She was sexually abused as a child by her father. She became a teen TV soap star and came out as one half of Tinseltown's most famous lesbian couple – which destroyed her career. Now a star again, Anne Heche is in line for the perfect Hollywood ending.
4 October 2009
Anne Heche sat in a chair while a former professional soccer player from Israel drew dots on her scalp with a black marker. Piny of Beverly Hills has been a guru of wigs and hair extensions since he started here in 1975, with clients like Liberace and Dolly Parton. He also created John Travolta's flowing mane in Pulp Fiction.
"It's like having a toolbox I never knew existed," Heche said, holding up a strip of long blonde hair dyed to match her own that would be sewn on to a foundation of tiny braids along her scalp. Heche said she worked with Piny to create her two latest characters in the same way she would a costume designer. "These make it easier for my hair to stay in a style," she said of the three rows of extensions Piny recommended. "And if I have to reshoot and already have a different look, I can just take the character off the shelf. But since I'm doing publicity for these two roles now, it's important to look how I do as these characters. I've learned that it's jarring for people to see what a chameleon I am."
And how. For a woman who recently turned 40, Heche has had more than her share of incarnations. She started life as the sexually abused child of an evangelical Christian father, who was also a closeted gay man who died of Aids in 1983, and his eerily compliant wife, who after his death became a Christian therapist, lecturing on behalf of James Dobson's Focus on the Family about "overcoming" homosexuality. Fresh out of high school in 1987, Heche had a four-year starter career as a soap star, playing good and evil twins on Another World, for which she won a Daytime Emmy in 1991. That led to a period as a budding Hollywood leading lady, co-starring with Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog and Harrison Ford in Six Days, Seven Nights, while off screen she veered through relationships with a variety of father figures, including Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac and Steve Martin.
Then, at the 1997 Vanity Fair Oscar party, lightning struck and she fell madly in love with Ellen DeGeneres, becoming half of the most famous lesbian couple in America. Because she had never given any indication of being gay, Heche was pilloried as both publicity hound and career opportunist – though in retrospect, given her experience with her duplicitous father and homophobic mother, it could seem that her attraction to DeGeneres had less to do with acting than acting out. The romance actually destroyed her prospects as a leading lady; the deal for Six Days, Seven Nights was the last one made as the affair became public, and no more were offered. When the relationship soured after three and a half years and the couple split, Heche experienced what seemed to be a psychotic breakdown, giving in to Celestia, whom she described as an alternate personality she had lived with for years, one who ultimately believed a spaceship was coming to take her to a better place. Her 2001 memoir, Call Me Crazy, recounted that episode and started her on the road to career recovery.
Feature films mostly gave way to guest roles on shows such as Ally McBeal and Nip/Tuck, and she starred on Broadway in Proof and Twentieth Century, for which she earned a Tony nomination for best performance by a leading actress in a play. Barely a year after splitting with DeGeneres – and Celestia – she married Coleman Laffoon, a cameraman who worked on the documentary Heche was making on DeGeneres's stand-up tour before their breakup. (It was never broadcast.) Entertainment Weekly described Laffoon as "a jovial golden retriever of a man whom Heche credits with picking her up, brushing her off and putting her on a path to stability". They had a son, Homer, now seven, but the path to stability reached an impasse, and Heche and Laffoon divorced last year. In March Heche gave birth to her second son, Atlas, whose father, James Tupper, was her co-star in the ABC series Men in Trees, which was cancelled last year after two seasons.
She's on a definite upswing now, both personally and professionally. She co-stars with Ashton Kutcher in the upcoming movie Spread, playing a corporate lawyer in LA, a savvy older woman who relishes the control of "keeping" Kutcher as her toy boy even as she frantically tries to appear his contemporary physically. And she has a supporting role in the critically acclaimed HBO series Hung, playing Jessica, the ex-wife of Ray (Thomas Jane), a broke and losing high-school basketball coach who is forced to make ends meet as a gigolo. Jessica, his former girlfriend, dumps him for a successful dermatologist in a desperate bid to reinvent herself and find some meaning in her life. Heche has done the same thing so often herself, making brave new starts seemingly fuelled by great gulps of hope and wonder, that she brings an unexpected poignancy to the role.
