In French Exit, Michelle Pfeiffer plays a tart but tragic widow unprepared for life without the cushion of her late husband’s money. The role, by turns both funny and sad, has garnered Michelle a Golden Globe nomination and put her on the shortlist of actresses likely to receive an Oscar nod, too.

Roles in hits like Scarface, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Batman Returns put Michelle on Hollywood’s A-list in the ’80s and ’90s, but she chose to stop working while her children, Claudia, 28, and John, 26, were young. To be able to return and thrive in the notoriously youth-conscious acting industry has been a gift. “I think Hollywood is changing finally,” says Michelle, 62, who will next play Betty Ford in Showtime’s upcoming anthology series The First Lady.

Perhaps it’s Michelle’s upbringing that has allowed her to succeed so well in Hollywood while avoiding its traps. A daughter of an air-conditioning contractor, she grew up in modest circumstances in Santa Ana, California. “I wasn’t born into wealth, so I know what it’s like to get by on very little,” Michelle confides. “I didn’t feel so lucky because all my friends had more than I had. But now I realize it was a blessing. If I were stripped of everything [material] right now, I would be OK. Ultimately, I’m really rich in love and relationships in my life.”

Michelle, who had an early marriage to actor Peter Horton, wed TV producer David E. Kelley, 64, in 1993. The couple moved to the San Francisco Bay area to protect their kids from LA’s often-questionable values. “Raising kids is just consuming,” says Michelle, who became a stay-at-home mom in the early 2000s. In fact, her children didn’t even know she was an actress when they were young.

“I actually went overboard in separating the kids from my work, so much so that they found out through their friends how famous I was … The world knew more about my work than [my daughter] did,” admits Michelle, who tried to make up for it by screening some of her more family-friendly movies, like 1982’s Grease 2, for her kids. “They watched about a quarter of it, and then they wandered off!”

Michelle Pfeiffer

Michelle has similarly kept her marriage separated from her work as an actress. Although her husband, David, is credited as one of the industry’s best writers for women — he was one of the driving forces behind the series The Undoing and Big Little Lies, both starring Nicole Kidman — Michelle doesn’t want to work with him. “I’ve seen a lot of couples where they seem to have a really great marriage, and then they work together and next year they’re filing for divorce,” she says.

With a happy, not-too-public home life and a robust second act as a character actress, Michelle couldn’t ask for anything more. “The first part of our lives, we’re sort of programming ourselves to learn how to behave and fit in and be polite,” she says. “The second half you’re trying to undo a lot of that, and be more honest, be more authentic and speak your mind more.”

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