Happy housewife

Teri Hatcher has not enjoyed the smoothest of careers, but the realization that she'll never be Meg Ryan has its consolations.

By Dan Glaister
Published February 14, 2005 4:03PM (EST)

Teri Hatcher is having a seizure. She is doubled over, hands clutching her sides as she wraps a pink pashmina shawl around herself; it looks like there could be another casualty on the set of "Desperate Housewives," the improbably trash-glam tale of daily drudge and dysfunction on Wisteria Lane. The seizure was brought on by my complimenting the 40-year-old actress/mother/housewife on her globes. This causes great hilarity. The protestation that I had, in fact, said "Golden Globes speech" does little to staunch the flow of laughter.

"I thought you meant a part of my body," she gasps, trying to catch her breath. "That's a good opener: The thing that stands out about you are your globes. Well, thank you so much. I'm old; nobody says that anymore."

The globes in question -- though not in my question -- were at one time the subject of their own not inconsiderable celebrity. An appearance in a 1993 episode of "Seinfeld" featured Jerry and Elaine debating at some length whether Hatcher's breasts were surgically enhanced. Her exit line -- "They're real, and they're spectacular" -- has stayed with her ever since, although nowadays she insists that two and a half years of breast-feeding have taken their toll. Tabloid speculation that other parts of her anatomy have been artificially enhanced has been met with a less nuanced dismissal.

We are sitting at a table in a smart restaurant not far from Wisteria Lane. But this is not a normal restaurant. In front of us lie two slightly forlorn, half-eaten bread rolls. We each have an untouched glass of red wine and a glass of water. Around us swarm men in jeans and sweatshirts. They push tables around, scoop up untouched food from our fellow diners and mumble into headphones.

This is the setting for a key scene in Episode 16 of "Desperate Housewives," a confrontation between Susan, Hatcher's slightly dowdy character -- as far as any of the beautiful people in "Desperate Housewives" are allowed to be dowdy -- and bitchy man-eater Edie, played by British-born Nicolette Sheridan, all sinewy, cut-glass poise. The conduit for the confrontation is, naturally, a man.

The short scene is played over countless times. Unnoticed in the background, the other diners silently move their mouths like ghosts. "Nice background," says one of the crew between takes, "but remember to watch the whispering. Move your lips but try not to let anything come out."

In the foreground are the principals: Hatcher, dolled up by Susan's standards, sits babbling about a recent plot development, while her beau for the evening, played by Rick Ravanello, obsesses about jalapeños. The two sit with their scripts on their laps, out of sight of the cameras. Between takes they glance down to check their lines.

Midway through the scene, Edie strides in to spoil their evening. She delivers her little speech and flounces out with a wiggle and a pout. The effect, in real time, with no microphones, is both underwhelming and larger than life.

It is the end of a long day's filming and everybody is tired. Hatcher, laid out with food poisoning, visibly contains herself when not on camera, hunching her slight body forward. "The makeup artist hates me," she says. "He thinks his career's ruined because I won't let him put any makeup on me. He's used to doing glamour, and I'm like, no, no makeup, no hair, nothing. But they're skilled: I have a makeup artist and a hairdresser who actually make me look like I have no makeup and no hair."

The ordinariness of Susan is a respite for Hatcher, who has been cast principally in glamorous roles ever since her first TV appearance in "The Love Boat." She made a vivacious Lois Lane for the television series "Lois & Clark," and even had a stint as a Bond girl in "Tomorrow Never Dies." Such was her fame that a picture of her draped in a Superman cape and nothing more became the most downloaded picture on the Internet in 1996. Susan, however, has offered her something she has never before been given the chance to do.

"It is truly, truly the first time that I've even had an opportunity to play someone so neurotic and vulnerable," she says of the single mother and children's author. "I loved the part of Susan, but I never thought they'd give it to me. I won't get the girl-next-door role because they'll think I'm too glamorous or whatever."

