By Andrea Warner
LOS ANGELES — A dark-haired woman, tall and thin, lingers near the French doors of the ballroom in the Four Seasons Beverly Hills hotel. She is pretty, and disarmingly proper in a navy dress sprinkled with white polka dots. But nothing about her screams “Movie star!” the way Gerard Butler’s presence does when he strides into the room moments later. In fact, Katherine Heigl does incognito with such practiced ease (likely as a result of her paparazzi-plagued existence) that almost none of the reporters awaiting her arrival recognize the woman of the hour until she takes a seat behind a bank of microphones and flashes the famous smile that has graced Grey’s Anatomy for five seasons, and proved a box-office boon for the hit comedies Knocked Up and 27 Dresses.
Heigl’s recognizable long blonde tresses have been replaced by shorter, brown locks, but there’s no disguising the quick wit and sharp tongue that have become her hallmarks — for better or worse — over the last several years. Within seconds of sitting down, she offhandedly jokes that she “doesn’t have hair on that show” — referring to her Grey’s character Dr. Izzie Stevens, who is suffering from cancer — so she can do what she wants with her look.
Reported efforts to reign in Heigl and put a cap on her candid nature have obviously been unsuccessful. And that’s perfectly in keeping with the very reason for this press gathering: to talk about Heigl and Butler’s new R-rated comedy, The Ugly Truth.
A raunchy battle-of-the-sexes tale, Truth is a modern twist on the Katherine Hepburn / Spencer Tracy comedies of yore — with liberal doses of swearing, simulated orgasms, and twin bikini babes wrestling in Jell-O. Heigl plays Abby Richter , the socially awkward, romantically challenged producer of a fledgling morning news program who has a checklist of criteria for the perfect man. Mike Chadway (Butler) is the host of a chauvinistic late-night cable show in which he dispenses wisdom about “the ugly truth” of men and women. And wouldn’t you know it? When Mike is brought on board Abby’s show, his bare-knuckle take on sex and attraction gives it the ratings boost it desperately needs. Abby even ends up seeking his advice to try to land the hot doctor who lives next door. Inevitably, crazy antics ensue.
Heigl sees Truth as deeply funny, but doesn’t think it’s a straightforward take on contemporary male-female dynamic. “I would hope that it’s an exaggeration of what men and women are like,” she says. “I know a lot of men who joke like Mike, but I don’t think I know any guys who are really like him.”
Butler laughs and leans into his microphone. “I gotta say, I think Katie’s deeply flawed in knowing what goes on in a lot of men’s minds,” he says. “Or she hangs out with a breed of way more sophisticated male than I am — which wouldn’t be difficult.”
As anyone who follows the gossip columns knows, Heigl’s breed of male tends to be in direct relationship to whatever controversy she’s inadvertently courting at the time. In 2006, she publicly called out her Grey’s colleague, Isaiah Washington, after he allegedly referred to their co-star (and Heigl’s close friend), T.R. Knight, as a “faggot.” The following year, after starring in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, she was quoted as saying the film was “a little sexist,” and that it “painted the women as shrews” — statements that resulted in members of the media labelling her a “traitor,” “hypocritical,” and “ungrateful.” And last year, there was speculation that Heigl had asked to be released from her Grey’s contract so she could concentrate on movies, but it was Knight who ended up getting turfed, whereas Heigl’s cancer-afflicted Izzy seems to have survived the death knell.
Heigl’s penchant for outspokenness may have earned her a reputation for being difficult, but the reality, at least according to Butler and Ugly Truth director Robert Luketic, is anything but.
“What amazes me about Katherine is she can pick up a script with last-minute rewrites and look at it and say, ‘Right, ready,’ whereas this one here,” says Luketic, gesturing at Butler, “is, like, shitting Tiffany cuff links over everything, and he’s gotta read it and absorb it.
“There’s this shorthand I have working with Katherine; there’s this magic and light that she brings to her work. Apart from how professional she is, I also like her as a person.” So much so that the two just wrapped another film, tentatively titled Five Killers, due out in 2010.
“I’m no action hero,” Heigl says about the making of Five Killers, which is about assassins. The Ugly Truth’s physical comedy is more her speed, wherein her character’s dorky side manifests itself in a variety of physical — and embarrassing — challenges. At various points, Heigl hangs by her knees from a tree wearing only underwear; launches herself into spazzy happy dances; and wears vibrating underwear to a dinner party, resulting in a series of public climaxes. Heigl giggles when Butler and Luketic joke about the 35 set-ups it took to nail the latter scene, and the “authenticity” of the orgasms. “Can you imagine [if they were real]? Yes, I’m very method,” she says, laughing. “It was physically exhausting, though. I mean, at the end of the day, I felt like I’d done a marathon. No one wants to orgasm 35 times.”
But the film’s stars and director are banking on audiences wanting to watch it, and other more “adult” affairs, on the big screen. “It’s not all cocks and vag,” Luketic says, before catching himself. “Wait, did I just say that?”
Heigl encourages him, explaining, with her trademark honesty, why movies like The Ugly Truth and their R-rated language feel so, well, natural to her. “I love raunchy humour,” she admits. “What makes me laugh the hardest, it’s not terribly sophisticated. I’m a 30-year-old woman, and as much as I love younger audiences, I wanna tell a real story about people my age, and we throw ‘fuck’ around a lot. When you have to censor it, it feels a little too cute... The ability to be crass, to say ‘cock,’ that felt real to me. That’s the real world I live in with my family and friends.”
Ah, the beauty of the ugly truth.