Katherine Heigl was in a rush.
One late October afternoon, the 35-year-old actress had just finished shooting a scene for her new NBC thriller, "State of Affairs," where she plays a CIA briefer who has a tangled professional and personal history with the president she serves, played by Alfre Woodard.
Then, with no time even to finish a lunch salad in a to-go container, Heigl hustled across the Universal lot to an editing room, where she offered notes on some footage that had just been put together for a different episode.
In addition to her acting, Heigl serves as an executive producer on the series. She jokes that she didn't even know what "POTUS" meant before she started work on the show (it's the abbreviation Washington insiders use for the president of the United States). But she's come to appreciate the complexities of high-level intelligence work.
"I wanted to show a side of the CIA we don't often see in film and television," Heigl said. "These people's lives are complicated."
Heigl has learned a bit about having a complicated life and career. "State of Affairs," which premieres Monday, is her first return to series television since 2010, when she exited ABC's hit medical soap "Grey's Anatomy" amid a cloud of acrimony.
Heigl publicly criticized the show's writing as not worth her applying for Emmy consideration again, after she had already won the top acting prize as the lovelorn Dr. Izzie Stevens for the previous season. Earlier this year, "Grey's" creator, Shonda Rhimes, attacked Heigl by name in a Hollywood Reporter interview and said she didn't have time for "nasty people."
That was not the only bridge burned. Heigl — who was raised in the Mormon faith — found film stardom in Judd Apatow's raunchy 2007 romantic comedy "Knocked Up," playing a career woman who gets pregnant after a one-night stand. Her salary zoomed from the low six figures to a reported $12 million per picture. But she soured many in Hollywood by calling "Knocked Up" "a little sexist ... I had a hard time with it on some days."
News stories depicted Heigl as a diva and suggested that she and her mother, Nancy, who has long served as her business partner, personal manager and advisor, alienated colleagues with their behind-the-scenes demands. (Asked about such allegations, Nancy replied via email: "Of course it's hurtful when people think the worst of you. … If any of my actions have been perceived as being difficult then I apologize to whoever felt that way.")
Heigl's public profile began to fade — partly, she now says, by personal choice as she spent more time with her husband and two young daughters. By last year she was appearing, uncredited, in a commercial for the ZzzQuil sleep aid.
Now she wants to move past the mistakes she made in her 20s.
"I was naive and I didn't realize the impact … about, like, making one comment here and this comment there," she said. "Getting self-righteous about this over here. I still didn't really quite understand the impact that could have."
She said she is "growing a thicker skin and just trying to stay focused on what I love about this business and what I love about my job."
"State of Affairs," which she helped shepherd for three years, is among other things a test of whether she can get back in Hollywood's good graces. And many of her current colleagues sound eager to give Heigl the chance.
"Katie possesses the least-earned bad reputation of anybody I have ever worked with in my life," said Joe Carnahan, the writer-producer of NBC's hit high-tech crime thriller "The Blacklist" who serves as the show runner on "State of Affairs."
"She speaks her mind and she is not somebody who is plugged directly into a PR machine and spits out audience-friendly sound bites," he added. But "she's been an absolute trouper. She has been working her butt off without a single complaint, and that crew loves her."
Woodard agreed: "She's probably the chillest person on our set. … There probably was a beef between her and a couple of people, but that's for them to deal with."
What seems certain is that "State of Affairs" probably wouldn't have been made at all if not for Heigl.
The show is part of a Hollywood vogue for high-stakes geopolitical dramas set in Washington. Showtime's "Homeland" proved that the behind-the-scenes tribulations of the American counter-terrorism effort could make for compelling drama. Earlier this season, CBS rolled out "Madam Secretary," with Tea Leoni as a U.S. secretary of State juggling familiar working-mom dilemmas with international crises.
The project that became "State of Affairs" started when Rodney Faraon, a former CIA briefer who had worked with presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, teamed up with Hank Crumpton, an espionage expert who had written a 2012 bestseller called "The Art of Intelligence."
"We were approached by a number of people in Hollywood to try to do something creatively" about their high-level spy work, Faraon said.
They decided to create their own new project based on their career experiences. The pair teamed with Robert Simonds, a veteran film producer and the founder of STX Entertainment. Simonds, who had been working with the Heigls on some feature ideas, presented the idea of a spy series as a possible TV return for Katherine, according to Faraon.
The former "Grey's" star said she wasn't too sure at first about a return to the grind.
"I just didn't think that I really wanted to go back to a television schedule," she said. "I was loving my downtime and [I] was living up in Utah, and TV is a real commitment," she said. (She and her husband, rock musician Josh Kelley, have two adopted daughters.) "I thought maybe that I'd just get involved producing, but not necessarily be in it."
She changed her mind, though, after realizing the dramatic possibilities in the stories Faraon and Crumpton retold. Over time the creative team developed a storyline that involved Heigl's CIA briefer, Charleston Tucker, as working for a president (Woodard) who at one point was poised to become her mother-in-law.
NBC was sold on the premise and, hoping for another "Blacklist," brought Carnahan in to oversee the project.
"We felt it had all the drama of a high-stakes, ripped-from-the-headlines action thriller," said Jennifer Salke, NBC's entertainment president. "But it was also very character-driven and dealt with an ongoing mystery."
Now, "State of Affairs" has to deliver in the ratings department.
But Heigl, emboldened by her experience behind the camera this time, is already looking ahead.
"I'll tell you, I would love, love, love to get into producing more," she said after arriving at the editing room on the Universal lot. "This has been an incredible opportunity for me to learn as I go. These guys have been so incredibly supportive.
"There's so many stories to tell," she added. "I would love to be telling them but not necessarily performing them."