Anne Heche's moment of truth

Published May 12, 1998|Updated Sep. 13, 2005

Anne Heche was one of the fastest-rising young actors in Hollywood. Gifted and beautiful, increasingly sought after by A-list directors and studio executives, a comedian as well as a dramatic actor whose range and intensity had stirred Hollywood's attention, she seemed poised to be a big star.

Then she and Ellen DeGeneres fell in love.

"I was naive, hugely naive _ I fell in love, and I actually didn't believe people would care," Heche, 28, said quietly, sitting on the patio of the elegant, low-slung Spanish-style home that she shares with DeGeneres here in the Hancock Park neighborhood. "And then everything came crashing down. In an instant. I was told I was not going to have a job anymore. The Hollywood community and friends and family backed away. Nobody was there. Nobody was hiring me. And then the word came that everybody was going to wait and see how I did in Six Days, Seven Nights."

Heche (pronounced Haysh) was cast in the high-profile comedy Six Days, Seven Nights, which opens on June 12, virtually moments before she revealed her relationship with DeGeneres a year ago. The director of the movie, Ivan Reitman, and the studio that was making it, Walt Disney, were worried. Never before had an actor, male or female, been this forward about having a gay relationship and, at the same time, asked Hollywood and the public to accept them as a heterosexual romantic lead.

And not just an ordinary romantic lead. In this case she was starring opposite Macho, Harrison Ford, in a film about a sleek New York magazine editor (Heche) who is stranded on a deserted island with a scruffy cargo pilot (Ford). The two have nothing in common, and then, well, one thing leads to another.

"There has never been an openly gay actress in a movie, certainly a movie as big as this _ and they had a right to be nervous," said Heche. "All of them were, and I saw that. And I thought, well, maybe this is an opportunity to change people's minds, to shift consciousness. Maybe it's historymaking. But when I was in it, it was hurtful and weird."

She paused and lighted the first of many Camel cigarettes, and it was apparent that her nails were bitten to the quick. She was wearing jeans, a beige sweater and green scarf, and when the sunlight hit her face, she looked almost like a teenager. DeGeneres was puttering around the house and eventually joined her. It was lunchtime, and Heche had asked an assistant to go to a nearby health-food store to pick up some tuna sandwiches.

Growing up poor

Friendly and eager, Heche spoke with a determination that seems to have sprung from her surviving a strange and difficult childhood. She grew up poor, mostly in Ohio and southern New Jersey. Her father, Donald, was, in Heche's words, "a split personality, schizophrenic," who barely eked out a living as a church organist. A gay man who never revealed his homosexuality, he died of AIDS in 1983, when she was 14. Her brother died in a car crash three months later. After that, she and her mother, Nancy, moved to Chicago, and family life unraveled.

"We never told the truth in our family _ never told the truth about one thing," said Heche. "We were poor, but we said we were rich. We were falling apart, but we said we were good Christians. We had a father who lived a double life, but we pretended that we were absolutely fine. We lived on the streets but said we didn't. Everything we did was a lie. Denial, denial, denial."

It is Heche's hunger to tell the truth, whatever the price, that led to the media frenzy over her relationship with DeGeneres and the uncertainty over her career. As for the cynics who said that Heche's coming out was actually a career move, Ms. Heche rolled her eyes. "That's brilliant _ people saying they're gay to promote their careers," she said.

With the exception of Force Majeure, a movie directed by Joseph Ruben that opens in August, scripts have been hard to come by for Heche _ despite critics' overwhelmingly positive comments last year on her performances as a White House aide in Wag the Dog and as the long-suffering wife of the federal agent played by Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco.

"I have not gotten any offers," she said, referring to the time since the making of Force Majeure, in which she plays a lawyer who defends Americans facing drug charges in Malaysia. Her nervousness about Six Days, Seven Nights is palpable.

"I mean, there is an element of people going to see the movie and wondering if I can create the reality of being with a man on screen _ and hopefully this will take away everybody's questions," she said. "Actors act. I want to get back to that. Come on, this is my job, this is what I do."

A subject of discussion

But in Hollywood _ which is a liberal place until an issue hits too close to home _ the sexual orientation of a high-profile actor is, at the very least, a subject of discussion, and it certainly was in April 1997. Heche learned almost immediately about the pitfalls of coming out.

As the supermarket tabloids began their relentless pursuit, she and DeGeneres decided to attend as a couple the premiere of Volcano, the film in which she starred as the romantic lead opposite Tommy Lee Jones. She had been offered the part in Six Days one day before.

Heche said that her agent and her manager urged her not to attend the premiere with DeGeneres. "I was told Six Days was going to be pulled out from under me," she said. Angry, Heche then fired the agent and the manager, and, of course, she held on to the role. Indeed, Reitman and Disney would have faced a media firestorm had they canceled the offer.

