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'Fresh Air' remembers actor Anne Heche

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. We're going to remember actress Anne Heche, who died Sunday after a highly publicized car crash. She was 53 years old. Heche she got her start in the soap opera "Another World" while just out of high school. She starred opposite Johnny Depp in "Donnie Brasco," Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman in "Wag The Dog" and Harrison Ford in the romantic comedy "Six Days Seven Nights." Here's a clip from that film in which she and Ford end up crashing on a remote tropical island after the plane he's piloting gets struck by lightning.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIX DAYS SEVEN NIGHTS")

ANNE HECHE: (As Robin Monroe) Where are we?

HARRISON FORD: (As Quinn Harris) Here.

HECHE: (As Robin Monroe) Where? Where?

FORD: (As Quinn Harris) Somewhere between Makatea and Tahiti. That's the best I can do for you.

HECHE: (As Robin Monroe) Whoa. What happened?

FORD: (As Quinn Harris) It crumpled the landing gear when we hit.

HECHE: (As Robin Monroe) Well, are you going to fix it? I mean, can't we reattach it somehow?

FORD: (As Quinn Harris) Oh, sure. We'll, like, glue it back on. How's that?

HECHE: (As Robin Monroe) Aren't you one of those guys?

FORD: (As Quinn Harris) What guys?

HECHE: (As Robin Monroe) Those guy guys, you know, those guys with skills?

FORD: (As Quinn Harris) Skills?

HECHE: (As Robin Monroe) Yeah. You send them out into the wilderness with a pocket knife and a Q-Tip, and they build you a shopping mall. You can't do that?

FORD: (As Quinn Harris) No. No, I can't do that. But I can do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORK POPPING)

FORD: (As Quinn Harris) Does that help?

BIANCULLI: In the Nicole Holofcener independent film "Walking And Talking," Anne Heche played opposite Catherine Keener. They portray Laura and Amelia, two best friends since childhood. When Laura, played by Heche, gets engaged, their friendship suffers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALKING AND TALKING")

CATHERINE KEENER: (As Amelia) You think I don't want you to get married? You know what? Brush your hair yourself.

HECHE: (As Laura) What just happened?

KEENER: (As Amelia) I don't want to talk about it.

HECHE: (As Laura) Well, I do. What's your problem?

KEENER: (As Amelia) My problem? My problem, Laura, is that you're different. OK?

HECHE: (As Laura) How?

KEENER: (As Amelia) We used to talk about things. You used to need me, for Christ's sake. When something happens to me now, good or bad, I tell you. When something good or bad happens to you, you tell Frank. It feels unfair.

HECHE: (As Laura) Amelia, I need you.

KEENER: (As Amelia) Not in the same way.

HECHE: (As Laura) OK. You're right. You're right. I don't call you 10 times a day like I used to. And I don't tell you every single thing that happens to me because I do have Frank. But does that make me a bad friend because I don't need you when you want me to need you?

KEENER: (As Amelia) Fine.

HECHE: (As Laura) You know, when I do call you, it's not enough. And if I do see you, that's not enough. Nothing is ever enough for you. It's like when Frank and I got engaged. You decided that I don't care about you anymore, and that is just not true.

BIANCULLI: Anne Heche also starred in such TV series as "Hung," and played recurring characters on "Nip/Tuck" and "Ally McBeal." In the late 1990s. Heche began a public same-sex relationship with Ellen DeGeneres at a time when such relationships were rare in Hollywood. They broke up a few years later. We're going to listen back to Terry's 2000 interview with Anne Heche. She told Terry she grew up in a Christian fundamentalist family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: What were you brought up as strictly as a fundamentalist, and if so, did that affect the kind of popular culture you were exposed to, the movies you could watch, the TV shows, records?

HECHE: I couldn't watch movie or TV, none of it, None of it. I couldn't watch any of it. No. Books were not pushed in our direction either. There was - yes, it was a very limited scope.

GROSS: Now, I want to ask you, your father was an itinerant fundamentalist choir director. Would you describe what he did exactly and...

HECHE: And many other things (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah, we'll will get to the other things. But what did he do as the choir director and why did it entail traveling around a lot?

HECHE: He sang with flair. Oh, the traveling didn't have anything to do with being in church. The traveling had to do with our financial circumstances and running away from our debt. The two kind of tried to go hand in hand as he was constantly trying to explain why we didn't have a home. But he just - whatever town we were in, he would just go to the church. And he was a wonderful pianist and organist and had a beautiful voice and a talent for making people sing. So that just kind of happened by accident. They didn't go hand in hand.

