In French Exit, Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges play Frances and Malcolm Price, a mother-son duo who come across as if they’re the only ones in on a private, deeply absurd joke. A pair of true New York eccentrics who’ve run out of cash after a lifetime of fabulous wealth, then moved to Paris to avoid debt collectors and social humiliation, they innately understand and amuse each other endlessly: Frances calmly lights a centerpiece on fire at a restaurant where they’re being ignored by the waiter while Malcolm quietly beams with pride; Frances mischievously needles a hungover Malcolm at the breakfast table; when Malcolm comes upon Frances sharpening a knife in the kitchen in the middle of the night, he wordlessly leaves her to it. Even as they slowly open up and draw a handful of other offbeat weirdos into their French orbit, it’s clear that nobody can quite penetrate their bubble — these are two people living in a delightfully peculiar world that they’ve co-created, one with a very specific and unspoken set of rules.
French Exit, Azazel Jacobs’s film adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s archly comic 2018 novel, only works because Pfeiffer and Hedges are similarly co-creating a little world of their own. They’re operating on the same delicate, singular wavelength, their tone hyperstylized and gently zany, but also deadpan and grounded in real pain — a sort of languidness punctuated by biting wit and deep melancholy. It’s an impressive high-wire act from both actors, made even more significant by the fact that they accomplish it while performing opposite a talking cat who is possessed by the spirit of the family’s patriarch (Tracy Letts). Before the movie’s February 12 premiere, I hopped on Zoom with Pfeiffer and Hedges to ask how they pulled it all off.
Michelle, I was reading an interview with you recently where you said you don’t love doing interviews, which is understandable. Is doing them over Zoom preferable, or worse?
Michelle Pfeiffer: Do you not like doing interviews either, Rachel? [Laughs.]
It’s my job!
Lucas Hedges: Her worst nightmare.
MP: I like it a lot more, honestly, doing it over Zoom. It’s much less of an ordeal, all around. You don’t have to travel or anything like that. You only have to dress from the waist up. You can do your own lighting. And it’s weirdly more intimate — strangely — than going to this big press junket, and they shuttle you from room to room.
I kind of agree.
LH: Everyone’s in their bedroom! They have to be themselves.
MP: Right, like, I’m wearing my pajama bottoms right now.
So am I!
LH: You love to hear it.
MP: I don’t, actually. But I could.
LH: She outed you, Rachel. Now you look like an idiot! [Laughs.]
MP: I really led you right into that, Rachel. You fell right into that.
I really did. Lucas, when you first learned you’d be working with the legendary Michelle Pfeiffer, what was your reaction?
LH: My reaction was that I had no idea how she was going to receive me. Because she’s just an idea in my mind of somebody who exists in a certain kind of cinema that has a very large scope, or at least those were my associations growing up with you, Michelle. I wouldn’t say I found my groove with her until we started filming. It was interesting. It was almost the opposite — usually I meet somebody in person, and then when I get on camera with them, things change. But with you, it was like I met you on set. It felt like I met you through the character. And from there I felt most comfortable in our relationship.
Did you have a lot of rehearsal time?
LH: Not really, no.
MP: We did, but not together. I feel like we spent more one-on-one time with Aza [Jacobs]. We only had maybe a few hours together, and it was sort of reading through material. We spent a lot of time trying to discover and understand the sort of tone and the rhythm of the whole piece. So I get what Lucas is saying.
What were your first impressions of each other?
LH: We met in a boardroom in your office, basically.
MP: My head was in a million different places. I think you and Aza [felt like], “We’re all here at the same time, let’s meet.” And then we did a sort of very disjointed reading together. It was kind of weird. For me, I just didn’t know who Frances was yet. I didn’t know what this world was yet. I felt this pressure to be making choices when I wasn’t ready. And then I felt insecure because I had no idea who this woman was, and I just wasn’t ready to be discussing it at all.
LH: That’s cool. That’s cool to know. We’re having group therapy.
How did your impressions shift over time? How did you feel about each other by the end of filming?
LH: By the end of filming, I was consistently annoying the hell out of Michelle. I never shut up.
MP: But I loved it so much.
LH: I would say I was like a squirrel around Michelle. [Laughs.]
MP: A squirrel?
LH: A squirrel with a lollipop. That’s how I would describe the energy. Not unlike the energy you experience from me today.
MP: A squirrel with a lollipop? I can’t even imagine what you mean by that.
LH: You were with me on set!
MP: Uh-huh. Was I the lollipop?
LH: No, you were Michelle. I was the squirrel with the lollipop.
MP: [Laughs.] You were such a delight.
LH: I did a drawing of us. I wrote Michelle a letter and did a drawing of us. And the drawing is so heinous. You look like a blind person walking with a cane, and I’m just — it’s irrelevant.
MP: Where did the cane come from?
LH: I don’t know. Maybe you didn’t have a cane. It just looked like one.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about each other?
MP: I honestly don’t go into things with expectations, but what I loved about Lucas, and what I discovered about Lucas, is that sort of cliché saying: Still waters run deep. I think that was part of the brilliance of casting Lucas in this part. He doesn’t have a tremendous amount of dialogue. But he doesn’t need it. You know even when he’s not saying or doing anything, there’s so much going on underneath. If I was surprised by anything, it’s that he’s got a throwback poetic soul.
