“You must be one of the most obnoxious creatures, male or female, roaming the planet.”
That is a line delivered to Katherine Heigl in the premiere of her new NBC series State of Affairs, representing either the cheekiest self-aware bit of writing ever committed to television or a grossly obtuse oversight on the part of the drama’s writers and producers (of which Heigl and her mother both are).
It’s spoken to Heigl, who plays a CIA analyst named Charleston Tucker—and they’re serious about that name—by some sort of frenemy, a work acquaintance who knows her fairly well and just really freaking hates her. You could say this character is a stand-in for all of America.
Because America, at least if we’re to believe the headlines, hates Katherine Heigl.
Take, for example, a recent Q&A Heigl did with Facebook. She discussed what it’s like to play a CIA agent, and the cool research she did before State of Affairs began filming: talking with ex-members of the CIA and learning how to shoot a gun, for example. The headlines the next day, however, seized on her response to a question about rumors that she’s “very rude” to co-workers.
“Yeah I’ve heard those, too,” Heigl said. “Honestly I don’t think I am. Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than confrontation or hurting someone’s feelings and I would never, ever actively do so on purpose. Of course just like any human being, I’ve made mistakes and unwittingly or carelessly spoken or acted, but I always try to make any wrong right. That doesn’t mean I won’t stand up for myself by drawing boundaries and asking to be treated kindly and respectfully, but I don’t do that with any rude or unkind intentions, just with the same strength and honesty I think every one of us is entitled to.”
It’s a pretty brilliant response, and proves that Heigl is very self-aware, that she knows that when people are talking about her behind closed doors they are saying, “Oh, I heard she’s a bitch…” And that she’s tired of it.
At another press event earlier this year, she was asked a similar question to the “very rude” one.
“I can only say that I certainly don’t see myself as being difficult,” she said. “I would never intend to be difficult. I don’t think my mother sees herself as being difficult. I think it’s important to everybody to conduct themselves professionally and respectfully and kindly. If I have ever disappointed somebody, it was not intentional.”
Still, the court of public opinion convicted her of the celebrity crime of “seeming a little bitchy,” and the fact that her crime was unintentional hasn’t alleviated her sentence, which apparently is a lifetime of having to answer for her behavior in the press.
It’s actually worth remembering that Heigl wasn’t always hated. There was a time, even, that she was beloved.
She was perhaps the most popular star of Grey’s Anatomy, and certainly its biggest breakout when it debuted in 2005. (That show has been on air for a long time.) Thanks to her role in the center of what became maybe the show’s best plot line—a love triangle between her, Justin Chambers’s Alex Karev, and a patient named Denny (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)—her Izzie Stevens became the most popular character on Grey’s Anatomy.
Her star quotient exploded in 2007 when she won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama and starred in Judd Apatow’s smash hit Knocked Up, stepping in as a last-minute replacement for Anne Hathaway, someone who knows a thing or two about dealing with public hate.
But rumors of diva-like behavior began circulating around Heigl as her fame outside of Grey’s Anatomy rose. There were reports that she wanted to leave the show, and was acting under duress. She began trashing the series and its writers in the press, saying that she didn’t submit herself for Emmy consideration one year because she didn’t think the writing for her character was good enough.
(To be fair, she was absolutely right. That season began with her character performing surgery on a deer.)
It’s not the first time Heigl was accused of retroactively biting the hand that fed her. In an interview with Vanity Fair, she criticized Knocked Up, to which she owed her Hollywood film career, as being “a little sexist.”
“It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys,” she said. “It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it, on some days. I’m playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy?”
Heigl left Grey’s Anatomy in 2010 after being released early from her contract. But the once-promising film career she was supposedly leaving to chase was already on a downturn. With the success of Knocked Up, 2008’s 27 Dresses, and 2009’s The Ugly Truth, Heigl was pegged as the heir to Meg Ryan-Julia Roberts-Sandra Bullock romantic comedy throne.
Instead she played herself out, pigeon-holing herself into the very kind of characters she criticized Apatow for writing. Killers, Life as We Know It, One for the Money: They were crap. Just really crappy movies. No one saw them, and all of a sudden reports of being “difficult” were a real liability. It turns out audiences will forgive such reports when your movies are good. But when they’re not, those reports are career-ruining.
And it really did seem like Heigl’s career was ruined—which is why the success of State of Affairs is so important for her.
According to Variety, Heigl’s “Q Score”—a metric used to measure an actor’s popularity—is half the number it was when she was at the height of her Grey’s Anatomy fame in 2008. If State of Affairs succeeds, it could change the conversation around Heigl. If people like her show, they’ll start liking her again. She could be the commodity she once was.
Though one could argue she still very much is a commodity, even if she’s viewed as “hated.”
State of Affairs, which is being sold entirely on Heigl’s name, is being forecast by ad buyers to be the biggest ratings hit of all of the year’s freshman TV shows. It’s already commanding the most expensive commercial ad time of any new series, with its $224,060 average cost for a 30-second spot besting even stalwarts like The Simpsons and, yep, Grey’s Anatomy.
With a strong lead-in from The Voice on Monday night, State of Affairs’ debut should be huge. And because it’s also pretty darned good, viewers should stay for more, too.
The show is basically Homeland-lite. And that’s a compliment. NBC could never get away with the more graphic violence and sex and language of the Showtime hit, nor should it want to. It’s actually more fun to watch a drama that is in many ways predictable. You know exact what you’re getting from State of Affairs—a strong-willed, powerful women solving stressful international crises each week, rinse and repeat—and it’s actually kind of what you want from it, too. It’s spy games comfort food.
Heigl, it should be said, too, is very likable on it. Her Charlie Tucker is not actually, despite what she’s told, obnoxious. She’s determined and competent and doesn’t play by the rules, but she’s not a saint. Heigl does an admirable job playing her as a flawed person. She’s wily and sarcastic, but she isn’t intimidating and shrill.
The stakes on the show are laughably high—in the first episode, Charlie must decide between saving a kidnapped doctor from execution and assassinating the most dangerous terrorist on the planet. Some of Heigl’s more intense scenes at work, where she shouts to signal her authority, are about as credible as Izzie’s more assertive doctor-y moments were on Grey’s Anatomy. (Which is to say not very.) And the messiness of Charlie’s personal life is a little too unkempt.
But the show is inoffensively good, which is high praise in a pretty terrible year for freshman TV series. Good enough, even, to make people forget that Heigl is difficult. Or that they hate her.
It’s an interesting thing. We say we want our celebrities to be candid and shirk the tradition of giving canned answers about how they never regret any of their bad movies and how every day on set is a gift and the cast and crew are like family. But when Heigl did this, we charged at her with pitchforks. (Never mind the fact that Heigl was kind of right when she was saying these things.)
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Heigl talked about the press event where she was asked about her difficult behavior. She said that her co-star, Alfre Woodard, talked to her about it a cocktail party that night.
“Alfre just took my mom’s face in her hands,” Heigl said, “and went ‘Read my lips: Fuck those assholes!’ And it’s Alfre, so you believe her.”