Note to Janet Jackson: This is how you do a wardrobe malfunction. As she took the stage to accept ShoWest’s Female Star of the Year award on March 18 in Las Vegas, Katherine Heigl was about to address the elite showbiz crowd when the left strap on her Donna Karan dress snapped. Luckily, the 31-year-old actress caught the flimsy garment before her, ahem, girls could be exposed, and she stood there with her frock in tatters and gave her speech. ”What was I going to do?” shrugs Heigl the following day, from the comfort of the modest yet meticulous home she shares with her husband, musician Josh Kelley, and their 16-month-old daughter, Naleigh, in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. ”I wasn’t going to stop the show and make everyone wait while somebody tries to find a way to pin it. I decided to just go for it.” It turned out to be one of her smartest PR moves. The incident — in which she came off looking vulnerable, relatable, and sympathetic — earned her some of the best press of her career at a time when she needed it the most. And as she recounts the experience, it’s clear that she appreciated the timing of the tension reliever as well. As ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY first reported, Heigl is leaving her role as Dr. Izzie Stevens on Grey’s Anatomy in much the same way she spent her six-year stint on the show: amid controversy. After sitting out more than half of this season, both to make a movie — the romantic comedy Life as We Know It — and to bond with the special-needs child she and Kelley adopted from South Korea last September, Heigl was due back on the set of the ABC drama on March 1. But she never showed up. It was the latest bump in a rocky tenure that’s been marred by numerous skirmishes. The fact that she’s bailing on the show that made her a household name, eight months after solidifying herself as a box office draw (in The Ugly Truth) and 18 months before her contract was up, only reinforced the perception that she’s a selfish diva. But on this day, we encountered a very different Heigl. Dressed casually in capri jeans and a purple cardigan, with her newly darkened locks pulled back, the actress curled up on the sectional on her second-floor terrace with a glass of wine, ready to explain, clarify, and, yes, apologize.
Where do things stand with Grey’s Anatomy? Are you done?
I am done. We just finalized our agreement. Everyone had been working really hard to find an amicable and gracious way of letting go and moving on. It’s sad, but it’s what I wanted.
How did it come to this?
My life changed so dramatically in the last six years. I started a family, and it changed everything for me. It changed my desire to work full-time.
So you made this decision last fall after you adopted Naleigh?
No. That certainly accelerated it. I had actually started talking to [series creator] Shonda Rhimes over a year ago about the idea of moving on. I had told her that I wanted to start a family — Josh and I were in the process of adoption — and I wanted to warn her. And she was really respectful and supportive. She wanted to try to figure out how I could do both, and I kind of wanted to do both. But at the end of the day, there wasn’t a great way to compromise the work schedule that didn’t negatively affect the crew or the cast. It wasn’t feeling fair to them or the show to ask them to bend around my needs.
The plan was for you to return to the set on March 1 and stick around through the end of the season. But you didn’t show up on March 1. Why?
I went on my family leave and spent three months in Utah and just got to be a mom, and it changed my whole perspective…. That was really the turning point for me. So before I was due back, I spoke again to Shonda about wanting to leave. Then I waited at home until I was given the formal okay that I was off the show. The rumors that I refused to return were totally untrue. [In response, ABC Studios issued the following statement: ”By mutual agreement, Katherine Heigl has ended her successful run as Dr. Isobel Stevens. The studio wishes her well. Everyone at Grey’s Anatomy is now focused on delivering a shocking season finale and a great show for seasons to come.”]
Would you describe it as an amicable parting?
Yeah, I think so. I think it was a little bit shocking for everybody, and a little bit like, ”Can’t we find a way to work it out?” And I really wanted to, but at the same time I just felt like I couldn’t sacrifice my relationship with my child. Naleigh and I will always be a little bit complicated. I really had to work on bonding with her because I was obsessed with her, but she could really do without me. [Laughs] It was really hard because she loved Josh so much but she just kind of tolerated me. And I want this child to know that she will forever have me in her corner and I don’t want to disappoint her. [Voice cracking] And even though I know I’m disappointing the fans, and I know I’m disappointing the writers and my fellow cast members and the crew, I just had to make a choice. I hope I made the right one…. It sucks. You wish you could have it all exactly the way you want it. But that’s not life…. I had to try to find the courage to move on. And I am sad. And I’m scared. But I felt it was the right thing to do; we just didn’t quite know how to do it appropriately, gracefully, and respectfully to the audience. And I think we all felt that it wasn’t respectful to the audience to bring [Izzie] back again and then have her [leave] again. We did it twice this season. It starts to feel a little manipulative.
What would you say to fans who feel cheated? They invested six seasons in this character and didn’t know they were saying goodbye to her when she left in January.
