leap of faith” since she went in with only a partial understanding of it, along with a director whom she says would sometimes leave the cast in the dark on the finer points of the drama.
Aronofsky’s “mother!” — about a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives with her husband (Javier Bardem) on a deserted farmhouse — has generated more debate than any film to debut at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
The Paramount Pictures release, which opens on Friday, has been shrouded in mystery, and critics are still trying to piece together what it all means. “I wanted to make a film about Mother Nature,” Aronofsky told Variety. “So we’re working on an allegorical level, where it’s dealing with these big symbols.”
When asked if she thought the film was a feminist story, Lawrence answered in the affirmative. “To me, this is incredibly feminist in the way that these Victorian, patriarchal novels show these loving, amazing husbands that are very slowly and delicately taking away their wives’ dignity,” said Lawrence, who was reading “Jane Eyre” during the shoot. “To be a feminist movie, we don’t have to all be women and all be aggressive. Before we knew what feminism was, people were writing these novels that showed women’s strength being drained from them.”
Lawrence said that she hurt herself while making the film. “I had trouble calming down and coming back after he called cut,” she said. “I’ve always been fine snapping out of it, but I’ve never had to go this dark before. I kind of lost control of myself. I tore my diaphragm and popped my chest rib out.” She took a beat. “I don’t know if I’d ever work with Darren again.”
The star of “The Hunger Games” and “Silver Linings Playbook” said that she was rattled when she saw the film on second viewing. “It really shook me,” Lawrence said. “I pulled him in the bathroom” — she said of Aronofsky — “and was like, ‘What have we done?’”
Aronofsky liked that his film has been generating discussion. “I think what’s exciting about the movie is that it’s open for interpretation,” he said. “I wrote it in the eighth year of Obama. It’s coming out in the first year of Trump. My intention was very different from where we are now.”
Will the United States ever elect a female president? “I really hope so,” Lawrence said. “I mean, that was a hit,” she said about Trump’s surprise victory last November.
“There are a lot of amazing female politicians,” Aronofsky added. “I’ve heard some crazy number of women are starting campaigns now.”
Lawrence threw out a name. “Kamala Harris!”