As half of the most famous gay couple in the country, Portia de Rossi is still working to decipher the mixed messages American culture is sending her way right now.
On the one hand, the actress' marriage to talk-show queen Ellen DeGeneres has won enough popular acceptance that tabloids speculate about whether De Rossi will soon bear the couple's first child through in vitro fertilization. The rumors -- which she repeatedly has denied -- provoked good-natured exasperation from De Rossi during a recent visit to the downtown Los Angeles set of her new ABCcomedy "Better Off Ted," which premieres Wednesday. Nonetheless, she's pleased that questions about her family planning merit the same sort of extravagant attention straight celebrities deal with every day.
But De Rossi, born 36 years ago in Australia as Amanda Rogers (she chose her stage name -- Portia is the heiress who begs Shylock for mercy in "The Merchant of Venice" -- as a teenager), also can't ignore that she lives in a state where last summer's wedding would not be legal today. The morning of Nov. 5, she awoke to learn that voters had narrowly approved Proposition 8, which eliminated the rights of same-sex couples to marry in California. The measure is under review by the California Supreme Court, which is not expected to reverse it.
"I cried," she immediately replied, about her reaction to the voters' decision. "I just remember being so excited when Obama was elected, it was just such an amazing moment . . . I just remember going to bed thinking, 'Prop. 8? . . .And I woke up in the morning to the news that it passed. And I -- I was shocked and I was deeply saddened."
She firmly believes that legal gay marriage is only a matter of time. But when asked whether Prop. 8 will eventually affect the lawful status of her marriage, doubt creeps in.
"It still stands," she said of the marriage. "Maybe it could be, it could be overturned. But I just -- I just. . . ." Her voice trailed off as she sat in her dressing room and toyed with a plastic water bottle.
"I don't know," she said softly. "I just really think that when people really understand that this is a human rights issue and that there are a percentage of people living in this country that don't have the same rights as everybody else, I think that people will be compelled to make sure that they live in a country where every single citizen has the same rights."
What she does feel sure of is that her sexual orientation has not hindered her career in any way, since she was "outed" earlier this decade after gossip columns buzzed that she was seeing singer Francesca Gregorini. Previously, De Rossi had briefly been married to a male filmmaker. She and De Generes met at a photo shoot several years ago.
Meanwhile, her elegant good looks -- she was named No. 24 of the 100 Sexiest Women compiled in 2004 by Maxim, the ultimate "laddie" magazine -- and sharp comic timing have made her a specialist in playing patrician ice queens. As a child, she did some modeling, and later left law school to pursue acting. She had her breakthrough role in the Australian comedy "Sirens" in 1994, but most Americans first noticed her as the elitist Nelle Porter on "Ally McBeal." She followed that up with the cult sitcom "Arrested Development," playing Lindsay Bluth, the shallow daughter of a socially prominent and hopelessly dysfunctional family.
Back to prime time
Now comes "Better Off Ted," a workplace comedy that De Rossi hopes will find a broader audience than did "Arrested Development," despite the generally grim environment for most network comedies these days. Jay Harrington plays the title character, a research and development chief for a remarkably amoral conglomerate called Veridian Dynamics (in the pilot, the firm decides to use cryonics on one of its scientists "just to see if it's possible"). De Rossi is Veronica, Ted's uptight boss. ABC has put the show in the 8:30 p.m. slot between "Scrubs" -- a recent sitcom import from NBC -- and " Lost." It's a time slot when no rival network is overly strong.
De Rossi praised "Arrested Development" for the tenacity of its small but loyal audience (the cast and producers have agreed to reunite for a feature movie, but she said, "We kind of have all decided not to talk about it" yet). But "Arrested Development" "didn't have the broad appeal that this show, I think, will have . . . It has that rhythm that we find in more traditional sitcoms.
"It's very, very well written, and the characters are so well-defined that -- you know how in the old sitcoms, the characters would just walk out on stage and people would get ready to laugh? I think we have a little bit of that, I'm hoping."
Before casting her, Victor Fresco, "Better Off Ted's" executive producer, whose credits include "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" and "Mad About You," had only passing familiarity with De Rossi's work. "I was outside the 'Ally McBeal' demographic," he said wryly, a nod to that show's popularity among young women. But the actress' assertiveness made an impression. "She was completely confident that she was born to play this role," he said.
"Better Off Ted" completed shooting its 13 ordered episodes at Los Angeles Center Studios, a mammoth production facility just west of downtown that looks, upon entering from the street, like a deserted industrial park. Which is exactly what it is: The studio is anchored by the old Unocal building erected in 1958, and it has lent its vintage corporate ambience to such series as AMC's " Mad Men."
De Rossi, her iPhone ever in hand when not performing, seemed a bit overwhelmed by a series of endless interruptions on a recent busy shooting day but remained otherwise upbeat and personable, even when yanked into an unscheduled rehearsal tucked into a corner of a cavernous soundstage. "I love to work," she said. "I really enjoy getting up really early and driving downtown. I just really love the process of acting and being on a series."
She's quite thin, but not alarmingly so (De Rossi suffered from anorexia in the past, which she has blamed in part on trying to keep up with her fellow actresses on "Ally McBeal"). So if she is pregnant, as some bloggers seem eager to believe, she may be doing one of her finest acting jobs ever.
"Believe me, I think motherhood would be amazing and exciting and wonderful, but it isn't really something that's on the immediate horizon for us," she said. "How this IVF rumor started, I really, really have no idea. But I can tell you that it is definitely not happening in the near future . . . It's great that Ellen and I are a gay couple and people are open-minded enough to talk about us having a family. The only thing I'm trying to avoid by denying it is, I just don't want those horrible pictures in magazines where they circle your stomach and point and go 'baby bump!' "
On the whole, though, she has few complaints about how she and her new spouse have been treated, either in the media or by the public.
"I'm with Ellen every day, and I know how loved she is," she said. "So it makes sense that people want her to be happy and want to see her happily married. She's incredible, and everybody is drawn to her, and she makes people very happy, and I think they want that for her. So in that sense, it didn't surprise me that people were interested about it. But I think what touched me the most was that people really celebrated this marriage.
"People magazine put us on the cover when we got married. And that felt like something big happened," De Rossi said. "That felt really good to me, that they could show two very happy gay people . . . I feel like we kind of get all the same stuff that any heterosexual couple would get in the public eye. And that is great, that is wonderful -- including the baby bump."