Katherine Heigl unfiltered: "I know my value. Beauty ... is the least interesting thing about me"

The "Firefly Lane" star talks relationships, the vanity trap, "Grey's Anatomy" and having a "bit of a witch" in her

Published December 14, 2022 3:00PM (EST)

Katherine Heigl (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Katherine Heigl (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

One of the biggest late-pandemic binge watches is back for its second season. I recently spoke with Katherine Heigl, co-star and executive producer of Netflix's "Firefly Lane," on "Salon Talks." The series stars Heigl and Sarah Chalke, who play lifelong best friends Tully and Kate facing life's ups and downs together over 30 years. 

The story of intermittently fractured and soul sister best friends is relatable to almost anyone who's had a lifelong friendship. Heigl said that this presenting theme felt real and vital to her. And after seeing Heigl play Tully, it's hard to imagine her as anyone else. Smart, tough and independent, Tully is in some ways her bestie Kate's social opposite, though the two support each other as real friends do. 

Now we see Kate and Tully in their 40s, handling aging and some of the other indignities of time. A Robert Frost fan, Heigl named her production company "Abishag" after a lesser-known Frost character in the poem "Provide, Provide." Aging beauty Abishag is the subject, whose story shows that while beauty and fame in Hollywood are fleeting, as with Kate and Tully, friendship sustains. The metaphor was not lost on Heigl, who was cast as blonde ex-model-turned-medical-resident Izzie in the early seasons of "Grey's Anatomy."

Heigl does not shy away from talking about what made that era of her career in Hollywood, and the dialogue around it, different from the current one. "The youth and beauty of what they all thought was so important about me is the least interesting thing about me," Heigl said. "If I made it the most important thing, I'd be pretty damn screwed. I have cultivated a spirit and character and integrity and passion that has nothing to do with how I look."

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Heigl here, or read our conversation below, to hear more from Heigl on acting, raising kids in uncertain times and how her eight dogs inspired her to create a pet food line with her family.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I want to jump right in and talk about the storyline, which I think is relatable to almost any woman who's had a lifelong friendship with another woman. When you first read the script for "Firefly Lane," how did it resonate with your own experience?

Initially I read it and I was so enthralled. At that point, all I had was a pilot script essentially. The story was so familiar to me, and it says right on the cover, "based on the novel by Kristin Hannah," and I thought, "I think I read this. This story feels really familiar." So I went to the local bookstore, got the book and read it again. I was working at the time in Toronto on "Suits" and I would read between scenes or between setups and was just sobbing by the end. I was so deeply moved by these two women. Their story, I found it incredibly engaging and incredibly relatable, just getting to follow them through these decades. I have several very close female friendships, my sister and mother being the most prevalent, and those relationships have some ups and downs. 

"I have several very close female friendships, my sister and mother being the most prevalent, and those relationships have some ups and downs."

What I loved about it was that I just felt less alone in this idea that not everything is a perfect fairy tale all the time. That there are struggles within any relationship that is significant and important in your life. Nothing is just smooth traveling for anybody. I felt like it was just incredibly relatable in that way and beautiful. I mean sometimes those relationships fracture for life. There can be things that are just too far, but often they mend again and there's that hope too.

Did you work with the author on translating the story for TV? I know you're an executive producer in the second season.

Yes, I did. I'm a giant reader. I have been since I learned to read, and fiction is my favorite, so once I got over my initial fanned out behavior, I started being able to have real conversations with Kristin about character, about maintaining the integrity of her story and the integrity of these women in their friendship. 

In terms of understanding how to translate something on the page to the screen, that is not my forte. I don't know how to do that, but [series creator Maggie Friedman] understood that. It did mean at times where we were going to deviate from the book, which is always very difficult for me. I always want to stick right to the material. I want to tell exactly what's on the page of the book. So I had to be able to back off and let Maggie do her thing. And the only thing I just kept hitting home was the integrity of this friendship. The integrity of this friendship needs to stay the same as the book. That's the most important thing to me. 

When I first read the first script and had a conversation with Maggie, and I don't know if you remember from that episode, it feels very much like Tully's going to have an affair with Johnny. It's left with this big cliffhanger. I said, "Listen, I love this story. I love these characters. I won't do it though if that's where you're going with this, because no friendship would survive that."

