‘We Were Naive’
Yes, them again. Well, maybe not again, since “this is the first time we’re going to sit for a photograph together,” says Ellen DeGeneres--comedian, actress and former star of her own sitcom, “Ellen.” These days DeGeneres is best known as one half, with partner Anne Heche, of Hollywood’s most scrutinized couple, a relationship whose timing coincided (happily) with the coming out of DeGeneres’ character, Ellen Morgan, on her series and (less happily) with the release of “Volcano,” Heche’s first big-budget studio film.
Now, six months after ABC canceled “Ellen” following an acrimonious final season, the actresses are reemerging with a spate of new films. Heche is co-starring in “Psycho,” the Gus Van Sant remake of the Hitchcock classic, and DeGeneres, who hosted the VH1 Fashion Awards earlier this month--her first professional appearance since “Ellen"--will be seen in three upcoming movies, including “Goodbye Lover” in December and “edTV,” the new Ron Howard comedy, next spring.
Which is not to say the couple’s relationship has set well with everyone in Hollywood. Even in 1998, many in the entertainment industry remain intolerant of homosexuality, says Brian Grazer, producer of “Psycho” and “edTV.”
“A hit, a movie that opens to $25 million, helps,” he says. “But there is a threshold of prejudice that is real.” For the first time since “Ellen’s” cancellation, the couple sat down for an interview, chatting for 2 1/2 hours in the living room of their Spanish-style Hancock Park home.
“Of course, it will only remind people that we’re gay and in love,” DeGeneres says of this article, adding, with a rueful smile, “and ‘thrusting it in everyone’s face.’ ”
Question: What’s been happening since “Ellen” was canceled last spring?
DeGeneres: Everything that I ever feared happened to me. I lost my show. I’ve been attacked like hell. I went from making a lot of money on a sitcom to making no money.
Heche: And I was told I would never work again.
DeGeneres: And we just went, “OK, we don’t have any income . . . . Do we play the game or do we not play the game?”
Q: It looks like you’re trying to play the Hollywood game now. You have all these movies opening. You’re both obviously working. And before “Six Days, Seven Nights,” that seemed open to question.
Heche: That role [as a heterosexual love interest] was such a huge thing. “Can Anne pull it off?” Of all the things to question about my doing that movie. How about that I had never done a comedy before? But, God bless Harrison [Ford], because if he hadn’t fought for me, I wouldn’t have gotten to do that role. And, really, God bless Ivan [Reitman, director], because as many fights as we had--which were daily--he did allow me to do the movie.
Q: Did that film prove you weren’t box-office poison?
Heche: (lighting a cigarette) Well, I can’t say the offers are pouring in. But I kind of thought all that might be over until just this week. I got a script that I absolutely adore and learned that Fox won’t hire me because they still have this bitterness about the timing of my falling in love with Ellen and the opening of “Volcano.” I have my own opinions about why that movie didn’t do well, as anybody with half a brain would, but they want to blame it on somebody. I won’t say doors are shut for me. I know there are studios that will hire me (laughing). I don’t know where those scripts are from those studios, but I don’t think there is a rule against me like there is at Fox. So I have started to do other things.
DeGeneres: (grabbing Heche’s hand) She’s written three scripts in two months, and then, out of the blue, she got this offer to direct for Showtime.
Heche: The hesitancy around me as an actress has allowed me to expand in [new] directions. I thought I would--just not so soon. I’m not one of those people who fantasizes anymore about being the pretty girl in a romantic comedy. I’m a chameleon, not a consistent personality in a film, so regardless of my life with Ellen, I would have had a different career than what some people were hoping I would have.
Q: Ellen, it seems like you’re trying to become a film actress despite the failure of your first movie, “Mr. Wrong,” a couple of years ago.
DeGeneres:"Mr. Wrong” is not the movie I would have liked to make my debut in, but I’ve seen worse movies, and people still work after them. So when the show stopped, I thought, well, I’ll just go into movies. But for some reason, people decided “Let’s not give her another movie.” So thank God for Ron Howard and “edTV.”
Q: How did you like playing someone other than Ellen Morgan?
DeGeneres: I really do miss Ellen Morgan, and I’m not a chameleon like Anne is. But I’ve grown a lot seeing how fearless she is in film, and with “edTV,” I don’t know what happened, but there’s definitely a different personality up there.
Q: Whom do you play in the movie?
DeGeneres: (deadpan) Jamie Tarses [ABC’s president]. I play a network executive and I’m a woman, so I don’t know who else to compare myself to.
Heche: (laughing) We all draw on our personal experiences in whatever character we play. And people are raving.
DeGeneres: Everyone who’s seen it has called me. So maybe I can’t do what Anne does, but look at Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. I think I can do what they do.
Q: So now you’re an actress?
