An Interview with Dedee Pfeiffer
Dedee Pfeiffer is an actor known for her work on Vamp, Cybill, Falling Down, and Frankie and Johnny. She currently stars as Denise on Big Sky. I spoke with Dedee about getting her first break in the industry, collaborating with her sister, Michelle, Big Sky, and her advice for actors pursuing a career in the industry.
Did you always want to pursue a career in acting?
No, I’m the most unlikely actor in normal life. I hate looking at myself and I can’t stand watching my work. I don’t act to entertain myself. I never really understood how people can sit and watch their work. God bless them! I want to do it for other people, so once I’ve done it, I’m done and I let it out to the universe. I had been working multiple jobs since I was really young. If you wanted money, you worked and you got money because in my family, Dad didn’t have a lot of money. If I wanted something I had to go earn it.
By the time I was 18 my sister Michelle was doing Scarface. So, I threw my stuffed monkey into my Volkswagen and drove up to LA and I wanted to try being an actor. Michelle said to me: ‘get your butt in a workshop immediately. Don’t even thing about getting headshots or an agent. Get to an acting workshop and see if it’s something you want to do.’ The story goes from there. I stuttered, I couldn’t remember my lines, or character study. I didn’t know why I was there, but I’m a hothead and wouldn’t give up until I could figure it out. I’m 58 and still trying to figure it out! I don’t know if it’s something you ever can really figure out. I’ve had quite a few rebirths in 40 years of trying to figure it out.
How did you land your first role?
I studied for two years before I even thought about getting an agent. This was in ’82. In ’84, I finally launched out and got an agent and started interviewing. I was so nervous. I couldn’t get out of my own way. I finally started learning how to interview, but there was a catch-22. Unless you were already in the Union you couldn’t get a job. So, you had to slime your way into the interview and lie like crazy just to get the interview. I did that like everybody did and then I got an interview and I got a job. They called me and said: ‘you’re in the Union right?’ They gave the role to another girl who they said they liked just as much, but was already in the Union. It cost the production money if you weren’t in the Union, so they took the job away from me.
Michelle was doing Into the Night with John Landis and Jeff Goldblum at the time. She went to work that night and she was mad. She said to John, ‘that’s not fair. They gave my sister a job and she’d earned it, but they took it away just because of some technical thing that wasn’t her fault.’ John Landis said, ‘tell her to come down to Hollywood Boulevard Friday night and look like the most raunch $10 hooker. I’ll throw her in the movie and get her her SAG card.’ That was my first role. John called me afterwards. Originally, he was going to cut me out of the movie as he was just doing it as a favour, but he kept me in because he found it so funny. He kept me in the movie and that was my first role. I have to give John Landis all the thanks in the world because he got me over that catch-22.
You portray Denise on Big Sky. Could you tell me more about this?
I love my character, Denise. I think she’s a hoot. I love playing her. It’s really hard to watch yourself aging and then God forbid, you get hit with a wrong light! It has been very humbling to have gone away for ten years and gone back ten years older and see yourself. I’m back into self-care immediately. I also care about Denise and what I want her to be presented as on the show. I don’t like to compete with the other women on the show. We have a fantastic cast and crew. Talented people and very diverse. I’m not a competitive person, but I compete within myself. I need to make sure that she can be whatever that looks like. It has been interesting watching the show.
The show goes through a lot of changes. This season when you watch the season finale, we are going to throw you another curveball. I really love what they did and even I didn’t see it coming. The pilot really sets you up for not knowing what is going on and this year’s finale also makes you question where it’s going and what’s happening.
Was it really challenging after taking a ten-year break from acting?
Sobering is definitely the word I’d use. Both literally and figuratively because I’m sober. I’m almost four years sober now. I’m a big advocate for having a conversation about it and taking away the stigma and addressing it. It is something that most of us touch upon at some point in our lives. I came back with sober eyes, not drinking or smoking. All of my vices were gone, so I had to learn how to be an artist in a completely different way, without relying on my old ways of touching into my creativity. I never drank during work, of course. It was challenging, exciting and a lot of self-discovery. The cast has been amazing. They have been very supportive. They made my character sober too, which is very exciting. I get to talk about that on @dedeepfeifferofficial, my Instagram. I talk a lot about sobriety through my eyes and my character eyes. It has been a completely different journey as an actor. And I’m older! When you get older you don’t care as much what people think.
