By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
She enters the room in a knit that fits, the kind of dress with a place for everything. Lipstick the color of a valentine. The doors to the balcony are thrown open and she exhales, "Great, I can smoke," and pulls one from the pack and you think, carbon monoxide might not be so bad. She was raised Mormon, but she's drinking coffee by the gallon, and for the next hour Katherine Heigl is happy to ride the buzz and talk about raunchy jokes, humorless shrews, breast size and God's infinite mysteries.
We're here because Heigl might be the new It Girl. She was just on the cover of Vanity Fair, where she continues to scandalize the town by having opinions. Hollywood is still searching for someone to call America's sweetheart, a fresh peach to replace the beloved but semi-retired Julia Roberts, the cold and calculating Reese Witherspoon, someone like Jennifer Aniston or Cameron Diaz, but shiny and new -- and not ground down to a nub by time and the tabloids.
Heigl is 29 years old and starring in "27 Dresses," which opens nationwide on Friday. It's about a plainish Jane who is forever the bridesmaid, never the bride. This is Heigl's first traditional romantic comedy, if you don't count "Knocked Up" as a traditional romantic comedy because it is filthy (it also did $148 million in domestic box office). In her spare time, Heigl is also Dr. Isobel "Izzie" Stevens, the button-nosed former goody two-shoes on the top-rated "Grey's Anatomy," a role that won Heigl an Emmy.
She's striking a lighter. "It's so stupid. I started when I was like 22 or 23, and I had my first cigarette at a bar one night, and I was like mmm." She makes a nice mmm face. "I'll try this. I can have just one. I am not gonna get addicted. Then you start bumming. I'm bumming. I don't buy my own packs. I'm not addicted."
Then you're borrowing like 10 a day.
"Then you go through something that is hard or difficult or stressful and you buy your first pack and it's all over," Heigl says. Kids -- please, pay attention. "And now it's all about how you're going to quit," she says. "I've tried everything."
She issues a throaty, delicious, pre-cancerous laugh.
"I've tried Wellbutrin," a drug also used to treat depression, "which made me really happy while I smoked. Tried the patch. Tried gum. I hate the gum. It burns my mouth. I think I have to quit the old-fashioned way."
Cold turkey. Carrot sticks. Short fuse. Etc.
She has been smoking during this whole conversation. She mentions, by the way, that her good friend T.R. Knight, who plays fellow intern George on "Grey's Anatomy," quit smoking recently. How proud she is.
Knight, you may recall, was reportedly subjected to a homosexual slur by fellow thespian Isaiah Washington in an on-set altercation (hissy fit) with co-star Patrick Dempsey, a.k.a. "McDreamy." Washington denied uttering the slur, but while denying it (in front of reporters backstage at the Golden Globes last year), he used the word again (a classic). At the time, an exasperated Heigl told "Access Hollywood" that Washington "needs to just not speak in public." In the pages of Entertainment Weekly, she called him "thoughtless and boneheaded." Washington was relieved of his duties. And suddenly, Heigl became known as a gal with opinions (vs. the usual blank stare), though the label really says more about the blandness of most entertainers, because, after all, what did Heigl really do but suggest that you shouldn't call people names, especially at awards shows?
Heigl gets up for another cup. "Want some?" We tend to forget, or we never really knew, that Heigl has been in the business a long time. A child model, then child actor, then teen actor. She starred in "Bride of Chucky" and "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory." She did a lot of mediocre TV movies.
After she graduated from New Canaan High School in Connecticut, Heigl and her mom drove west. "We put all our [stuff] in the car, and the dog, and us, and I had really high hopes. I really did." She laughs at the memory. Silly girl. "And it was nothing like what I thought it would be. Nope. L.A. is a totally different universe. It's a beast."
She says Hollywood has a kind of default setting when confronted with an actress such as Heigl. "You're the blonde," she says. "Or the cheerleader. Or the girl friend. It would have been really easy to fall back on the blonde and the bra size and just do that for the rest of my career."
But there's always someone, blonder or, you know, bigger.
"There are a lot of pretty girls in this town," she says, slurring the words "a lot."
This whole time you're living with your mother?
She relights. Her hair is a freshly fluffed pillow. "We lived in an apartment in Woodland Hills for a couple years. Then Mom bought a house in Calabasas. I was her roommate and I paid rent, or whatever, but no matter, you're still living in your mom's house. You're still following her rules. By about 22 I realized I should probably be doing some of this on my own. Like my own laundry. And I probably shouldn't have a curfew. I needed to grow up. It was actually very hard and scary for me. I think my mother was more relieved, and I was clinging to what I knew."
