06.01.10

America's New Sweetheart

Katherine Heigl's Killers is in a close box-office fight with Get Him to the Greek this weekend. Nicole LaPorte on her ascent to $15 million-film goddess. PLUS, VIEW OUR GALLERY of leading ladies, from Julia Roberts to Amanda Seyfried.

She tosses back wine, chows down on cheese, and bluntly speaks her mind. America, meet your official new sweetheart, Katherine Heigl.

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For five years, Heigl won our hearts as Izzie Stevens, the she-cares-too-much neurotic resident on Grey’s Anatomy. In movies, she’s been the uptight, unwed mom in Knocked Up and the chronic bridesmaid in 27 Dresses. But in the larger entertainment spectrum, until now, she was just another pretty blond competitor of Kate Hudson, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, et al., all vying for a crown that hasn’t been worn with any longevity since Julia Roberts abdicated a throne that she practically built. Roberts was unique in that she could not only do funny, dramatic, and sexy, but she could do all of them to the tune of blockbuster business. (Outside of Grey’s, Heigl has yet to prove her dramatic chops, but will get her chance in the upcoming The Age of Adeline, a love story in which she plays a woman who stops aging.) It’s been a while since America has so wholeheartedly, and so consistently, embraced a young actress’ glamour, fun, and sunny wit—not to mention her brassy, at times politically incorrect, outspokenness. All three of Heigl’s back-to-back romantic comedies, including The Ugly Truth, which received scathing reviews, have been huge hits.

Describing Heigl’s allure, Michael Paseornek, president of production of Lionsgate, which is releasing Heigl’s next picture Killers this Friday, said, “Katie combines the physical comedy of a Lucille Ball and the beauty of Julia Roberts. You put that together, and it’s something that appeals to both men and women.”

Hollywood is responding by paying Heigl—who finally made a long-coming break with Grey’s in March and is now focusing exclusively on movies—a whopping $15 million, plus first-dollar gross points, for two upcoming films, making her one of today’s highest-paid actresses, not to mention one of the fastest-rising. (Heigl got just $300,000 for 2007’s Knocked Up.) The only women commanding higher quotes are Angelina Jolie, who received $20 million for this summer’s Salt, and Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock.

“There are very few women who can open a movie,” Paseornek said, explaining her rapid ascension. “Katie Heigl can open a movie.”

But can she open a big movie? Killers, a romantic comedy starring Heigl and Ashton Kutcher as a pair of married, suburban assassins, will be a huge test. With a budget of, according to one insider, $85 million (Lionsgate claims it’s less), plus a major marketing push, Killers cost nearly three times as much as Heigl’s previous films, the modest budgets of which were key to their profitability.

Understandably, Lionsgate is pushing the film like crazy—and protecting it. There have been no early screenings for critics because, according to the studio, it wanted to rely more on social media promotion, a tactic most recently used by the bomb MacGruber. Perhaps, but the move smacks of an attempt to delay negative reviews.

The question is: does it matter? Considering Heigl’s popularity, particularly in films that play to her sweet spot—cute comedies with lots of opportunities for her to walk into walls and bumble through awkward dialogue with members of the opposite sex—probably not.

Make no mistake. “Katie,” as she’s known, is no Southern-charm-dipped Julia. Raised Mormon in New Canaan, Connecticut, the 31-year-old bombshell, who played the cello in high school and got started early modeling and starring in commercials, has no interest in playing by the Hollywood rules, which demand that stars always stick to the script. When Heigl told Vanity Fair that Knocked Up was “a little sexist,” readers, at least those familiar with the movie industry tenet that Thou Shall Not Publicly Trash Your Colleagues, cringed.

Then after winning an Emmy for Grey’s in 2007, Heigl claimed she was not entering the following year’s race because she “did not feel I was given the material…to warrant a nomination.” She followed up with another verbal faux pas on David Letterman, complaining about 17-hour workdays.

