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Cougar Courtesan: Cheri

Reuniting with the Dangerous Liaisons writer/director team of Christopher Hampton and Stephen Frears, Michelle Pfeiffer makes a triumphant return in Cheri, playing a courtesan of a certain age in love with a beautiful young man (Rupert Friend).

In Chéri, Michelle Pfeiffer reunites with the writer (Christopher Hampton) and director (Stephen Frears) of Dangerous Liaisons (1988) for another romp through the sexual mores and social terrain of an earlier period. In this case, it’s 1906 in Paris, and Pfeiffer is Léa de Lonval, an aging-but-still-stunningly-beautiful courtesan confronting her future as a woman of a certain age. Fortunately, she has the luxury of a fortune amassed over several decades: a reward for her smart business acumen, her fierce independence—quite rare for women of the time—and her obvious skill in the seduction and pleasure of men.

Chéri is an amplification of the rich details found in two seminal short novels by the French writer Colette (herself a liberated woman of a certain age), in which courtesans are in a social class of their own. Educated, wealthy, and elegant, yet not invited to mix socially with the rest of the riche, these women have banded together to form their own well-heeled (but catty) society.

Léa’s sort-of friend in this world is a cast-against-type Kathy Bates as Charlotte, who is a cautionary tale of the dangers of having money without taste. Charlotte’s leonine, dilettante son Fred—affectionately known as Chéri (Rupert Friend)—spends all his time in nightclubs, beds women with his half-mast, “sole-shaped” eyes, and lives the ultimate life of leisure for a boy of nineteen. Problem is, he’s bored, and in search of something—someone—who will challenge him. When he and Léa—who has seen Chéri grow up—reconnect after some time, a spark ignites, an affair begins, and a cougar is born. Chéri and Léa’s short-term liaison unexpectedly morphs into a six-year cohabitation, but when their Shangri-la is suddenly disrupted, Léa is forced to confront her feelings, perhaps for the first time in her life.

After a marked absence from leading lady status, Pfeiffer is in fine form; no doubt, audiences will welcome her back with open arms. Her Léa is older, and wiser, with distinct lines etched into her beautiful face. She and Friend—gossip followers may recognize him as Keira Knightley’s boyfriend of three years—recently sat down for some roundtable interviews about their steamy new film.

Were you familiar with Colette?

Michelle Pfeiffer: No, no. …When I found out it was from a piece of French literature, I [rolls her eyes], oh my God, I was sort of dreading to have to plod my way through the novel. And then, you know, this little tiny book shows up. Her writing is so precise and economical. At first blush, the first time through, it almost seems frothy, [but] the more you look at it, the more you realize it’s actually quite profound. It’s like a lot of great work, I think. If you apply that to actors… [take] Jeff Bridges: he always makes it look so easy that he’s constantly overlooked. It’s because he’s so perfect, so real and effortless. And that’s Colette’s writing—effortless.

What moved you most about it?

MP: On the one hand, Léa does go against social convention and break a lot of rules, and as a result of that, she gains independence and she’s wealthy and she doesn’t have to worry about money, and she doesn’t have to be under the control of a man. But she sacrifices having children, she sacrifices having close relationships, which is what she faces at the end of the story. Looking around, she has a lot of things, but she doesn’t have what really matters.

Frears said you and Rupert bonded from the moment you met.

MP: Yes. You never know. You show up and haven’t met each other, and you have all these intimate scenes. And you think, I just want to like them! Rupert was a dream. He was just an absolute dream.

What was it like turning 50?

MP: I was shooting this film on my 50th birthday. And I thought, Well, isn’t that ironic? I am really heading into the eye of the storm here, heading right into it, and that’s good. So it was interesting, because [my birthday] came and went, and that was it. It’s only the anticipation of this thing that comes and goes, and then it’s nothing.

My situation is different than Léa’s. I thought, if I didn’t have my family, if I didn’t love my life the way that I do, if I didn’t have my health, if I didn’t have all these things to be grateful for, this would be tough. This would be a tough birthday to have.

