After her relationship with Ellen DeGeneres ended, the star hit rock bottom. Now she's back on top, writes Gill Pringle.
Fourteen years ago Anne Heche appeared to have Hollywood at her feet.
It was 1997 and the Emmy Award-winning 28-year-old had four successive blockbusters filling cinema seats: Donnie Brasco opposite Al Pacino and Johnny Depp; Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones; I Know What You Did Last Summer; and – still her greatest critical triumph – Wag the Dog with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman.
Then she guest-starred on the sitcom Ellen, fell head over heels in love with its star, Ellen DeGeneres, and watched the roles dry up.
She had suddenly become one half of the world’s most famous lesbian couple and, as many cynics noted, her public profile took a giant leap as a result.
But if she was attempting to profit from the union, the stunt backfired; her career floundered in inverse proportion to her tabloid notoriety.
By the spring of 2000 her relationship with DeGeneres was in ruins and so was her career.
On 19 August 2000, the day after ending her three-year affair with DeGeneres, a dazed and scantily clad Heche knocked on the door of a stranger’s home in Fresno, California.
She requested a shower, declared herself to be God and offered to take everyone back to heaven in her spaceship.
The press had a field day. Heche, meanwhile, suffered a psychotic breakdown and looked destined never to deliver on her youthful promise.
So it was a surprise when she began earning glowing reviews for her role as a former beauty queen who longs for her ex-husband’s large appendage in the hit American television series Hung 18 months ago.
Now she’s starring in Cedar Rapids, a film that’s been creating a buzz since its première at the Sundance festival earlier this year.
It is about a naive middle-aged man (played by Ed Helms of The Hangover) who ventures out of his sheltered existence for the first time when he’s forced to attend an insurance conference.
Heche plays the sole woman in a group of insurance agents for whom the conference represents their few days of fun each year, and who take the hapless Helms under their wing.
'Its not often you get to be one of the guys in a comedy. You’re usually just the wife,’ Heche says. 'The response has been, “What? You have comic timing?’’’ she says with a laugh.
'It’s been really amazing that people have started to embrace me as a comedienne.’
Heche, 41, is no stranger to Cedar Rapids’ themes of romance in the workplace.
She met her first husband, the cameraman Coley Laffoon, while filming a comedy special for DeGeneres, and began a relationship with him three months after breaking up with DeGeneres.
That union ended when she fell for her co-star James Tupper, 45, on the set of the television series Men In Trees.
'Where else do you meet people except in your workplace?’ she says today in the Palihouse Hotel in West Hollywood. 'I’m not a person who goes out to bars.’
She and Tupper have now been together for four years. 'We thank our lucky stars for that show because now we have our beautiful son.’
Atlas, two, is Heche’s second son. She shows me pictures on her iPhone of him and his golden-haired half-brother, Homer, nine, from her five-year marriage to Laffoon. 'They look like little rock stars, don’t they?’
Nobody could accuse Heche of having a romantic 'type’: she dated the comedian Steve Martin, who is 24 years her senior, and the Fleetwood Mac singer Lindsey Buckingham, then 43, when she was in her early twenties.
Laffoon, on the other hand, is five years younger than her. DeGeneres was her first lesbian relationship. Was it her last?
Heche almost spills her coffee. 'Oh, jeepers. Yes! Yes! I mean, that’s been way out there for years.’
Heche grew up in the sleepy town of Aurora, Ohio, the baby in a family of five. Her first professional gig was in a dinner theatre production of The Music Man at the age of 12.
'At the time we’d been kicked out of our house and my family was holed up living in a bedroom in the home of a generous family from our church,’ she says, sitting neatly in a floaty chiffon blouse and denim mini-skirt, pale skinny legs crossed.
'I got $100 a week, which was more than anyone else in my family. We all pooled our money in an envelope in a drawer and saved up enough to move out after a year.’
It was the actress’s 12th house move in as many years.
'I found heaven on that stage,’ she says, playing with a wisp of blonde hair that’s escaped from beneath a grey pork pie hat. 'I’d been given an opportunity to experience a life and a joy that was not in my family.’
To say that Heche’s family life lacked joy is putting it mildly.
Heche was sexually abused as a child by her father, Donald, a Baptist minister and church organist.
He was an unsuccessful serial entrepreneur and a closet homosexual who died of Aids in 1983, shortly after revealing his sexuality to his family.
