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Sisters in Arms

Eric Gutierrez is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer have been on the lookout for each other for five years. Two of the most compelling actresses of the ‘80s and ‘90s had long recognized something familiar under the skin of each other’s work, but could never find quite the right project for both their formidable talents--until “A Thousand Acres,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley, was brought to their attention.

Directed by Australian Jocelyn Moorhouse (“Proof,” “How to Make an American Quilt”) for Disney and opening Friday, “A Thousand Acres” is “King Lear” set in rural Iowa, with all the passion, secrets and betrayals, except told from Regan and Goneril’s point of view. The story of the sisters, renamed Rose and Ginny in the Smiley book and film, is less about the dissolution of a family and their farm than about shedding one’s demons, walking through fire and breaking destructive family chains for the generations to come. Shakespeare meets Oprah in a classic tear-jerker made all the more epic for the talents of Jason Robards as the tyrannical farming patriarch and Jennifer Jason Leigh as little sister Caroline. Keith Carradine plays Ginny’s salt-of-the-earth husband, Kevin Anderson plays Rose’s disillusioned husband, and Colin Firth is a childhood friend of the sisters whose return home further fractures the divided family.

Given that both Pfeiffer, 40, and Lange, 48, have two sisters, their personal sibling dynamics illuminated their performances. As Rose, Pfeiffer turns from the cool sophistication of her most celebrated roles for a performance informed by fire, anger and sexual hurt. Lange, as elder sister and narrator Ginny, leaves behind the roiling sensuality of her star-making turn in “Frances” and Oscar-winning role in 1994’s “Blue Sky” for a character more vulnerable and self-contained.

Lange enters the presidential suite of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, daughter Hannah in tow, immediately mounting the suite’s spiral staircase with large, athletic strides before heading back down. “Ooh, nice. I guess your movie has to gross $37 million on opening weekend to get to stay here,” she laughs. Small-town Minnesota lights up her features.

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Pfeiffer fixes herself a cup of coffee and curls into the corner of a sofa. Her handshake is firm, the gaze direct and calm, as if testing the odds of connecting with someone genuine.

Together, they turn into cheerleaders for each other’s talent, before taking on sisterhood, the American family, privacy in the media and the definition of “chick flick.” Once on a conversational roll, they finish each other’s thoughts, exchange some deadpan humor and laugh only if the joke’s any good.

Question: You’ve been trying to work together for five years. What’s the rush?

Jessica Lange: I don’t know. I always felt this kind of familiarity with Michelle, even though we really didn’t know each other. Who knew this would come up? It was the perfect material for us to do together. It’s got two great women’s roles of equal stature.

Michelle Pfeiffer: I have such admiration for Jessica as an actress. Early in my career I actually saw myself going in the same direction. [touching Lange’s hand] I don’t think I ever told you this but. . . .

JL: [leaning back, mock-wary] Uh-oh. What?

MP: I was working on “Scarface” at the time [in 1982], scared out of my mind. Every day for the six months this movie went on I got blonder and skinnier. By the time the movie was over I was so terrified of Al [Pacino]. Since then we’ve done “Frankie and Johnnie,” but then it was a whole different thing. I couldn’t even speak in his presence.

He came into the makeup trailer one day and said, “I just saw the most incredible performance by this actress called Jessica Lange in ‘Frances.’ ” And I went, “Oh, really?” Because it didn’t take much to intimidate me at the time. Of course I ran out and saw it immediately and I knew exactly what he was talking about.

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Q: So how was it when you finally got to work together?

MP: For me, it was a difficult movie with a lot of obstacles to overcome, but the one thing that was constant was the joy of working together. It was so effortless.

JL: We didn’t have any rehearsal time to prepare. I showed up in Illinois and we saw each other for the first time the first day of shooting. There was all the tension and hassle at the beginning of any shoot, where everybody’s a little suspicious. I didn’t have wardrobe, I didn’t have a wig or anything. It was just nuts. [Pfeiffer nods emphatically.] Everything was in complete turmoil but from the very first moment, the one thing I took comfort in that felt right and good was the work we were doing together.

MP: And it was the one thing I was frightened of because I didn’t know Jessica that well. I knew there was a lot of intensity in her work. I think that a lot of actors who have that kind of intensity tend to work from a neurosis. [Lange’s eyebrows arch comically to attention] Now I’m not necessarily the easiest person to be around [Lange’s eyebrows relax], and I didn’t really know what to expect from her, so it was such a delight and relief to see that the one constant I could rely upon to feed me was being able to act with her. Some of the time actors just suck from you and they don’t necessarily give you anything back.

