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A Star Is Born

Calista Flockhart: The Interview

As Ally McBeal, she has become the new girl who can turn the world on with a smile. But be forewarned: Behind the wounded waif lives a woman who is nobody's fool.

By Margy Rochlin for US Magazine (May 1998)

She wants to be a trouper, but the miles of winding road have taken their toll.

"Can I come sit next to you?" quavers Calista Flockhart, as she shakily makes her way to your side of a stretch limousine that has ferried her to and from a photo shoot deep in California's Malibu canyon. For hours she has been riding in the car-sick seat -- facing the vehicle's trunk -- and yet, as the side blackout windows come down a few inches to let in some fresh air, the star of the hit series Ally McBeal can't stop assuming full responsibility for the fact that you've gone green, too.

"I am so sorry to have put you through this," says Flockhart, in perhaps her 10th stricken apology of the day. (She also repents for the unwashed state of her mixed terrier, Webster, for the inclement weather and for the fact that she's under direct orders not to reveal future Ally McBeal storylines.) "Are you mad?" she asks. "because I'd be." In people years, Flockhart is somewhere in her early 30s. But as a full-fledged media sensation, she's still at the infancy stage. Maybe she doesn't know that in these types of situations, real concern is rarely proffered when fake concern will do.

Flockhart tugs at the billed tweed cap she is wearing, which along with faded blue jeans, a loose, pale-lime V-neck sweater and hiking boots is meant to render her invisible to fans who spot America's latest sweetheart on the street and shout,"Al-lee!" With the exception of two suitcases, a duffel bag and Webster, she was alone when she landed at Los Angeles Inter-national Airport eight months ago, having signed away five years of her life to live in a city where people still say, "Oh, so you were discovered overnight!" This to a marquee topper on the New York theater circuit who was uniformly praised both for her work in well-received productions like a revival of The Glass Menagerie and for surreally misguided efforts like the glitzy-cast version of Chekhov's Three Sisters with Amy Irving, Jeanne Triplehorn and Lili Taylor. Now, Flockhart is the winner of a Golden Globe for best actress in a television comedy and the subject of an untold number of articles that thrash out the same burning issue: Does her perpetually wilting dirt character devalue post-sexual-revolution career gals, or is she a feminist role model for the "as-neurotic-as-I-wanna-be" '90s? ("Well, it is a television show, let us not forget," says Flockhart, coming down on neither side.)

Eitherway, what's rarely celebrated about Flockhart is that, for television, she's something of a mold breaker. In this decade, network executives have prescribed that (gen-X heroines first be big-haired and bosomy; if they're gifted actors, all the better. As it happens, Flockhart is in possession of only the latter half of that checklist; and yet that's what makes the ratings soar.

Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley was impressed with Flockhart's theater pedigree, but it was what he saw at their initial meeting that let him know he'd found his leading lady: "a woman who'd just been rushed out here from the East Coast, who'd scurried into a room looking a little frazzled and yet exuded strength and confidence. She owned that role. That was something I was looking for in Ally -- smart and sophisticated but also capalbe of being an emotional mess."

To witness Flockhart at work on the set of Ally McBeal is to realize that in less capable hands her hopelessly unstrung lawyer could prove truly vexing. Even on the director's monitor, it is possible to see how Flockhart, standing behind her paper-strewn prop desk, makes one of Ally's stammering soliloquys work by using a myriad of blip-length facial expressions and by conveying uncertainty with the tremulous physicality of a newborn calf. (If all this makes Flockhart seem like a humorless artiste, here's co-star Courtney Thorne-Smith's memory of how Flockhart helped diffuse Thorne-Smith's jitters by cleaning around: After the two did their first big scene together, "[the director) yelled 'Cut,' " says the evening-soap escapee, "and Calista put her hand on my arm and said very gently" -- and quite facetiously -- "'Now, is there anything I can do to help you?' And I thought, OK! I love her! Good!')

Last February, Flockhart made her first live Ally-free appearance, when she flew to Manhattan to give a reading with Winona Ryder about Bosnian rape victims in an allstar benefit stage presentation of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. For the price of a video rental, however, you can see Flockhart as a Camel Light-smoking alcoholic in Drunks or as a wan dairy-counter clerk in Telling Lies in America. (Flockhart's love of psychologically bleak roles was put on hold for her appearance as Robin Williams' sweetly accommodating prospective daughter-in-law in The Birdcage.) The way writer-director Ensler sees it, Flockhart has no trouble showing her flip side because she's "apparently frail and yet totally fierce. It's this great contradiction that makes you go,'Whoa. here's this woman who's very petite, but when she opens her mouth, you realize that she's smart and knows exactly who she is.