"We auditioned a lot of people," says Colette Burson, the co-creator of Hung. "It is incredibly difficult to find beautiful, talented, funny women over 35."
The hardest part may be getting them to admit they're over 35, but Heche doesn't lie about her age. She has been working since she was 12. Her first role was in a New Jersey dinner-theatre production of The Music Man. She was paid $100 a week, which helped support her family, who had lost their home and were living with neighbours. Eight days after giving birth to Atlas, she was on set, shooting Hung.
Her work ethic never changes, and the invitation of her book's title aside, she did not seem crazy in the two days I spent with her. She appeared to be a focused mother and a loving partner to Tupper. Though she is perfectly capable of uttering sentences like: "Every character puts me through a journey of acceptance about myself," it is hard to discount either her intelligence or her intention. Maybe it's because there's an integral part of her – the abused part – that remains vigilant, a shadow of childhood anxiety that still hovers, a tireless antenna seeking approval. She has an uncanny ability to intuit who she needs to be in any situation. As an actress, she uses this to feed her inner chameleon, and it informs her instincts in plumbing a character's depths, either with lashings of passion or unanticipated fits of whimsy, both of which are just unhinged enough to be riveting. In her pre-screening remarks to the audience at the Hung premiere, Burson quoted Alexander Payne, who directed the pilot, on working with Heche: "Every take was different. Every take was true."
Her all-American good looks and Midwestern-mom vibe keep her a saleable, pretty package. And her impulse toward confession, that beloved all-American pastime, keeps her struggles and dramas front and centre. (DeGeneres has said little publicly about their relationship, perhaps because in Heche's memoir, the love she expresses for DeGeneres comes across as genuine.) But Heche's life seems naturally to generate and regenerate material. She has been up and down, back and forth, like a roller coaster that keeps threatening to derail yet manages, somehow, to stay its course.
When Piny was sceptical of Heche's choice to let me watch two hours of the unglamorously intimate process of tightening her hair extensions, she just laughed. "No more secrets," she told him. "Not for me, you know that."
With Heche's hair firmly in place, we climbed into her slightly used Jaguar sedan and headed toward Shutters hotel in Santa Monica, where Tupper and Homer were spending the day, using the pool.
Driving with Heche felt like being back in high school. She is an easy person to be with, relaxed and chatty. She wore jeans and a flowing top and huge sunglasses. Her extended blonde hair became her, and her face had no discernible pores or oil glands. People have killed for less, but the urge never quite struck – maybe because she makes no distinctions between herself as a celebrity and the mere mortals she encounters in the course of a day. That attitude seems rooted both in her willingness to work (that "work is worth" was a mantra she acquired early) and the fact that, as a mere mortal herself, she needs her pay-cheque.
A sticking point at the heart of her acrimonious split with Laffoon was the very issue of employment. Their initial arrangement was that she would be the breadwinner and he would stay home and take care of Homer. In May 2007, after they separated, the San Jose Mercury News ran an article, "Anne Heche's Husband Says Actress Is a Bad Mother," based on an Associated Press report that an accountant hired on Laffoon's behalf offered "a guideline of $45,239" for payments by Heche in monthly spousal and child support. Laffoon claimed Heche left her son with nannies or assistants in her trailer while she was filming Men in Trees in Vancouver and "after one visit, she forgot to return Homer's favourite shoes and 'his bedtime stuffed animals which… caused him extreme distress.'" Lisa Kasteler, Heche's publicist, was quoted as saying, "For the past several years, the child's father has refused to get a job in order to contribute financially to the child's care."
In March the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that Heche had to pay Laffoon a lump sum of $515,000 and $3,700 in monthly child support, and assume 75 per cent of Homer's private-school tuition.
When I asked her about it, she kept her tone even. "I pay an extraordinary amount of money to him, and it's unfortunate because it is what I believe keeps him from getting a job," she said. I reached Laffoon, a registered real estate agent in Los Angeles, by phone. He chose not to respond directly, saying only, "I'm glad it's over and everyone seems to be moving on with their lives."
