After a few years out of the spotlight, Katherine Heigl returns to her small-screen roots with NBC's new political drama; we ask the star about taking on the role of CIA analyst Charleston Tucker, the sudden loss of ''State'''s showrunner, and the best way to deal with a difficult reputation

By Karen Valby
September 12, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

What’s it like returning to TV? Does this feel like a step backward or forward in your career?
It’s really the material that would make it feel like a step forward or step backward. For me this felt like a tremendous step forward in terms of character and material and also the opportunity to not only perform but to produce as well. Also, there’s just more wealth of characters for women in television. I wanted to be a part of that. But it’s not without its challenges. There’s parts of it that I’m like, ”Oh, yeah, I remember this…”

Like what?
The hours, the dedication. I’ve been off for a couple of years, so for me it was about trying to get back into that routine and wrap my brain around the fact that I’m not home as much. Last night I was so sure I was going to be home in time to have dinner with my kids and put them to bed, and I missed them by an hour. That hurts — but that’s what I signed on for. Try to explain that to my 5-and 2-year-old, and they’re like, ”Huh?”

How was the show pitched to you?
Three years ago the producer Bob Simonds brought me a book called The Art of Intelligence by ex-CIA agent Henry Crumpton, and the project was pitched as telling the story from the perspective of the briefer to the president. People always think of sexy operatives out there doing espionage, but there’s all these people working in Langley who gather the information and distill it and figure out what should be brought to the attention of the president and the secretary of defense.

How do you feel about the easy comparisons to Homeland?
Well, I don’t want to disappoint people! [Laughs] We’re more talking about the analysts. We’re trying to make the analysts sexy, okay?!

Who came up with the great name of Charleston for your character?
It was my sister-in-law! We were sitting around one night last summer, and I was saying, ”She needs a cool name, and I kinda want her to be Southern.” My in-laws are Southern, and I have a fascination with the culture. So she said, out of the blue, ”How about Charleston Whitney Tucker?”

In what way is Charleston a leap for you?
She’s a grown-up. I’m 35, and she’s one of the first real adults I’ve ever played. Everybody has this odd disconnect from aging. You kind of still feel the same inside as you did in your 20s, but then you look in the mirror and remember, ”Nope, I’m not 22 anymore, so I shouldn’t be acting like it.” She still acts recklessly and irresponsibly in her personal life, but she’s very, very smart and good at her job, and she has this proximity to the president that makes her very powerful.

The president is played by Alfre Woodard, who is great. Was the role always written for a woman?
No, originally the president was written as an older man who was sort of a father figure to Charleston. But [series creator] Joe Carnahan said that’s been done before and pitched the network on her being a woman. Alfre was the perfect fit because she’s so talented and charming but also deeply intelligent.

She has real gravitas.
Totally. I have no idea what I’m saying on the show. [Laughs] But Alfre actually knows what she’s talking about. One day on set she was like, ”Do you want to know what the jihadists are, and what this is all about?” And I was like, ”Yeah, I probably should.” So she explained it all to me, and I went, ”Yeahhhh, I probably should have talked to you before we shot that last scene.”

How traumatic was it to lose your showrunner Ed Bernero this late in the game? [Dario Scardapane took over last month.]
It was scary! We’d been rolling for two months in preproduction, and Ed is a wonderful guy with a lot of experience and I really connected with him. When things started to go awry, you started to wonder, ”Okay, so he’s no longer part of this; does that mean they’re going to pull the plug? Are we about to spin out of control?” But the network has been incredibly supportive, and they just made sure we didn’t get too far off track.

Finally, a lot has been written about your supposedly horrible reputation. What’s the funniest or wisest advice you’ve been given on rising above?
After the TCA press event [at which a reporter inelegantly asked about all the rumors of Heigl being hard to work with] there was a cocktail party. Alfre just took my mom’s face in her hands and went, ”Read my lips: F—. Those. A–holes.”