"The youth and beauty of what they all thought was so important about me is the least interesting thing about me."

No, that's the girl code. You can't.

That is the girl code. No friendship would survive that and this friendship must survive. And she said, "No, no, no, that's just a cliffhanger. We're just doing that to mess with the audience. We're not going there." I said, "Fantastic." And that was Kristin's only thing. There were two things that, I won't say the second because it will give everything away, but there were two things that Kristin said you must maintain to the story and everything else, whatever you like.

You took a hiatus between filming the seasons, like lots of productions did. What does it feel like to put a character like Tully away for a while, and then do other projects, cut your hair and then get reacquainted?

We wrapped the first season, I want to say mid-January of 2020. We were in Vancouver, people were starting to get really sick on set and just not getting better and bad respiratory issues. We were just like, "Good lord, there's a terrible flu going around." Then I came home, we wrapped the season and within two months the world shut down. So the show, the character, the experience became very backseat to what was going on in the world, what was going on in my family, what was going on in my life. Suddenly, I had this year and a half off of work because, well for a good bit, no one was working. Anything that was in production was difficult, to say the least, because somebody could get sick or the lead of the show could get sick and suddenly the whole production would shut down.

I just went, I'm not going to begin something in this place of the pandemic, so I took a full year and a half off. I hesitate to say it because it was such a difficult and tragic time for many, many people, but there was some grace in it for me. That year and a half was the longest I'd had off of work since I was 16. I was able to really settle into just one role, which was mom and wife and daughter and sister. Well, I guess that's quite a few roles. But it's easier to take all the other ones off the plate and just kind of settle into one thing.

I don't think there's anything to apologize for slowing down and feeling the value proposition of the things that when we can focus on them. I always say as a mom, that's my most important job personally and that's the job that I care the most about doing well in. But life takes you in many directions and you feel pulled at all ends, and so I think that's a huge gift.

It was for me. It was an opportunity to prioritize my family and my children and my home and my own time and needs that often take a very big backseat to everybody else's, especially children and family. But then of course my career. I'm tired, I'm sick, I need a moment to just meditate. Like, no, no, no, that's all going to have to wait, you got all these other priorities on the table. It was a blessing for me. I think definitely, by the time I went back to work on "Firefly," I was ready. I was done with dishes. 

"I know my value. I have cultivated a spirit and character and integrity and passion that has nothing to do with how I look."

Making sourdough bread and dishes.

Yes, exactly. I said to my girlfriends, I don't think, because my whole career, from the beginning of becoming a mother, I have had help. I've had to – doing it all myself, suddenly . . . Well my husband helps. Thank God. I would murder him if he didn't. We are partners in this, he takes a step up too, but it's a lot. I said to my girlfriends, "Full-time mothering and housewifery is way harder than what I do for work. Much harder. And there's way more at stake, obviously." So I'm ready to just be like, "You guys will be fine with dad. Bye."

I was buoyed to learn that you are a Robert Frost fan like me and named your production company after a lesser-known character in "Provide, Provide." Beauty and fame in Hollywood are fleeting. But like "Firefly Lane's" Tully and Kate, I do really feel like friendship sustains. What does that metaphor mean to you?

It has been in the back of my mind, circling my brain from the moment I understood it, which was probably in my late teens, early 20s. And I think the perspective of it for me was very important because if I had fallen to prey to the vanity of all of this, to the early praise of youth and beauty, I think emotionally I would be pretty destroyed by the time I hit 40. And as 40 approached, I knew what it all meant then, I know what it all means now. I know what it will mean in the future. That perspective has been a real blessing. I think it's so interesting because I would love to know what inspired Robert Frost to write that poem. Obviously, he wasn't a beauty in Hollywood in his youth, so who inspired it? How did it come about?

But boy, it has been a blessing for me. It's a bit tongue in cheek. It's me, in a way, thumbing my nose at what Hollywood has told me to value my whole life. I know my value. And to me, the youth and beauty of what they all thought was so important about me is the least interesting thing about me. And if I made it the most important thing, I'd be pretty damn screwed. So I have cultivated a spirit and character and integrity and passion that has nothing to do with how I look.

And indeed, you've come a really long way since Izzie, your blonde model character in "Grey's Anatomy." As a young actor, I'm sure that you were thrilled to be a series regular. How have you felt about typecasting in Hollywood and how has that affected your career?