How have the roles you’ve been offered changed since you first started out?
I didn’t really come back to acting, as much as David E. Kelley, my brother-in-law and creator of the show said that he had this great role for me. This has never happened since the day I met the guy. I was just finishing my masters programme at UCLA in Social Work and wasn’t quite sure how to swing it financially. David threw me this lifeline without knowing it and I stumbled back into acting. Now, I’m hoping to use this opportunity to bridge my advocacy as a social worker, pull that together with my fanbase one day and create some kind of show where I can pull them together. That’s my goal. Nobody is coming after me to hire me as I’m working on Big Sky. Nobody really knows how to cast me anymore! Roles are going to all kinds of different women now, which is really exciting. I do want to entertain, but to also help people.
You’ve worked with Michelle on a number of projects. What’s it like collaborating together?
It’s interesting. There is room for both of us in the world, but we are very different. She’s very beautiful, talented and so smart. I’m much more improv and there is a mutual respect for our differences. I didn’t realise how differently we worked until we worked together. Most people might judge the way other actors work for being different because you don’t work the way I do. That happens a lot. For me, in life, you just have to leave space and room for people to be different. I had to do that. And first of all, it was her film!
Working with my sister was probably more important than working with an actor I didn’t know because of the element of the personal relationship. I wanted our Christmas to go nicely. We worked so differently. Our training is different, our approach is different. Results were going to be different, but that’s the beauty of being an artist. We are from the same group of food, but one is like pineapple and the other banana!
Is there a project you are most proud of?
I’m proud of all my work for different reasons. Vamp, my very first starring role is a cult classic to this day. People who follow Vamp are the most amazing followers and fans I’ve ever seen. They send me T-Shirts with Amaretto on them. Amaretto and Vamp will always be close to my heart.
Playing Denise on Big Sky is also really important to me because it’s the first time I’m performing with sober legs and clarity. Not completely self-hate because unfortunately we are our own worst critics. I’m doing that less this time than all the other times. I’m more forgiving. It’s annoying trying to be perfect. I’m trying this time, just to let Denise organically be what she is supposed to be.
Being on Seinfeld was huge and Falling Down with Michael Douglas. I had to do a scene upside with a hammer on my head. The director Joel Schmacher is just fantastic. Friends, Seinfeld and Ellen, when I was actually doing them, I was so in the moment. I look back on that stuff and think that’s really cool that I did that.
Your performance on Seinfeld was a very memorable role.
Wasn’t that fun? I didn’t realise the magnitude of that pivotal turn for the character of George (Jason Alexander). I didn’t let it seep in because it would have been too much awesomeness to fathom. I get overwhelmed really easily. I don’t associate myself with it because I have to be once removed. Otherwise, I’d have to pat myself on the back and tell my kids that their Mum is cool. I have teenagers. They aren’t fans of my work! They loved going in the dressing rooms when they were younger. Now as teenagers they are much less interested!
It’s weird for me to watch Michelle too as she is my sister. It’s the same way for my kids watching me. My sons don’t think it’s cool at all. They are just happy I can afford pizza! They are very supportive, but not in the way you’d think.
What advice do you have for actors pursuing a career in the industry?
I think it’s really important that it is a passion. It has to be something that you really love and it runs through your veins. It’s really competitive. Less than 1% of actors work at any given time, especially now. 99% of people are being told no for any role they read for. That does not mean you are a bad actor, but that can really start knocking you down. What I say, is do community theatre, take an acting class in college, go do a workshop, play online with your friends, act with your friends. Play with the idea of being an actor first. If you don’t have that you will just get knocked around for no reason, but if it’s something you really love then you will keep taking the knocks and getting back up.
Also, live life. Real life gives you all those little nuggets to add to your character. Real life literally paints the palette of your characters. Discover your own version of a $10 hooker, or a snob, or whatever it is. You are going to get that from life. Everything that gets thrown your way in life, think of it as a gift. Something to witness, look at and observe and put it in your little toolbox of actors’ tricks and tools. One day you can pull that stuff out and paint your character with these characteristics that nobody else will have.
If you go in and give the same performance that everybody else is, then good luck getting the role. You’ve got to stick out. Take everything that comes your way, whether good, bad, or different and put it in your toolbox and pull that shit out later. That’s where you get free acting classes, from real life.