GROSS: Why was the family always in debt?

HECHE: Because he didn't have a job other than being a choir director. He just couldn't seem to settle down into a normal job. Which, of course, we found out later, and as I understand it now, was because he had another life. He wanted to be with men. And yet he was grounded in this family. I mean, he had four children. And they were very Christian. So certainly, coming out as being a gay man, especially then, was not - it was not even allowed. I mean, certainly for him, I can't imagine how difficult that must have been. But because he wasn't allowed to be who he was, he split off and went to find his love elsewhere than with the family. So he kept moving to try to be with him and never knowing why he was going away to these different places - later found out it was to be with his lovers.

GROSS: So your father was a choir director who traveled a lot because he was living this secret life as a homosexual.

HECHE: Right.

GROSS: How did you find out?

HECHE: He was dying of AIDS in '83. It was still not named anything yet, right? At that time, it was the gay disease. It was just starting to get known as AIDS. And there were starting to be articles in newspapers about it. And, of course, at that time, it was, you know, you can get AIDS by touching somebody and you can get age AIDS by hugging somebody and just whatever it was, you could get AIDS if you were around this person. My father was never open about his relationships or his disease with us. It was the doctors that told us about two weeks before he died. And by that point, he was so delirious, he didn't even know who we were. So we never were able to confront him about it. And it was - it's a very tragic story. And I think the shame was so huge for him and the running and the hiding. And hiding who you are is death, really. And I learned that very soon on. And I think that's why I'm able to be as open about myself as I am, because if you're not, I've already witnessed what can happen.

GROSS: You were - what? - you say 12 when your father died...

HECHE: I was 13.

GROSS: ...Thirteen - when you realized that he had a secret life and that his secret life contradicted his own religious beliefs. Did it affect your religious beliefs? I don't know how strongly you identified as a Christian at the time.

HECHE: I was a very big questioner of religion, even though I was a good girl. And so I did what I was told and believed what I was told until this future time I knew, and I would be able to explore my own arenas of life. Certainly, by that point, we were on shaky ground anyway as a family. And so our religious beliefs did not seem to really help us. I mean, I think it helped my mother. For me, it was a very discouraging time, a lot of questions about God and who God is, but started me on my journey of my own spirituality, which was also one of the gifts I received from that death.

GROSS: So you were in dinner theater from the age of like 12 or 13 on to help earn a living for the family. It must have been a little strange for you in the sense that, during the early years of your life, seeing movies or TV shows was considered bad, you know, sinful maybe. And then suddenly, you're in dinner theater performing, and that's...

HECHE: I know.

GROSS: ...Good because you're supporting the family.

HECHE: Things that will happen when you need money.

GROSS: Right.

HECHE: Point of view that changes very quickly when on the streets. It - yeah. I mean, things had to change. There was - my father's death and his split life was a huge wakeup call to all of us. I mean, there was just so many things that had to be changed because of that reality.

GROSS: So when you were in dinner theater - I think it was when you were in high school - you were offered a role on an afternoon soap.

HECHE: Right, right.

GROSS: Didn't accept it?

HECHE: Oh, when I was in 10th grade, I didn't accept it just 'cause I didn't want to have to move again and move my mom again, and we were just getting settled, and, you know, tears were stopping being, you know, cried every day. And so I wanted to keep that stability. They came back to me when I was a senior, and I did accept. And that was a difficult thing. There wasn't very much support for me doing a soap opera, no, from my family, no.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

HECHE: But it was good money.

GROSS: So after high school, you went to New York and did - I think it was...

HECHE: The day after I graduated, yeah.

GROSS: And it was - what? - "Another World"?

HECHE: "Another World." I played twins on "Another World" for four years.

GROSS: You played twins. So what was the difference between each of the two twins?

HECHE: Oh, pretty obvious, good and evil, although I - then I kind of tried to mellow them out. But in the beginning, it was very much, you know, good and evil, prim and proper versus the crazy, wild girl who will do anything (laughter).

GROSS: Did you relate to either of these characters?

HECHE: I did. Of course, I put myself into them. I mean, the greatest thing about a soap opera is that you get to be anything. As long as you say your lines, you can be anything. So I created these, you know, fantasy characters for me. I was on the search of finding myself. I was 18, got this amazing opportunity and was finding myself in life and through these characters. That was my, you know, beginning of becoming an adult. And it was just - you know, it's fantastic fun, too. So the one character was just - became the funnest person in the world to play. Of course, she was the evil one. But it just became so much fun, and she was so daring, and I could do anything that I wanted. And it was just - you know, there was so much support around the character. And we just went for it. I mean, every day was just a blast.