"Whenever you move, I think you lose your history," says Flockhart, who was born in Freeport, IL. Given her upbringing, she should know. Her father, Ron, worked for Kraft Foods, which required her and her brother, Gary, to relocate so frequently that perennial new girl Flockhart became an expert in adaptability. In upstate New York, she mainstreamed by being an uninspired flutist in the junior-high-school band. But in Medford, NJ., her mother, Kay, signed Flockhart up for cheerleading, an identity shift that unleashed the drama queen in her. "I was very passionate," Flockhart says. "When our team would lose, I would cry."

By 1989, Flockhart had graduated with a bachelor of fine arts from Rutgers University and was supporting her-self doing regional theater and the occasional soap-opera gig. That year, she made her New York debut at the Circle Repertory Theater in Beside Herself. "Unusual promise," the generally cranky Frank Rich of yhe New York Times wrote about her. But ask her then 11-year-old co-star Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina, the Teenage Witch) to relate some backstage tales and she paints Flockhart as a fidgety newcomer who would beat herself up over even her positive notices -- but was assiduously kind to her younger colleague. "I think of her as my older sister," says Hart of the woman who taught her not only stretching and breathing exercises but to dress in all black. "Still."

Some final bits of evidence that Flockhart's lift: has changed monumentally: She is spending her hiatus on location in Tuscany, Italy filming A Mid-Summmer Night's Dream with co-stars Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer. And while waiting in line at a coffeehouse, she affects a privacy-obsessed slouch even though it's too early on a Sunday morning for any of the bleary-eyed patrons to be star sighting. As for the woeful-match-girl thing she has going, it now brings out the Great Protector in an even larger section ot the male population. "Is she lonely!" the limo driver asks as he watches her disappear behind the security gate at the front of the hollywood complex where she sublets a furnished apartment. "She looks lonely to me." "That little woman with the funny name..." David Kelley might have thought it was as cute when he called you that in his Golden Globes acceptance speech, but what did Mom think?[Laughs] I think, because I know him, I took it as affectionate. But my mother called me and said, "Why did he say you have a funny name! That wasn't very nice. Your name is unusual. But I wouldn't say that it's funny."

Ah, yes. Your name.

It's so funny how my name has always been such a big deal. When I was growing up, my family was always moving. I had to meet new people all the time. And they'd laugh. And they'd say things like, "Are you from some Indian tribe?" And when you're 7, you kind of go, "I don't think so. I mean, maybe. Well, what's wrong with that?" And then, just when people would get used to me, we'd move again. I'd go somewhere new, and when I'd meet people, I'd change my name. I'd say, "My name is Carol." And then I'd get a phone call, and they'd say, "Hi. Is Carol there?" And my mother would be like. "No. I think you have the wrong number." And I'd be in the background {waves arms frantically overhead, shouting}"No! Mom! It's me! I'm Carol!"

Take us inside the moment when someone cannot get your name right.

Let's say I have an hour conversation or whatever. By the end of my little encounter with them, if they're still saying "Calistra" or "Calypso," I go to myself, "I don't like you. I've gently corrected you. I've (done it discreetly and kindly, and you still don't get it! And you're not even acknowledging that you don't get it! And you're sort of mocking me! Well then, I don't like you and I don't want to know you. And you're not interested in knowing me if you can't learn my nama." C'mere, Webbie.[Though Flockhart invitingly pats the spot next to her; the dog doesn't budge]. He's a little prince.

How long have you had him?

Seven years. [Coos to dog] How are you doing baby?I had a roommate in New York, and she was walking by -- I'm not sure what they're called -- adoption trucks! And they'd just rescued him from a dumpster. So my roommate brought him home and said," I'm going away for the weekend. Can you take care of him?"And love happened over the weekend. At the time, we were four girls crammed into a two bedroom apartment in this big highrise. And when she came back she told me she'd decided we couldn't have a dog because we were incapable of taking care of him. But I was already hooked. I had Sucker written on my forehead. I am definitely a dog person. I feel like Webster and I are very much alike.

Have others sensed this magical connection?

When I did The Glass Menagerie, a friend of mine was staying with me at the time, and she came to see me in it. Afterward she said [excited whisper], "You reminded me of somebody. And I can't put my finger on it." Then later, right in the middle of dinner, she said, "Webster! You remind me of Webster" [Pause] This sounds so strange, and I'm really not a wacko, but I could feel Webster. Sometimes when you play a character, you can feel it in your body. And I felt like I had characteristics of my dog: the way Webster moves, the way he holds his head. I kind of adapted it into this part unconsciously.

Are you two social at your local dog park?

