It’s one of those deceptively cold New York days where the sun is shining at its brightest, but the frigid, right-at-freezing temperatures aren’t totally syncing up with the golden light.
Something else that’s not fully in unison: The sight of the tall, statuesque blonde walking down the street to our photoshoot with her mom, teenage daughter, and hair-and-makeup artist of 20 years in tow. “Hi, I’m Katie,” she says with a smile as she reaches out from her winter coat for a handshake before being ready for the first setup in record time.
Between the hit television show (you may remember her as Dr. Isobel “Izzie” Stevens on Grey’s Anatomy), the blockbuster movies (she starred in The Ugly Truth, 27 Dresses and Knocked Up) and the current Netflix binge of Firefly Lane (she plays Tully Hart and is also an executive producer on the series), you’ve seen her many times over the years as the Emmy-Award winning and two-time Golden Globe–nominated actress, Katherine Heigl.
But this is Katie—the down-to-earth 44-year-old who is in from her homebase of Utah for the week to do some press, catch a Broadway show and have an authentic “Italian salad” (no eggplant) from the deli around the corner from today’s photoshoot location. And she is settling in to share the version of her story that not everyone knows.
A few days later, we speak via phone as the holidays sneak up at record speed.
“This last part of the month is kind of crazy!” Heigl excitedly says, in-between moments of reflection. “My son’s birthday is Tuesday, my 15th anniversary is on Thursday, and then Christmas Eve is Saturday! How did we get here? I’m still trying to barrel through 2022!”
Congrats on the success of Firefly Lane. It’s definitely a must-binge on Netflix. What’s the hardest thing glam-wise you have to do to play a character over several decades?
I thought it was going to be the wigs, but they were actually really simple. We had an excellent hair department that would get my hair ready in five minutes flat, which made me want to always wear wigs for everything I do! It honestly saves so much time with getting ready in the morning.
I don’t want to ruin it, but we ended up bailing on the whole nails thing, because changing my nails for every decade was tough. Sometimes, we were shooting two or three decades in a day. I finally said, “I can’t do it! It’s too much trouble!” Going from a neutral nail of Tully in the 2000s to hot pink or purple or whatever for the ‘80s…too tough! I bagged it. I did it the first season, but not the second.
I know you can’t share spoilers, but is there anything you can give us to keep going until the show comes back next year?
I think there’s so much great stuff coming up in those episodes [the final seven episodes of Season 2 will debut early June]—some really big relatable, heart-string kind of moments. My favorite storyline is Kate [played by Sarah Chalke] as a new mother. Oh, and we have a really great reckoning between Kate and Tully coming up. Wait! Stop! Maybe I shouldn’t say that, because, right now, we don’t know if they’ve made up. Anyway, I’m giving it all away. It’s impossible. I wish they just dropped all episodes of the show!
You’ve been open during your recent press interviews—the messages about dealing with anxiety are powerful. Are you comfortable with sharing more about your mental-health journey?
Oh god, yes. I need to say something first: I feel like everyone always correlates all of this with Grey’s Anatomy—like somehow that broke me. I just want to be fair to the show and make it clear that that’s not accurate. The show didn’t break me.
These issues started for me when I was a teenager; I always had this irrational fear about “being” that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Then, it would pass…but it would always come back again. It came back in my late teens, in my early 20s, my late 20s. It would always come back. The more stress I had in my life, the more that all fed into my mental health.
And you weren’t exactly living a private life during that time….
The public scrutiny wasn’t great, and the public opinion certainly hurt my feelings, but that wasn’t the worst of it for me. It’s important to make that clear, because this whole thing—what was happening inside my mind—was so terrifying and so out of my control. It wasn’t about my ego, it wasn’t about wanting people to like me, and it wasn’t about my fame or my career. It had nothing to do with any of those things.
I’m still working on it, but I try to come from a place of peace and calm and confidence.
It had to do with the very basics. Ultimately, I came to understand that I have a breakdown within my brain chemistry. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I’m someone who benefits from having a well-rounded understanding of why something is happening, the science of it, the medical nature of it, the emotional nature of it—all the things that happen inside your body when your stress hormone loads are spiking.
We all have that fight or flight instinct, and I am a fighter. I’m just pumping all these awful hormones—well, they’re not awful, they’re meant to save our lives against bear attacks. But if it’s going on all the time, then everything starts to break down. I don’t even know if there are tests for this, but it seems I don’t produce enough serotonin naturally. So, if you’re not producing enough of those chemicals, you can start to suffer some significant depression and anxiety and irrational feelings.
