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Still the object of their projection

Times Staff Writer

CALISTA Flockhart is enjoying a glass of red wine at the bar of the boutique hotel she called home for six months when she began working on “Ally McBeal,” the show that, for better or worse, catapulted her into stardom. The Hotel Bel-Air, she says a bit nostalgically, brings up “friendly feelings” and the bar itself, with its East Coast vibe, reminds her of New York, the city she longs to return to so she can perform on its stages again.

That isn’t likely to happen for a while. Her 6-year-old son, Liam, just started kindergarten and loves the outdoors. Her partner, Harrison Ford, has a teenage daughter in school in Los Angeles. There’s also the six-year contract she signed with ABC to costar in “Brothers & Sisters,” which is attracting 12 million viewers a week and seems to be gaining momentum, especially with women.

In the late ‘90s, when Flockhart lived in this lush, urban hotel with her dog, Webster, her award-winning turn as Ally -- the miniskirted, legal eagle singleton -- transformed her from an off-Broadway actress into a household name, giving way to a public persona that has always seemed at odds with itself. Is it possible to be at once shy and diva-like, a team player and a prima donna, aloof and warm? Or did the actress just get caught in a cultural flashpoint and not have the desire or wherewithal to shout to the world: “This is who I am!”

Flockhart’s reluctance to engage with the press to dispel rumors or explain herself after “Ally” went off the air made her a conveniently blank slate to be filled in with conjecture: She was just like Ally. She was self-centered and neurotic. She was difficult. And her longing to disappear seemed to play out literally. Had anyone seen her eat? Was she wasting away?

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Smoldering fire refueled

IF she was hoping that her reticence would play better when she reemerged after a five-year absence -- as part of a notable ensemble that includes Sally Field, Rachel Griffiths, Patricia Wettig and Rob Lowe -- she was quickly dissuaded. Last summer, she stepped into the center of another whirlwind when she appeared on a panel before the press with her cast mates and producers to promote the new show. Flockhart did her best to answer the three softball questions lobbed her way, then sat blankly, shoulders drooped, staring into the audience, as the others played the game. By the time it was over, writers and bloggers from across the country were describing the 42-year-old actress as “miserable,” “depressed” and “spaced-out.”

Flockhart responded not with triage interviews but by disappearing into her work once again. It was only with great reluctance -- after the show was a hit and people were marveling at her performance -- that she agreed to sit down for her first interview since her awkward appearance.

Certainly, Flockhart has never been a couch-jumper. She is reserved and private, and she didn’t recite prepared anecdotes, but seemed quite aware of the tape recorder, at first. As time passed, she became more open and asked many questions, indicating her desire to have a conversation instead of a standard interview.

“I don’t know what people expect. I don’t know what people want me to do,” says Flockhart, who is much more upbeat talking about her son or her TV character than being a TV star. “And if they get disappointed that I don’t satisfy something that they’re looking for, I don’t quite know what that’s about. But, for me, I was happy and content to be [at the panel]. I did my job, I went home and I felt like it was all fine.”

Then the press accounts hit. Though Flockhart felt the characterization of her behavior at the press conference was “unfair and inaccurate,” she says the articles “did not bother me.”

But executive producer Ken Olin did feel badly that he had lured Flockhart away from her nest, where she has spent the last half-decade bonding with her son and enjoying her time with Ford and their two dogs, only to have her lambasted on her first public outing.

“Wherever she shows up, for whatever reason, she’s such a lightning rod for media and scrutiny and a certain kind of resentment, and I don’t think that’s always easy for her but she’s doing it,” Olin said. “She’s had to be tough. That hurts her feelings. When you’re held up being iconic and you represent things -- and for her these are things that [ticked] off a lot of people: the neurotic, man-hungry female that is a setback for intelligent, liberated women -- people take shots at you. But it’s this character of Ally McBeal that is held up to represent something that she’s not.”

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Olin and Flockhart’s co-workers protectively fill in the back story and shadings of personality that she might provide herself if only “approachable celebrity” were a role she wanted to play.

“You can feel that Calista had parents and has memories and isn’t reinvented just because she came to L.A.,” said “Brothers & Sisters” creator Jon Robin Baitz, who has known her for more than a decade. “So that accident of having been cast as Ally McBeal could have possibly interrupted a very different kind of career and set it on a different course, one that’s more public than she ever imagined for herself. I would describe her as a reluctant star, and I mean that sort of in the most magical way: a reluctant princess.”

Supporters to the defense

FIELD sees the vicious cycle in it all. She and Flockhart have grown close playing estranged mother and daughter. Their scenes together, whether they are fighting, making up or giggling like best friends, are among the most memorable of the series, which centers around five adult siblings, their newly widowed mother and the family produce company.

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“She and I talked about it because I’ve had more years in the saddle, so to speak, dealing with the press,” Field said. “I think she doesn’t feel she does it well. So she comes in feeling like, ‘Ugh, I’m going to get beat up by this.’ And so it makes her shy. A lot of actors, when they’re put up on a stage like that, they become the class clown and will entertain the troops, as I say. But because her personality is such, the press does what it does. And then the more things hurt her, the more she’s reluctant to come out and be there. It builds with her.”