LH: Oh, wow! No way.
MP: I don’t feel like I have that. I show up; I work. I’m pretty basic. I’m not that poetic. I always kind of wish I were. But he is. He’s a little like a squirrel with a lollipop. Who thinks of that? I want a whole poem about the squirrel with a lollipop.
LH: I will do that. And send it to you. I was surprised by how much of a master Michelle is at what she does.
MP: He was surprised by how unpoetic I was.
LH: No! Your poetry came out in a way. There was not a moment that you wasted. You didn’t waste anything. You were so agreeable. You were so kind. You were so not a burden to a single person on that set. That was a huge surprise, to me. To be doing what you did every day, telling a story you had to tell, the character you had to [portray] — it was a very acrobatic, showy character. And you did it in such a humble and generous way. It was almost like you took up no space when you had to take up the whole room. You didn’t obstruct anything.
MP: Thank you. It was such an enormous amount of work and such a condensed schedule. It was just pages and pages and pages of dialogue, and not easy dialogue to remember. It’s not exactly how we speak. So I was constantly preparing for the day when I just felt like, Okay, I have today down. Then I’d have to move onto the work coming up.
To that point, the tone is so specific in this movie. How did you find your way into Frances, both in terms of the tone but also the hair and her incredible outfits?
MP: Typically, I have an idea of how the character looks, immediately. And I did, in this case. But it was wrong.
What do you mean?
MP: I don’t think that my version of it was as timeless, and as dusty, as this version. It’s faded glamour. It’s uptown faded glamour. It’s a hard thing to articulate. Susie Diamond [from The Fabulous Baker Boys] was a little this way, too. It’s not like you can send a shopper out like, “Oh, bring me this and this.” You know when you stumble upon it. Period. And you know when it’s wrong.
Was there a specific scene where you guys felt like you were really vibing with each other?
LH: My character doesn’t really do anything, so I would say most of the vibing I did was vibing with other people as I watched them vibe with themselves. I do think the scene where you’re sharpening your knife in the kitchen was an amazing moment, watching you do that scene. I liked the group scenes in the end. I loved getting punched in the face. I guess I did vibe there.
MP: I think the scene where I felt most connected to you — she’s not warm and fuzzy, Frances. There’s this desire to connect as an actor, but the character is disconnected, so it’s this weird not-really-sure-if-you’re-connecting thing. But at the end, in the kitchen, I felt really connected to you.
LH: Loved that.
MP: That would have been my favorite.
LH: And walking down the hall [of the apartment before going to bed], too. That was magical.
MP: Waiting for you to come and walk with me. I get emotional thinking about it.
LH: It’s so sweet. So sweet.
To get onto the topic of the talking cat: Have either of you had any supernatural experiences in your life?
LH: Oh, I love this topic.
MP: I bet you have.
LH: I have had moments where I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and been paranoid that there was a spirit in my room.
MP: You had that in Montreal [while filming French Exit]!
LH: Literally. I do actually have a friend who is a psychic, whom I do sessions with, and she, like, is able to intuit energies. And she was like, “Something terrible happened in this house.” I’m aware of how when you make yourself susceptible to that sort of thinking it manifests itself. I’m not sure, but I will say, it didn’t feel right, being in that house. So, yeah, my experience in Montreal began with what felt like ghosts.
What about you, Michelle?
MP: You know, I have this thing that happens and has always happened to me. And that is, I feel like I either conjure people up or I pick up other people thinking about me.
LH: Wow. Hmm.
MP: And I’m not sure which one it is. Because what will happen is, there will be someone in my life whom I haven’t talked to or heard from in years, and for whatever reason, I’m thinking about them that day, and feel like I need to connect with them. And then I get an email or I get a call. It happens all the time.
I was reading your dual interview with George Clooney about One Fine Day, and you said that when you looked back on The Age of Innocence, you wanted to do something a bit different. I’m curious what you meant by that, and what you might have changed.
MP: Well, first of all, I love The Age of Innocence. I’m so proud of that film. It’s so beautiful. It’s not that I feel what I did is bad, even though I do feel that way sometimes. I just feel like there’s a kind of — first of all, I wanted dark hair. And I think because Winona [Ryder] was dark, they kept me blonde. I think Winona’s character in the book is blonde. She’s sort of the fair-haired kind of thing. And [my character] Madame Olenska is a bit darker, more poetic. I wish I could have gone more in that direction. A bit darker.
Lucas, this is your second movie this year after Let Them All Talk where you’re on a transatlantic cruise ship opposite a legendary actress [Meryl Streep]. Which experience did you prefer? Or how did they differ?
LH: One was literally [snaps] this long. The Soderbergh movie was that long. I heard about it, we started filming a few weeks later, I got on the cruise, I got off the cruise, and then we were done. That didn’t even feel like a movie. It felt like I was on a cruise eating, in my opinion, terrible cruise food, running around hanging out with some people. It’s hard for me to differentiate between them. It was such a weird moment in my life; it feels more reflective of what was going on with me personally than the actual film itself. French Exit was a whole experience. Months of getting to know the character, going to Montreal and filming. I’m deeply romantic about that time in my life. I loved filming French Exit so much.