If an actress always brings part of herself to her roles, Anne Heche must have needed some kind of a psychic U-Haul for her role in “Gracie’s Choice,” a fact-based Lifetime movie premiering Monday.
The actress stars as Rowena Larson, a feckless and irresponsible young single mother who is so neglectful of her large brood that her eldest daughter, Gracie (Kristen Bell), eventually sues for custody of her younger siblings.
This story “resonated like mad,” says Heche, a survivor of childhood abuse. “This was such an important project for me to do, and I feel blessed that it came my way. I may be one of the only people who could know for sure that my character, Rowena, is [not a dramatic exaggeration].
“I felt that was important at a time when we need so badly to allow children to tell their own stories so we can help solve this problem of abuse. Until people acknowledge that problem, it can’t be solved.”
In her 2001 bestselling memoir, “Call Me Crazy,” Heche candidly and hair-raisingly chronicles the childhood sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her father, a closeted bisexual who died of AIDS in 1983.
“Some people said it was very hard to read my book,” Heche acknowledges.
“I know this is very difficult subject matter. I know that. If you don’t know about it, it’s hard perhaps to explain why you should. Abusive parents look just like you or me, and it bothers us to think that people we have so many superficial things in common with are capable of deeply hurting a child.”
“Gracie’s Choice” was a welcome assignment for Heche for another reason as well, she explains.
“I said to my husband when I finished playing Rowena that a big mystery was now gone for me,” Heche says. “I always wanted to know the other side, so as I stepped into this woman, I wanted very badly to know if she really was loving. What I experienced myself as caring gestures or comments within the abusive environment, did they come out of real love? Did she care?
“And I found the answer: No. People like Rowena are too far gone. They failed to make a different choice” in their own lives.
Heche says she hopes children will watch the Lifetime movie and understand that they have the power to change their lives. That turned out to be a very long and painful process for the actress herself, culminating in a public breakdown near Fresno in 2000, also recounted in her book.
She hopes too that “Gracie’s Choice” makes people willing to intercede if they become aware of abuse.
“When you look at it from the outside, the journey I’ve made is a rocky one, but now I have my health and my love and my family,” she says. “My story is by no means the worst I have heard. Not all children are abused sexually, but the scars are no less real. In this movie, Rowena doesn’t smack her kids around, she just disappears for two days at a time and leaves them to fend for themselves.
“If you see something like that happening, it’s vital to get involved. Go online, find out more from a place like From Darkness to Light, this organization I work with, about how you can step in and help to end the abuse.”
Heche, who married cameraman Coley Laffoon in 2001 and had her first child in 2002, says she feels more relaxed and confident than ever these days. She believes that only improves her work.
“I feel that I am very lucky that I’ve had any kind of career at all,” she says. “When I became whole and healthy at last, I looked back and went, ‘Wow, how did I do all that? It’s amazing.’ But the thing about going through an abusive childhood is that it leaves you able to deal with just about anything, because nothing is as bad as what you were raised in. If you survive it, you have a lot of stuff to give.”
The actress says she found new rewards in her 2002 Broadway debut, when she took over the lead in the hit play “Proof,” winning rave reviews in the role that had won a Tony for Mary-Louise Parker.
“It was truly just divine,” Heche says of her maiden Broadway voyage.
In addition to promoting “Gracie’s Choice,” Heche spent most of her recent holidays champing at the bit to begin rehearsals for her next Broadway assignment, starring opposite Alec Baldwin in a revival of “Twentieth Century,” essaying the fiery movie queen role played by Carole Lombard in a 1934 film version.
“I feel I am 100% more of an actress because I am able to give all of myself to it without hiding,” Heche says. “It has shifted everything: my confidence, my ability to take in and absorb things. When you’re just in a survival mode, there isn’t room for much else.”
John Crook writes for Tribune Media Services.
“Gracie’s Choice” airs at 8 p.m. Monday on the Lifetime channel.
Cover photograph by Brooke Palmer.