In 2008, Katherine Heigl weathered more controversy in the span of a year than most actors deal with their entire careers. In addition to the actress's insinuation that the writers of Grey's Anatomy didn't give her “the material” in the show's fourth season to warrant Emmy consideration for her performance, she also drew ire for calling Knocked Up “a little sexist,” telling Vanity Fair in a now-infamous interview:
“It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. … I had a hard time with it, on some days. I'm playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy? Why is this how you're portraying women? Ninety-eight percent of the time it was an amazing experience, but it was hard for me to love the movie.”
In a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday's Howard Stern Show, Heigl addressed both controversies, but let's stay with Knocked Up for a moment. Despite her critical comments in the Vanity Fair profile, Heigl insists that she “liked the movie a lot. I just didn't like me [in it],” in essence blaming her performance — not writer/director Judd Apatow — for her discomfort with the character she played:
“She was so judgmental and kind of uptight and controlling and all these things,” said Heigl. “And I really went with it while we were doing it, and a lot of it — Judd allows everyone to be very free and improvise and whatever — and afterwards I was like, 'Why is that where I went with this? What an asshole she is.'”
As to the Vanity Fair interview itself, Heigl characterized her moment of honesty as “dumb” but maintains that her comments were taken damningly out of context when the story was picked up by other outlets:
“I don't mean to imply on any level that [the Vanity Fair interviewer] trapped me, she didn't,” said Heigl. “She just…said you know, a lot of women felt that it was a little sexist. So then I felt obligated to answer that. So I tried in my very sort of ungracious way to answer why I felt that it maybe was a little. And I kind of, if you read the whole quote, I'm just saying that can be the nature of broad comedy. They're exaggerating stereotypes, that's what makes it funny. But they just took the 'sexist' thing out.”
Here's where it gets awkward. Though Heigl at the time made a public mea culpa, insisting that “'Look, this was not what I meant. This was an incredible experience for me, and they were incredibly good to me on this movie, so I did not mean to shit on them at all,'” she never privately apologized to either Apatow or co-star Seth Rogen, something she now regrets but feels too “embarrassed” at this point to patch up.
“I feel embarrassed, you know what I mean? I don't want it to feel insincere on any level,” she said, adding later: “I absolutely owe anybody an apology who I unwittingly offended or disrespected, like, I agree.”
Unfortunately for Heigl, the last time she ran into Rogen and Knocked Up executive producer/Rogen's creative partner Evan Goldberg, they weren't in a forgiving mood:
“I think he's really mad at me…I ran into him at a restaurant [a few years ago] and I didn't quite realize that it was as serious as it was…and I walked up, like, 'Hey guys! And it was him and Evan,” she recounted. “[I was] like, 'How are you all?' And they were like very like — and I was like, 'Oh, you're really mad.' I didn't realize that it was that bad.”
Though she says she would “love” to work with Rogen on another project, Heigl was nevertheless realistic about her chances in that regard: “I don't think he would [work] with me, though.”
In fairness to Rogen, he seems to have become more forgiving of Heigl over the years. Though he blasted his former co-star in a 2009 interview on Stern — “I didn't slip and I was doing fucking interviews all day too…I didn't say shit!”, he said at the time — in an interview two years later to promote 50/50 he toned down his criticism, telling Short List, “I think that at the time I was offended about it, but since then … I mean, you do so much press that, odds are, you're going to say something fucking stupid every once in a while. Of the million things I say every day, 400 of them are stupid as hell [laughs]. And any one of them might wind up in a newspaper or a magazine at any given time. So at this point I'm much more forgiving of that kind of thing.”
It's been something of a tough road for Heigl since her much-maligned remarks got her branded as “difficult” (a label that likely wouldn't have been applied to a man under the same circumstances). While her 2008 and 2010 rom-coms 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth were box office successes, her film career hit the skids shortly thereafter thanks to flops including the action-comedy Killers co-starring Ashton Kutcher and the crime comedy One for the Money in 2012. And despite racking up fairly consistent TV offers, she has also floundered somewhat on the small screen — her most notable credit since Grey's Anatomy, the NBC drama series State of Affairs, was canceled after a single season.