GROSS: Did you get paid double because you had two parts?

HECHE: Only after the third year (laughter), only when I could negotiate. They got me real cheap when I was out of high school.

GROSS: Did you go to college?

HECHE: I didn't. No, those were my college years on the soap opera.

GROSS: Do you regret that at all? Do you feel you missed something? Or...

HECHE: I used to think - I used to have a real hard time with not being - I would think that I wasn't smart, and I didn't go to school, and I wasn't smart. Now I know I'm smart. No, I'm kidding (laughter). Now I've just come to understand that there are different paths that have already been created for us, and if you listen to that and you're going down the right path, then things are going to fall into place.

And I was actually going to go to school after I finished my four years at the soap opera and got another movie, the week before I left, with Jessica Lange. And I thought, you know, somebody is telling me something. I mean, I guess I'm supposed to do this. And then just job after job came, and it was very clear that this was the path I was supposed to be on. And my training ground and schooling had been on - in the best acting school in the world. And there's nothing better than working five days a week and being in front of a camera every single day.

BIANCULLI: Anne Heche speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIE KNODEL'S "MIT DER 42ER")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from 2000 with actress Anne Heche. She died Sunday after injuries sustained in a car crash. She was 53 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of your breakthrough film roles was in "Walking And Talking." You and Catherine Keener starred as best friends.

HECHE: Yes, yeah.

GROSS: Then your relationship changes after you get engaged, and she doesn't even have a boyfriend.

HECHE: Right.

GROSS: Now, this was an independent film. And...

HECHE: Yeah, Nicole Holofcener was the director.

GROSS: Yeah. And independent film was the direction that your co-star Catherine Keener headed in for a long time, whereas you went more toward the big-budget pictures.

HECHE: Well, you know what? I...

GROSS: Was that an intentional move? Or is that just kind of what happened?

HECHE: No, I switched it up as much as I could. I mean, some of the independents that I did weren't seen. I've always wanted to shake it up. To me, I'm drawn to the parts more than I am - you know, what's different for me? What's unique for me? It doesn't usually have to do with anything financial. I mean, "Six Days, Seven Nights" was my biggest - I would say my biggest movie. And I mean, yes, the opportunity to work with Harrison floored me, but I also hadn't had an opportunity to play comedy, and I love comedy. So it always - whatever the genre was that it took me and if I could explore a different character and different territory, each one was a challenge, and I always wanted to challenge myself. So if it was a bigger budget, that happened to be so, and if it was an independent, then I would do that as well.

GROSS: I think when you and Ellen became a couple, it was I think just at about the time you were about to sign on to "Six Days And Seven Nights" (ph).

HECHE: Right, right.

GROSS: And I believe you were advised not to say anything publicly until the deal was finished.

HECHE: Yes, that's true.

GROSS: But you did say something publicly about being a couple with Ellen.

HECHE: Yes, I did, and the people who told me got fired.

GROSS: You fired your own management after that.

HECHE: Yeah (laughter). Yes. And, no, I don't want to make light. I mean, it was - I do want to make light of it because it's over, and now everybody is healed, and I have compassion for what they went through, too. I mean, it was a whole brand-new concept for Hollywood that this person who's about to catapult their career into a new level by working with somebody like Harrison Ford would actually turn that down when it's threatened - turn that down for love.

GROSS: Do...

HECHE: And the beauty of it was that I still got the part. So, you know, there you have it.

GROSS: Well, did they test you further or think about it a lot more or talk with you about how you were going to handle the public aspect of your private life before making the deal official?

HECHE: No, they didn't. The - what was on the table was, if you go to the premiere of "Volcano," which was a movie I did with Tommy Lee Jones - and actually, what was put on the table was, if you go to this premiere, you will not get the offer for the Harrison Ford movie.

GROSS: You mean if you go to the premiere with Ellen?

HECHE: With Ellen...

GROSS: Right.

HECHE: ...You will not get the offer for the Harrison Ford movie. And that was my ultimatum.

GROSS: And people from the movie told you that?

HECHE: I don't want to say the particular voices.

GROSS: Oh, right. OK. Right.

HECHE: I mean, there were a lot of people who...

GROSS: Right.

HECHE: Yes - warned me to not go with Ellen.

GROSS: So...

HECHE: And actually, it was put on the table that if I was going to go with Ellen, maybe I shouldn't go at all to my own premiere.

