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Strong story lures homebody Pfeiffer

(ran TP edition)

It's not that Michelle Pfeiffer dislikes being a serious actor or a glamorized film star. But sometimes she just wants to go bowling.

"I love to do everyday stuff," Pfeiffer said as she curled up on a hotel couch without makeup and star attitude.

"Take last night. I went bowling with my sister."

Then she turned almost bubbly. "I had a 117!" she said. "That's not bad for me, because I don't really know what I'm doing. I might bowl a 50.

"But Lori, my sister, beat me by one point!" Pfeiffer said, brandishing an index finger accusingly. "She was so pleased with herself."

You'd think Pfeiffer's sister, a model, would be the jealous one, since her sibling has earned millions, received three Oscar nominations and been hailed as one of Hollywood's finest actors for films such as Dangerous Liaisons, Batman Returns, The Age of Innocence and Married to the Mob.

But Pfeiffer, 39, doesn't measure her happiness by such things. Especially not now, when her personal life has reached a pinnacle.

That private life made her almost reluctant to embark on A Thousand Acres, despite its strong story. (It opens Friday.)

Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange and Jennifer Jason Leigh play sisters torn by a ruthlessly patriarchal father (Jason Robards) on an Iowa farm empire.

Though based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley, and though it gave Pfeiffer her first chance to play opposite strong female leads, the project also meant shooting on location. And because she has a husband and two children, Pfeiffer hates leaving home.

But she and Lange had developed the project _ they optioned the book's film rights when it was still in galley form _ so Pfeiffer had some pull.

She arranged to spend just three work-intensive weeks on location in Rochelle, Ill. (substituting for Iowa), skipping two more weeks of shooting there.

Then the film's other half, mostly the interiors of homes, was shot on sound stages in Los Angeles.

She shrugged as if the choice were a no-brainer. "My kids were starting school," Pfeiffer said. "I wanted to be back."

Those kids are Claudia, 4, and John, 3.

Around the time Pfeiffer adopted Claudia, she began dating TV producer David Kelley (Chicago Hope, Picket Fences). He and Claudia also clicked, and suddenly they were like family.

Kelley and Pfeiffer married on the day of Claudia's christening, making it a double event. Months later, Pfeiffer gave birth to John.

"I feel Claudia brought David and me together and because of that brought me my son," Pfeiffer said.

Besides being a homebody, Pfeiffer doesn't want to work as much now, even in Los Angeles. Her next project doesn't start until mid-October, when she makes Deep End of the Ocean, in which she plays a mother whose child disappears. That one will be shot in Los Angeles.

Pfeiffer lives in Santa Monica, the beachfront community on Los Angeles' west side. It's also the home of her production company, Via Rosa.

Though she's Southern Californian by birth, Los Angeles wasn't always home.

Pfeiffer saw it as alien while growing up in a family of six in the "normal suburbia" of nearby Orange County, where her parents and younger brother still live. (Sister Dedee stars on TV's Cybill.) Well, maybe not "entirely" normal.

Pfeiffer's sisters _ six and seven years younger _ "used to have humdingers of fights," she said. "They were burning each other with curling irons. But by then I was out of the house and just heard about it."

That's because she'd taken the plunge in Hollywood to become an actor.

Pfeiffer started slowly in such films as Grease 2 and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. Just before she was hired for 1987's The Witches of Eastwick, she had a long dry spell and thought about quitting.

But then she caught fire with Witches, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Married to the Mob and Dangerous Liaisons.

Finally, she had arrived.

"When I moved here, my parents were concerned but excited for me," Pfeiffer said. "I'd been studying acting, and with acting they finally saw that commitment _ that direction and passion _ they hadn't seen before.

"But (growing up), I never thought I'd move up here, ever. The air stinks, and the people . . ." Her voice trailed off.

"It was a big move."

Now she doesn't want to leave. But A Thousand Acres was worth it, especially since Pfeiffer was able to take her kids with her on location.

The story's emotional power is what drew her to it.

"The novel is so deeply provocative," Pfeiffer said. "If I go to the theater or see a movie or listen to music, I like to be moved in some way. Whether it's making me laugh or moving me to tears, it doesn't matter. That's what it's all about."

In A Thousand Acres, her character's chief emotion is anger, fueled by abuse as a child and breast cancer as an adult.

"But anger can be a positive, motivating thing," Pfeiffer said. "You try to teach your kids it's okay to be angry if you can channel it in a constructive way."

Her children haven't been to a theater to see her; their concept of Mommy's job is that she "plays dress-up."

And the kids won't be seeing A Thousand Acres at all. Borrowing from King Lear, it's R-rated and tearful, if not harrowing.

"There are adult movies and kid movies and family movies, and this is an adult movie," Pfeiffer said.

For all its weight, A Thousand Acres has surprising humor. Pfeiffer slipped into a sneak preview and was surprised by the reactions.

"People were laughing in places I never anticipated, all through the movie," she said.

"I was so relieved. It needs that. It's too dark not to have humor."

But the shoot was tough because she was "staying in character too much: I was really grouchy, in a bad mood all the time."

That's less of a problem on location, "where you don't have the everyday stress of running your house and whatever else," Pfeiffer said.

Even so, she'd rather work in Los Angeles, or not work at all and just stay at home.

"I like doing everyday stuff and being with the family," Pfeiffer said. "I like just having a life."