Heche agreed about that. "I have that beautiful seven-year-old boy. The blessing of his life is that he adores his stepdad, and they have a beautiful relationship. Homer feels like he has more love in his life. I'd like to leave it there."
So she's working as fast as she can. For Hung, she was originally asked to audition for the leading role of Ray's pimp, now played by Jane Adams. "Who am I not to take a meeting?" Heche said, turning on to the freeway. "I didn't get that part, but then they thought of me for the other. So, great. Listen, one job doesn't ever change the path of your career." That's certainly not the prevailing wisdom out here, where "stars" are insulted if they aren't handed a role just for being. But for Heche, work has always been less about entitlement than salvation. "People like people who work," she said.
__________________ You're perfect, yes, it's true. But without me, you're only you.
At Shutters, 3½-month-old Atlas was sleeping in a cabana while his nanny watched him. Tupper and Homer were both in the water. Heche stopped to say hi on her way to the room where we would talk. When she asked, "Can I have a kiss?" they swam toward her simultaneously, and all three laughed. Heche, who's understandably marriage-shy at the moment, told me about a recent trip to Paris. "James and Homer asked me to marry them together as a family, and all three of us decided that we would forever be engaged," she said. "From that moment Homer said that he would like to call James his stepdad. Although recently he says James is my Dad II."
Before settling on the couch, Heche poured milk into a cup of Earl Grey tea. We talked first about Spread. The character she plays is hard-bitten yet so insecure that she resorts to vaginal surgery to remain appealing to younger men.
"It's interesting when all of a sudden you're the older woman," Heche said. "I had to ask myself: 'What am I not confident about? Why does this scare me?' As a theme in my life, I've always looked at how I can rid myself of shame, so I definitely saw this character as a way to get rid of shame about getting older. Did I understand that there was a person who wanted so desperately to feel loved that they would put themselves through almost any trial to stay connected to her youth? Sure. So I had a lot of compassion for this woman."
Jessica, her character in Hung, has a somewhat softer cast. "I really wanted to tell a more loving tale about women," she said, "that we are fragile, loving people who get to moments in our lives and make some silly mistakes. I think she still has a lot of love for Ray; it ignites every time she sees him. I think she makes a decision with an open heart, but looks back and says, 'How did it go wrong?' It's what I see in so many women: 'How did I make this choice? How did I get here?' "
The relationship between Ray and Jessica has some parallels to that of Heche's parents, who met while in high school. Her father, Don, was a handsome golden boy, good at everything; her mother, Nancy, was excited and in love. Though there the story took its own turn. After Don dropped out of medical school, he never found a profession that lasted, becoming a part-time church organist and choir director, hatching doomed schemes to make money and stowing his family in rural Ohio in a religious compound. In her own 2006 memoir, The Truth Comes Out, Nancy Heche wrote that she essentially missed the 1960s, never reading a newspaper, listening to the radio or watching television. Don disappeared for long periods, living in New York City, doing odd jobs. He claimed to have worked as a driver for Brooke Shields's mother. He deified movie stars, pushing his children to pursue show business.
Heche had four siblings. The eldest, Susan, also wrote a memoir about growing up with a closeted gay father – Anonymity, published in 1994 under her married name, Susan Bergman. She died of brain cancer in 2006. The second daughter, Cynthia, died in infancy, from a heart defect. The only son, Nathan, a target for much of his father's nonsexual abuse, died three months after his father, in a car accident that some surmised might have been suicide. Abigail, now a jewellery designer living in Michigan, was the other child; Anne, the baby. Anne's account in her own memoir of her father's sexual abuse and her mother's denial of it is devastating. She writes that Nancy Heche told her that as an infant she couldn't get a nappy on Anne properly because of sores and rashes she had on her vagina, but she never knew why. Anne got herpes from her father, and in 1983, after he died of Aids, doctors told her she would have to wait years to learn that she was not infected. She was 14 then; she wrote that the abuse stopped when she was 12.
