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The trials of Anne Heche

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ANNE HECHE sat in a chair while a former professional soccer player from Israel drew dots on her scalp with a black marker. Piny (pronounced PEE-nee, one name only, like Cher) of Beverly Hills has been a guru of wigs and hair extensions since he started here in 1975: He created John Travolta's flowing mane in Pulp Fiction.

It's like having a toolbox I never knew existed,” Heche said, holding up a strip of long blond hair. “Since I'm doing publicity for these two roles now, it's important to look how I do as these characters.

I've learned that it's jarring for people to see what a chameleon I am.”

And how. For a woman who recently turned 40, Heche has had more than her share of incarnations. She started life as the sexually abused child of an evangelical Christian father, who was also a closeted gay man, and his eerily compliant wife, who after his death became a Christian therapist, lecturing about “overcoming” homosexuality. Fresh out of high school in

1987, Heche had a four-year career as a soap star, which led to a period as a budding Hollywood leading lady, costarring in Donnie Brasco, Wag the Dog and Six Days, Seven Nights. Off screen, she veered through relationships with a variety of father figures, including Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac and Steve Martin.

Then, at the 1997 Vanity Fair Oscar party, lightning struck and she fell madly in love with Ellen DeGeneres, becoming half of the most famous lesbian couple in America. Because she had never given any indication of being gay, Heche was pilloried as both publicity hound and career opportunist. The romance destroyed her prospects as a leading lady; the deal for Six Days, Seven Nights was the last one made as the affair became public, and no more were offered.

When the relationship soured after three and a half years and the couple split, Heche experienced what seemed to be a psychotic breakdown, giving in to Celestia, whom she described as an alternate personality she had lived with for years. Her 2001 memoir, Call Me Crazy, recounted that episode, along with her sordid childhood, and started her on the road to career recovery. She starred on Broadway in Proof and Twentieth Century, for which she earned a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play.

Barely a year after splitting with DeGeneres — and Celestia — Heche married Coleman Laffoon, a cameraman who worked on the documentary Heche was making on DeGeneres's stand-up tour before their break-up. (It was never broadcast.) They had a son, Homer, now seven, but divorced last year. In March Heche gave birth to her second son, Atlas, whose father, James Tupper, was her co-star in the ABC series Men in Trees, which was cancelled last year after two seasons.

She's on a definite upswing now, both personally and professionally. She co-stars with Ashton Kutcher in the movie Spread, playing a savvy older woman who relishes the control of “keeping” Kutcher as her boy toy even as she frantically tries to appear his contemporary physically. And she has a supporting role in the critically acclaimed HBO series Hung, playing Jessica, the ex-wife of Ray (Thomas Jane), a former high-school athletic star, now a broke and losing high-school basketball coach who is forced to make ends meet as a gigolo. Jessica, his former high-school cheerleader girlfriend, dumps him for a successful dermatologist in a desperate bid to reinvent herself.

The invitation of her book's title aside, Heche did not seem crazy in the two days I spent with her. She appeared to be a focused mother and a loving partner to Tupper. Though she is perfectly capable of uttering sentences such as “Every character puts me through a journey of acceptance about myself,” it is hard to discount either her intelligence or her intention. She has an uncanny ability to intuit who she needs to be in any situation — her persistent need to please, a phantom limb. And her impulse toward confession, that beloved all-American pastime, keeps her struggles and dramas and torment and truth — or her version of it, at least — front and centre. Heche's life has been a roller coaster that keeps threatening to derail yet manages, somehow, to stay its course.

With Heche's hair firmly in place, we climbed into her slightly used Jaguar sedan and headed toward Shutters hotel in Santa Monica, where Tupper and Homer were spending the day using the pool.

Driving with Heche felt like being back in high school. She is an easy person to be with — maybe because she makes no distinctions between herself as a celebrity and the mere mortals she meets in the course of a day. That attitude seems rooted in her willingness to work (that “work is worth” was a mantra she acquired early) and the fact that, as a mere mortal herself, her need for a pay cheque is real.

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A sticking point at the heart of her acrimonious split with Laffoon was the very issue of employment. Their initial arrangement was that she would be the breadwinner and he would stay home and take care of Homer. In May 2007, after they separated, the San Jose Mercury News ran an article, “Anne Heche's Husband Says Actress Is A Bad Mother,” based on an Associated Press report that an accountant hired on Laffoon's behalf offered “a guideline of $45,239 (¤30,190)” for payments by Heche in monthly spousal and child support.

Lisa Kasteler, Heche's publicist, was quoted as saying, “For the past several years, the child's father has refused to get a job in order to contribute financially to the child's care.”

