“Chasing Calista” by Merle Ginsberg

-- “W” magazine – April 2000

-- It seems everyone’s after Calista Flockhart, but she’s not so easy to catch.

Are there only three stages in a TV It Girl’s lifecycle?
There was a time, just a few years ago, when, if you mentioned the name Calista Flockhart, the response was, “What’s that?” Although she’d spend 10 years doing Chekhov, Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams on the NY stage, she didn’t even register on the radar.
Then, two year ago, when “Ally McBeal” suddenly became the show and Flockhart snagged both a Golden Globe and an Emmy, you heard an enthusiastic, “She’s so adorable. So gamine.”
These days, after about as much hype as any person and sitcom have ever sustained, utter Flockhart’s name and you’ll probably hear some version of, “What is that girl’s problem? Why doesn’t she eat? Does she think being thin is attractive?”
What a difference two years can make. “I haven’t really processed the whole thing yet,” the winsome actress sighs, over her breakfast of oatmeal with bananas and honey, croissant and coffee at NY’s Carlyle Hotel. “But like anything in life, I wish I had at the beginning of last year the perspective and the knowledge I have now. Because I think it wouldn’t have been as difficult. Yeah, it would be nice if people talked about the work, rather than what I look like.”
The fixation on her looks – or, more specifically, her weight – seems to have started with the Emmy Awards in 1998. Flockhart, who was never known for her racy style, personally picked out a low-backed Richard Tyler gown, exposing her fragile arms and bony back for all to see – and instantly sparking rumours about an eating disorder. It didn’t take much digging up to turn up a 1992 HBO movie called “The Secret Life of Mary-Margaret: Portrait of a Bulimic”, in which Flockhart played a college student who stuffs her bedroom closet full of jars of evidence until her parents do a little housecleaning. In that film, which HBO still repeats but has now been omitted from her bio, she binges and purges with the kind of passion Ally McBeal harbours for her ex-boyfriend Billy.
Not long after the speculation began, she took some time off from “Ally McBeal” for “exhaustion.” (In her defense, 14 or 15-hour workdays are not uncommon.) Then her powerhouse publicist, Pat Kingsley, refused to let her go on “The Today Show” when producers would not promise to refrain from asking about anorexia. Many in the media considered the non-appearance as good as on-the-record confirmation.
But the now-seasoned Flockhart, in NY to promote her new movie, “Thing You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her”, realizes the scrutiny is just the inevitable downside of fame.
“What happened to me also happened to Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp,” she says in her small, breathy voice. “All people have talked about is the way they look. It’s a cheap way to take away a woman’s power. If you just talk about the way she looks, you negate her intelligence. They don’t talk about the way men look. I say, pick apart Linda Tripp for what she did, not what she looks like. They don’t talk about Harrison Ford as ever being tall or thin or losing hair – they talk about what a great actor he is. Women have come a long way, baby, and I think it’s a way to punish us for our advance.”
But any actress playing a popular TV character who’s suddenly ubiquitous, who seeps into the public consciousness as much for her short, flippy skirts as her flip attitude, is bound to experience a backlash. “TV can be a double-edged sword,” says Rodrigo Garcia, the writer-director of “Things You Can Tell”. “Television series can wear and tear you with so much exposure. Calista is always berated for her size and weight – it’s so rude. If I was an asshole, I’d say the people who say these things about her are fat.”
Skinny or not, Flockhart has not stopped working since beginning “Ally McBeal” in 1997. She played Helena in 1999’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, with a star-studded cast that included Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett and Kevin Kline, though the film was rejected by critics and audiences alike. Last summer, she starred in a new Neil LaBute play at Lincoln Center titled “Bash”, in which she played a gay-basher in vignette and a woman who kills her child in another. This time, the critics decided the actress might actually have depth.
“But even when the critics came to see “Bash”,” says Flockhart, “they had to say, ‘There’s no Ally McBeal in this performance.’ It was a nice compliment, but why should there have been? Suddenly, you have to prove yourself – after doing theater in NY for 10 years.”
If it sounds like the 36-year-old is bitter, she’s not. But she is in fact a much wiser professional that the one she plays on TV; Flockhart has come to realize that her newfound fame also means bigger paychecks and coveted film offers.
“You know,” she says in a studied, precise way that belies Ally’s constant cloying, “I thought “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” would end up being a bigger deal. But I didn’t really care. Doing Shakespeare in Italy with Michael Hoffman was all I cared about. I had never been to Europe. I’d never had any money. I’d basically lived in Murray Hill in a one-bedroom with four other girls. Now people think I’m making that up. No one believes me when I saw I lived in a place with crooked floors that was infested with mice. I went to Italy, to the Uffiizi in Florence, and wept. I’ve still never been to Paris.”
Flockhart recently traveled to the Sundance Film Festival to promote “Things You Can Tell” (which also Glenn Close and Holly Hunter), and for once she was interviewed almost exclusively about her performance. “Yes, the scrutiny is subsiding,” she says. “It’s inevitable. Everything ebbs and flows.”
Now if she could just the get the damn fashion press to stop critiquing what she wears to award shows. “Most of the actors I talk to wish they didn’t have to go through the pressure of getting dressed up and being judged by what they’re wearing,” she says, girlishly twirling her streaked honey hair. “But it is fun. There is something about playing Queen for a Day, Princess for a Couple of Hours, and then going home and taking it all off and being normal.”