[Long pause] You’re right. I didn’t really think that through. [Laughs] They’re right. I’m sorry about that. I kind of feel that way too. But I don’t think we knew how else to do this.
Let’s talk about some of the statements you’ve made publicly.
[Heigl reaches for her glass of wine] And sip… [Laughs]
In 2008, after the show’s fourth season, you announced that you decided not to enter yourself in the Emmy race because ”I did not feel I was given the material this season to warrant a nomination.” Any regrets about making that statement?
You know… [Exhales] At the time I thought I was doing the right thing. And I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t snubbing the Emmys. The night I won [in 2007] was the highlight of my career. I just was afraid that if I said, ”No comment,” it was going to come off like I couldn’t be bothered to [enter the race]. But really, I could have more gracefully said that without going into a private work matter. It was between me and the writers. I ambushed them, and it wasn’t very nice or fair.
Why didn’t you talk to them privately?
Everybody has bad days. [Laughs] I was a little defensive about my season because I thought I hadn’t had a great one. And a lot of that had to do with me and my performances.
Did you apologize to Shonda?
Yeah. [Laughs] I went into her office and I was just like, ”Look, that was obnoxious. I apologize.” And she was actually really supportive. She was like, ”I get it. I totally get it. I know you didn’t mean it like that.”
What stands out to you about that season?
The only thing I can really remember is when I saved the deer. Shonda was always really great about giving me her backstory and telling me what she’s thinking, [but] on the page sometimes you’re like, ”I’m sorry, what? What do you mean she’s saving a deer? Wait, she’s shocking it back to life?! Hold on now!”
That was also the season of George and Izzie’s ”romance.”
I was really excited about it in the beginning because, obviously, I got to work more with my best friend and that’s awesome.
Viewers didn’t like it.
No, they did not like it. When I found out our little nickname was Gizzie, I knew it was over. [Laughs] I was like, ”We’re going to have to move on because that’s not hot. That’s not, like, Brangelina.”
You stoked controversy again last July when you went on Letterman and complained about having just worked a 17-hour day at Grey’s. Another regret?
Yes. That was not the time or place to gripe about work. And when I watched it back I was really embarrassed about how whiny I sounded. And I said it not once but, like, three more times. I was really annoyed with myself after that one. That’s when I realized, ”Okay, look, Katie” — talking to myself like I sometimes do — ”It’s okay to be passionate. It’s okay to have an opinion. But filter.”
But you were clearly frustrated about the 17-hour workday.
It was my understanding that the reason the 17-hour day was necessary was because you were about to take three days off to do press in New York — Letterman included — for The Ugly Truth.
If that is true, I really wish [the producers] had warned me. It wasn’t like, ”Hey, if we let you do this, then this is what’s going to happen.” Had I known that, I would not have asked for those three days off. I would have forgone the talk shows. I asked the entire crew — without really understanding that I was asking this — to work a 17-hour day. And for them it’s much worse than just 17 hours. They get there an hour before us and they leave an hour after us. And they all have families they want to get home to.
So you were more frustrated for the crew?
Yeah. I can suck up a 17-hour day. For them, that is not a fair thing to ask. They work their asses off and they don’t get any of the accolades. They don’t get any of the attention and they don’t get the paycheck.
Was there any fallout when you returned to the set?
No one brought it up because I think they were all like, ”Ehh, Katie…” But there were some members of the crew who actually thanked me for saying something because they can’t say anything.
All of these public statements, combined with the fact that you’re leaving the show before your contract is up, have fostered a perception of you as an ungrateful diva. Are you aware that this is how some people view you?
Yes. [Gets quiet] The ungrateful thing bothers me the most. And that is my fault. I allowed myself to be perceived that way because I was being whiny and I was griping and because I made these snarky comments. So much about living life, to me, is about humility and gratitude. And I’ve tried very hard to have those qualities and be that person and I’m just so disappointed in myself that I allowed it to slip. Of course, of course I’m grateful. How can I not be grateful? I have been afforded such a wonderful life. And to have come this far and to have this kind of success and the freedom and the choices it allows me… The fact that I could even have Naleigh in my life — adoption isn’t cheap — is something to be so unbelievably grateful for. I am disappointed in myself for allowing that perception to exist…. There’s nothing more gross than [the idea of] somebody in my position being ungrateful…. And I hope that in the coming years I can change people’s minds about that. The six years [I spent on Grey’s] were important years, and I don’t want them to be demeaned. And that’s another reason why I’m so annoyed with myself. I let myself demean something that was actually very beautiful and very important. Like any job, there are ups and downs. But I don’t want to demean what that experience was. I don’t want it to become about this negativity that I’ve spewed.