In March, the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that Heche had to pay Laffoon a lump sum of $515,000 and $3,700 in monthly child support, and assume 75 per cent of Homer's private-school tuition. When I asked her about it, she kept her tone even. “I pay an extraordinary amount of money to him, and it's unfortunate because it is what I believe keeps him from getting a job,” she said.

I reached Laffoon, a registered real estate agent in Los Angeles, by phone. He chose not to respond directly, saying only, “I'm glad it's over and everyone seems to be moving on with their lives.” Heche agreed about that. “I have that beautiful seven-year-old boy. The blessing of his life is that he adores his stepdad, and they have a beautiful relationship.”

At Shutters, three-monthold Atlas was sleeping in a cabana. Tupper and Homer were both in the water. When Heche asked for a kiss, they swam to her simultaneously, and all three laughed. Heche, understandably now marriageshy, told me about a trip to Paris. “James and Homer asked me to marry them together as a family, and all three of us decided that we would forever be engaged,” she said.

Before settling on the couch, Heche poured cream into a cup of Earl Grey tea. We talked first about Spread. “It's interesting when all of a sudden you're the older woman,” Heche said. “I had to ask myself: ‘What am I not confident about? Why does this scare me?' I've always looked at how I can rid myself of shame, so I definitely saw this character as a way to get rid of shame about getting older.”

Jessica, her character in Hung, has a somewhat softer cast. “I really wanted to tell a more loving tale about women,” she said, “that we are fragile, loving people who get to moments in our lives and make some really silly mistakes.

I think she still has a lot of love for Ray; it ignites every time she sees him. I think she makes a decision with an open, open heart, but looks back and says, ‘How did it go wrong?'“

The relationship between Ray and Jessica has some parallels to that of Heche's parents, who met while in high school. Her father, Don, was a handsome golden boy, good at everything; her mother, Nancy, was excited and in love. Though there the story took its own turn. Don never found a profession that lasted, hatching doomed schemes to make money and stowing his family in rural Ohio in a religious compound. In her own 2006 memoir, The Truth Comes Out, Nancy Heche wrote that she essentially missed the Sixties there, never reading a newspaper, listening to the radio or watching television.

After losing a series of homes, the family ended up living with neighbours. Heche had four siblings.

The eldest, Susan, died of brain cancer in 2006. The second daughter, Cynthia, died in infancy, from a heart defect.

The only son, Nathan, a target for much of his father's nonsexual abuse, died three months after his father did, in a car accident that some surmised might have been suicide. Abigail, now a jewellery designer in Michigan, was the other child; Anne, the baby.

Heche's account in her own memoir of her father's sexual abuse and her mother's denial of it is devastating. Anne got herpes from her father, and in 1983, after he died of Aids, doctors told her she would have to wait years to learn that she was not infected. She was 14 then; she wrote that the abuse stopped when she was 12.

Heche said that when she called her mother — during her seventh year in therapy — to confront her about the abuse, her mother ended the conversation by saying, “Jesus loves you, Anne,” before hanging up. In her memoir, Nancy Heche, who is now 72, never addresses the issue of Anne's abuse. I contacted her publisher, Regal Books, for a response to her daughter's comments, and was told by Jackie Morales, its marketing and publicity coordinator, that Nancy's agent, Mark Sweeney, said his client would have no comment (though she protested Anne's account of events at the time).

Heche told me she has never introduced either of her children to her mother. Nor has she read her mother's book. Understanding Heche's childhood makes it easier to see past the publicity circus of her relationship with DeGeneres.

“My love was so all-consuming for a human being who would tell the truth,” she told me. “How could that destroy my career? I still can't wrap my head around it.”

That is naive at best; Hollywood executives are notoriously skittish about homosexuality.

The rap on Heche is that when her bid for greater glory as DeGeneres's other half failed, rushing to marry a man was the only plausible career rehabilitation. When I said that to her, she didn't flinch.

“I think that when I was in a same-sex relationship, it was hard for people to separate my message from the person I was with,” she said. “The message of my life has stayed the same. I think I was a wonderful spokeswoman for the right to love.”

Because Heche's breakdown happened the day after her break-up with DeGeneres — she turned up near Fresno, dressed in a bra and shorts at someone's front door, asking to take a shower before leaving Earth on her spaceship — people seemed to think it was a reaction to DeGeneres. But Heche wrote in her memoir that Celestia began six years earlier, after her mother's refusal to acknowledge her abuse.

“In that moment I split off from myself,” she wrote. While working on movies she would go to her trailer to transcribe messages she was receiving from God, as Celestia.

To have crashed so publicly and rebounded so mightily is no less than extraordinary. “I went to a lot of therapy,” she says, remarkably free of anger or bitterness. “I think people saw how hard it was for me. It's what makes me the artist that I am, it's my bag of sorrow, of human tragedy that I've lived through, and I go to this well every single time I create a character. But that no longer dictates my daily life.”


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