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JL: One of the things I loved most about working with Michelle is we never spoke about it. That’s how I like to work. I hate those discussions with actors over what the scene’s about and where it’s going. To me, that’s the most artificial way to approach a scene . . .

MP: . . . because in life people never talk about what they’re thinking about anyway. They could be thinking about picking up a bag of Pampers at the supermarket.

JL: The dynamic was there and our energy fed off each other.

Q: Beyond your desire to work together and the fact that it’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, what was your attraction to the project?

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MP: We actually acquired the novel while it was still in galleys, before it won any awards. It was a purely emotional response to the material on my part. I haven’t read “King Lear” in about 10 years but I’m the eldest of three sisters [the others are Lori and “Cybill” actress Dee Dee] and responded to it on that level.

JL: I must say I’d been completely unaware of it until after our companies had optioned it. I read it and was stunned by the depth of the love between the sisters. Like Michelle, I have two sisters [Ann and Jane]--but I’m the youngest. Still, the relationship is absolutely familiar. I ended up drawing a lot on my oldest sister.

MP: I don’t think I’ve ever played as explosive a character as Rose. She’s truthful to a fault, much to her own detriment at times, and so driven by this need to purge herself. I know women like this, and I’m always very moved by them. I tend to be a lot more careful. My anger comes when I suppress it for so long and then I kind of explode.

JL: Like the Taurean you are.

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MP: You don’t want to be around when it happens. Women like Rose, who have no control over their need to tell the truth, frequently suffer. Because she’s so uncareful with her feelings and I’m so careful, I thought it would be very liberating.

Q: Was it?

MP: No, it was just hard. [they both laugh] It’s been a long time since I’ve brought my work home with me to that degree. The days and the character really stayed with me, and I felt angry all the time. I was kind of impossible to get along with. Everyone was happy to see this movie end.

JL: It was hard and we were all pretty exhausted.

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Q: Emotionally, that probably put you a lot closer to . . .

MP: . . . the edge.

JL: The odd thing is it always works somehow. No matter how you come into it, you can usually turn it to your advantage even if you’re not aware of it at the time.

Q: Off set, how did you help each other cope during such a hard shoot?

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MP: More than anything it was through the work. Truth is we didn’t have a lot of time. It was a really overly ambitious production schedule.

JL: I found the only way to make it work for me is to move in and out of it. For anybody who has children [Lange also has daughter Alexandra and son Samuel Walker; Pfeiffer has daughter Claudia Rose and son John Henry], they’re probably their saving grace in life.

MP: Amen.

Q: You’ve both said you recognized your relationships with your sisters in the script. What was it that you recognized?

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MP: Siblings in general have such a strong connection and I think particularly sisters. My sisters can just hate each other one moment but they have such a bond that can never be severed. At times in our lives, it has potentially impaired us because we’re so close we never had to venture outside of our little coven. The fact that we’re all married now has helped. On the other hand, we all still live within a mile and a half of each other.

Q: [to Lange] Is there anything supernatural about your sisterhood?

JL: No, but I know what she means. I have such a powerful connection to my sisters that I don’t really need to seek out women friends. Of course I have some really strong friendships that have lasted over the years, but probably not as many as I normally would. There’s probably nothing more complex than the dynamics within a family.

Q: “Each family is unhappy in its own way.” What’s interesting about contemporary American gothic, and this particular movie, is how it shows that modern dysfunction is both the stuff of tawdry talk shows and high Shakespearean tragedy.

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MP: That’s also life. I don’t find this family that unusual. I don’t think there’s anything darker than the American family. [Lange grunts in agreement] I can’t even watch the local news anymore. I just can’t bear what goes on among “loved ones.” It breaks my heart. And I don’t think it’s really getting worse. . . .

JL: [jumping in] We’re just more aware of it. The media have changed everything that way. What used to be absolutely private family business is now on those god-awful talk shows where there’s no sense of privacy anymore. With no fear of total humiliation, they’ll tell the worst family secrets. It’s . . .

MP: . . . so disheartening . . .

JL: . . . but it does make you [dissolving into rueful laughter] painfully aware how [screwed] up everybody is. I’m reminded of that extraordinary thing Rose Kennedy said. When somebody asked her how she dealt with all the tragedies of her life, the death of her children, her response was, “God only gives you as much as you can handle.”

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[Pfeiffer looks skeptical]

Q: Michelle, you don’t buy that?

MP: I don’t know. A lot of people get a little more than they can handle.

JL: Yeah, but the human spirit actually does rise to meet the occasion. Sometimes. And sometimes it just doesn’t. It is amazing, though, how strong the human spirit is. I mean, look what it takes to kill Rose [in the film].

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Q: This film is directed by a woman, stars two women, is based on a bestseller by a woman, was adapted for film by a woman--and the guys are the villains. Excuse my French, but is this a chick flick?