Baitz, a playwright who became friends with Flockhart in New York, created the Kitty Walker character with her in mind, even though he wasn’t sure he could talk her into committing to a television series again. From the start, the Kitty he envisioned was “intelligent, sly, credibly available and mercurial,” traits that reminded him of the actress on his wish list.

“Calista has a quality of reserve about her under which is a great, great sense of humor, but she’s terribly shy on the surface and doesn’t have something that so many actors have,” Baitz said. “She doesn’t have a performing quality. Acting for her is more intrinsic. It feels more like the place where she goes to be free and find out more about herself rather than the place where she goes to exhibit herself. I think she saves herself for acting in a way.”

To hear her describe herself, Flockhart is an introvert who can become extroverted, depending on the company she keeps, namely people she likes and who make her feel safe. She will take anonymity over celebrity every time. But now, five months after “Brothers & Sisters” premiered, all of this talk of how the public perceives her has taken a back seat to how she feels about her job.

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“At my real heart, I’m a character actress, and I do crave playing all kinds of different roles,” Flockhart said. “I want to play the dark, crazy, alcoholic someday. But the good thing about television is that characters do change. The third episode doesn’t have to be like the first, so you have to explore and find things within it. It feels easier for me to do now. It just feels simple and fun and that’s when I know I’ve hooked into something.”

The timing was right

LANDING Flockhart wasn’t easy. The long hours and her meteoric popularity during “Ally” gave Flockhart very little time for herself. She adopted her son during the final season and then devoted herself “to the mom thing” when it was over. Olin and Baitz set out to persuade her to trust them because they knew if they landed her they would get “not just a comedienne or someone that can cry,” Olin said. “This is someone who came from an emotional depth and maturity that has size and weight to it.”

They got lucky -- they called at a pivotal moment for her family.

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“Kindergarten, as it turns out, is a huge milestone and I wasn’t quite prepared for it,” Flockhart says softly, looking into her wine glass. “He’s doing great and having a lot of fun. I know it sounds kind of silly, but it’s the end of an era. It’s the end of that baby being home with you and you have to let go. And it’s a wonderful thing, but it wasn’t easy. It was emotional.”

Knowing that Liam would be away for seven hours a day tempted her to meet with Olin and Baitz. “It was really daunting to her,” Olin said. “She is a very committed mother and partner to Harrison. I also think her experience on ‘Ally’ was exhausting. That much work and the dynamics of that show, it was like talking to someone who had post-traumatic stress syndrome. Every step of the way, she just kept insisting that she wanted to be in an ensemble show.”

Promised that she would work only two or three days a week, Flockhart finally agreed to play the family’s only Republican member. All seemed to be on track until Steve McPherson, ABC president of prime-time entertainment, decided to re-shoot the pilot, recasting the role of the mother, Nora, from Betty Buckley to Field. With no screener to show off to the press and the exit of an executive producer before the show premiered, “Brothers & Sisters” appeared to be falling apart.

“I didn’t much care what people were saying about it, and at times, I agreed, and I would say, ‘Yeah, this is a train wreck. This is a mess. This is a disaster and thank God, because I don’t want to do it. I get to go home and not work anymore,’ ” Flockhart says, laughing.

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She was only teasing, but when several 15-hour days were strung together to make up for lost time, Flockhart became concerned. In the early episodes, the troubled relationship between Kitty and Nora was a focal point.

“I was constantly going ‘Ken, Ken, what is going on? This is crazy. Why am I still here? You’ve ruined my life.’ And he would just say that it was going to get better. We were all so tired, and I don’t know if you know this, but Ken lost all of his hair. Seriously. He had plugs put in. It was bizarre.”

That, of course, is another joke.

“It would have been very easy, with the kind of scrutiny this show was under early on, for an actor to freak out and ask for more control creatively because so much of their name is on the line and attached to that thing,” says executive producer Greg Berlanti (“Everwood”), who was hired to run the show when Marti Noxon left. “Not a single call about that. Her one request is the most humane of all: How can I have more time with my son?”

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Last month, during the shooting of a scene in the office of Sen. Robert McAllister (Lowe), Flockhart must have been missing Liam. McAllister, Kitty’s boss and now lover, and an extra were tossing a football, and during a break, Flockhart tried to bribe the extra into throwing it at her head so that she could go home. Not that she wasn’t enjoying the scene or the opportunity to gently berate Lowe when he missed his cue to throw the football.

“We’re having great fun, but Liam is always the priority,” she says, minutes before she notices her son’s bedtime is approaching. The previous night she missed tucking him in, and when that happens two nights in a row “she gets cranky,” warned Olin.

This is a characterization Flockhart can live with. “With a child, I just don’t want to give up that much time,” she says. “I feel really fortunate that I’m able to make my own decisions about how much I’m going to work. It’s an amazing place to be and I’m kind of surprised I’m there. I’m in a place in my life where I’m just really happy.” She pauses and deadpans: “Not miserable. Happy.”

maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

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