Her mother, Nancy Heigl, is also her business partner and manager, which is not unusual when an actress is 10 years old and performing in Cheerios commercials, but very unusual when an actress is attempting to scale the A-list.
So your mom is an evil puppet master, an Ari Gold in Talbots?
Heigl snorts. "The scary momanager," she squeaks in mock horror. "No, I've always respected my mother, her intellect, her savvy, her courage. I haven't met that many people like my mother."
The key to their success? "There was never a time in her life when my mother ever wanted this -- this profession -- for herself. So there's no agenda. There's no living vicariously through me. My mother hates having her photograph taken. When they cut to her at the Emmys she was horrified. . . . So there is none of that weird competition, do you know what I mean?"
She says, "Here's someone who's not going to sell me down the river."
When "Knocked Up" was released, Heigl suggested that her character, Alison Scott, was the stiff, tense, overachieving shrew to Seth Rogen's bong-sucking, fun-loving boy-man. Heigl suggested it was, you know, a little sexist, maybe, that the guys get all the jokes, and the gals are always the buzz kill.
She remembers on the set of the film there "were a lot of moments where I screwed up takes because I was laughing so much. Their humor, however raunchy and base it is, really, I love that humor. But I couldn't play the girl who thought they were funny. I had to play the girl who was telling them to grow up!"
She explains: "My comedy came from the naggy, really ambitious, exaggerated female character. We all know women like that. But it's an exaggeration. I'm not that woman. I'm more the girl who wants to chill with the guys at their pad. Well, not that pad. That pad was disgusting."
The nag. "Uggg," she says. "I hate the nag. Most of my friends are funny, witty, intelligent and beautiful women, so it's not that unusual, a pretty girl being funny, is it? But for some reason in this town, they really like to compartmentalize, so you're either the character actor who is funny or you're the pretty girl in the movie."
We wonder whether they also treat Heigl like a Mormon. Apparently not. "If I were a still super-practicing strict Mormon, then people would be a little more cautious around me, but unfortunately I'm fairly vulgar, and I smoke and I drink coffee and I drink alcohol and I love to talk about religion."
Heigl's family converted to Mormonism after the death of her brother, who was killed while riding in the back of a pickup truck when Katherine was 7. "It's something that interests people because it's one of those religions that don't really fit into Hollywood," she says. "But it did a lot to save our family." How so? "What appeals to me is that love goes on and continues. It doesn't mean that after death it's the end of this person you loved and cherish. Because then you're living in a world of what the hell is the point? . . . I've always thought that there is a beautiful balance within the Mormon religion, where they believe in some very solid answers, but there is also a lot left unknown. There aren't answers in this lifetime."
Does she still go to church? "I haven't gone in really long time," Heigl says, but notes that "we still pray over our meals. I still say a prayer every night before I go to bed. I talk to God all the time. He doesn't really talk back all that much. But every once in a while I get an inkling of something. Atheists or agnostics can tell me I'm crazy and it's just my safety blanket and need to believe. I'm okay with that. I am. Why not? Why should I live my life afraid and alone if I found something that comforts me?"
Which leads Heigl, at the end of the hour, to turn to her assigned subject: weddings. Which reminds her -- she is still drinking coffee and smoking -- how when she lost a role in "Wedding Crashers" she thought her career had stalled. "I was just about to call it quits," she says. Instead she got hired for "Grey's Anatomy," which was funny "because I had never wanted to do a medical drama." She lowers her voice, "I never even watched 'ER'! " Oh, and she's also getting married herself -- to singer-songwriter Josh Kelley. (They would wed on Dec. 23 at a ski lodge outside Park City, Utah).
Now she's talking about her new romantic comedy, "27 Dresses," and mulls the question of why her character, Jane, is such a doormat.
"Jane wants to be the victim. It's much safer for her to be put upon than to actually go after what she wants and fail," she says. Then she quotes Dr. Phil in saying that "you teach people how to treat you."
Jane does everything for everyone else. "I almost felt like Jane was the villain," Heigl says, and that is an interesting idea. "It was important to me for her not to be too much of the victim. This girl had some edge. She had some reasons."
Heigl waves her arm in the air. "But it's a romantic comedy. It's a real chick flick. It's the kind of movie I love and try to go see every chance I can get. But you know," she says, and you've got to like this part, "there's not a ton of profoundness about it."