Today is glamour day for 40-year-old Susan: She wears a ruched lilac top, more Dorothy Perkins than Versace, a black skirt and a pair of impressively furry pink boots, which presumably remain out of shot. Much has been made of the show's casting of women in their 40s for the lead roles. Is this a new dawn of feminine empowerment? Have Hollywood and the TV industry finally realized that women can be something other than babes and grannies?

"The whole thing about us being 40 and everything, I really think that was an accident," she says. "I don't think anyone was clever enough to go, 'Let's cast a bunch of women who are near to or over 40.' I don't think any of us look 40, and I don't think they thought we were 40. After the whole thing happened there was no way to hide the age from the press, and then it became a thing."

Hatcher was, she says, sold on the show from the moment she saw the script, just over a year ago. "Word for word it was truly the best thing I have ever read. It was all on the page, intact. It was a page-turner; it was perfect."

That, of course, is down to the writer, Marc Cherry. "Part of why the vision of the story is so true is that he wrote it as a spec script," she says earnestly. "He wasn't trying to accomplish anything; he was writing a story that came from his heart."

But now the show is up and running, breaking records and scooping awards wherever it screens. It's a remarkable turnaround for Hatcher, who, on the birth of her daughter seven years ago, decided to turn her back on her career and focus on her family: a brave, almost foolhardy decision in an industry that forgets you as soon as you walk out of the door.

"To me there's nothing more important than being a mother, and if you have a choice -- and I was lucky enough to have a choice financially -- why would you have a kid if you couldn't be the one that stays at home and raises her? But that's my choice. I don't judge other people's choices. I always knew that if and when I had a kid I was going to stay at home."

Judgmental or not, it is clearly something she takes extremely seriously. The good-parenting model extends to banning TV in her home. When I ask what effect her sudden ascent to stardom has had on her daughter, she replies in a rush: "We don't watch TV, so she doesn't see the show and she doesn't watch any other television either -- she never has. We don't do that. I've really seen the results: She has an amazing attention span, amazing imagination."

Then she leans toward me conspiratorially. "Do you know 'Sesame Street' was created by advertisers in the 1960s who specifically were looking at how we could format television that the kids don't want to look away from? It's true." She lets go of my arm. The cast members have been called to their places for another take, and she leaves me sitting at the table, just out of shot. Edie raises an eyebrow and glares across at me. "There is a strange man making notes among us," she hisses. "A fellow Brit," she declares before disappearing into the embrace of her boyfriend.

The day at an end, we return to Hatcher's trailer to continue talking. Outside is a box of orchids. "They're from Elton [John]," she remarks, casually. The actress has just completed a cameo in the singer's latest video -- a lavish affair, by all accounts.

John is not the only person to have come knocking. New movie and TV offers are streaming in. She's also earning money. Following her divorce two years ago from Emerson's father, actor Jon Tenney, she says she has become aware of the importance of establishing some financial security for herself and her daughter. "I'm not making a ton of money, yet," she says. "I'm making a lot of money relative to what people make in the world, but I am rebuilding after what was a hard blow to me a couple of years ago. I intend to be very smart about it and very conservative about it so I don't have to be in any jeopardy and my daughter can go to any college she wants to. Those are the things that are important to me, not buying a bigger house or buying a Porsche." The stars of the show, including Hatcher, recently received a $250,000 bonus after they complained that their pay did not reflect the popularity of the program.

Yet while they are all deemed equals, Hatcher came out on top when the five leads were all up for best actress in last month's Golden Globe Awards. Her speech, in which she extemporized about her place in the stars, age, beauty, family and a few other cosmic notions, was by far the most entertaining of the night.

"I've never actually watched it," she says. "So I don't really have that watching-it perception; I only have the being-in-my-body memory of it. To win was surreal, and the things I said about looking down at the audience and seeing the movie stars and trying to feel like I get to be part of this community again ... I think I really did think that it was over for me, that I had missed it. I'm almost out of my 30s, I missed the opportunity to be Meg Ryan, I missed the opportunity to be Sandra Bullock. Whatever it is, that's where I am. I'll probably be a has-been again next week."

But she doesn't want to talk about the Globes anymore. "I can't laugh," she tells me. "My stomach's so sore from throwing up."

Dan Glaister

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