Actress Katherine Heigl grilled about being a diva

Katherine Heigl's mother and manager Nancy Heigl. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Katherine Heigl's mother and manager Nancy Heigl. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Katherine Heigl at the press conference to promote State Of Affairs. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Katherine Heigl at the press conference to promote State Of Affairs. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

State Of Affairs star Katherine Heigl questioned over "difficult" reputation and mum's role as executive producer on new show

It is not often that you see anyone being grilled by the press in Hollywood, where stars are, more often than not, fawned over as they promote their television shows and movies.

So when it does happen, it is a thing to behold, as Life! discovered on Sunday at an exquisitely awkward press conference for Katherine Heigl to promote her new TV series, State Of Affairs.

Speaking to a gathering of TV critics and reporters in Beverly Hills, the one-time star of medical drama Grey's Anatomy (2005-2010) and movies such as Knocked Up (2007) squirmed as she was quizzed repeatedly over her reputation for being difficult to work with. Her mother and manager Nancy Heigl, meanwhile, was interrogated about her role behind the scenes on her daughter's new series.

The questions were referring to reports such as last year's expose by The Hollywood Reporter magazine, in which industry insiders spoke of foul-mouthed tirades from an overbearing stage mother and diva-like demands from both Heigls, suggesting this was a major reason the actress' once promising career tanked.

Heigl has also been accused of biting the hand that feeds her after she openly described Knocked Up, her first hit, as sexist and criticised the quality of writing on Grey's Anatomy.

Asked about all this, a visibly uncomfortable Heigl said she does not see herself as being difficult.

"And I don't think my mother sees herself as being difficult," she added.

The question-and-answer session had begun innocently enough for the new show, which debuts in the United States in November.

It sees Heigl playing the American president's CIA "briefer", an analyst tasked with identifying the biggest security threats the country faces each day.

Flanked by her co-star Alfre Woodard, her mother and the show's other executive producers at the Beverly Hilton hotel, she was all smiles as she talked about her excitement over the project - her first appearance on the small screen since 2010, when she ended her five-year, Emmy-winning run as Izzie Stevens, the lingerie-model-turned-doctor on Grey's Anatomy.

"Mostly, I was just trying to get people to believe I could be a CIA analyst. What was so compelling to me is that this is an actual job and I never realised that. And to play such an intelligent woman who is a real patriot and really believes she can make a difference and help protect her country," Heigl said.

Asked about her rather low profile in the business in recent years, she said she was close to walking away from acting altogether.

"I took a couple of years off to be with my family, to be with my new daughter," said the actress, who two years ago welcomed Adalaide to her family with singer-husband Josh Kelley, 34. They also have a five-year-old daughter Naleigh.

"I needed that time. I needed to be a mum, a wife and a friend. And really revel in that. And remember what it is I personally feel passionate about in this industry."

A few minutes later, she must have felt less passionate about the industry: A reporter bluntly asked Mrs Heigl why she has been given an executiveproducer title on the new show.

"Why are you here?" he asked point blank, suggesting she might be there simply to look out for her daughter's interests.

"I know you have a role in your daughter's movies but I honestly have never seen a mom as an executive producer in a major production," he continued.

Mrs Heigl answered at last by saying it is because she and her daughter "obviously have a partnership".

But she did not offer any details over her exact role on the production.

"I am her mother for sure, so of course I care about her interests. But I'm just learning about executive producing. I'm learning from those who really know. It's been fun and interesting."

In an earlier session at the same press event, Ms Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, the network producing the show, defended both women as "incredibly smart", adding: "It's a real partnership that seems to work for the both of them and it's been great for us."

Sitting next to the Heigls for the later press conference, State Of Affairs creator Joe Carnahan defended them both as being "hugely instrumental" to the creation of the show, while showrunner Ed Bernero added that their family relationship "doesn't seem to affect anything".

But the onslaught continued when a second reporter asked the actress to comment directly on reports that she and her mother are hard to work with. He tempered it by pointing out that some have suggested she is simply a woman who speaks her mind and that the industry has punished her for this.

Still, Heigl was visibly thrown by the question. "Uh, uh, I… I'm sorry, could you start over? What are you asking me?" she said, flustered.

As she tried to collect herself, Mr Bernero jumped in and asked if he could answer on her behalf, but he was shot down by the reporter who demanded that the actress speak for herself.

She eventually responded: "I can't really speak for that. I can only say that I certainly don't see myself as being difficult. I would never intend to be difficult. I don't think my mother sees herself as being difficult. I think it's important for everybody to conduct themselves professionally, respectfully and kindly. So If I've ever disappointed somebody, it was never intentional."

As for her checkered career, which soared with Grey's Anatomy and hits such as Knocked Up, 27 Dresses (2008) and The Ugly Truth (2009) before fizzling with flops such as Killers and Life As We Know It (both 2010), Heigl said it was a mistake to do so many romantic comedies.

"I felt I had stopped challenging myself. I loved doing romantic comedies and I loved watching them. But I stopped exercising different muscles of my ability. And at that moment, I felt that I was sort of letting down my audience, that I wasn't challenging them either."

And as if to preempt a question about whether she has returned to the small screen with her tail between her legs, she added: "I think a lot of people want to know why this show, why come back to television.

"It's because it's an extraordinary role, an extraordinary opportunity and an extraordinary story, and it's an opportunity for me to flex some different muscles and show a different side of myself as an actor, a performer and a storyteller that I hope my audience will be excited about and love."

stlife@sph.com.sg

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