Calista Kicks Backs

She suffers the frenzied trials and tribulations of Ally McBeal every week. But when her work is done, the real – and very private – Calista Flockhart turns down the noise. (You’ll never guess her idea of a great Saturday night)

~By John Griffiths

It’s Saturday night at a futurama bowling alley in LA’s San Fernando Valley, and Calista Flockhart is bravely donning the requisite vintage – in this case, extremely vintage – blue-and-red shoes. “Let’s not think about all the people who have put their feet in these,” she says with a wry wince as she slips the relics over a pair of prized pink cashmere socks. Not that she’s timid about the sport itself. “I’m a kick-ass bowler,” she warns a handful of easy-going pals. “You watch.” In her blue Old Navy cords and long-sleeved T, the petite, petal-cheeked actress could easily pass for one of the high school kids in the next lane, but when she grabs the marbled ammo, it’s with the gusto of a woman who has lived a little and knows what she wants. She surveys the pins without mercy, licks those pouty lips, and – whoosh,crash – strike! Flockhart twirls around and grins. “See?” she says.

Indeed, Flockhart, an intriguing mix of pixie dust and iron will, seems to be on a roll. A certifiable TV symbol as Fox’s beleaguered Boston lawyer Ally McBeal, she dazzled audiences last summer with her fierce turn in the Neil LaBute play “Bash”; and in July she’ll stir things up again in the film “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her”, in which she plays Christine, a free-spirited lesbian tarot-card reader whose girlfriend (Valeria Golino) is dying. Not that Flockhart, who sports a belly-button ring for the role, is one for psychics herself. “I think we drive our own boats,” she says. Rather, what drew her to the character was her fascination with “the fragility of human beings. If I weren’t an actor, I have a feeling I’d be a psychologist.”

Of course, a slew of reporters and associates have tried to play pop psychologist themselves, dubbing Flockhart “shy” and “unknowable”. And though she admits she is sometimes reserved (“Just like everyone else in the world, I take my time making friends and opening up to people”), tonight she’s warm and playful, high-fiving her friends and chatting freely with fans. When one teen drums up the courage to ask her to write a funny note with her autograph, she admits she’s stumped. “I can’t be funny on the spot,” she says, and that’s what she writes, with the slightest of blushes. Paul Rudd, the “Object of My Affection” star who appeared with Flockhart in “Bash”, later marvels at her sweetness with admirers. “Once, right after a performance, a girl came up and burst into hearts about how difficult high school was,” he recalls. “Calista must’ve been exhausted, but she listened.” Greg Germann, who plays the glib Richard Fish on “Ally”, attributes that generosity to the fact that Flockhart “still seems surprised” by her stardom. “That Audrey Hepburn energy isn’t a put-on,” he says. “Calista is naturally effervescent; she has that indescribable spark. She’ll never be able to take in how much she stands out.”

Well, she has some idea. When “Ally” entered the zeitgeist in 1997, so did the actress, who – plucked from the relative anonymity of the New York theatre world – admits she wasn’t quite prepared for all the attention. During the first season, Flockhart was branded everything from the latest It Girl to a post-modern That Girl. And after venturing to the 1998 Emmys in a pink Richard Tyler sheath that revealed her very thin frame, the star found herself swirling in rumours of anorexia. “All that stuff – it didn’t feel great, but it didn’t wreck my day,” Flockhart says now, kicking back with a beer. “I still went to work and lived.” But amid the intense speculation about her health, she occasionally found herself fortified by random strangers. “People were incredibly supportive and would yell out things to me on the street like ‘Don’t let them get you down, you fight back.’ Once I was at the airport and a group of seven or eight photographers were following me, and I was by myself. It’s very overwhelming and frightening, at least to me. And this young woman started yelling, ‘Leave her alone! Leave her alone!’ And it helped me a lot. It gave me strength.”

Some of that resolve can also be credited to her parents. Flockhart was born in Freeport, Ill., but her Ronald’s work as an executive for Kraft Foods bounced the family – including mom Kay, an English teacher – from Iowa to Minnesota to New Jersey. To soften each new landing, Kay signed Calista up for everything from flute to, yes, bowling lessons. “I was struggling a lot with being the new girl, so I reinvented myself. I had a very large fantasy life going on. My mother wanted me to make friends,” explains Flockhart, who was also steered toward cheerleading at Shawnee High in Medford, N.J. “She had to drag me kicking and screaming into that,” she says, “but she was right.”

At Rutgers University, though, it was Flockhart herself who instinctively chose acting – and the play “Picnic” as her bold campus debut. Her confidence could be shaken and stirred, however; at Enchante, a New Jersey restaurant where she worked as a cocktail waitress, she admits, “I was a notorious screwer-upper.” Spilled gimlets behind her, after graduating in 1988 she headed for New York where she did a Broadway turn as the painfully shy Laura in a 1994 revival of “The Glass Menagerie”. Hollywood soon took notice and she was offered the role of politico Gene Hackman’s drippy daughter in “The Birdcage” – and, in 1997, the chance to audition for “Ally”.