DeGeneres: Well, then I did another movie, “Love Letter,” and that was totally different. I play, ironically, the owner of a bookstore, and they curled my hair and I wear headbands a lot and those cutoff pants--what are they called?
Heche: Capris. And you look fabulous.
DeGeneres: I felt like I was in drag. I kept saying, no one will ever know I’m a lesbian now. But no, the offers aren’t pouring in for me either, even though there is a buzz starting about “edTV.” I called my agent and I said, “Can’t I get something from the buzz?” “Well, yeah, but people still want to see how it does.” But that’s not true. Matt Damon started getting a lot of work just from the buzz of “Rainmaker” before it came out. So it’s discouraging sometimes. And then I think, do I really want to read scripts and go fight for something that shoots in three months and sit in a trailer for hours? That’s not appealing to me. I’m not the kind of performer who needs to be hired in a film or TV series to make money. I turned down a huge amount of money to write a book about what’s happened and I made a good living doing stand-up. I can go back to that.
Heche: She’s starting to write her HBO special.
Q: You’re doing what Jerry Seinfeld did post-"Seinfeld”?
DeGeneres: I can’t even call it stand-up, because I can’t walk onstage and talk about airplanes anymore, or cats and dogs. I’m just so different. But my concern is that I’ll walk onstage and there’ll be 2,000 militant gays expecting me to spew “How dare they?” When I started writing, I was coming from a very angry place, but now I think that will be like a 10th of what I talk about. I’m also developing a new series with my last executive producer [Tim Doyle]. It’s not a sitcom; we’re trying something different, and I’d like to take it to HBO, but a couple of places are interested. Needless to say, I won’t take it to ABC.
Q: So “Ellen” ended as badly as it was reported?
DeGeneres: I won’t even look at the news on ABC anymore. Look, if they had just said, “We’re scared. We’re getting so much pressure from the Christian conservatives, we’re not going to promote ‘Ellen’ anymore.”
Q: So you’re still blaming the demise of “Ellen” on the network’s lack of promotion? Many people, including several critics, thought it was no longer funny.
DeGeneres: We had 36 million viewers for the coming-out episode, and we still had two episodes to air, and they didn’t advertise for the next two weeks. We had so much pressure, so much expectation on us for the next season, and I’ll fight anybody to this day who says the show was not good. We did some great episodes that last season, and someday their brilliance will be recognized.
Q: So you don’t think that your coming out affected the ratings at all?
DeGeneres: I know I alienated a group of people because I was gay and another group who don’t see the humor because they just saw the “gayness.” But for [ABC] not to take responsibility is just cowardly. The show had sunk and sunk and they wouldn’t make the decision to cancel or renew, and [ABC entertainment chairman] Stu Bloomberg wouldn’t even return my phone calls. And when I confronted him, he portrayed me in the press as such a bitch.
When I walked out of the studio after five years of working so hard, knowing I had been treated so disrespectfully for no other reason than I was gay, I just went into this deep, deep depression. And it’s not like any other networks have called: “OK, we don’t want you to play another openly gay person, but we think you’re talented, come talk to us.” No one called. *
Heche: Listen, there are people who have reputations for being such jerks in this business--we all know who they are--and it doesn’t hurt their careers.
DeGeneres:I hear stories from people who’ve gone on to work at other shows--and one writer I know is at this ABC show where the star is so difficult--and I’m sure you know who I’m talking about . . . .
Q: Drew Carey?
DeGeneres: (nodding) But the network just supports him and promotes his show.
Heche: As much as we don’t want to admit it, there is a fear about people who are openly gay, but nobody wants to admit it. So they come up with other reasons--"Her movie failed,” or “She’s difficult"--but the fact is, there is not complete acceptance of openly gay people playing anything other than openly gay characters.
Q: Come on, did you honestly think you could come out and not have it affect your careers?
Heche: Unfortunately, we thought the world was bigger than that, that Hollywood was bigger than that. We were naive and we’re reminded of that all the time.
DeGeneres:Her agent said the people who are going to [hurt you] the most are going to be gays. They’re the biggest hypocrites, the gays at the studios and the networks.
Heche: Yeah, that’s been interesting, because there are a lot of gay people in this industry--whether they are open or not. But try to get their support for you and they won’t do it. Like this out gay woman, who used to be an agent and now works at a studio, called me specifically to tell me not to go to the “Volcano” premiere with Ellen because it would ruin my career. I said, “Wait a minute, you’re the same women who is out and who came on to me how many times? I’m trying to help your cause, and you’re telling me this?”
Q: How do you explain the accusations by conservative groups such as the Family Research Council that Hollywood is masterminding a homosexual agenda?