GROSS: So why do you think you ended up getting the role anyways?

HECHE: I - Harrison Ford wanted to work with me? (Laughter) I don't know. We had - actually, Harrison and I had a really wonderful chemistry from the second we walked in the door. And the blessing of that entire movie is that it - the message that talent wins out. And it's not to say that there weren't a million talented actresses lined up in wanting to do that part; there were. We just had something special.

And I think in Hollywood, still, with all the malarkey that goes on and will continue to go on forever, there is a reality that something special - if you can create a magic on screen, it is so hard to deny. It is so hard to just stop that feeling because Harrison and I connected. And that movie would not have worked had we not been connected. And I think whoever - I give Harrison Ford all the credit, but certainly, I wouldn't have gotten hired if other people didn't feel that way. But he really went up to bat for me and said, this is who I want to work with - even with all the controversy.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you and Ellen disagreed at all, early on, about how to handle the public aspect of your relationship? Because, you know, on the one hand, you had always, up until that point, been straight, and you had the example...

HECHE: Right.

GROSS: ...Of your father about how a secret life can kill you...

HECHE: Right.

GROSS: ...Whereas Ellen had been gay all her life and had been very closeted, you know, worried...

HECHE: Right.

GROSS: ...About the impact it would have on perceptions of her and her career. So you're really coming at this relationship from completely different places, I mean, from opposite places.

HECHE: Totally. Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And so your perceptions, probably, about how one handles the public face of a private relationship would likely be pretty different.

HECHE: Well, actually, I mean, we were both so amazed that people cared as much as they did. I mean, Ellen knew that it was going to be a big deal that her character was coming out on the show because people had started to pick it up and rumors started before they were even given the OK to do the show. And so she knew that people were starting to talk and it was going to be a big thing. We, however, as a couple - I, certainly, was incredibly naive. I had no understanding of the fact that somebody would care that I fell in love with her. I just - to me, it was not even a consideration.

I mean, Ellen told me the night that we met and - you know, this is a big deal. This shouldn't be an experiment. People are looking at me going, who the heck are you with? And I didn't even know who she was or, you know, that she had this big TV show that she was coming out on. I had no idea. Part of what's carried over from my childhood is that I don't watch television. And - but one thing that we kept saying to each other - I mean, it brought us - I mean, talk about testing a relationship within the first week. We just kept saying, you know what? There's nobody to call, to say, well, last time you came out and you were, you know, in movies, or last time you came out and you were on TV, what - how did you handle it? You know, we were it. We didn't have anybody to call. And certainly, we were getting messages to just shut up, which didn't go along with either of our belief systems. And so we didn't know.

I mean, certainly, the way we expressed ourselves - you know, we look back and go, gee, I wish I could have done that differently. You know, sometimes, I think - I mean, I've certainly found more understanding and have been educated in the last few years about so many stories of so many different gay individuals and how difficult their journey is. And mine wasn't very easy.

GROSS: But what do you wish you'd done differently?

HECHE: I don't know. I mean, I am such a blabbermouth about the truth, and I still am. But I think the way that I would have approached it was with more - see, but I couldn't have known. What I wish I would have known is more of the journey and the struggle of individuals in the gay community or couples in the gay community because I would have couched my enthusiasm with an understanding that this isn't everybody's story. My story isn't everybody's story. My joy and my experience and my knowing of falling in love with her is a fantasy to most people. And there are very few people who get to have that knowing.

I don't know why I got blessed with it, but I went out and blurted it out like it was the easiest thing in the world. And it was. But the experience for most people is not easy, and my compassion and understanding of this incredible and diverse group of people has broadened. And so I've learned more how to communicate and how to be compassionate without basically coming out and saying, hey, listen, I fell in love with a woman and it's no big deal. It's the greatest thing that ever happened to me, and I'm going to ask her to marry me, you know? I just was like - stood on the top of the mountain and shouted it to the world. I don't think there's anything wrong with having done that, but I think my language could have been perhaps a little more subtle, a little more compassionate.

BIANCULLI: Anne Heche speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. After breaking up with Ellen DeGeneres, she went on to get married twice and had two sons. The actress died Sunday after injuries sustained in a car crash. She was 53 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "BLACKBIRD")

BIANCULLI: After a break, John Powers reviews the new documentary "Three Minutes: A Lengthening." Ken Tucker reviews a new album by Loudon Wainwright. And an interview with actor Jonathan Banks, who played Mike Ehrmantraut on both "Breaking Bad" and its just-concluded spinoff series, "Better Call Saul." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "BLACKBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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