“The Secret” changed Katherine Heigl’s life. Well, rather, the script for the movie based on “The Secret” that Heigl didn’t actually end up starring in changed her life. “I had always kind of pooh-poohed it,” she said. “And then I read the script about six or seven years ago, and there was something about it that resonated with me. This idea that we sort of bring about what we think most about.”
Reading “The Secret” led to reading books on manifestation, intention work, mysticism, crystals and witchcraft. “It's gone in many different directions,” said Heigl, who was raised in the Mormon faith. “But what it’s mostly helped me discover is, I'm in control. I just feel happier than I did at 35, at 25.”
Tucked inside a small room at her sprawling Utah ranch for this video interview, Heigl radiates warmth. Partly because she’s swaddled in a cowl-necked sweater and partly because her whole body shakes with laughter or rocks with an emphatic nod at a particularly groan-worthy memory. She’s the first to bring up some of the less savory headlines that have plagued her career and doesn’t shy away from answering whatever questions are lobbed at her, pausing occasionally to sip from a thermos before delivering a new zinger.
“I may have said a couple of things you didn’t like, but then that escalated to ‘she’s ungrateful,’ then that escalated to ‘she’s difficult,’ and that escalated to ‘she’s unprofessional,’ ” she said. “What is your definition of difficult? Somebody with an opinion that you don’t like? Now, I’m 42, and that s--- pisses me off.”
The passage of time has been on Heigl’s mind lately. Her new series “Firefly Lane” arrives Feb. 3 on Netflix, and sees Heigl play fictional talk-show host Tully Hart in her 40s and — through the magic of CGI and soft lighting — her early 20s. “There’s no way I’m pulling off 20 and 22, okay?” she said.
Based on the book by Kristin Hannah, “Firefly Lane” dives beyond the superficial as it follows Tully and her best friend, Kate, (played by “Scrubs” star Sarah Chalke) through the decades, charting all the trials and tribulations that such longevity brings. It’s a comforting escape of a show, centered on female friendship in all its messy glory.
“Any relationship that has stood the test of that kind of time is going to have moments of fallout, and if it doesn't, that means somebody is not being honest,” she said. “Somebody is not being allowed to grow, and somebody is not creating boundaries.”
The way Heigl discusses the relationship between Tully and Kate — a bond that includes fights, periods of not speaking to each other and betrayal — could also describe Heigl's tumultuous relationship with Hollywood itself.
Yes, she did brand her 2007 Judd Apatow comedy “Knocked Up” “a little sexist” and lamented that it painted women as uptight “shrews.” Yes, one year after winning an Emmy for her role as Izzie Stevens on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Heigl abstained from 2008 awards consideration because she “did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination.” And yes, she complained about working a 17-hour day on “Grey’s” in 2009, when her own schedule was possibly to blame. It was a spate of comments and actions that many decided collectively painted a picture of the worst kind of woman: a difficult one.
“At the time, I was just quickly told to shut the f--- up. The more I said I was sorry, the more they wanted it,” she said. “The more terrified and scared I was of doing something wrong, the more I came across like I had really done something horribly wrong.”
(The only time Heigl issued an apology during this interview was for her periodic swearing, admitting, “I haven't yet addressed that particular issue.”)
But as the years have passed and the world has changed, there seems to be a growing realization that maybe, just maybe, the Heigl backlash outweighed the crime. In a post-#MeToo world, in a post-Trump world, is it not laughable that so much grief was given to a woman for speaking her mind?
“She has very strong convictions and strong opinions on certain things, and she doesn’t back down from letting you know if she feels like she’s been wronged in any way,” said James Marsden, her “27 Dresses” co-star and friend. “I’ve always seen that as just strength of character. I can see how that can get construed as being difficult or ungrateful or whatever. But if you know Katie, it’s simply because she has the courage to stand behind something she believes.”
And if Heigl’s transgressions happened now, it’s hard to imagine the public reaction playing out in quite the same way. “If she said [some of it] today, she’d be a hero,” her husband of 13 years, the singer Josh Kelley, said in a separate phone interview.
Still, the persistence of the more-than-a-decade-old stigma hasn’t been helped by the fact that “Grey’s Anatomy” is a specter that never goes away. As the show has plunged ahead through 17 seasons, its off-camera drama gets regurgitated ad nauseam. And this season, “Grey’s” has trotted out past stars for top-secret returns, including T.R. Knight and Patrick Dempsey. But Heigl is unsure if she would ever reappear as Izzie. “I could never say never,” she said. “I think it would just be completely dependent upon the team over there, how they feel about it, and the story.”
After she left the series in 2010, Heigl believes her own team shielded her from knowing about any roles she may have lost out on because of her anointed reputation, fearing such news could have sent her “right over the edge.” But she thinks if she had kept making hits, the tabloid drama wouldn’t have made a career impact.
“You can be the most awful, difficult, horrible person on the planet, but if you're making them money, they're going to keep hiring you,” she said. “I knew that whatever they felt I had done that was so awful, they would overlook it if I made them money — but then my films started to make not quite as much money.”
Following her romantic comedy successes with “27 Dresses” in 2008, “The Ugly Truth” in 2009, and “Life As We Know It” in 2010, box office returns on films like “One for the Money” and “Killers” were meager. She went on to chart multiple “TV comebacks” with the short-lived “State of Affairs” and “Doubt,” and joined the final two seasons of “Suits” after Meghan Markle’s departure. But “Firefly Lane” is the first of these small-screen projects that actually feels like a return to form, and Heigl has her “fingers, toes, everything crossed” that it gets at least three seasons.
