If Jennifer Love Hewitt ever needed a job to fall back on, taking calls as a 911 dispatcher would not be high on the list.
“I’d be such a nervous nelly,” Hewitt insists. “I’d panic. I’d be the worst 911 operator. What they do is amazing. The pressure they are under and their ability to stay calm so that they can get someone the help they need is incredible.”
Hewitt’s own inabilities aside, the actress can at least play the part. This season, she has joined Fox’s hit drama ”9-1-1,” as Maddie, the sister of firefighter Evan “Buck” Buckley (Oliver Stark). Her character becomes a 911 dispatcher in an attempt to restart her life after leaving an abusive relationship.
The role marks Hewitt’s return to TV after nearly three years away — an intentional break motivated by the birth of her second child, Atticus, now 3 (her daughter, Autumn, will be 5 in November) and the enduring grief over the death of her mother in 2012.
“9-1-1” also returns Hewitt to the Fox fold almost two decades after her breakthrough role in “Party of Five” and its spinoff, “Time of Your Life.”
You joined the cast of “9-1-1” this year after taking some time off. What prompted the break and how did living life off camera enhance your work?
I had needed to take some time for myself and needed to grieve my mother. I needed to become a new mom; I needed to learn how to be a wife. There was a lot going on in my own life that just felt like I needed some space and some time to kind of be. I’ve really enjoyed the break, and I feel like now, the last few months, having gone back into acting, it’s really done a beautiful thing for me in that it’s made everything that I do in my acting/entertainment life not less important but less like, “It’s everything all the time,” like it used to be.
I also feel like I have new things to pull from as an actress that I didn’t have before. I think it’s so odd as actors that we, especially kid actors, which I was, we’re expected to pull from all these life experiences that so many of us haven’t had. I remember I directed an episode of “Ghost Whisperer,” and I had to work with a girl who had never been in love before. And she was doing a story all about love. And she was like, “I’m sorry, I just don’t know what it is, what it feels like.” And I was like, “Oh my God. Let’s go to lunch. Let me give you all that I’ve got.” I feel like I acted for a lot of years from my heart, but not really, truly understanding some of the things that I understand now.
When you were starting out as a young actor, was taking a break even something you could have fathomed?
It’s a big reason why I never want to college. I was afraid that I was going to lose it all. I was afraid to do that. It’s for sure scary.
The death of a loved one can sometimes prompt people to be more fearless; for others, it can cause them to retreat. How did it weigh on you?
I went into a very fearful place. I started getting a lot of anxiety, and I’ve had anxiety since [my mom] passed. It’s still something that I deal with on a daily basis. I try not to give it to my kids. But yeah, it’s been really hard for me.
I think, initially, I went into survival mode. I knew that I couldn’t sit indoors and just grieve her. I needed to change my surroundings, so I moved. I got rid of some stuff. I just needed a change. I traveled a little bit — she loved to travel. That wasn’t something that I had done before. I did some things that I was afraid of. But “Phase Two,” for me, I was real afraid. I remember every time the phone would ring, I’d be like, “Oh my God, someone else...”
And then I lost my grandmother a little less than a year after my mom, so that was hard. She was the other significant female in my life. So, yeah, I just went through a lot of that. But when my daughter came around, and I got pregnant, this really beautiful thing happened where I went, “Oh, but there’s life too!” The one that moves you forward is the trust and the non-fear place, and the one that holds you back is the fear place. And so I just tried to move forward.
But I think because I was so fearful, for me to act and to have to tap into those things not in a safe place, would have been really hard for me. So I do think that that was part of why acting scared me at that time. Because I just wanted to be in joy. I didn’t want to force myself to go deep into that place.
Can I ask: When was the last time you watched ‘Party of Five’?
Probably at that time. I know you can stream it, and there’s part of me, during the very few moments in my house that I have to myself, where I am like, “How weird would it be if I just sat down and watched ‘Party of Five?’” I really want to do it. I love that the style of jeans I wore on “Party of Five,” the high-waisted ones, are back in style.
What’s it like knowing that the show has reached reboot status? And what are your thoughts on Freeform’s plans to remake it as a story about immigration?
