Michelle Pfeiffer returns to the big screen alongside Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem and Ed Harris in writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s new film mother! (Sept. 15). Locked away in their isolated home, Lawrence's housewife plays muse to Bardem's cranky writer until Harris and Pfeiffer appear. The two play boundary-challenged visitors whose sudden appearance throws the young woman's tranquil rural life into disarray.
Like Aronofsky’s previous work (Pi, Black Swan), mother! is dark, challenging and riveting. This time, he has created a puzzle within a Hieronymus Bosch–style fever dream. Perhaps the house is Eden, corrupted by man. Maybe it's purgatory. Or Lawrence is mother earth, and her sacrifices to her husband akin to the tale of the Giving Tree.
Pfeiffer talked to TIME, offering insight into mother!'s unconventional style, how she came to love Jennifer Lawrence and her upcoming return to the world of superheroes in Ant-Man and the Wasp.
No spoilers, but what was your reaction to reading the mother! script for the first time?
It was very disturbing, very provocative. It was unlike anything I had ever read.
Most of the film takes place in one house. It’s very intimate, almost like watching a play. What was it like to make?
It was a very different experience—even the rehearsal process. [For reference] Darren actually filmed the entire movie on his iPhone during rehearsals. And that is something that I would never have really allowed. I never like behind-the-scenes filming because it destroys the element of entering another world.
But I went along with it. We all just trusted Darren. He was able to do these impossible shots that went on forever, going through hallways and upstairs and downstairs. And we were jumping over cables and hiding behind the camera and coming into camera. It was thrilling.
Aronofsky has said he tried to channel the anxiety of our current times. Is that how the film feels to you?
Yes. Sometimes I have this nightmare where I am trying to warn people around me of some impending doom, some disaster that is about to happen. No one is listening to me. The entire dream is trying to find my way out, trying to convince people. This film feels like that to me. I think it’s Darren going, “Wake up!”
There's so much going on. After my editor and I saw the film, we immediately were Googling different biblical references and Dante passages and paintings.
The movie plays on so many levels, and people will have wildly different interpretations of what this movie means. I think it will be one that people will watch over and over again. And there are a lot of — what do you call them? Easter eggs? — there will be lots of easter eggs in the film.
It will definitely be a conversation starter. I think people will have extreme reactions to it. I know when I saw it, and I'm familiar with the story, I was destroyed by the end of it. I couldn't talk.
You’ve navigated Hollywood very deftly. Did you and Lawrence discuss your career paths? Did you offer her any advice?
I like her so much. She is so refreshingly unfiltered and honest. At first I was a little bit thrown by it, because I’m the opposite. I’m so guarded and careful. But she’s doing really well. She doesn’t need advice from me. For someone her age and with her fame to be that grounded was very surprising.
You’re also starring with Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express (Nov. 10). Were you an Agatha Christie fan before being cast?
Murder mystery is not my thing. But now I want to go back and read more of her. Of course, I read the book and asked Ken [who is also directing the film] if I should see the other film [directed by Sidney Lumet in 1974]. He encouraged me not to, because he wanted the actors to bring fresh eyes, fresh instincts to their part. Now I’m afraid to see it, because I’m sure Lauren Bacall did something really amazing, and I’m going to think, Oh my God, I should have done that!
You’ll be in Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp next summer. How have things changed for women in the superhero genre since you played Catwoman in Batman Returns in 1992?
I’m particularly excited for a woman of my generation to come into this world and kick some ass. I think we're moving in that direction [of more female superhero movies.] Of course, Wonder Woman was exceptional. It’s very empowering to see women in these roles.
People have called 2017 your “comeback” year. Is that accurate?
It’s so weird. I didn’t really go away. But I do have a lot of work coming out in a condensed period. Throughout my career, it’s always been this way. I’ll go three years without work and then—all of a sudden—it’s bam, bam, bam.
You think it's that you're being offered more interesting and better materials, when actually you just mentally want to work and are therefore less likely to pass on things. So I don’t know. I guess it is?