DeGeneres: Hollywood isn’t launching that agenda. How could they be when they canceled my show, when they squashed me down? I think it’s those people who use God and religion to attack others, who take out those full-page ads about how you can change gay people who are responsible for the dark climate now. Why don’t they take out ads trying to prevent child abuse or help the homeless instead of attacking people they don’t agree with?
Heche: They’re the ones who picketed Matthew Shepard’s funeral. [Shepard, a gay college student, was brutally killed in Wyoming in October].
DeGeneres: (smiling): Well, they didn’t. That’s that freak Rev. Phelps in Kansas City whose congregation is basically his family, who teaches his grandchildren to say, “Fags deserve to die” and “AIDS cures fags.” He’s scary, but it’s the groups that take out those ads, whether they’re against gays or whoever, that are really responsible for this kind of hatred that exists today.
Q: Do you consider Shepard’s death any more significant than other recent hate crimes, such as James Byrd’s death in Texas earlier this year?
DeGeneres: These are the extreme cases--the abortion doctor who got shot, James Byrd who was killed by those white guys. Most people are appalled by those deaths. Even if people disagree, even if they don’t like abortion or homosexuals, most people don’t think they should be killed. But it’s a very dangerous place now. It’s one reason why we’re trying to do something with our celebrity to better the world. We speak at high schools, we go talk and try to educate people, we did the candlelight vigil for Matthew Shepard. As one of his friends said that day, “Whatever comes out of this, the price was too high to pay.” (Tearing up) I get so upset thinking about him.
Heche: (squeezing DeGeneres’ hand) The world doesn’t make it easy to spread a loving message these days. One of the things we can do is that we can make a few phone calls and get 5,000 people to show up and honor this poor boy who was murdered. I’m very proud of being able to do that. (Ellen leaves the room.)
Q: This activism is new for you.
Heche: When you discover discrimination for the first time, which I did with Ellen, there is no other calling except to be an activist.
Q: Do you consider yourself “gay” now, because for a while you wouldn’t say that.
Heche: (lighting another cigarette) I’ll say I’m gay until “gay” does not have a negative connotation. Do I have an attraction for other women? No, because I’m in love with Ellen. I am in a gay relationship, and that’s the best thing that ever happened to me. But I get slammed because I’m not the right kind of gay, because I didn’t grow up gay.
Q: You never thought you were gay growing up? Your father was a closeted homosexual who died of AIDS complications. Did you know he was gay when you were growing up?
Heche: I started to suspect he was when I was 12. But it’s a very different journey for someone who always knew he was gay but had no role models--especially for a Christian boy back then. I can only imagine how painful it was for him and why he got married when he was 19. It eventually destroyed him. No, I never thought I was gay until I met Ellen, but that’s my difference. It’s why I want to go beyond a gay consciousness and just make people OK with themselves. (Ellen comes back into the room with a bottle of water.)
Q: How’s that going? Your mother and sisters who are fundamentalist Christians are estranged from you because of your relationship with Ellen.
DeGeneres: As are just about all her friends.
Heche: It’s repulsive to me. And so, so sad, especially after my dad died, and then my brother [died] in a car accident, that you wouldn’t love and support the surviving family members.
Q: But Ellen’s mother has been very outspoken in her support of you two.
Heche: Her mom becomes the first non-gay spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, and my mom moves further and further away . . . . [shaking her head] She thinks she’s going to get into heaven for what she’s done.
DeGeneres: My mom’s really cool. She’s writing a book now about my life and her understanding of it and how she’s become an activist.
Q: A lot of feminists feel they’ve been put in an awkward position, having to defend Bill Clinton. What’s the difference between what he’s done and what, say, Gary Hart or Bob Packwood did?
DeGeneres: I don’t know. I just hope Clinton doesn’t get impeached. It would scare me to have a Republican president.
Q: What about Hillary? Have your opinions of her changed?
Heche: Strong women scare everybody.
DeGeneres: Look, nobody knows what Hillary’s deal is. Everybody feels badly for her, but it’s all speculation. It’s horrible to have to go out there and smile every day. I know how horrible that is. It’s humiliating.
Q: Like Hillary, you’re no fan of the media.
DeGeneres: It’s all about perception, and the media creates that. If the media decided to say, “Let’s put them back on top because they’re underdogs,” I guarantee you that studios would offer us jobs. But not one magazine has gotten behind us. For some reason, collectively they all decided, “Let’s not support them.” I can’t even look at magazines now.
Q: How do you explain that? You were on the cover of Time with a supportive story when you came out, and then you started showing up in places like the cover of Spy, and Esquire put Anne in the “Women We Love” issue and you in the . . . .
DeGeneres: (pointing at herself) “Women we don’t.” Yes, Anne is beautiful and sexy and we love her, but we’ll make fun of Ellen.
Heche: I threw it across the room. I could not believe it. We’re celebrating a new love, and they’re trying to pit us against each other. Not one magazine has taken the high road with us. People would come to the house, interview us and act so supportive, and then we’d read the article and they would just ream us.