It doesn’t surprise me that they would do something so smart and so lovely with that show. I think it’s going to be great. But it does, for a second, make me go: “Oh God, I’m old enough that something is being rebooted.” But I’m actually really excited to see it. I think it’s interesting the way they are doing it and I love it.
Are you someone who would want to be part of a revival? “Ghost Whisperer,” perhaps?
Sure, yeah, if it was [done in] a unique, interesting way. I think so. Here’s the problem with a “Ghost Whisperer” reboot: I am not good at stepping away from that show in a smaller aspect. So a reboot, where it’d be all young people, and I’d be the old one saying, “Get out of here, you don’t talk to dead people, I talk to dead people!” — I’m not into that. If they’re going to redo it, then I have to go back and be the ghost whisperer because I am not giving up my “Ghost Whisperer” throne. That part just meant too much to me, and it was so much of who I was, I worked really hard to make Melinda who she is. So if they wanted to do a 10-episode revival on Netflix, like finishing the series or something, I’m happy to do that. But giving it over to somebody would crush me.
I wanted to ask you about upfronts, which you attended to promote “9-1-1” to advertisers. You posted an Instagram story apologizing for your appearance. As someone who has had their body commented on since you were a teenager, has it become reflex to get ahead of the scrutiny?
The wonderful thing about Instagram is that it allows you to have a voice in places where you wouldn’t normally have a voice. The upfronts for me was such a dizzying, crazy experience.
I got this job and they were like, “By the way, two weeks from now you’re going to be at the upfronts.” And I’m like, “What?!” I hadn’t been in the gym, not that that’s important, but I haven’t been in front of millions of people in a very long time. I literally went online, bought that suit, packed it in my bag. We went to Maryland to visit our family five days before, and we’re eating like fried shrimp, burgers with onion rings on it — all this stuff. When I got to New York, we went out for this giant Italian meal and I’m like, “Ah, whatever.” I’ve literally just been a normal person for 2 1/2 years, right?
That morning, we do my hair and it looks great at the hotel and my makeup looked great. But by the time I got to the venue, I was melting. I had mascara underneath my eyes. Normally in my life I would never feel the need to comment on it, but I know people. It’s just the world that we live and so I was like, “You know what, instead of reading a bunch of stuff that’s going to hurt my feelings in two days, I’m just gonna sit in my closet and say, ‘I was a hot mess party of one. Got it, here are the reasons.’”
I got a lot of really good responses, but I got a lot of responses from people saying, “You shouldn’t have to do that.” No one told me to do it. I wish that people could walk on the red carpet and look however they look and people would still feel as excited about their new show or have something nice to say about them or whatever. But we don’t, like as a society right now we just don’t.
But what is it even like to live that life, and to live it for so long? To have your body be viewed as public property?
At the time in my life when people were making those comments — like the boobs thing got old real fast — it was super annoying. I just kind of rolled with it and whatever.
As a young adult, when it was happening, I didn’t care. I didn’t take it as a compliment, but I didn’t take it as an insult. It wasn’t actually until later, in the time when I took the step back, that I went “ugh.” It’s the worst — that’s not what I want to be remembered for. I don’t want my kid to Google me one day and see “She looks terrible” or “She has big boobs and she’s hot.” I don’t want that to be who I am.
I think that part of why that person did that Instagram story after the red carpet and all of that stuff is just, I’m in a place where I was like, “Can we change the narrative? Can we just be different?” Feel free to comment about me if you must, but also feel free to know other things about me.
Has this #MeToo era caused you to look back on your career and the ways in which you were put in awkward or dangerous positions?
I definitely have gone back and thought, “Oh, hmm, maybe that was a moment, or maybe that was.” I will say I have had, for the most part, female representation, and my manager Danielle would have never let that happen, and my mom was with me for a lot of it. I was definitely asked to do those things, like hotel meetings, but when I was asked to do those things it was a “no.” It was a hard no, and I was very young.
It’s definitely made me look at things and go, “Oh wow, why did I laugh at that joke? Maybe that actually wasn’t that funny. Or maybe I should’ve said to somebody, “You realize you had a 20-minute conversation with me and you spent 18 of it talking about my breasts. That’s inappropriate. You’re a grown man.” Like no, see ya.
But mostly it’s made me really hopeful that by the time that my daughter is in a business, whatever that business is, she won’t have any of that.
ALSO BY YVONNE VILLARREAL