No. Webster and I are very aloof. The two of us go and sit there by ourselves. I sit by myself in the corner with my book and the newspaper. He kind of runs around a little bit, and then he goes and sits on top of the picnic table. He never plays with other little dogs.

Do you have friends in L.A.?

Honestly, not very many. [Shrugs self-consciously] I know that sounds bad.

Who do you call when something good happens?

That depends on exactly what has happened. I'm close with my parents. I have a lot of acquaintances, but my very good close friends are few I can count my very good friends on one hand. And that's how I like it to be.

So there's no one at home with whom you share your triumphs?

Yeah, but I never think about being single.

Even though you're working on a show that does nothing but examine how women feel about being single?

Well, maybe I'm too busy to think about it. I've had a couple of long relationships. And I've had a couple of shorter relationships. I've been, um, virtually alone for a couple of years. But you know what! Who wants to be alone! I think there's a big difference between what people want and what they need. Like, I don't need a man. And I don't need to have a family; But that doesn't mean I don't want it. I identify with the biological clock ticking.

And yet you're tied to the show for the next half decade. Do you ever think., what have I done?

Yeah, I've thought about that. And things like, how will I raise my child! How do you take care of a baby when you're working 14 to 17 hours a day! That's my concern. I mean, not only people in show business have that concern. I think women all over America wonder about how to have a baby and a career. But you know what! You never know. Shows can come and go. They can be a hit and then in three years, gone. There's some comfort in having the stability of a job and having children. It's a double-edged sword.

In what sense is TV a difficult medium for you?

In the theater you don't watch yourself. But if you are ever stupid enough to go to Lincoln Center and watch the archival tapes that they've made of your play, you walk out of there -- or at least I do -- trying to find the biggest building to jump off of, while thinking to yourself, I thought I was good in that play, and actually, I sucked.

Harsh! And this is what happens every week when you watch 'Ally McBeal'?

I don't watch the show -- only bits and pieces of all of them. The only one I sat through was the pilot. Big mistake. I was very hard on myself in the beginning. I'd go home and obsess about what I should have done. Then I'd make myself crazy. Crazier than I already am. I'd be thinking, we need to reshoot that! And I thought, I cannot keep this up. I will die. I've got to nip this one in the big bud. And I did.

What kind of stinging self-critique did your Golden Globes acceptance speech receive?

[Long pause] That was extreme pressure. First of all, you're standing up in front of a lot of people you respect and admire - people who I perceive as a somewhat judgmental crowd. It's a good thing that I was kind of floored. If I had time to think about it, I'm not sure what would have happened.

Oh, c'mon. you had no idea? None at all?

I really had...I mean, I would be a liar if I said I didn't fantasize about it. I mean, sure. But I just didn't think it would happen.

And the party afterward? Did you feel like a member of the club? Or like Hollywood's newest foreign exchange student?

I was happy for about the first 10 minutes and then I wanted to leave. My feet hurt. And I was tired. We made a toast and then went our separate ways. You know, everyone [on the show) is married and has families. What I was dying to do was go celebrate with a very small group of people, be with my buddies. Like Cedric.

You're referring to Cedric Harris, your 'fiance' according to the tabloids?

Yes, and I'm pregnant too, by the way. [Laughs] Isn't that wild! Cedric is an old friend of mine. I keep saying, "l'm not the one who's pregnant. He's pregnant.

And his reaction to your engagement?

We laughed. Heartily; But then I thought to myself, I'm not going to be laughing someday when it's hurtful. At least this is somewhat benign. It's not true. But that's fine. But this society is so voyeuristic and intrusive. And when you're the object of that, it can be... hurtful. People love to stir things up. Even before I was in the tabloids, I didn't believe them. [Pauses] Oh, no! Now I'm really blathering on and on. You know, sometimes I can shut down completely.

Maybe being tabloidfodder has given you plenty of perspective on the subject.

You know what? Gossip has been around since the beginning of time. It kind of gives people a common ground. So there must be some value in it, right! But it kills me, this fascination with celebrities' personal lives. When I started reading the press about this couple who broke up and were on the cover of every newspaper as if they were the royal family [Flockhart mouths the names Brad and Gwyneth], I just thought the fascination with that was...unbelievable.

Recently you were given yellow journalism's highest honor to be romantically linked with Matt Damon. At 'The Vagina Monologues, 'did you think, aren't he and Winona dating? Should I say something to her about this?

I didn't say a word to her about it. I've never even met Matt. In Rumor Land, I'm having a really fun year. But none of it is true.

Be honest. "'Vagina" -- is this a word that you feel comfortable using in mixed company?

After we spent a whole night saying vagina, it became very easy -- so easy that even men were going, "Vagina. Vagina. Vagina. Vagina." Besides, let's talk about the fact that nobody has a problem saying penis. We've said penis on our show I don't know how many times. But say vagina and the censors go, "What?!"