Well, quite frankly, thank God because I wouldn't have had a role if they didn't cast me to be the white blonde girl. That's who I was. I thought it was a really interesting character and a really interesting casting because in a way, that was a bit tongue in cheek. Izzie was a cliche in a way of that kind of girl, but yet, here she was doing something extraordinary with her life. She wasn't an influencer on Instagram, she was trying to be a surgeon. And she was coming out of a situation, a trailer park situation in her life, with very little means, very little opportunity for education, a mother that was kind of unstable, but still this passion to do something difficult. 

I met a young girl at the airport coming to New York who told me how influenced she has been by ''Grey's Anatomy'' and she's pursuing a medical career because of it and studying to be a surgeon. And I went, "Wow." I would've watched that show as a young girl and definitely not been inspired to be a surgeon because that is a lot of work. That's a lot of years of education, that's a lot of studying, that's a lot before you ever even get there. That kind of emotional, intellectual fortitude is very impressive to me. Certainly, I feel incredibly proud in a small way to have influenced this wonderful young woman to do something so important and significant with her life. Izzie was that girl that somebody somewhere inspired. She wasn't just a blonde, white, big-boobed girl who could have just made that her profession, like me.

I'm an armchair doctor. I'm a medical nerd. Did you absorb a lot from the show? Are you the person in your house that the kids go to or your husband goes to?

No. I have a couple hypochondriacs in my house, so I let them deal with that. Yesterday or the other day, my five-year-old came downstairs, he'd fallen on his Lego and he had the smallest, tiniest nick on his knee and he was limping in. "I'm bleeding." And I just was like, "Oh, you'll be OK," and then I just go back to doing whatever I'm doing and it's dad and his sisters will go, "We got to get a bandaid. Where's the alcohol wipe?"

You touched on some of the dynamics in your household, and I know you've been really private about your family life, which I admire. But I did notice that you've been sharing a bit more publicly about your children now that they're older, particularly when there's milestones, birthdays, things like that. How has being a parent in these uncertain times changed your way of looking at the world?

Man, it's pretty tough. There's a lot of fear surrounding it all. Am I on top of this enough? Am I paying enough attention? Do I know what they're up to? Do I know what they're seeing? Do I know what's being thrown in their faces on these devices all the time? And no, I don't always. I will walk into a room and be like, "My God, what are you watching?" And just the horror. My five-year-old's watching some really creepy scene from "Alien." I'm like, "Aren't you traumatized?" And he's like, "No. Do you know what that's called? It's called an allegorgan," or something. And you're going, "OK, how do I put limits on the television and on YouTube and on everything?" And some of it is just going, "They're going to be OK. They're going to be OK because we are going to keep talking about this." 

"I wouldn't have had a role if they didn't cast me to be the white blonde girl. That's who I was."

We're going to sit at the dinner table together and we are going to have these conversations and I'm going to keep hammering into them. Especially with my daughters. This is fake. It's all fake and it's OK that it's fake. No judgment, but nobody looks like this all the time. Nobody's life looks like this all the time. No 16-year-old looks like this all the time. OK? It's fake. Nobody puts their shittiest picture in an album for the world to see. It's understandable why they do it, but don't believe it all the time. I know that that's a hard concept to understand. I know it's hard to internalize, but I think they will. 

They are actually getting savvier and savvier about all of that, younger and younger. They're like, "Yeah, that's a filter, I can tell," or, "Yeah, I know she doesn't look like that in real life because I've seen it." And you're going, "OK, you understand the distinction. That's all I need you to understand. You don't have to look like that. Nobody does." Then also just my own responsibility in it. It's very tempting the older I get to filter the ever living crap out of myself for any photo, any video, any whatever. And they now have all these lovely apps that will do that. I did it to myself the other day to send just a photo to my husband. I wanted him to see, I put a wig on and had long blonde hair, but it was terrible lighting in this hair salon. I looked like I hadn't slept in a year or something. And I was like, oh, what can I do to fix all this? And I looked at it after I'd done it and went, I deleted it because I was like, "That's not me, and he's going to know that." I feel like the vanity attached to that was just uncomfortable for me. So I get it, it's tempting but it's not real.