Heche said that when she called her mother – during her seventh year in therapy – to confront her about the abuse, her mother ended the conversation by saying, "Jesus loves you, Anne," before hanging up. In her memoir, Nancy Heche, who is now 72, never addresses the issue of Anne's abuse. I contacted her publisher, Regal Books, for a response to her daughter's comments, and was told by its marketing and publicity co-ordinator that Nancy's agent, Mark Sweeney, said his client would have no comment. Perhaps the most damning comment came from Heche herself, who told me she has never introduced either of her children to her mother.
Nor has she read her mother's book. "My mother's had a very tragic life," she said. "Three of her five children are dead, and her husband is dead. That she is attempting to change gay people into straight people is a way to keep the pain of the truth out. People wonder why I am so forthcoming with the truth, and it's because the lies that I have been surrounded with and the denial that I was raised in bore a child of truth and love. My mother preaches to this day the opposite of that core of my life. It is no mistake that she still stands up against love. And one wonders why I'm not rushing to have her meet my children!"
Understanding the circumstances of Heche's childhood makes it easier to see past the publicity circus of her relationship with DeGeneres. "My love was so all-consuming for a human being who would tell the truth," she told me. "The impact that has on a child who grew up with such shame about who she was, who her father was, the disease he died of, the hatred my mother had for anything gay. And I got to participate in a loving, truthful celebration of the way I thought the world should be." She turned up her palms. "How could that destroy my career? I still can't wrap my head around it."
That is naive at best; Hollywood executives are notoriously skittish about homosexuality and its potential to harm their bottom line. The rap on Heche is that when her bid for greater glory as DeGeneres's other half failed, rushing to marry a man was the only plausible career rehabilitation. When I said that to her, she didn't flinch. "I think that when I was in a same-sex relationship, it was hard for people to separate my message from the person I was with," she said. "The message of my life has stayed the same. I think I was a wonderful spokeswoman for the right to love."
Because Heche's emotional breakdown happened the day after her breakup with DeGeneres – she turned up near Fresno, dressed in a bra and shorts at someone's front door, asking to take a shower before leaving Earth on her spaceship – people seemed to think it was a reaction to DeGeneres. But Heche wrote in her memoir that Celestia began six years earlier, after her mother's refusal to acknowledge her abuse. "In that moment I split off from myself," she wrote. While working on movies she would go to her trailer to transcribe messages she believed she was receiving from God, as Celestia.
To have crashed so publicly and rebounded so mightily is no less than extraordinary. "I went to a lot of therapy," she said. "I talked my head off and pounded enough pillows and confronted enough ghosts. I didn't avoid the feelings of what my childhood was. I went right into them." She does seem remarkably free of anger or bitterness. "I think people saw how hard it was for me," she said. "It's what makes me the artist that I am, it's my bag of sorrow, of human tragedy that I've lived through, and I go to this well every time I create a character. But that no longer dictates my daily life."
Neither does religion. When I asked her the differences between evangelical and fundamentalist – her family slid between the two – she said she didn't know. "We went through different phases of being every kind of whatever kept the blinders on," she said. "I had a mother whose whole life was based on not looking around or knowing anything. It's not a big mystery how people hide abuse. They keep somebody in a bubble, and they go and do whatever the hell they want, and the person in the bubble says: 'I love my bubble. I don't want out of it.' Then 20 years later, you're confronted with truths that happened from all your children, and you say, 'I was in a bubble.'" She sighed. "There's no mystery to any life story. How do you think I turned out the way that I am? Because every single thing in my life leads to it. Every single thing in her life leads to where she is – still living in a bubble. It's why my brother ended up on the side of a road." She stopped talking then and looked at me, seeming suddenly to realise someone else was there. She took a deep breath. "I hear people's stories," she said quietly, "and I'm so touched by how people survive their lives."
On the afternoon of the Hung premiere, Heche stood on her tiny patch of backyard, giving Tupper a haircut. Upstairs, Homer was setting out his pirate treasure so I could see it. Heche finished the haircut. "I'll take my tip in cash," she joked and we went upstairs to admire the treasure.
