“Oh, man, I’m tired,” Katherine Heigl said.
She laughed. It was 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning and Heigl was wearing a full-length red Oscar De La Renta dress, black shawl over the shoulders. Her hair was blown out, face fully made up. This week very much promised to be busy -- and all about her. She was getting married in a few days to singer Josh Kelley -- a destination wedding on her property in Utah. She was still deflecting comments she made in the January issue of Vanity Fair. And she had her first big starring role in a movie to promote.
For now, Heigl was sitting under a heat lamp outside at the Four Seasons Hotel, smoking and drinking a pot of coffee with Splenda before heading back upstairs to her “holding suite” before a day’s worth of promotion for her new movie, the romantic comedy “27 Dresses.”
“I’m not a workaholic,” she insisted. “I’m not. I’m the laziest person I know.”
It was hard to believe this, coming from someone in De La Renta at 9 in the morning. Still, this self-effacing confession is in keeping with Heigl’s growing reputation as being unusually frank, her comments coming in somewhere between Dorothy Parker-tough and diva-spoiled.
“Outspoken,” people call her, although it could also just be said that she speaks. Jane Fonda in Vietnam was outspoken; Heigl in Hollywood, calling the character she played in “Knocked Up” a shrew, is merely being forthright.
“The press or the media has decided that I’m outspoken, and I guess that’s my angle or something?” she asks. “I have been this way for the last five to seven years when I started saying, ‘You know, screw it, I’m not going to pussyfoot around issues anymore.’ I kind of say what I think. And if I feel passionately about something I will be honest about it, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Heigl also just might be the next big romantic-comedy heroine, joining the conga line of Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore -- actresses in whom men see a sex object and women see themselves.
“She’s beautiful, but not in a cold way,” said Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000, which is releasing “27 Dresses,” a film that will test Heigl’s box-office draw. “You feel like you could be working with her in the office.”
In her best-known work -- Izzie Stevens on the ABC hit “Grey’s Anatomy,” Alison Scott in the Judd Apatow comedy “Knocked Up” -- Heigl comes off as a goddess who ends up falling for sweet, lumpish men. There is George (T.R. Knight), the menschy fellow intern on “Grey’s,” and Seth Rogan’s frizzy-haired stoner Ben in “Knocked Up.” But with “27 Dresses,” which opens Jan. 18, Heigl is the unabashed star, and she is surrounded this time by more image-appropriate suitors.
Her new movie, written by Aline Brosh McKenna of “The Devil Wears Prada” fame, features Heigl as Jane, a people-pleasing bridesmaid so dutiful in her role helping friends pull off their weddings that she has no time to . . . wait for it . . . find true love herself. Here Heigl is choosing between Ed Burns as a dull-eyed yet suave boss who is oblivious to Jane’s feelings for him, and James Marsden (“Enchanted”) as her romantic foil, a cute-boy cynical reporter who covers weddings for his New York daily newspaper.
Funnily enough, “27 Dresses” is just the kind of hearts-and-flowers, all-about-me romantic comedy that propelled Apatow to offer his bracingly funny male tell-all in “Knocked Up,” in which a bemused stoner stumbles into a one-night stand with an otherwise unattainable blond that leads him into a forced march toward coldblooded responsibility.
Heigl, of course, was that one-night stand, and her character helped enable Apatow to say all those things about immature men and the women who bring down the bliss of arrested male bonding. But Heigl still had to make us believe that Alison would see into the best of Ben’s nature and ride off into the sunset with him (and their baby).
“I think people need to understand that [life is] not all about finding the most charming, sexy, fabulous guy and then making him yours,” Heigl said of the thematic contrast between “Knocked Up,” which is about compromise, and “27 Dresses,” which is about the fairy tale. "[But] of course [in] ’27 Dresses’ she does just that.” Finally, Heigl gives a wide berth to romance at the movies; she welcomes both the more jaundiced view of “Knocked Up” and the fanciful formula of “27 Dresses.” This is someone, after all, who counts “Pretty Woman” among her all-time favorite movies but also can’t stop watching “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Her views on the male-female dynamics in “27 Dresses” were much tamer than the sentiments she expressed in the January issue of Vanity Fair, in which she said of “Knocked Up”: “It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it, on some days.”