There was one time when you were praised for being outspoken, and that’s when you publicly derided Isaiah Washington for using a gay slur at the Golden Globes in 2007.
And then I just went on a bender. [Laughs hard] I’m like, ”Well, great, if people care, I’m gonna tell ’em! Hey, that went over, so how about this?!”
Looking back, anything you’d like to say about that whole incident?
[Pauses] I was recently talking to T.R. [Knight] about this and I said, ”I hope I didn’t embarrass you and draw more attention to something that you just wanted to go away.” [Fighting back tears] And he said I could never have embarrassed him and that he was so grateful because no one had ever stood up for him that way before. So that is a proud moment for me [and] I don’t regret it. And I’m just so grateful that my friend doesn’t regret it…. I think Isaiah just made a mistake. I think it was a [big] one. But I don’t think he’s evil or horrible or a bad person. I had some great times on set with Isaiah. I don’t wish him ill.
What’s your personal relationship with Shonda like?
It’s really respectful and supportive. Sometimes we’d go weeks or months without talking. She’s super-busy. She’s running two shows. But anytime I needed her, she was there. And anytime I wanted to voice an opinion, she was really receptive.
Have you been in touch with the cast?
Yes. Ellen and I text a lot. I’m still waiting to meet [her newborn daughter] Stella Luna. It’s pissing me off. [Laughs] And Justin and I have been texting. Chyler Leigh is one of the most amazing young women. Just unbelievably lovely and supportive. These are my friends. They’re kind of family at this point. I spent more time with them over the past six years than I did with my own family. So I’m going to miss that.
What was your favorite story line?
[When we learned] that Izzie gave up a daughter when she was 16 years old. I loved that story line. It was really quiet and beautiful.
Least favorite? Saving the deer?
[Laughs] No. I can tell you my least favorite scene was when Izzie and Alex get intimate with Denny the ghost in the room. That was like, ”Oh, man.” And I really thought it was going to feel different when it actually played on camera. But, oh, man, that was weird.
Would you ever do TV again?
Absolutely. I never would rule out a great character or a great story. I don’t care what the forum is. If I get to tell a story that I’m excited about, I’m in.
But is it safe to say you’re going to focus primarily on films for the time being?
I think so. Because at the end of the day, it’s more part-time. I can do a film for three months and then have the whole rest of the year off.
Is it going to be hard to let Izzie go?
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake her. There were some moments when she did or said something silly that maybe I didn’t agree with, but 99 percent of the time I was really protective of her and I really loved her and I was really passionate about playing her. I’m going to miss her. And I’m going to create little stories in my mind about what Izzie went off to do, where she is, and who she keeps in contact with at the hospital. For sure Meredith. I wonder if she sends divorce papers to Alex? I wonder if she calls him? I wonder if she ever really thanked Cristina for all she did for her?
Are you going to watch the show?
I stopped watching. It was too hard. I just felt like I was missing the party. Like, oh, s—, you know, like when you were sick and you can’t attend the party that you were super-stoked about and everybody else gets to attend it, that’s a little bit how I feel. I’m missing the good times.
Are you curious about what they’re going to do with Izzie?
I am curious. I don’t know what they have in store. But I’d love to come back in and out at some point.
Do you think that’s possible?
I don’t know. I’d like to. I’ll give Shonda a call. ”Hey, do you need any ideas? I got one!”
What’s next for Heigl
Heigl has spent three years balancing her hit show and box office smashes (Knocked Up, The Ugly Truth, and 27 Dresses). And while she enjoyed them, she realizes the roles weren’t exactly outside her comfort zone. ”I kind of had the best of both worlds,” she says. ”I got to go do these great films and play these totally different characters than Izzie — not all that different, let’s be honest — but it was still something new.” With Grey’s out of the way, here’s a look at where Heigl’s headed now. — Adam Markovitz
Costarring Ashton Kutcher Wrapped, out June 4
A newlywed (Heigl) discovers that her husband (Kutcher) is actually a former spy who is being targeted by assassins.
Life As We Know It
Costarring Josh Duhamel Wrapped, out October
When their mutual friends die in an accident, two singles (Heigl and Duhamel) become the caregivers of their friends’ orphaned daughter.
One for the Money
Heigl dyed her hair brown to play lingerie buyer-turned-bounty hunter Stephanie Plum from the best-selling Janet Evanovich novel.
The true story of Carolyn Jessop, a woman who broke free from a forced polygamous marriage. The actress will produce, and may star.
The Knitting Circle
Heigl will play a mother who turns to her knitting-club buddies to cope with the death of her child.