The play gave you an excuse to return home.

It was my first time in New York in seven and a half months. [Pause] I was so apprehensive about going back. Either way, I was setting myself up for huge disappointment.

How so?

Because maybe I'd get there and think, my life isn't here anymore. My life is in L.A. Or maybe I'd go back and go, "Oh, New York. I'm back! And I'm so happy!" And that's what happened. I felt grounded again. Sort of at home. But then I didn't have a hard time coming back [quizzical, amzaed tone]. It was kind of the best of both worlds.

What's it like to reach the level off fame where your age is the subject of great scrutiny?

You know what! That's starting to bother me. The age they print (33] is wrong. At first, I didn't mind. And then the more I see it, the more I'm, "Well, wait a minute..." I mean, I'm aging myself. I'm a little bit younger.

You can always choose to correct the record.

But I don't like to, tell people how old I am. I like that to be a mystery. I've dated a couple of guys where I've not told them how old I am. Ever. I've dated them, broken up with them, and they still don't know how old I am. [Laughs] They probably think they know how old I am now. But the joke is on them. [Laughs] I didn't realize that everything was going to be scrutinized. but it was. Why is that?

Because lying about one's age is perceived as a sign of vanity?

Well, hmm. But that's my prerogative...even if it is about vanity... [Ruminative tone] So people think I've been lying about my age all this time, It's the records that are wrong. I've never once told anyone how old I am. The minute they ask me, I say "That's none of your business." So that means I've never once lied about my age. [Laughs] Now that's true!

How many more times can you hear people say you look like Michelle Pfeifer and not explode?

See? See? [Laughs] You talk about these things that I don't know about. I mean, yes, I know there was a comparison made between Michelle and me. But, um, I don't pay enough attention to he worried about it.

Have you ever looked in the mirror and wondered if there's a similarity

I've never done that. Since college, maybe the end of high school, a few people have said I looked like her. I truly don't see the resemblance. Every now and then, possibly.

Note, you have forced me into busting you. At the photo shoot, weren't you looking at a Polaroid of yourself and saying that from certain angle you see a likeness

[Laughs] OK, OK, every now and then, I can see it. But mostly, I don't.

What's something that has happened to you that confirmed your worst fears about Hollywood?

OK, here's a little story. I was on the set. And I had a bowl off Frosted Flakes that I was eating. And I was talking to two publicity people. They wanted me to do this, they wanted me to do that. And I started choking on my frosted flakes. And I walked away from them, bent down between two trailers. I mean, I was reallyy choking. Tears were streaming down my face. I thought for a secend, it's Heimlich time -- I'm going to die. So a crew member came by ans patted me on the back. I was starting to recover, so I walked back over to the publicity people. They didn't acknowledge that I was choking. They picked up the conversation right where it left off: This made me terribly sad. [Laughs] It also made me Iaugh at the absurdity of them saying, "So, do you think on Friday you can do this interview for blah-blah-blah?"

In The New York times, 'Eve Ensler was quoted as saying "l'm working with 22 divas, "meaning 'Vagina Monologues' cast members like Susan Sarandon, Glenn close and... you. Any reaction?

I'm sure Eve didn't mean it maliciously. Actually, I take it as a compliment. Diva is a derivative of divine. That's quite a title to carry around. But when somebody is using diva in the derogatory sense, saying, "Oh, that woman is a diva"? That just makes me interested in meeting her. Especialy when it's a man saying that about a woman. I'm fascinated by women who aren't making a great impression on people. [Laughs] I think there's probably something there that is more than meets the eye. Or at least unique.

On a first-take basis, what do you think people perceive about you?

Because I'm small and soft-spoken sometimes, people tend to think that I'm fragile. And submissive. And subservient. And for some reason, they think, oh, we need to protect her, we need to take care of her.

And that is a bad thing?

It depends on if my boundaries are being crossed. Like, if l say, "Oh, I have a headache," and then somebody runs out and tells somebody else [urgently], "Calista has a headache! Get her three aspirin," the next thing you know, there's a medic there with a plethora of medicines for me to take. And I'm thinking, wait a second. All I said was that I had a headache. And I'm very capable of getting aspirin myself. In fact, I have aspirin in my pocket. And if I want to take it, I'll take it. Don't underestimate me. [Pause] It's the underestimation that kills me.

Because you some how feel it's condescending?

It's so condescending. It used to send me into this rage. But I've learned to he patient with it. What I say now is that the way the world underestimates me will be my greatest weapon. People pat me on the head, and I go to myself, oh, and aren't they going to be surprised.- The End