Your performance as Léa is brave. She’s such a strong woman, but then there’s that vulnerability we see—how were you able to find that side of her?

MP: That’s always the challenge, doing that kind of period movie. Even today, people rarely are saying what they’re really thinking. And Colette talks about how kind Léa is, that she’s not hard, and so she kind of lays it all out. I really just tried to stay true to Colette’s writing. The beauty of it too was that whenever I would go to Stephen and he wasn’t clear [about Léa], and I’d go to Christopher and he wasn’t clear, I’d go back to Colette, and she’d always clear it up for me.

This is a marvelous part. At some point, does age become an asset?

MP: The parts may get fewer, but in some ways they are better. You look at people like Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren and Judi Dench—they’re still going strong.

Jessica Tandy won an Oscar at 80.

MP: See? There you go. There’s still hope for me.

[Read the entire interview with Michelle Pfeiffer.]

Can you talk about your look in this film?

Rupert Friend: Physically he looked like a most angelic, sweet, sort of well-behaved boy, but he actually had the morals of a Lucifer. We had the idea—Stephen and I—of a sort of ballerina matador in the way that he moved. Working with Consolata Boyle on the costumes, we very much wanted to keep that element of dangerous grace. An image that came to me very strongly was of this lazy tomcat on a hot, brick wall, sort of just lazily watching the world go by. But when a mouse came too close [knocks the table], it was a goner. That was something I felt as soon as I read the script.

Stephen Frears said they were originally looking for an American for the part.

RF: Well, I was aware I was probably quite low on the list. When you have a script and a director of this caliber, and a star like Michelle comes on, I should think there were many more high-profile actors than I am who were keen to play the role. So I think the script had some fingerprints on it.

How did you and Frears discuss where you were going with this role?

RF: The process of trying to become somebody else is such a weird, undefinable thing. It’s a bit like music. You could say to a musician, “If you play this note and then this note, it will be good.” But you’d be wrong. There’s a sense or a feeling about it, which you literally can’t describe. Stephen is a brilliant conductor of humans, and of emotions, and yet he never really says anything… You trust him implicitly. You sort of put yourself in his hands, and follow your instincts and trust that he will steer you when you go off-course.

What was your experience working with Michelle?

RF: It was nothing but wonderful. She was a very, very generous actor, and we established a trust early on, which was lucky because we had to do some very hard work together. You have to feel that you are dancing together, that one will catch the other; otherwise, it’s very exposing.

How did you build up that trust?

RF: I don’t know. It just happened. We met the night before we were going to start shooting, and knew nothing of each other before then. (Obviously, I knew her work, but she didn’t know mine.) So we had a quick cup of tea, and then what I think happened was we left ourselves behind at that point and started to just inhabit the world we were creating.

Chéri must have been a hard character to play because he’s so indecipherable. It’s all inaction.

RF: One of the first walls that I came to was [when Léa says] she can’t criticize his character because he doesn’t seem to have one. Which for an actor is a tricky thing, because… a great way of finding out about somebody—as an actor, or even in life—is to find out what they want. That can give you a lot of clues about their behavior. But when somebody doesn’t seem to want anything—has everything he could possibly ask for, but doesn’t seem to want any of it—it is a very challenging onion to unpeel.

How did you try to make him likable? Or was that not a concern?

RF: I do not have a concern to make the character likable. I have a concern to play him truthfully… Colette wrote a very complicated young man, and I don’t think he was a standard, square-jawed hero—quite the reverse in many ways. And when you start to look at why that might have been—What has kept him a child for so long? Was it Léa’s fault? Could you put it at her feet? Is it his mother’s fault? Is it society’s fault? Or was he just born that way?—it’s  more interesting than trying to paint a sympathetic picture every time.

[Read the entire interview with Rupert Friend.]

opens Friday, June 26. Find tickets here.

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