Three months later her brother, Nate, died in a car accident that some have speculated may have been suicide. Her sister Cynthia had died by then of a heart defect. Her sister Susan died of brain cancer in 2006.
Heche and her only remaining sibling, Abigail, have recently begun to rebuild their relationship after 20 years of distance.
'She came out to visit last week, and we’re having a wonderful time in our friendship as we’ve gotten closer. We’ve both put our stuff behind us.’
The same cannot be said of her mother, Nancy, now 74, with whom she doubts she will ever repair relations. Heche chronicled her nightmarish childhood in graphic detail in her 2001 memoir, Call Me Crazy.
She questioned her mother’s inability to stop, or even acknowledge, the abuse she suffered and described how, when she finally called her mother to confront her almost three decades later, Nancy hung up the phone with the words, 'Jesus loves you, Anne.’
Today Nancy offers Christian counselling that purportedly 'cures’ homosexuals. She has never met Heche’s children.
'We are still estranged, yes,’ she says without trace of sorrow.
'Forgiveness is a funny word for me. I’m OK with my mother living her life the way she wants to live it, and I’m OK with her not participating in my life the way I want to live it.
'Love to me is an action, it’s the way you behave, and that’s how you show it. I cannot understand her idea of love, so it’s safer for me to not debate it. And that’s how I’ve found peace with her. I don’t know if that’s forgiveness or not.’
Heche was in therapy for seven years. Does she still get counselling? 'Oh heck!’ she says, laughing. 'I don’t want to look into anything else. Been there, done that. I’ve moved on.
'I’ve always believed I could have a great life built on love. That was kind of my theory as I struggled and fought to put everything behind me – that you can move on – and now it’s true.’
Her strength of character is extraordinary. It was already in evidence when she was a girl. She was just 16 when she was offered a part in a daytime soap opera, but her mother insisted she complete high school.
Eighteen months later she was offered another soap. 'Again I was told I couldn’t go. My mother was very religious and maybe she thought it was a sinner’s world.
'But I got on the phone and said, “Send me the ticket. I’m getting on the plane.” I was like, “Bye!” I did my time with my mom in a one-bedroom, skanky apartment and I was done.’
Oddly enough Heche has found herself cautiously exploring Christianity again. She recently went to church for the first time in almost 25 years.
'I took Homer to a Gospel church a few weeks ago,’ she says. 'He was starting to be a little bit snotty, so I thought he needed to go to church and feel the spirit a bit.
'I took him to a church with a rock band where everyone sings and throws their arms around each other. I wanted him to feel it.’
Does she believe in the Bible’s definitions of heaven and hell?
'Absolutely not. I believe you get it here. Live your life and create the world you want to have here. If you want to live in hell, there’s a lot of ways to make that happen.
'I used to live in hell and I don’t want to be there anymore. Today my life rocks.’
She fiddles with the two diamond engagement rings she wears on the middle finger of her left hand. She describes herself as 'eternally engaged’ to Tupper. 'I’ve already said yes. When I’m 60 I’m happy to walk down the aisle.’
Why wait? 'Well, he’s given me a ring every year so I don’t want to stop that,’ she says delivering what sounds like a well-rehearsed punch line.
'I have quite a collection. Besides, I’ve been married before and so has he. I don’t know what either of us would gain or what would change that would benefit us.’
It’s perhaps not surprising that she is wary of marriage. Laffoon dragged her through the legal system, resulting in Heche being ordered to pay him a lump sum of $515,000 plus $3,700 per month in child support.
'What I find upsetting is not that I provide for him, although that’s not my favourite thing in life,’ she says.
'It’s that the court doesn’t give the person being supported incentive to not be supported. Because if you’re being supported until the child is 18 – and the child at the time is four – what on earth is the incentive for him to get a job?
'The whole structure is defunct. But that’s just what it is right now. We live for Homer.’
Heche could certainly never be called workshy. Even when her star was waning, she flogged her wares in endless television films and drama series.
When she won the part of Jessica in Hung she was on the set for the first day of filming just a week after giving birth. 'I want my family to have food on the table,’ she says. 'I’ve always worked hard.’
Despite her difficulties, Heche is radiant. She claims not to follow diet or beauty regimes. I tell her it must be hereditary.
She laughs. 'So that’s what my mom gave me. Beautiful skin! Thank you, Mom,’ she pauses, then adds drily, 'or Dad.’