"Oh god, I love a good vision board."
When Katherine Heigl says this she is sitting in what she describes as her art room, flanked by jars of paint brushes, sponges, pens, and pencils, and wearing a chunky turtleneck with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. One or two of her five dogs is barking in the distance, and a cat materializes in front of the computer camera — origins: unknown. Within this Zoom tableau, it is easy to imagine Heigl collaging poster boards with magazine cut out stand-ins of wants and desires. With what appears to be a Blick's aisle worth of art supplies, she is certainly equipped for it.
But it was with this steadfast belief in manifestation that Heigl found her latest project. "I had been putting out there into the universe that these are the sort of stories I wanted to be telling," she explains of Firefly Lane. Based on the Kristin Hannah novel of the same name, the series, out Feb. 3, tells the story of the friendship between bespectacled introvert Kate (Sarah Chalke) and ambitious Tully (Heigl) in three distinct snapshots in their lives: when they are fourteen in the '70s, their twenties during the '80s, and finally their forties in the early 2000s. In the show, Heigl saw an element of favorite films Steel Magnolias and Terms of Endearment — interpersonal relationships that are given the space to play out on screen over years. The Firefly Lane pilot was sent to Heigl as she was coming off of a two-season run on Suits and heading into a new decade in life.
"I wasn't really scared of turning 40 because inside I still felt the same," she says. "It wasn't like, 'Well, today is the day that I hang the 'ol cap up.'"
Historically, Hollywood doesn't have the best track record when it comes to producing authentic and nuanced content for actresses. Full stop. And Hollywood especially doesn't have the best track record when it comes to producing that content for actresses over 40. According to a 2020 report from USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, three percent of the top 100 grossing theatrical films of 2019 featured a female lead or co-lead over the age of 45, a decrease from 2018's eleven percent. "It's this weird dead zone [of content], but you're thinking, 'I'm not dead,'" laughs the actress.
Despite the history of omission, Heigl has seen an uptick in prospective scripts that authentically portray and are led by women over 40. It's a trend she ascribes, at least in part, to a parallel uptick in streaming services. It's a numbers game — more places for shows to go means more types of shows.
With Firefly Lane, Heigl — who broke-out in network prime-time earning an Emmy in 2007 for her role on Grey's Anatomy, in which she played Dr. Izzie Stevens from 2005 to 2010 — enters the world of streaming. With almost three-decades worth of perspective, she describes the current state of television production as "a new world." She points to the filming of a sexual assault scene involving the actress playing the teenage Tully as evidence of this shift. An intimacy coordinator was brought onto the Vancouver set to ensure the comfort and safety of the actress.
"I was like, that is huge. We did not have that when I was growing up," she says. The elder Tully — a high-powered host of the hilariously titled talk show The Girlfriend Hour — has several (consensual) sex scenes in the series, and Heigl took note during filming of the conscientious concern "about people feeling protected." She adds, "I want to be taken care of in that situation."
And while Firefly Lane ushered in the new, it also delivered some unwelcome flavors of the past. Anything set in the early 2000s, where one-third of Firefly Lane takes place, is now officially considered a period piece. (I don't make the rules.) Of that collective fever dream populated by BlackBerries and side parts deeper than the Mariana, Heigl surmises: "Bootleg jeans? No. Just, no."
A significant portion of the 2000s for Heigl was dominated by romantic-comedies, scream-singing her way through 27 Dresses and chasing a baby across the screen in Life As We Know It. She was the go-to leading lady for rom-coms the last time they were en vogue, before they careened into genre-non-grata status at the box office. As a fan, she has been enjoying their recent resurgence with films like Set It Up and Always Be My Maybe: "They've taken the genre and modernized it and that is what I feel needed to happen." As an alum, she would consider a return to the genre, but with some changes.
"I can't go back and do 27 Dresses again. I'm not 28, I'm 42. What does that look like in the romance world?" she says. "By the time you get to 40 you understand that things can certainly go your way, but it is not without cost and not without sacrifice and failure and heartbreak and all the other stuff that goes along with life."
All of the thirty years of work, which includes both awards recognition and mid-season one cancellations, has delivered Heigl into, "the first time I have had a full year off since I was 16." In January of last year, she and husband Josh Kelley, a musician, road tripped from the Firefly Lane set in Canada through the Pacific Northwest— which would soon become the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic — back to their ranch in Utah, where they have been ever since. Heigl has filled her time knitting, painting, drawing, gardening, and "cooking, which I am completely over." It is the most continuous time she and Kelley have spent together in their 15-year relationship. "It's working out!" she says, her voice pitching up with the performative frustration many of us use when discussing our respective quarantines. "There were a couple of moments where I was like, 'I don't know, there is a cute house down the road that you could live in,'" she adds jokingly of Kelly.
“This time with my family has taught me how much I need to be here. That needs to be equally as important as the next job.”
For Heigl, the brightest silver lining of the pandemic is the time spent with her kids — Naleigh, 12, Adalaide, 8, and Joshua, 4. This has included a daily routine of sending them off to school and getting them ready for bed, as well as navigating the overwhelming tragedies of the past year. After the murder of George Floyd, in a lengthy post on Instagram, Heigl wrote about her white privilege and her struggle to openly talk about racism with her Black and Korean adopted daughters. "How will I tell Adalaide? How will I explain the unexplainable? How can I protect her? How can I break a piece of her beautiful divine spirit to do so?" she wrote in May. "It has taken me far too long to truly internalize the reality of the abhorrent, evil despicable truth of racism. My whiteness kept it from me."
A year after wrapping production on Firefly Lane she is back to thinking about what's next, with a new caveat. "I don't want to work for the sake of working," she says. "This time with my family has taught me how much I need to be here. That needs to be equally as important as the next job."
With this in mind, she's plotting her 2021. There's a project she wants to get off the ground about suffragette leader Victoria Woodhull, who, in 1872, became the first woman to run for president. It would be one project on a slate she hopes to build for her Abishag production company. Heigl, who has executive produced several projects including Firefly Lane, sees producing as the way she can continue to promote the stories and projects that are meaningful to her "if I don't want to actually be in front of a camera" in the years to come. Outside of entertainment, Heigl, who founded an animal rights foundation and rescue in the name of her late brother, also has the goal to eradicate the gas chambers still used in Utah to euthanize strays.
As far as how she'll go about getting it done? She laughs, "I have no idea." Cue the vision board.
Firefly Lane premieres Feb. 3 on Netflix.
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