It's hard not to feel sympathetic towards Heigl given the outsized public drubbing she's received over the last decade, including a harsh (albeit understandable) slam from Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, who told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014: “There are no Heigls in this situation…I don't put up with bulls**t or nasty people. I don't have time for it.” I have no doubt Heigl brought some of the criticism upon herself, but it's easy to forget that she was only in her mid-twenties at the height of her fame — an age when most of us have the luxury of making our mistakes outside the harsh glare of public scrutiny.
While rehashing the Grey's scandal on Wednesday, Heigl was inevitably more diplomatic and understanding of the writers' position while at the same time doubling down on the claim that she simply wasn't given the material that would have been deserving of Emmy consideration (she won an Emmy for her performance the previous year). Here's the full exchange from Stern:
Howard: “You didn't like one of the seasons, you didn't think that –“
Heigl: “I wasn't feeling good about my work that season, no. And what you have to do as an actor if you wanna get nominated, you have to submit your work. So you kinda go through your season of work and find stuff that you feel is worthy of submission then you submit it, then they consider and they decide who they're gonna nominate and who they're not. And that year…I said 'I'm not gonna submit. I can't find anything I feel good about.'”
Howard: “You didn't feel good about the writing or you didn't feel good about your performance?”
Heigl: “I didn't feel good about my performance, and I didn't feel — there was a part of me that thought, because I had won the year before, that I needed juicy, dramatic, emotional material and I just didn't have that that season.”
Howard: “Why didn't they give that to you? Here you won the Emmy, you're clearly a draw on the show. Why didn't they sit down and say, 'now let's give her something really — since she's being so heralded for her acting.' Do you think people were against you there? That they just said, 'hey, let's put her in her place?'”
Heigl: “I don't think so. I don't think so. I hope not. I think it was more to do, and unfortunately, you know, I was treating it a little black and white and taking it a little personally, but I think there were I wanna say like 12 series regulars on that show, and everybody deserved their juicy, dramatic, emotional season…I'm not a writer, but I imagine it must be very difficult to do that for everybody, to [let] everybody have their storyline.”
Howard: “Did they give you flak for that? Did they sit you down and go 'hey, what do mean you're taking yourself out of Emmy [consideration]?' “
Heigl: “No, I went in cause I was really embarrassed, so I went in to Shonda and said, 'I'm so sorry, that wasn't cool. I should not have said that.'…I shouldn't have said anything publicly, but at the time, I didn't think anybody would notice. I didn't know that journalists would see who submitted and who didn't. I just quietly didn't submit. And then it became a story, and then I felt I was obligated to make my statement, and — shut up, Katie.”
But perhaps the most revealing part of the interview came when Heigl talked about the struggles she faced in weathering charges of being “difficult” without losing who she was:
Howard: “The story was, 'Oh, Katherine Heigl, great actress but difficult to work with.' And you were like, 'I don't think I am.' I know plenty of directors who have publicly stated they would work with you on anything.”
Heigl: “Yeah, no, it was a weird time. Because it was just a decision made, like, this is a juicy story. We're gonna go with this whether it's true or not. And I remember doing this little independent movie and just afraid to say anything about anything. And I remember just wearing shoes a size too small because I was afraid to tell wardrobe that they weren't big enough. Because I didn't want to be 'difficult.' And after that I was like, 'this is nonsense. Stop it. […] Get some help, and own your voice.'”
Heigl seems to have made some semblance of peace with the label she was fairly and/or unfairly saddled with, and I like that she refuses to neuter her personality in order to avoid it — but there is something undeniably tragic in that anecdote about the shoes. In an industry where the “difficult” behavior of male stars is regularly put up with and even catered to, the idea that Katherine Heigl endured an entire shoot while wearing ill-fitting footwear just to appear accommodating says something very troubling about the industry she works in, and the society it both reflects and continues to feed.