Though Broadway was, and is, in her blood, she hasn’t lost affection for her TV alter ego. “I love that Ally is struggling and that she wins and loses – that sometimes she’s not such a great person,” says Flockhart. “She’s allowed to be not perfect.” The role has proven “to be everything I wanted,” she adds with a grin. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

Jumping into the world’s biggest terrarium required a major period of adjustment, Flockhart acknowledges, but at night she can retreat to her two-bedroom Cape Cod-style home, nestled in LA’s west side. “It’s small – it suits me perfectly,” she says. There, she pops movies featuring favorite actresses like Bette Davis and Carole Lombard into the VCR, or picks out a book from her library, where Tolstoy volumes share space with favorites from her childhood like “David Copperfield”. “I like to read before I go to sleep, with Webster by my side.” (Not the dictionary, but the nine-year-old terrier mutt who has been her constant companion since he was a pup.)

She bought the place two years ago but still browses Rose Bowl swap meets and stores like Restoration Hardware to add to her eclectic décor. Taking the time to select the still sparse furnishings is a luxury. “Decorating is a slow process,” she says. “I don’t just randomly fill my house up. It’s going to me a while. It’s nice.”

But 14-hour workdays leave little time for nesting. As a kid, Flockhart says, “I’d pretend to be sick so I could stay home and watch “The Brady Bunch” and “I Love Lucy”.” Does she ever play hooky now? “No,” she says, adding with a conspiratorial smile, “but it’s not a bad idea. When you have a really big workload, you have to make time to play and hang with your friends. I have to keep reminding myself of that.” In January, Flockhart and castmates Germann and Gil Bellows took a private jet to Atlanta for the Super Bowl, and she brought her parents along too. “You can tell they’re very close,” says Germann.

Flockhart also relishes going out with pals in Los Angeles. “I’m always looking for a new great little restaurant.” Sushi and pasta joints are high on her list, along with Mexican spots (“I like margaritas”) like the kitschy El Coyote on Beverly Boulevard. Flockhart, who before “Ally” lifted weights three to five days a week, now get her exercise during a light lunch-break workout, as well as weekend bike rides, occasional spin classes, runs and, of course, walks with Webster. “I’m very basic and simple,” Flockhart says.

That attitude extends to her wardrobe. Flockhart’s look is Gap jeans and wool sweaters – “I have my old standbys that feel like pajamas. I roll out of bed, put them on, and got to work.” She rarely wears makeup, save for occasional powder and her favored Clinique Black Honey lip gloss. “Calista does a lot of grunging around,” says Germann. “That’s her New York actor’s foundation.” Still, after the 1998 Emmys snag, she did cut loose a year later in a chic Ralph Lauren ensemble (a long yellow skirt with a tailored white cotton man’s shirt tied at the waist). “Sometimes I like Audrey Heburn’s look – she was elegant, very appealing,” Flockhart says. “And sometimes I like something more… well, I have a Joan Jett T-shirt. My clothes change with my mood.”

If she’s in the mood for love, she’s not saying. But Flockhart, who was engaged back in college and has since been linked romantically with Ben Stiller and “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes, does cop to one things after pointing out some tots nearby. “Yeah, I want a family,” she says with a shrug. But with whom? “I’m drawn to people who are talented, and I’m hugely attracted to people who make me laugh” A neo-Shecky Green? “I’m not specific on the make-me-laugh track, just make me laugh!”

Whoever it is, she’ll hold her own. “Calista has a really disturbing sense of humor,” says Rudd with a titter. “If you’re crude, she’s game to join in.” Flockhart has reason to feel free. She has financial stability (back in the day, “I couldn’t pay two months’ rent all at once, so it’s nice to be independent”), clout (“I can be a little more picky now. I have to be passionate about a project or I won’t do it”), and a firm conviction that she’ll be able to direct someday, like her hero Alfred Hitchcock. “Some stars tend to play things safe to protect their image, but there’s nothing Calista wouldn’t try,” says “Things You Can Tell…” producer Jon Avnet. “She’s pretty fearless.” Flockhart, who has proved that point in the bowling alley, has given the ball a rest. “Just for the record,” she says with a giggle, “I won.”

SIDEBARS: (quotes)
“She’s not a big girl, but she’s got all this strength. She really moves forward.” - Greg Germann

“I feel sexy all the time,” says Calista. “Sexy isn’t about clothes. Sexy is all about attitude.”

“I feel like I was born an actress, if that makes any sense,” says the New York stage veteran, peeping out over a pair of Oliver Peoples shades. “I always had an affinity for it.”

“With Ally, I saw an opportunity to play a character who is singular, eccentric and, in my mind, gifted.” ( - Calista)

“Moving all the time as a child made me more sophisticated and worldly than if I had stayed in one place. I grew up a little faster.” (-Calista)

(c) InStyle.