Flockhart, though single, says she rarely goes out, putting most of the blame on her work schedule. She ferociously guards the details of her love life, but brief relationships with Ben Stiller and “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes did make the gossip columns. Although Flockhart still feels like a New Yorker, she says she is finally acclimating to LA, where she has lived for two and a half years and recently bought a house with a garden.
“LA is a good place to think,” she says. “The only thing that really bothers me about it: I feel like people in LA are so much more uptight about the way they dress. I know people who have panic attacks about moving to LA because they might have to put on a pair of shorts. I will never wear shorts in LA. But in NY, I used to walk around the East Village in a pair of cutoffs, and I felt like I looked pretty hip and cool. No one there cares.”
Then there’s the whole Southern California lifestyle. “I could easily fall victim to this health obsession because it’s so alluring,” Flockhart admits. “I remember in NY, people who were up at 6 am were doing ‘The Walk of Shame’ – smelling like cigarettes, mascara under their eyes, crawling home, feeling sick. Ugh. When you get up at 6 am in LA and drive down San Vicente, there are 25 joggers in bright colored thongs. Being addicted to working out is ridiculous.”
She says her own fitness routine is “really light”: 30-minute workouts with her trainer on her lunch break Monday through Friday, and then a “normal” workout Saturday morning. “And this whole no-carb thing – I can’t do it,” she says. “Here I am, getting on a really precarious subject, but I’ve had “USA Today” delivered to my house for about the last year. Since then, I think there’s been an article on weight control at least once a week. Huge articles. And they all contradict each other. This obsession with it is just too much.”
But Flockhart is beginning to understand that diets are business, and that business is, well, business. Take her reaction to the abrupt cancellation of “Ally”, the repackaged half-hour version of “Ally McBeal” that Fox brazenly added to its lineup last fall.
“I knew its agenda was financial,” she says. “So I thought, if we all need the money that bad, okay. Creatively, I was worried about being overexposed. I’m not upset it didn’t work. I think less is more sometimes. Keep them wanting you.”
Flockhart is halfway through her five-year contract for “Ally McBeal” and says she hasn’t decided whether to renew – assuming the show remains near the top of the ratings. Her co-stars Gil Bellows and Courtney Thorne-Smith have already announced their plans to leave at the end of this season.
“It really will depend on if I even have a movie career,” Flockhart says. “I might be tired of the part, or I might want to have a baby and keep the stability. It’s been good for me. But I also love branching out into other directions. I understand why Julianna Margulies quit “ER” when she was being offered all that money. Obviously, she has priorities other than money.”
For now, Flockhart can develop her movie career only during her summer hiatus – and luckily for her, that’s when “Things You Can Tell” happened to be shooting. First time writer-director Garcia, son of Nobel Prize-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”), met her when he was a camera operator on “The Birdcage”.
“She held her own opposite Gene Hackman in “The Birdcage”, and that’s a tough thing to do,” Garcia says. “I definitely wanted to cast her. Then I started to get scared of the “Ally McBeal” phenomenon. But when I met up with her again, I was quickly reminded – I think it took 15 seconds – of her intelligence, her feelings and how private she comes off. She seems unknowable – you can’t define her. And the character of Christine is trying to hide her own emotions as she watches her lover die. So I knew it would work.”
Flockhart had earmarked Christine, a psychic, for herself when she first read Garcia’s script, five vignettes about women’s everyday lives. “It read more like a play or a novel; it’s not that visual a movie,” she says. “In my mind, Rodrigo had written something like Harold Pinter. It’s all about subtext, so simple and so deep. I love the ambiguity of it.”
Critics have observed that, for all of Ally’s flightiness, the character actually has a lot of darkness to her and that almost all of Flockhart’s other characters, in plays, TV and movies, have been psychologically bleak.
“You know,” she says, after a long pause, “that probably is true. I have no idea why. I think I find human beings incredibly fragile. I have great empathy for us all. I’m fascinated by the intricacies of the human brain, how we all lie and manipulate and get what we want. It’s incredible how complicated we are.”
In “Things You Can Tell”, which played to strong reviews at Sundance and is scheduled for a July release, Flockhart managed to be drawn to the one role in a movie of 10 female characters that is in any way controversial. Christine also happens to be a lesbian. Her dying lover is played by Valeria Golino.
“I guess this is where my naivete comes in,” she says with a smile. “I knew, on the one hand, people were going to talk about it: ‘Ally McBeal goes gay.’ But I have this belief that no one’s going to think the character’s being gay is a big deal. I suppose people will talk about it, though.”
Still, Ally McBeal herself already flirted with “going gay,” in a well-publicized, sweeps-weeks kiss with Ling (Lucy Liu). And, anyway, how bad is it really to have your every move become everybody else’s watercooler chit-chat?
“A girl came up to me in the hotel this morning,” she says. “This happens a lot. She just walked up to me and said, ‘Hi,’ completely nice, like she knew me. The fact is, she thinks she knows me. I’m in her bedroom every week.”
The shy Flockhart seems to register recognition with a certain amount of pain, which makes her long, pouty mouth turn down at the ends and gives her an air of haughtiness that might not really be there. One old friend in the business calls her “one of the few people fame has made sad.” But Flockhart, whom “Ally McBeal” creator David E. Kelley once referred to as “that little woman with the funny name,” insists she’s tougher that she looks.
“It’s funny,” she muses. “People tend to put me on a huge pedestal – or totally underestimate me. That’s why you can’t take all that in. You have to distance yourself, disconnect and detach from most of it. Because you just can’t win.”