Q&A with Dream Girl Calista Flockhart

It was like one of those absurd Ally McBeal plotlines come true.

In less than two years, Calista Flockhart, the facile actress who'd honed her craft in noteworthy but low-profile New York plays, had managed to mold her neurotic, klutzy twentysomething attorney Ally into one of TV's hottest characters. And she was finally receiving the acclaim for which she'd worked so hard.

Then, last September, just as Ally was about to become Emmy's darling, Calista--whose name is Greek for beautiful--arrived at the awards ceremony in a backless, size 2 Richard Tyler gown that made her look alarmingly bony.

The media went ape with speculation that Flockhart had an eating disorder, and the 34-year-old Rutgers University theater grad has spent the better part of the last year ducking incessant questions about her weight and denying rumors that she has a problem.

To her credit, Flockhart has weathered the ordeal with aplomb. She's tried to concentrate on the job she loves--both on the set of Ally and while making Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In the new film, an all-star version of the Bard's fantasy romp, Flockhart plays Helena, a weepy waif whose hopeless love for another woman's man is realized one magical night in a forest run riot with spell-casting fairies.

These days, Flockhart probably wouldn't mind being able to cast a few spells of her own and give chattering alarmists everywhere something better to talk about.

The Interview

So here you are, a star of not only one of the best shows on TV but of a film version of a beloved Shakespeare play, and all anyone wants to ask you about is...

What you people did to me?!! [Laughs.]

Um, yeah, sorry. The media did go kind of overboard on the whole thinness thing.

It certainly snowballed. When it first started happening, I was shocked. It wasn't fun; it definitely rocked me, and I thought it could be potentially damaging to my career. Then it went from the tabloids to the legitimate media, and I was just outraged because it was so untrue. It was on the news that I was in an institution when I was really at work! It was outrageous.

Did you ever think, Hell, I'm just going to eat a gallon of ice cream every night until these people shut up?

[Laughs.] Then they'd be saying I'm too fat. No, I am who I am. I'm not going to change for anybody.

How did you finally come to terms with all the scrutiny?

I think one has to ignore 99 percent of it and maintain a sense of humor. A lot of the tabloid stories are written so well, they're very clever and very funny. But you have to focus on what's really important and not read them--don't dive into it and don't get caught up in it.

Okay. On to the next set of intrusive questions.

Love life?

Yep. I've seen reports linking you to both Ben Stiller and British stage director Sam Mendes (Cabaret, The Blue Room).

Yeah. On, like, the same day, right? [Laughs.] You know, Sam and Ben are my friends, and I just like to keep my love life private.

A characteristic lacking in the women you've chosen to play. Neither Ally nor Midsummer's Helena seem capable of keeping their romantic feelings to themselves.

Helena is a bit fixated on Demetrius, to say the least. I think we can all relate to that. How far is she willing to go to get what she loves? Apparently, pretty far.

Do you see any of yourself in her?

Sure. That fantasy exists in everybody, probably.

But at one point, Helena offers to be Demetrius' dog! How much of your pride would you sacrifice for love?

I've thought about how much of my dignity I would sacrifice before I'd draw the line and say "I've had enough!" I never came up with the answer.

But at least Helena succeeds. I don't think it gives anything away to acknowledge that she ultimately gets her man--and that you, therefore, wake up the morning after the dream NAKED in a forest glade with Christian Bale.

Yeah...thank God for the hair and flowers that covered me! I was, like, "Put a little flower here, put another flower there, all the right spots." It was a bit uncomfortable. I really didn't know Christian all that well. But I know him a lot better now!

You have a background in classical theater. What would you tell someone who doesn't want to go anywhere near Shakespeare?

I think a lot of people are intimidated by it. They think it's going to be boring, that they won't understand it. But if you make it accessible and put it out there, they'll realize it's fun and easy.

I loved Shakespeare in high school. I discovered Romeo and Juliet when I was in ninth grade. I hated A Midsummer Night's Dream, by the way, when I first read it back then. I remember thinking that it was this insipid little frivolous comedy. But all the things I hated about it--the contradictions, the impossible juxtapositions--I now love. They're what makes it a masterpiece.

You could be describing Ally McBeal--both the show and the character.

Yeah, she's full of contradictions, too. She's singular, she's extraordinarily eclectic and special. And I just love the way the show turns on a dime.

Because it's a hybrid comedy/drama, there's a little heightened reality there. We live in a world where anything goes. So, for an actress, it's limitless. I don't have to put restrictions on myself and say, "Well, I don't think Ally would ever do that," because Ally would do anything! And I think that creates a furor out in the world, because we're pushing the envelope.

Do you ever worry that you're pushing it too far? Feminists have long complained that these supposedly highly educated, female lawyers spend way too much of their time thinking about sex and romance and competing for male attention.

Well, I understand that it hits a nerve with people because they want role models, and they think Ally should be one because she's one of the only women protagonists on TV. But I think that's taking it too seriously, and I certainly have never pretended she's representative of all women.

You don't seem to be very much like Ally at all. Do you ever feel like you just want to knock some sense into her?

I don't think you can play a character for 12 or 14 hours a day, then go home and study her lines for two hours and not get a little spun out and go, I AM SICK TO DEATH OF YOU! Yeah, I wanna say, Be smarter! You're so stupid!

Stupid or not, people can't get enough. Why do you think that is?

I have no perception anymore of who Ally is, but I imagine she's vulnerable and somebody people want to take care of--or hurt.

But she wears her heart on her sleeve, and people assume they know her; they have this sense of camaraderie. Viewers have even sent me some nice presents--mugs, books, pajamas, great things!

Plus, you get a pretty nice paycheck. Any indulgences you'd care to admit?

The only real indulgence was buying a house. That was a pretty big step.

Does that mean you've resigned yourself to living in L.A.?

I'm starting to really like it. I've been doing a lot of hiking, which I love. And when I first came out from New York, I hadn't driven in a long time. Now I'm like Joe Speedster. I love the nature aspect of L.A., which you don't have in New York. You also have more space; my dog has more room to run around outside.

Any other favorite activities?

I kickbox occasionally. It's hard to fit into my schedule, but I love it. I think it gets out all my feisty aggression.

Let that be a warning to any nosy reporter who tries to get into your business.

Well, I don't think I've ever consciously come up with tricks and tools to, kind of, hide. I do think I'm a bit more vigilant, in terms of safety issues and things. And sometimes it is kind of nice to try to hold onto your anonymity.