The most crushing shift, Heigl said, was the change in fans' perception of her. Perhaps that's why she now constantly replies to strangers' comments on social media, whether it’s
“It took me a long time to feel confident enough to read their comments because I just assumed the worst,” she said. “Now, it feels like a little community. I've tried to rebuild that trust with my fans through social media, show them more of who I am off camera.”
During the “shunning,” as Heigl referred to that onslaught of backlash in the late aughts, the anxiety she had struggled with since her teenage years began to spiral. She had married Kelley in December 2007 and they adopted their daughter Naleigh from South Korea in 2009, increasingly spending time at the ranch they built together near Park City, Utah. But as the public narrative continued to spin out, Heigl couldn’t escape her thoughts.
“I think my family, my mother, my husband, my friends were scared. And I regret deeply that I scared them like that. But I just couldn't control it. I had no tools,” she said, adding that mental health issues were rarely discussed in her family.
Kelley remembers being “very worried” despite Heigl's thick skin and outwardly confident persona.
“I can't imagine what all of that pressure did to her over the years, dealing with celebrity, dealing with people saying things about her that are not true,” he said. “It would be hard for anybody to process that, especially when it's unjust and a lot of it's negative.”
In 2015, the year before she became pregnant with their son, Joshua Jr., Heigl's anxiety spiked again, but it wasn't until another flare-up a year after his birth that she began regularly seeing a therapist, got diagnosed and put on medication.
“I asked my mom and my husband to find me somewhere to go that could help me because I felt like I would rather be dead,” she said. “I didn't realize how much anxiety I was living with until I got so bad that I had to really seek help. You can do a lot of inner soul work, but I'm a big fan of Zoloft.”
She’s helped maintain her balance by staying firmly rooted in Utah except when she’s filming. It’s where she and Kelley have chosen to raise their children: Naleigh, 12; Adalaide, 8, adopted in 2012; and Joshua Jr., 4.
But Heigl's countryside serenity was shattered following the death of George Floyd in May. As America grappled with a racial reckoning, Heigl shared a series of lengthy Instagram posts expressing her “sorrow” and “rage” at the police officers involved and wondering how she would be able to “explain the unexplainable” to her daughter Adalaide, who is Black.
“There is not a ton of diversity in Utah, and that was not something we even thought of because we were living in our White bubble and just kind of thinking ‘love is love,’ ” Heigl said. “It was a very big eye opener. I took to seeking advice and counsel from those who are more steeped in this experience and staying up at night trying to figure out how the hell do I have this conversation with my kids?”
Here, Heigl became choked up. “I know every mother of a child who has to have this conversation must feel the same, and they're probably, like, 'Suck it up, Heigl. This is what has to be done.' But it feels like taking a piece of their soul.”
At one point during this interview, the video link disconnected. There had been at least two publicists listening in, but it’s Nancy Heigl whom Katherine was most concerned about losing contact with during the outage. “I was like, ‘Mom, Mom, are you still there?’” she fretted.
It’s Nancy, in dual roles as mother and manager, who has been the constant, formidable presence throughout Heigl’s life. It was Nancy who helped the family pick up the shattered pieces when Heigl’s 15-year-old brother died in a car accident when Heigl was just 7 years old growing up in New Canaan, Conn. And Nancy who has overseen Heigl’s career that began with childhood modeling gigs and dreams of following in Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan’s romantic comedy footsteps. It’s also Nancy who has been accused of being “difficult” alongside Heigl and, as Heigl admitted in a recent birthday tribute, who some “would say [is] an extraordinary pain in the a--."
“Nobody can protect you better than my mother. She is fierce,” Heigl said. “She has no fear of anybody in power. I realize a lot of young women did not and do not have that. I wish I could loan her out.”
In 2007, the duo formed their own production company called Abishag with the prescient knowledge that by the time Heigl turned “40 or 45 it will be a different career,” as Nancy told Vanity Fair in 2008. “There will be many young women coming up, and as an actress, you really don’t have that much control.”
Heigl is determined to stay at the wheel. She's slated to star in and executive produce a limited series about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for U.S. president in 1872, and she also serves as an executive producer on “Firefly Lane.”
“I spent a lot of years just being the actor hired,” Heigl said. “I feel now I have enough experience and enough wisdom to have a voice, to collaborate about character, about story, about cast. It's about having a seat at the table.”
Marsden, for one, isn’t surprised Heigl has sought out executive roles: “One element of Katie that I’ve always thought would define her was her drive. I never thought that she was going to be one that idles well. She’s not going to sit there. She’s going to take control and do it her way.”
At home in Utah, Heigl and Kelley have been riding out the pandemic in relative isolation. Between videoing Kelley, the kids and her own delirious antics, she’s taken on the role of family organizer. She’s thrown herself full force into watercolor painting and bingeing “Bridgerton.” And there are periodic virtual happy hours with the “Firefly Lane” cast and crew, which co-star Chalke — who said Heigl is “somebody I will be friends with for life” — cherishes in the absence of her and Heigl’s ritual breaks sipping chaga mushroom tea together on the Vancouver set.
“I think she has found the person that she truly is, and she’s found her way to be that person with the world,” Kelley said. “She just seems more at ease with family, career, and life itself, and I’m really super proud of her for that.”
Heigl concurs. “I’ve grown into accepting that ambition is not a dirty word, and that it doesn’t make me less of a feminine, loving, nurturing woman to be ambitious and have big dreams and big goals. It’s easier to be happy because I have a little more gentleness for myself.”
Just before Heigl signs off, I ask if she’d prefer everyone call her “Katie” instead of Katherine, following Anne Hathaway’s recent revelation that she’d like the world to know her as “Annie.”
“Whichever you prefer,” Heigl said, then added with a laugh, “Just don’t call me difficult.”
Ashley Spencer is a freelance writer and reporter whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. Follow her at @AshleyySpencer.