A little over 10 years ago, Katherine Heigl was at the height of her career. The then-28-year-old actress had just starred in Judd Apatow’s big bro-com “Knocked Up,” and earned an Emmy for her Shonda Rhimes-certified role as Dr. Izzie Stevens on “Grey’s Anatomy,” when she was cast as the lead in “27 Dresses.”
She was a bona fide Hollywood star, who could reel in not only viewers but paychecks upward of $6 million.
That is, until we tossed her like a watermelon off a roof.
Here’s how her public approval rating plummeted: Heigl was widely expected to nab another Emmy nod before she removed her name from award consideration in 2008, explaining in a statement widely circulated by the press that she didn’t believe her role in “Grey’s” Season 4 warranted praise.
“I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I withdrew my name from contention,” she confessed. “In addition, I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such materials.”
The statement caused an uproar among “Grey’s” fans, as well as the cast and crew of the show, who read it as an insult to now-primetime TV matriarch Rhimes. The showrunner herself was taken aback, and in 2012, two years after Heigl exited “Grey’s” to “focus on family,” she hinted that the attitude revealed in Heigl’s Emmys statement had led, in part, to her departure from the show.
“On some level it stung and on some level I was not surprised,” Rhimes told Oprah Winfrey of Heigl’s 2008 statement. “When people show you who they are, believe them. I carry that [mantra] with me a lot. It has served me well.”
Rhimes continued to reference the actress over the years, telling The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, for instance, that “there are no Heigls” on the set of “Scandal.”
“I don’t put up with bullshit or nasty people,” she said of her “no assholes policy” in terms of hiring for production company Shondaland. “I don’t have time for it.”
For Heigl, the fallout was ongoing.
A few months before Rhimes ballyhooed her new “no Heigls” set life, TV Guide ran an article entitled “Katherine Heigl: My Career Betrayed Me.” Its first line effectively summarized pop culture’s feelings toward the collapsed star: “Katherine Heigl is continuing her campaign to get back in our good graces by throwing herself yet another pity party.”
The story’s headline was a slight manipulation of a comment Heigl made in an interview with Marie Claire, which read:
″This thing that was my best friend for a long time suddenly turned on me,” she said of the notorious Hollywood machine. “And I didn’t expect it. I was taken by surprise and angry at it for betraying me.”
Other headlines included: “From ‘Knocked Up’ to Nyquil Ads, Can TV Save Katherine Heigl’s Career?”; “Hollywood execs say Katherine Heigl is ‘difficult’ and ‘not worth’ working with: Biggest celebrity brat?”; “Will Katherine Heigl’s Comeback Be Successful (and Do We Want It to Be)?”
At this point, Heigl’s career certainly looked different. Although she starred in a handful of film projects from 2010 to 2014, none of them took off the way she’d hoped. Heigl returned to TV in “State of Affairs,” which was canceled by NBC in 2015 after 13 episodes, and then tried with CBS’ “Doubt” in 2017, only to be shortly out of a job once again. The 2017 drama thriller “Unforgettable” gave her a bit of a boost with her role as a jealous, murderous ex-wife (that perhaps capitalized on audiences’ willingness to see her as a villain). But nothing rose to the levels of her 2008 fame.
Earlier this summer, I reached out to Heigl’s team to chat about her return to TV ― as a series regular in Season 8 of USA Network’s “Suits.” The move has “attempted comeback” written all over it.
However, the actress’ representative was “skeptical” of my solicitation, and her manager never returned my requests for an interview. If they were wary of my intentions, maybe that caution was warranted.
Heigl has been asked to rehash her past indiscretion time and time again. In interview after interview, she’s denied her reputation for “diva-like behavior.”
“I’m not a rude person. I’m not an unkind or mean person. I would never go out of my way or consciously try to hurt anyone’s feelings or make them feel bad or uncomfortable or not be professional, not do my job. I like my job. But I will continue to stand up for myself and I’m never going to stop standing up for my right to be heard, my right to be treated respectfully and professionally in return, my right to draw boundaries,” she told Meredith Vieira in 2014. “I am a strong woman, and I’m not going to apologize for that.”
She did apologize. In a 2016 interview with Howard Stern, Heigl recalled an mea culpa she made to Rhimes shortly after the Emmys statement.
“I went in because I was really embarrassed. So I went in to [see] Shonda and said, ‘I’m so sorry. That wasn’t cool. I should not have said that.’ And I shouldn’t have said anything publicly. But at the time, I didn’t think anybody would notice ... I just quietly didn’t submit and then it became a story, and I felt I was obligated to make my statement, and [I should have just said], ‘Shut up, Katie.’”
Today, while entertainment junkies cheer on the women leading Time’s Up and wage gap-related discussions that probe Hollywood’s ugly gender imbalance, Heigl’s legacy remains in limbo. Fans are still suspect, even as “Grey’s” co-star Ellen Pompeo continues to earn back pats for her commendable fight for a $20 million paycheck.
The parallel ― between Pompeo’s unabashed battle for high-rise compensation and Heigl’s highly publicized desire for a meatier role ― isn’t perfect. But there are similarities between the two overt campaigns; both Pompeo and Heigl wanted more, and they deigned to ask for it.
Heigl shared another unfavorable opinion in 2008. Remember that one?
“It was a little sexist,” she told Vanity Fair of Apatow’s “Knocked Up.” “It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. 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? 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.”
A generous reading of that quote in 2018 positions Heigl as ahead of her time, pleading for Hollywood to portray women as something other than “bitches” or moms or ingénues. A woman in entertainment fighting for better scripts? Hell yes.
Back in 2013, Grantland speculated that a Heigl comeback would take a specific form: “a guest arc on a sitcom, with a few well-placed interviews about what a ‘good experience’ it was for everyone.” On “Suits,” Heigl fills a void left by actress-turned-Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, playing lawyer Samantha Wheeler, whom Heigl says fits right in with the rest of creator Aaron Korsh’s fictional firm.
“They’re really just confident and comfortable in their own skin,” Heigl told TVLine. “They have flaws, and they have insecurities, for sure, but they’re not afraid to push boundaries. They’re not afraid to push back.”
What’s interesting is, she got the job by asking for it. The now-39-year-old mother of three, who traded in Los Angeles for life on a ranch in Utah, reportedly reached out to Korsh about general collaboration possibilities before flat-out asking if he needed “a tall blonde” for “Suits” Season 8. And voila, she was in.
There’s privilege baked into that request. (Hollywood is rarely not looking for “a tall blonde.” Would, say, Mo’Nique have experienced such a serendipitous opportunity had she asked outright for a role?) But there’s an admirable hubris in it, too.
Comments and career points can be cast and recast to fit convenient narratives that only tell part of the story. Heigl’s string of lackluster TV appearances and rom-com stints, coupled with her rumored “not a team player” status, can either be a signifier of her subpar acting abilities and professionalism, or a reflection of the exclusively crappy material she’s offered ― until she asks for something better. Or maybe reality rests somewhere in between.
Either way, Heigl is coming back. Will you welcome her?