But for all of her blabbermouth instincts, there is something undeniably refreshing about Heigl’s Who Cares attitude, particularly when she seems so absolutely right—as when she publicly scolded Grey’s Isaiah Washington after he used a homophobic slur to describe her friend and co-star T.R. Knight.

Nonetheless, perhaps sensing that it’s time to rein herself in, Heigl—who would not comment for this story—has been on an apology tour in recent months. In March, she appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly in Virgin Mary prayer mode, alongside the headline “I’m Sorry.”

It may take more work. Paseornek says the press “lies in wait for Katie,” and recalled how, when Lionsgate was unable to find a connecting flight to get Heigl to a shoot the next day, the studio arranged to have a private plane pick her up. “The next thing I know, I’m reading online that she only travels private,” Paseornek said. “I can assure you that that didn’t happen.”

In Hollywood, Heigl, along with her BFF and “momager” Nancy, has a reputation for being difficult. Her longtime publicist, Melissa Kates, recently fired her (usually it works the other way around), and Heigl’s next publicist, ID-PR’s Kelly Bush, only lasted five weeks. She’s currently repped by Jill Fritzo at PMK-BNC.

But those making films with her, while acknowledging that she “doesn’t suffer fools and is not going to be exploited,” as producer Barry Josephson put it, say that her professionalism stands out. (Josephson is producing Heigl’s upcoming film, due out in November, Life As We Know It.

“She comes completely prepared,” said Lakeshore Entertainment’s Tom Rosenberg, who’s producing Heigl’s One For The Money and The Age of Adeline. “She knows all of her lines for the entire film, and all of everyone else’s, so she’s really ready. And she’s not insecure about what she can do, so she doesn’t need handling or reassurance.”

And, “She spends less time on hair and makeup than any actor I’ve ever seen,” Rosenberg added.

Heigl defenders prefer the term anachronistic to difficult, saying she’s like Carole Lombard, the fearless 1930’s screen actress who was once dubbed “the most startling woman in Hollywood.” Unlike, say, Gwyneth, Heigl seems less concerned with being a celebrity, starting up a lifestyle website, and hanging out with Madge. In interviews, she eschews the “Just a salad, please” approach, and instead seems to always be eating cheese. And boozing it up in the middle of the day.

“She’s a throwback,” said one person who’s worked with Heigl, meaning it as a compliment. “She reminds me of someone from 1948.”

Even her approach to the business is old-fashioned. Despite wooing attempts by the town’s flashiest agents at CAA and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, Heigl has remained loyal to Norman Aladjem at the less high-profile Paradigm. Then there’s her closeness with her mother, after whom Katherine and hubby Josh Kelley named their newly adopted daughter, Naleigh, whose full name is Nancy Leigh.

“Nancy’s clearly the chairman of the board of Katherine,” said Josephson. “They have a great daughter-client relationship. Katherine knows how well it works. She feels very safe with her mom looking out for her.”

Mom and daughter are often referred to as one-and-the-same (as in “They like...”) and work hand in glove together. Before being hired to direct Life As We Know It, director Greg Berlanti had to first pass muster with Katie and Nancy, who are both executive producers of the film, which stars Heigl and Josh Duhamel as an unlikely pair left to raise a friend’s child, after the friend is killed in a car accident. The Heigls, who dealt with a similar tragedy when Katherine’s 15-year-old brother was killed in an auto accident, took the script very seriously, and asked, “How do you deal with this in a way that’s not just morose?” Berlanti said.

“They wanted to make sure that the tone, that we took the issue of dealing with a tragedy completely seriously and were respectful about it,” he continued.

“They’re really good at what they do. The key to working with people who are very talented, and who have had a lot of success in this business, is to always bring your A-game—because you know they’re going to.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story contained two errors. Michael Paseornek’s title is president of production of Lionsgate. And the company’s name is Lionsgate, not Lionsgate Films.

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.