Heigl likes to say that she and her manager-mother have pledged to never approach her career from “a place of fear.” But in the aftermath of the “Knocked Up” comments Heigl released a quote that reaffirmed her admiration of the movie, lest anyone think she was biting the hand that had made her viable as a rom-com star.
“I wouldn’t have said anything at all, except that it was getting so much attention,” she said. “It would have just gone away had I said nothing at all. Because it wasn’t that interesting, and it wasn’t that outrageous.”
Still, the incident encapsulated how Heigl has achieved her budding mainstream stardom -- charming on screen, attention-getting off it. But her popularity is rooted in her charisma. On both the big and small screen, Heigl comes off as earthbound if not earthy -- no doubt what helped Apatow put her in “Knocked Up.” She allows you to see her characters unraveling; it’s what plays as soap-opera emotionality on “Grey’s” and as chick-lit comedy in “27 Dresses.” Her ability to distract audiences from her glamour is key. Otherwise, why root for her?
Off-screen, Heigl is similarly open. Infamously, she publicly chastised then-"Grey’s Anatomy” costar Isaiah Washington backstage at last year’s Golden Globe Awards, a rebuke (“He needs to just not speak in public,” was the gist of what she said) that was a continuation of the controversy sparked by Washington’s alleged on-set homophobic slur against fellow “Grey’s” cast member Knight.
“The sort of unwritten code is you say nothing,” Heigl said. “You say nothing, you turn the question around or you spin it in a good light, and that’s how you deal with these sort of things, you don’t address it, you don’t bring it up, and you don’t have an opinion. And that’s how I’ve pretty much understood things to be, especially about bigger issues.”
But Heigl has become one Hollywood’s most fearsome creatures -- an actress with opinions. She openly questions the direction of her character on her show and, more recently, became one of the few celebs to publicly declare that she wouldn’t attend the Golden Globe Awards if the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike is still in effect.
“I don’t particularly enjoy it,” she said of the two times she’s joined the picket line, both at the behest of “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes. “I’m not great with chanting, and I don’t like circling around and around for hours or holding a sign. I do it when my boss asks me to.”
In that same issue of Vanity Fair in which Heigl appears on the cover, all lovely and seductive, there is a profile of Angie Dickinson, in which the 76-year-old says:
“You get so used to being fussed over that when it stops you feel naked just going to the supermarket. You end up obsessed with your looks. If an elevator doesn’t have a mirror in it, I’m finished. I don’t care who you are, when you get to be past 50, it all changes. That’s the way it is. It isn’t wrong -- we want to look at young, beautiful things.”
Heigl -- still a young, beautiful thing -- just turned 29. She has been managed by her mother, Nancy, since she was 9 and began modeling for Sears catalogs while a child in New Canaan, Conn. She acted through high school (most notably opposite Gerard Depardieu in “My Father the Hero”) before moving to L.A. with her mother to pursue a show business career more aggressively. Her parents were by then divorced.
Heigl and her mother remain business partners “She doesn’t love reading scripts,” Heigl said, “so I usually read the scripts and I’ll say, ‘I love this role,’ and she’ll say, ‘OK.’ At the end of the day I’m the person who has to love this.”
As a fail-safe against the day the Dickinson rule kicks in, Heigl and her mother recently formed a production company, optioning the novel “Lost & Found” by Jacqueline Sheehan. Heigl says there’s no part for her in it, but based on the log line there certainly could be: Woman moves to an island in Maine after her husband dies, going to work in an animal shelter. Heigl’s next scheduled starring vehicle, “The Ugly Truth,” has her in another battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy.
Around the time she moved to L.A., Heigl said, she took an audition class -- where she learned that she rolled her eyes too much -- but has never had any formal acting training. Nor is she looking for a role that would completely upset her physical appearance, a la Charlize Theron in “Monster” or Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry.”
“I like simpler things, I think. I like happy stories. I’ve had enough real life to live that I kind of don’t want to go see it in the theaters, was sort of my point about ‘Babel.’ ”
Earlier, she had said of her love for romantic comedies: “I’d much rather go see that than ‘Babel.’ Do you know? Like ‘Babel’ really depressed me. And I just don’t need to spend three days feeling [lousy]. I’m aware. I’m aware of all the problems.”
That had sounded flip, Heigl now realized. “Babel,” of course, was a beautiful movie, she said, even if she is more of a “Pretty Woman,” “40-Year-Old Virgin” kind of girl -- with a mind of her own.