Reitman, whose other films include Dave and Ghostbusters, insists there was scant concern about Heche's private life, but this sounds unlikely. To get the plum role, Heche had beat out such better-known actors as Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. "She had this amazing chemistry with Harrison," said Roger Birnbaum, one of the producers.

Reitman explained the casting of Heche in this way: "She just got under Harrison's skin and made him come alive and energetic in a different way than anyone else had done. He's an extraordinary actor, and you wanted someone to hold the frame as well as he can, and she was neither intimidated nor fearful of him."

Ford called Reitman after Heche's last reading, when it had been virtually decided that she would be cast. "He said that he had just heard from an assistant that Anne was Ellen's secret lover," recalled Reitman. "I said, "You're kidding.' I had no sense of it. I checked it out, and it seemed to be true, but it had not gone public."

"We talked about it," Reitman continued, "and said she's the perfect person for the part _ she was yesterday, and she still is today."

As for Ford, the star said in a telephone interview that Heche's sexual identity was simply not important to him. "I couldn't care less," he said. "I don't judge that to be an issue."

On the set on the Hawaiian island of Kauai _ the setting is the South Seas _ Ford found Heche easy to work with, he said. "She has a mind of her own, she's clear on the character she's representing, and she has an apparently simple process of acting," said Ford. "Anne doesn't find acting a convoluted process. She finds acting easy and fun."

A start in dinner theater

Heche says she has always found acting easy and fun, even if the rest of her life hasn't been. "In order to help pay the rent I started working in dinner theater at 12, which was the first time I was ever exposed to gay men," she said. "And I thought, "Oh, this is what my dad is.' It was just very clear."

She now has a strained relationship with her mother, who is shocked by her relationship with DeGeneres. "She thinks it's a sin," said Heche. But in the years just after the deaths of her father and brother, Heche and her mother struggled together to make a new life in Chicago.

"My days were spent in school, my afternoons were spent working at Haagen-Dazs and other places and my evenings were spent holding my mother, who kept crying," she said. "We lived in a one-room apartment. My mom tried to keep it together, but at night she would break down. I didn't cry about their deaths until five years later when I moved out."

A talent scout spotted Heche in a high school play and offered her a part in the soap opera Another World. As soon as she graduated, Heche moved to New York, where she was cast as the good and evil twins, Vicky and Marley, in the NBC show. She lived in Greenwich Village and on the Upper West Side, then moved in with a boyfriend in Montclair, N.J.

Heche eventually won a daytime Emmy for her soap-opera role _ which she adored, she says _ but she also applied and got into the Parsons School of Design because she was concerned that one day she would not be able to earn a living as an actor.

In 1988, on the advice of an agent, Heche moved to Los Angeles. She began working almost immediately, winning a role in TNT's Kingfish: The Story of Huey P. Long, for example. She received encouragement from directors such as Barry Levinson and John Frankenheimer and stars such as Jessica Lange and Al Pacino.

"I tried out for Carlito's Way," she said, "and I was too young, too green, and Pacino said, "Give yourself four years to grow into yourself.' And four years later I got Donnie Brasco."

(She has also written and directed Stripping for Jesus, a short, dark comedy that deals with her evangelical religious background. It does not have a distributor yet.)

"Bliss in that moment'

Before meeting DeGeneres at Vanity Fair's post-Academy Awards party at Morton's two years ago, Heche had been in extended relationships with several men _ including Steve Martin, for about two years. She said that as soon as she met DeGeneres, whom she had not watched much on television, she was almost blinded with love. "I just knew bliss in that moment," she said.

DeGeneres, who stood at a table as Heche ate her sandwich, said she had first seen the actor in Walking and Talking (1996), in which Heche played a young New Yorker on the brink of marriage. "I didn't know who she was and asked my friend, "Who is that? She's amazing'," said DeGeneres. "And then I met her at the Vanity Fair party. And it was a chemistry thing that you can't really describe. It just happened. Obviously I was attracted to her, but that wasn't enough. There are a lot of attractive people. She is so unique."

DeGeneres said that she feels responsible for the turmoil in Heche's career. "I tried to back out of her life," said DeGeneres. "I said, "I think I'm ruining your career and your life and I don't think that I'm good for you; I think I should get out of here.' "

"I didn't let her leave the room," said Heche.

"She's the strongest person I've ever met in my life," said DeGeneres, leaning forward.

The two women said they hoped to work together soon. Heche said she wants to embark on a writing career, especially if her acting prospects are seriously damaged. So is she scared?

Heche paused again. DeGeneres watched her. "If I didn't act, I'd be crushed," she said. "That's the thing that hurts most. The idea that someone was going to take away what gives me the most pleasure because of my sexual orientation. That's the most unfair part. I don't think that's the way the world works. I hope it's not the way the world works."

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