Q: There’s been a lot of speculation about your relationship. People seem to think that you were genuinely in love for the first time, but that Anne is being manipulative.
Heche: It’s so sad for me. This is the first time I’ve been in love, and no one is saying, “Good for you, Anne, you had such a [bad] life--which I had.
DeGeneres: I don’t know what that says, that either she’s not that deep or that I’m not that worthy. Either way it’s insulting. I had a six-year [live-in] relationship before Anne, but people dismiss her as calculating.
Q: So what about all the rumors about your imminent breakup, that Anne and Vince Vaughn were having an affair during the filming of “Psycho?”
Heche: (looking at DeGeneres) We said if this comes up . . . .
DeGeneres: Actually, it was on “Return to Paradise,” and it was so offensive to me.
Heche: I was so furious. It’s that rip-'em-down attitude. Oh, she can’t really be gay . . . and no matter how we deny it . . . .
DeGeneres: It’s always “heatedly denied,” like there is something there.
Q: So what’s the deal?
DeGeneres: You can see in the movie, there are two really sexy scenes, and that’s hard enough for me to deal with when watching somebody I love. It’s her job, but it makes me physically ill. But because it’s so sexy and so real and because Vince is a friend and they have great chemistry together, it’s like, “of course there must be something going on.”
Q: Well, maybe after audiences see him kill her in “Psycho” that will end the rumors?
DeGeneres: I’ve seen the dailies and they’re incredible. But I did actually have a problem with it, that she’s part of this movie when we have such a problem with violence today. (Deadpan) I wish he could have just scared her, like jump at her with towels or something.
Q: So how do you deal with the rumors?
DeGeneres:(laughing) Now, we argue about whom it offends more.
Heche: I say it makes me look like I’m the kind of person who would have an affair.
DeGeneres: Yeah, but it makes me look like an idiot who wouldn’t know. So we’ve decided if Tom Cruise can sue over accusations that he’s gay . . . .
Heche: I’m going to sue for people thinking I’m straight.
DeGeneres: Maybe that’s the answer to our prayers.
Q: You’re crying poor, but this is a beautiful house you bought.
DeGeneres: I went from being on TV and making a huge paycheck to going back to stand-up. My business manager was thrilled when I said I was moving [from Beverly Hills] to this neighborhood.
Q: Why did you move?
DeGeneres: She [Heche] said, “This doesn’t feel like it’s my house.” So I said, “OK, I’ll sell it,” because I wanted her to feel it was her home, too.
Heche: I was homeless [growing up], and I’m proud of owning a home at 29. I have things I never imagined I would have, and we have a huge sense of pride about what we’ve created together. This is our sanctuary, so in the middle of everything, we could say “OK, OK, but did you see the new coffee table?”
Q: You have many beautiful things. (Their cat, Flower, runs into the room and begins scratching at the sofa)
DeGeneres: (laughing and grabbing for the cat) This is how we distress our furniture. If our decorator saw this . . . . But, you know, the meek shall inherit the earth, so we’re actually working our way down. In fact, if you want to buy anything while you’re here, a lot of it is for sale. This pillow, for example, is 17th century.
Q: But that outside wall with the razor wire looks like cutting-edge security. Are you still so concerned about your privacy that you turn down pictures of yourselves when repairmen come over?
Heche: Yeah, we still do that. We’ve influenced each other. I used to be the girl who kept all my doors open, and she’s taught me to become more responsible. But the fact that we’re even in this neighborhood--where we can walk to get coffee or go to dinner and people actually ring our doorbell--is because we had a real desire to stay normal.
Q: So what’s a normal night here?
DeGeneres: (looking at Anne): Well, last night--no wonder people hate us--we went in the Jacuzzi and then came in and lit a fire and just talked for about an hour and then went back into the Jacuzzi and then I swam for about three hours.
Heche: I had a beer.
DeGeneres: She cooks; she’s an amazing cook.
Heche: That’s our favorite thing--have dinner parties.
Q: Sound’s pretty normal, and Hollywood is notoriously fickle, so you guys could . . . .
Heche: Certainly this town could decide as quickly as they decided the other way that, “Hey, they’re hot!”
DeGeneres: It can change, but it’s not up to us.
Heche: Obviously, we live in our heaven, but compared to others in our talent and age ranges, it’s not equal by any means.
DeGeneres: But it has to be enough. My show wasn’t appreciated, and my talent isn’t appreciated, and I wish people could get beyond the fact that I’m gay. I’m sure even talking like this brings it up again--"If she would just shut up for two years, then we’d hire her.” That’s what people say: Has it been enough time, has it died down? But we’re just trying to be truthful, and what we’ve learned is that this is a hard town to be truthful in.