Understanding that all of what was going on in my head wasn’t my fault—that I had nothing to do with how my brain was developed in utero—gave me a lot of relief. For a long time, I thought it was only on me to solve this problem, but I couldn’t solve it. And trying to will it out of me with everything I had didn’t work either.
You found someone to talk to?
Yes, after I had exhausted every other option, I finally found someone to help me. After months of talking and hearing me and going through it, my therapist gently suggested medication. One of my only regrets is that I did not do that sooner; I wish I sought out help sooner. Don’t be afraid to seek help! There are a lot of us going through this and I’m hopeful that the stigma is being lifted more and more.
Mental health is not shameful to talk about, but it’s just something my generation really didn’t talk about…mental illness was always equated with the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The world didn’t treat it as something that had something to do with the actual person it was happening to.
All I can say is, if you’re going through it, please talk to someone. Find someone you can trust and talk to them. The grace of getting to the right place to understand what you’re going through helps lead to action, and that helps lead to solutions.
You’ve also been spearheading another conversation, that of learning to say no. You’re one of the originators of it when it wasn’t necessarily…
…A popular opinion!
Right, but now we look at it differently. We talk about saying “no” and setting boundaries and how that’s not a bad thing.
Doesn’t it always take society a few cycles to start to change patterns and habits of thinking and behavior that are pretty toxic and destructive? It took me, as a human in this human experience, a couple of cycles to figure out how to stand up for myself without it coming from a place of defensiveness or aggressiveness.
You don’t have to attack people, but you do have to stand up for yourself.
I’m still working on that. I’m trying to work on coming from a place of peace and calm and confidence—as opposed to a place of being pissed-off or angry. It’s important to say, “This is my boundary.” But setting boundaries is always hard. It doesn’t matter how intense or loving the relationship is, it doesn’t matter if it’s a work relationship, it doesn’t matter if it’s the relationship with your barista at the local Starbucks. It’s always hard to create a boundary with another human being. They don’t like it! [laughs] I don’t like it either. But it’s necessary, and it’s what I keep trying to teach my daughters.
I don’t want to make it a gender issue, but I do think there is this under-the-radar, unsaid, collectively understood vibe that women are meant to be “pleasing.” I see it in my young daughters, and it’s just this odd, inherent social thing. I’m certainly not teaching them to be like that, but they’re picking it up somewhere—there’s a definite message of “please everyone, except yourself.”
I worry about it a lot when I look at my oldest daughter. I keep saying, “I need you to understand that that is not your job.” And I don’t know if she’ll fully understand it until she’s in her 40s and has garnered some experience of wisdom, but I want to keep hammering it home. “It’s not your job to make everybody else feel comfortable, happy, safe, liked, or adored. It is your job to make sure you know who you are, you know what your boundaries are.” You have to know what you will—or will not—put up with, and then, hopefully, handle that graciously. You don’t have to attack people, but you do have to stand up for yourself.
I think you’ve done a solid job at that. What’s the one thing you wish people knew about you?
Everybody knows everything about me! What do I wish they didn’t know about me? That is the question! But I honestly don’t know; I can’t think of anything. It’s a strength and a flaw that I feel the need to tell everyone everything about myself. I think I do that for connection and relatability. My mother always used to say, “No man is an island.” We’re all in this together, and we all share so many similar experiences. When you feel like you can connect with somebody because they’ve shared an experience that was particularly difficult or joyful for you, you feel so much less alone. I tend to overshare, so I guess I wish I didn’t do that as much but, then again, maybe it’s not such a bad thing.
It’s been both a strength and a flaw that I’ve told everyone pretty much everything about myself.
What are you excited about as we begin 2023?
I’m excited for the start of the year. I have taken a deliberate step back from working; I was forced to take a step back during the pandemic—and I want to be sensitive to the fact that that was not an easy time for many people to have the privilege of getting to work—but, for me, there was some grace in it. It showed me that I need to do that more often; I need to be a little more intentional with the time that I decide to work, and the time that I decide to stay home, versus just barreling from one job to the next, to the next, to the next.
So, I’ve chosen to take a bit of a break, and I’m going to spend some time traveling. I travel a lot for work, but I never travel for pleasure, so I’m going to see my high school girlfriends in Cabo for five days. I’ve literally never done anything like that! I’m so excited. And then my husband and I are going on an artist’s retreat to celebrate our anniversary in January, because we can’t celebrate it this month since so much is going on with the holidays.
I’m just really looking forward to having my time be my own for a few more months into the new year, and set my days up for being a mom, being present for my kids, being present for myself, being present for my marriage, and not having to compromise all those things to go off to work. Hopefully, when I go off to work next, I’ll be in the right frame of mind, the right spirit. That’s where I want to be.