JL: [sincerely] What’s a chick flick?

MP: Movies that women want to go see and men are dragged along to.

JL: As opposed to these [expletive]-swinging cartoons of summer?

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MP: Oh, are you going to be quoted on that?

JL: Well, aren’t they? [into tape recorder] Attribute that to Michelle.

Q: I can’t believe you’ve never heard the term “chick flick.”

JL: I’m still trying to figure what they actually are. Movies that women want to go see? But there must be women going to all these huge blockbusters.

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MP: They are. But the reason I go usually is that my husband [writer-producer David Kelley] wants to go. There are certain movies that appeal to men but this movie. . . .

JL: [mischievously] You mean this wouldn’t be termed a “date movie”?

MP: . . . I believe it crosses over, for sure. I would really hate for it to be labeled a chick flick. I could see how people would do that, but it really isn’t. My husband said this is the best--and most malignant--script he’s ever read. He loves the movie and he’s a tough critic.

JL: Being labeled a woman’s picture does minimize it because all it says is that it has strong women’s roles. The mistake is saying, therefore it will only appeal to women. It’s based on “King Lear.” These are universal themes that can’t be relegated to women-only status.

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Q: It’s derogatory to men, too, assuming guys are only interested in violence and special effects. Do you think being perceived as a so-called women’s film affects the box office?

MP: I’m familiar with the damage the term can do. When “One Fine Day” opened, we got beat by “Beavis and Butt-head” because all the women were holiday shopping. [Lange bursts out laughing] OK, so I know exactly what that means: All the men picked the movies.

Q: Isn’t the term “chick flick” itself derogatory? I mean, there’s no industry term for [expletive]-swinging cartoon.

JL: Well, there should be.

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MP: There is now.

JL: I don’t see this as a women’s film. To me, it’s really a story about family.

MP: Personally, I love a good special effects movie, a rip-roaring [expletive]-swinger. [they both roar]

JL: As for the men being villains, somebody said to me there’s not one redeemable quality about any of these men, and I was surprised because I didn’t see it that way at all.

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MP: They’re flawed, not bad.

Q: Some would say you two were pushing the envelope of what your fans expect. You’re playing farm wives when you’re both known for great sex appeal and glamour. . . .

JL: [interrupting, incredulously]Oh, c’mon. Michelle looks good, but I haven’t. . . .

MP: Oh, puh-leeze. . . .

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JL: It’s true. I haven’t played a glamorous part in so long.

Q: Two words: “Blue Sky.”

JL: That was made about six years ago.

MP: Ex-cuse me, in [1995’s] “Rob Roy.”

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JL: [mock confidential] I had a good wig.

MP: You looked as beautiful as you’ve ever looked in that movie.

JL: [laughing with gusto] Did you have a good screening of it? [wiping tears from her eyes] Well, I must say when I saw myself for the first time in this movie, I thought, “What have I done?” I just couldn’t believe it, it was like my body morphed [now Pfeiffer busts out laughing]--it did--into this housewife, this farm woman. I see shots of me from the back and I think, “Holy Christ!”

MP: “Who is that?”

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JL: “And why does she do this?” Actually, I know why I do it. I make a choice when I play a part. I think both to Michelle’s and my credit we went for the honesty.

MP: My husband said to me, “I loved it but I have one criticism. Honey, the scenes where your character’s all dressed up, well, you kind of look worse in those.” Well, yeah, I worked really hard to do that. Probably most people will have the same response, they’ll think it’s a mistake, but I believe that usually women, when they leave themselves alone, look better. And these characters don’t have a makeup artist on call, they would go in and get bad perms and bad highlights.

JL: Maybe there are a few actresses who still hang onto that glamorous movie-star persona. But look at Glenn or Meryl, Sissy or Diane or Holly or Debra. I can’t think of any actress whose work I like who is concerned with having to look good. They look truthful. When Susan [Sarandon] plays a nun, she looks like a nun. Thirty years ago they woke up in bed with full makeup and unwrinkled negligees, but that went out with the studio system.

MP: I have an agent [Ed Limato] who is very old-fashioned, very old glitz Hollywood. He’d love nothing more than for me to be lounging around all day in some sequins, but he puts up with me.

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Q: Even though it took half a decade and a chaotic production schedule, would you look forward to working together again?

JL: Yes, if something this good came along.

MP: Yeah, the sequel!

JL: When I was in London I used to drive every night to the [Haymarket] theater [where she was playing Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” earlier this year], past this shop with a sign: “Rose Lewis Corset Shop.” I thought Michelle should know about Rose’s next life. She opens an underwear shop on Knightsbridge.

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