Nobody could accuse Michelle Pfeiffer of craving public affection. The former beauty-pageant queen has never cared much about being loved, and this perhaps explains the odd choice of roles with which to launch her comeback, following a five-year absence. She portrays two thoroughly despicable characters: a conniving racist in the musical comedy Hairspray and an ancient witch in fantasy film Stardust.
"It was hard – the hardest thing. I've played some evil characters before, and I've even played some killers," says Pfeiffer, discussing her decision to play Hairspray's hateful bigot Velma Von Tussle, having not made a film since 2002's White Oleander.
"I signed on to do this and then sort of inched my way towards this character until one day, of course, it registered: 'Oh my God. I'm playing a racist.' I talked to my family because I understood that the message of the piece was really important, and certainly the message of the movie is anti-racism and anti-bigotry. I wanted to make sure my kids understood this is what the movie's about; it's a really important film and in order to do a movie about racism, somebody has got to be the racist and it's me!" she says, laughing nervously, almost as if she is still not entirely convinced herself as to why she took on this remake of John Waters's 1988 cult classic, though this time based on the recent Tony-Award-winning Broadway production about star-struck teenagers on a racially-segregated 1960s Baltimore dance show.
"But I'm so glad I did it, because I had a lot of fun playing the part, even though there were some lines I honestly could not remember because they were so hateful. Literally I'd be doing a scene and I'm come up blank. I'd be looking at Dana (played by her co-star Queen Latifah) and it was interesting what my brain did..."
Clearly Pfeiffer, 49, knew that she was playing with fire – and all for the sake of a career that she has long put in second place to her role as mother to her adopted mixed-race daughter Claudia Rose, 14, and her biological son John Henry, 13.
"I don't normally discuss roles with my kids unless there's something that I feel might affect them in some way or might cause them embarrassment or discomfort. And they were OK, although I think initially it was a shock because they saw me out of context, and were like, 'Mom, what are you doing?'. They really didn't know what to think because, remember, they're young, and don't have any frame of reference to that period really. I don't think they thought it was all that cool."
The actress has first-hand experience of racism. "I was shocked at the prejudice, voiced in some quarters, over my decision to adopt a mixed-race baby. It's really surprising that people still put so much emphasis on it. None of us are pure anything. We're all a mixture. Claudia is a beautiful child, and some of the most beautiful people I've seen in the world have been of mixed race. As mother of both an adopted child and my own birth-child, there is absolutely no difference in the huge amount of love I feel for both my children. I always knew I wanted to adopt a child and also have one of my own. There is no difference at all.
"It's frightening to me that the only reason Hairspray got made again is because it's still relevant. I am hoping that the next time somebody decides to do a version, someone will say: 'You know what? It's really an outdated idea and not really relevant.' Wouldn't that be nice?", asks Pfeiffer, who co-stars with a barely-recognisable John Travolta, he in full drag.
If Pfeiffer launched her career on the back of her looks – her beauty-pageant title as Miss Orange County propelled the one-time supermarket check-out girl into her TV and film career – then she would later discover that neither beauty nor success were guarantees of happiness.
Debuting on screen in a one-line role on the TV series Fantasy Island, she won her first small film role in 1980's Falling in Love Again, getting her big break two years later in the lead role of Stephanie in Grease 2. From here she was cast as Al Pacino's wife in the 1983 classic Scarface, receiving considerable attention for her drugged-up, icy character portrayal. It was 1987's The Witches of Eastwick, starring alongside Cher, Susan Sarandon and Jack Nicholson which cemented her career. A year later she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Dangerous Liaisons and in 1989 a Best Actress nod for her portrayal of a singer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. Her success continued into the 1990s, as she branched out into a variety of roles including the romantic drama Frankie and Johnny and Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. She did Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream and wore a skin-tight catsuit for Batman Returns.
But in her private life she was lonely and disappointed, following doomed affairs with John Malkovich, Michael Keaton and Fisher Stevens, and a brief marriage to the Thirtysomething actor Peter Horton (he played Gary). At 35 years old, she adopted the baby girl Claudia Rose – an event that would happily coincide with meeting her future husband, the Ally McBeal and Boston Legal creator David E Kelley – followed a year later by the birth of their own biological son John Henry.
"We all have our baggage, and David and I are no different from anyone else. And we've been to marriage counselling. I'm a big proponent of therapy. I've had a lot of it in my time and it's really helped me. I think it's great to spend time talking and thinking about how your life is going.
"Ultimately, I believe the only secret to a happy marriage is choosing the right person. Life is a series of choices, right?" says the actress, who is determined to preserve her personal happiness at all costs – five years ago quitting Hollywood at the peak of her career and moving with her family to rural Northern California. Did this pay off? She pauses: "I think it has helped us as a family to be less distracted and David and I to be less distractive as parents, even though I think we were pretty good when we lived there, too, but we wanted to have more land and animals on our property and you couldn't do that there."
Later this year she stars as a witch opposite Robert De Niro, Sienna Miller and Claire Danes in Stardust. "You don't want to fall into the trap of just going out and being mean because mean people don't think they're being mean. Mean people think they're completely justified in their outbursts or their comments and the truth underneath it all, they're fighting and angry, they feel like the victim, as twisted as they might be, so that's also why it's so interesting to play those because you kind of get to figure that all out."
'Hairspray' opens on 20 July and 'Stardust' on 19 October