Calista Keeps Cool

Calista Flockhart's golden-hazel eyes spark mischievously and a grin stretches her wide, curvy lips. The question that has piqued her playful side: If, as she says, her big dream was to work on Broadway, why did she ever go to Hollywood? "I have no idea!" she says, pounding the table. "Take it back! Take it back! What was I thinking? What the hell was I thinking!"
Flockhart, 34, is sitting in a corner of the pastel-appointed restaurant of the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. She arrived minutes earlier wearing a knit cap and huge black sunglasses, her size 0 (yes, zero) frame lurking somewhere inside a baggy pair of cargo pants and a thick turtleneck sweater. As she talks, a young couple seated nearby stare and whisper. Waiters linger. One of them presents Flockhart with a menu; it's after 2 P.M. and the kitchen will stop serving lunch soon. She searches for something to eat. Soup? No. Salad? No. She's not really hungry after eating a late breakfast. Finally, she chooses her lunch: double cappuccino, tall orange juice.
A year ago, Flockhart's navigating a menu would hardly have been a noteworthy event for restaurant patrons and staff. People were more familiar with her role as the title character of Ally McBeal (Fox, Mondays, 9 P.M./ET), an ambivalent lawyer with a weakness for short skirts and odd fantasies. But the show's second season changed all that. The already wispy Flockhart seemed, improbably, to have lost weight. Rumors circulated saying she had been hospitalized for anorexia. Comics feasted on the story-news that she ate spinach for breakfast inspired more laughs than a Popeye cartoon-and supermarket tabloids cooked up one Calista tale after another: about her weight, her love affairs, even her housekeeping. Paparazzi snapped photos revealingFlockhart… walking her 8-year-old terrier mutt, Webster. To an outsider, the prying and ridicule might have seemed unbearable. But Flockhart says she has not only endured it, she's flourishing.
"I'm actually feeling really good," she says. "I'm not saying there weren't rocky moments in the recent past, but it's very easy, when it's happening to you, to not be affected by it." This rainy afternoon, she is upbeat, smiling easily and even joking about her own press. Asked if she is dating Ben Stiller, as gossip columns insist, she says, "Yeah." Then she laughs. "Oh! Not 'Yeah, I'm dating Ben Stiller.' But yeah, according to the press I'm dating somebody new every other day. I get around! And I live vicariously through my rumors." (Stiller's publicist says the two are "just friends.") "Right now, my life is so full," Flockhart says. "I'm not preoccupied with kids and boyfriends and husbands. I'm not having any panic attacks."
Panic attacks? Those are Ally McBeal's specialty. While Ally's wobbly mien has struck a chord with audiences, Flockhart wonders how it will play when the character "gets a little older." The actress is under contract for three more years; after that, "I'll have to wait and see where I am." Where she is now is in the midst of an "absurd, perverse and twisted" show, as Flockhart describes it, "about really eccentric people going through their lives." It has become a hit, she says, because audiences perceive "whatever may be missing in their lives. Everybody fills in the blanks in different ways." This season, Ally has smooched a married ex-boyfriend, Billy Thomas (Gil Bellows), and started a tumultuous love affair with Dr. Greg Butters (Jesse L. Martin).
The complications with her TV love life are nothing compared with the romantic machinations in her new movie, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Back when she read the Shakespeare play in ninth grade, Flockhart thought it was "ridiculous, silly and boring." Not that she wasn't interested in theater even then: Her mother, Kay, a high school English teacher, often took her daughter to shows in Philadelphia when the family lived in Medford, New Jersey (one of many places Flockhart and her older brother, Gary, resided as their father, Ronald, a Kraft Foods executive, shuttled the family around the country; both parents are now retired). With her aversion to loony romantic plots perhaps softened by Ally McBeal, Flockhart reconsidered the play upon hearing that an upcoming movie version would film in Italy during the show's summer hiatus. An added incentive: McBeal creator David E. Kelley's wife, actress Michelle Pfeiffer, had been cast.
"I realized that all the contradictions and impossible juxtapositions are the very things that make this play a masterpiece," Flockhart says. She "coveted" the role of Helena, and director Michael Hoffman ("One Fine Day") auditioned Flockhart in her Ally McBeal dressing room. "I was impressed with her ability with comedy and her acting technique," says Hoffman. "Helena perceives herself as a victim and is the archetypal waif. So Calista seemed a very good option." Careful with that "waif" business, Michael. Flockhart bridles at the perception, common in Hollywood, that she shares Ally's delicate emotional makeup. "I've always been called fragile, a waif," she grouses. "What do they mean? Fragile in my soul?" Flockhart's self-description: "I'm fierce." She's certainly fierce about the brouhaha over her weight:"I don't believe my weight is a problem. It's society's obsession with my weight that's the problem." Flockhart's Ally McBeal costar Greg Germann is mystified by the fragility issue.
"She's very strong willed," he says. "I don't know anyone who has had a successful career in show business that you could describe as 'fragile.'" Signs of Flockhart's success come in many forms: a salary, according to sources, "significantly above" the $40,000 per episode she received in Ally McBeal's first season; a West L.A. house she's remodeling; film scripts to scan for her next movie role; and thoughts of spending this summer's hiatus performing onstage in New York (where, six years after graduating from Rutgers University with a theater degree, her big career break came in a 1994 revival of "The Glass Menagerie"). With all that, of course, comes more scrutiny of her personal life. But gossip certainly isn't going to drive her out of Hollywood. In 20 years' time "maybe I'll be producing, directing, writing, acting," Flockhart says. "Hopefully, I'll still be alive and well."
- Janet Weeks