Then it's so many young women, really young, 15, 16, trying on adulthood very early and posting it. I struggle with that because the best part of my childhood was that I was a child. I look back at that and think, "God, thank God I had that." Everything was very black and white. I did what my parents told me to do. I liked not having to make these big monumental choices. And then you get old enough, 20, 21 and you start having to make those choices for yourself, find your own morality, integrity, character. Let us do that for you when you're young. It's coming soon enough. So I really don't know. They make it look so enticing to the young.

I have an almost 15-year-old, so I'm in the trenches every day. It's rough. It's very rough out here and every day I feel like I'm on a log roll. Very uncertain and I don't like to feel uncertain. And you seem like the kind of person who doesn't either. And usually I'm pretty decisive and I'm just like at sea.

Yeah. Because if you say you can't participate, and I did for a long time, I said, "You cannot have Snapchat." Well still, I don't want Snapchat. You cannot have TikTok, you cannot have Instagram. Here's YouTube kids, that's what you can watch. Then you are isolating them from their peers because that's not the world they live in. 

My mom and I have talked a lot about this because you'd think my mother would be like, absolutely don't let them have it. She's like, "No, you can't do that to them; that's not the world they live in. They must have some access; monitor the access." But if they go to school, and everybody at school's talking about this new trend or that new trend or this viral video and they have no idea what their friends are talking about and can't participate at all, they're going to be alone. And I realized that. So then I thought, OK, the next best thing I can do, and I'm very grateful that Apple has all of those notification controls and all this stuff that you can now monitor as a parent from your own device. And you're still missing stuff. There's still stuff sliding through that you're not paying attention to or didn't catch, but it's the conversations. 

I just keep trying to have conversations about it and hope that it's sinking in and that I do a lot of educating through television. I forced them to watch certain things with me. For a while it was "Glee." My daughter and I really were enjoying "Glee" together and there are so many great young person lessons that I would pause and be like, "OK, let's talk about this for a minute because I think it's really important what they're saying here." I'm that person. 

"I felt less alone in this idea that not everything is a perfect fairytale all the time."

It's like, "Mom, stop interrupting."

I know. And she's like, "I get it, I get it." But that's how I kind of try to start those conversations with them and make it feel relatable. Because here it is right on the television, look at these actors telling the story. Obviously, I'm passionate about storytelling.

You and your mother Nancy are big animal rights advocates and founded a rescue together in 2008 in memory of your brother. And now you have Badlands Ranch and you're making healthy pet food. Tell me the genesis of you and your brother's love of animals.

My brother was a very interesting, unique young man. He was very passionate, inspired by the underdogs, by the injustices of the world, by the voiceless and the innocent. My mother began the foundation and really it was her passion and her desire to create a legacy for a child who couldn't create his own. And then in that, this ball started really rolling. And my mother jokes that it's like the mafia: once you're in, you're in, there's no getting out. Once your eyes are open to what is happening in our country, you can never shut them again. So it is a vocation, it is a lifelong vocation. I know that it doesn't have to be this way. The problem is getting our world to change. So we will just keep at it and keep at it and keep at it.

The beauty of the Badlands food is that it was such a blessing because they knew I liked animals, they knew I liked dogs. How about a dog food line? And I thought, why? There's a million dog food brands, what do I have to add to this that would be significant or be any different? There's so many in the aisle already, it's hard enough to choose. I'm really passionate about plant medicine and holistic healing. I got a little bit of a witch in me. I like to make tinctures. I really believe in the power of and the healing of nature. I don't eschew science and medicine, I like them both together. But I thought, can we add this to dog food? Can they digest this sort thing? Can these herbs and plants and adaptogens help them too? Because that's the biggest thing I'm seeing. I have eight dogs. I'm seeing a lot of anxiety issues. I'm seeing a lot of health issues. What can we do with this food that can help some of that?

"I got a little bit of a witch in me. I like to make tinctures."

Nancy and I have financially funded it since its impetus and we probably really could use a fundraiser or two. We fund almost all of it. Any dollar you give is going straight to the animals in need. You can also look at the programs we fund that we feel passionate about, spay and neuter, transportation, medical, a lot of animals in the shelters that are languishing and dying and that they're euthanizing and are in pain and are suffering. So we get them out and we get them to the vet and we get them the medical they need. And then the food. Buy the food and know that almost all that money is also going to the animals. I'm going to keep a little for myself because I am not Mother Teresa.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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