HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Michelle Pfeiffer shielded her eyes against the warm morning sun outside her house.
"Are you sure that's going to be safe?" she asked. She was calling to the carpenter and pointing to the treehouse he was building in her backyard.
For the third time that morning, the carpenter had stopped hammering and replied, "Safe as the Statue of Liberty."
Recalling the incident, the actress and mother of two, says, "Finally, David came out and suggests, 'Honey, you really should have been a carpenter. Get a hammer and go out there and show him how to do it.' "
Ms. Pfeiffer is, of course, referring to writer-producer husband, David E. Kelley. The actress is seldom seen on the party circuit, but she did attend the Emmy Awards and other industry events last year when her husband carried home top honors for his TV hits "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal."
Pfeiffer has been off the screen for a year, by choice, to be home with Kelley and their two children, ages 5 and 7. Her most recent films include "The Story of Us" and "The Deep End of the Ocean."
Now, she's teamed up with Harrison Ford in an edge-of-your-seat thriller, "What Lies Beneath," which opens today. Ford plays a college scientist and Pfeiffer his wife, living in a New England town.
Director Robert Zemeckis found the perfect location in Addison, Vt., where they filmed at Daughters of the American Revolution State Park, with Lake Champlain in the background.
"I think it was my cue to do a film when my daughter asked, 'Mom, when are you going back to work?' My answer was that I was staying home just to be with her and her little brother. Before I got the words out of my mouth, she repeated the question with the emphasis on when."
Pfeiffer runs a hand through her shoulder-length blond hair and smiles, "They love to visit me on the set. I work with so many of the same crew, it's like family to the kids."
They had a ball when visiting "What Lies Beneath." Half of it was filmed at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, where they went to the CityWalk shopping district and the theme park. They also visited mom in Vermont.
"When I was first offered the role," she continues, "it came with two great perks: Zemeckis was the director [he won the Oscar for "Forrest Gump" in 1995] and Harrison Ford.... I hadn't worked with either."
Also, Pfeiffer had never made this type of film.
"As a youngster, I always loved scary movies like 'Frankenstein' and 'Dracula.' My first favorite film was 'The Bad Seed.' Later it was Hitchcock's 'The Birds' and then the first 'Alien' thriller."
When she received the script for "What Lies Beneath," she liked it immediately. "I read the scenes about being in the water - both the bathtub and the bay - and it didn't really worry me."
The water scenes lasted for weeks, though. In fact, they built five different bathrooms to film the scene from many exciting angles. The actress didn't realize initially that she'd have to be underwater for so long. They shot the bathroom scenes for two weeks, and shot another two weeks in a tank of water at the studio to represent the underwater footage. It was only after Pfeiffer made it clear she needed help that the studio hired a scuba diver to teach her how to be more comfortable under water.
Her role presented other challenges. For instance, she took lessons on the cello. "My character was a former concert musician, so I had to look professional. I developed a love for the cello, and would like to continue with lessons because it has such a beautiful sound."
Pfeiffer adds that in Vermont, "They built this wonderful two-story house high on the banks overlooking [Lake Champlain]. When a visitor asked, 'Where is the bathroom?' we had to explain the house had no plumbing and no lights. After we finished shooting, it was torn down and the area was restored to its original park setting."
When she first met Ford, she admits, "It was a bit overwhelming, and I didn't expect it. If anything, he has more presence in person. He reminded me of Sean Connery - when he walks into a room, he just seems to fill it up."
Test audiences were surprised that Harrison's role is smaller than Michelle's.
"The role is such a departure for him," she says. "We don't [usually] see him playing a flawed character. I think it takes courage - like Robert Redford starring in 'Indecent Proposal' with Demi Moore. It's great to see an actor take chances and play against type."
Has Pfeiffer changed in the last few years? "Oh yes!" she answers quickly. "Acting has become more pure. I think it was important for me not to produce films for awhile. Although I enjoyed it, it was diminishing my love for acting.
"Having a family has given me more balance. Of course, it made it harder to go to work, but it's made me less obsessive about my work. I was so driven about my career that I wasn't really having fun doing it. Now, it's different. When I go to work, it's because I really want to."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society