Tupper, who is 43, used to be a carpenter. He is handsome and low-key and seems somewhat amused by his success in Men in Trees and by the absurdity of show business in general. Next to the cylindrical fireplace sat a pile of old scripts, ready to be burned. Tupper was about to relocate to New York to star in a new NBC medical drama, Mercy, and he appears with Claire Danes and Zac Efron in Me and Orson Welles, the new Richard Linklater movie, which opens in December. But for the moment, he chopped carrots and celery, boiled corn on the cob for Homer's lunch and made him macaroni and cheese. Not Kraft. From scratch.
It was the afternoon of the Hung premiere. Patrick Jagaille, the hairstylist, and Gregory Arlt, the make-up artist, arrived and set up shop on the kitchen counter. Arlt had brought a CD with him, and soon there was music playing and a blow-dryer blowing. "Let the party begin," Heche said, as her stylists, Wendi and Nicole Ferreira, rolled a dress rack through the front door and proceeded to cover the dining-room table with jewellery.
Tupper reached for his keys. "Should I get some champagne?" he asked. Heche nodded.
"It's a tradition for us," she said, as he headed out. This did not make Homer happy.
"Mommy, how far away is the wine?" he asked.
Arlt didn't miss a beat. "I ask myself that question every day," he said.
Homer rebounded. "Is it OK if I move this a little bit?" he asked, wheeling the dress rack away from his basketball hoop. The stylists worked around him, opening boxes of shoes, propping up evening bags next to each pair. "I'm not much of a nit-picker," Heche said, watching. "If I need them to, they can pick it out almost without me there. I say, 'Thank you so much for making me look like this' and go." Heche's dress was fitted the day before; another dress was for the Hung wrap party that weekend.
"Champagne, ladies?" Tupper poured flutes of Mumm and handed them around. "Here's to you darlin'," Arlt said to Heche. They have worked together for seven years, and he knows how to jolly her up and calm her down when the red carpet looms. Heche's upturned face remained serene as she sat, perfectly still, eyes closed. As Arlt worked, an eyebrow appeared. Then two. Atlas woke up and fussed in his crib. "Hi, sweet boy," Heche called, without moving, as the nanny went to get him. Jagaille twisted long fat banana curls into her hair as Arlt drew her mouth and started on her eyes. Jagaille blew out the curls, pulling them into waves.
Arlt handed her a bottle of liquid lip gloss. "For your bag," he said. She checked the bathroom mirror to see how she looked. "I love it," she exclaimed, kissing and hugging them both. She went upstairs to put on her dress, and Tupper went to shower. She came back down in her black Paule Ka dress, and Wendi tied the bow around the waist, moving it to the back.
Wendi held up a pair of shoes with what looked like five- or six-inch heels.
"Are these Jimmy Choos?" Heche asked. Wendi hesitated. "Why, do you hate them?" she asked. "People think they're uncomfortable." Heche put them on, anyway. "We're not going for comfort tonight." She walked around. "Years of soap-opera training," she said. "People thought it taught me how to act, but it really taught me how to walk in high heels." Nicole fastened an intricate silver necklace, almost like chain mail, around her neck and put on a ring and earrings. She was in full movie-star mufti. She stood still while they taped her bra to the deep scoop of the dress in the back. In the car, the three of us made small talk, and Heche seemed preternaturally calm until we were almost there. Then, in a burst of nerves, she whipped out a mirror to reapply her lip gloss and forced a laugh. She turned her face away and looked out the window. She hadn't had this much at stake in a while.
As we pulled into the Paramount lot, it was hard not to feel a shiver of excitement. A bevy of handlers appeared and hustled Heche toward the red carpet. She stepped on to it and the cameras flashed, blinding and white. Perfectly composed, she fielded the shouts: "Anne! Turn left! Anne! Over your shoulder!" Obligingly, she pivoted this way and that. The shouts kept coming, and she kept smiling. For a few seconds the glare abated when the photographers paused and Heche peered past them, catching my eye. She grinned – a real, happy grin. Yes, work is worth. But at that moment, on the way back up, it was also tremendous fun.★
__________________ You're perfect, yes, it's true. But without me, you're only you.