Google "Katherine Heigl is a" and you get descriptors that haven't even been applied to ruthless dictators. Among the former Grey's Anatomy star's crimes against humanity: telling Vanity Fair in 2008 that her hit film Knocked Up's depiction of shrewish women tying down lovable lads made her feel icky; withdrawing from Emmy consideration that summer because she felt the writing for her Grey's character, Dr. Izzie Stevens, didn't warrant a nomination (she won for Best Supporting Actress the previous year); and allegedly showing up late for work and clashing with the show's creator, Shonda Rhimes. In 2010, Heigl left the series to focus on movies. Then she left movies to focus on her growing family (she and husband Josh Kelley now have two daughters, Naleigh, 5, and Adalaide, 2). Heigl resurfaced on television last fall...in a ZzzQuil ad. Bring on the schadenfreude!
Now the actress is back in a major way with the political drama State of Affairs, playing Charleston "Charlie" Tucker, a CIA agent who, after her fiancé is murdered in Kabul, Afghanistan, goes to work assessing the nation's most alarming security threats as the president's daily briefer. POTUS (Alfre Woodard), by the way, would have been her mother-in-law.
The show has already attracted controversy. Insiders tittered at the inclusion of Heigl's manager mother, Nancy, as an executive producer alongside the actress. Showrunner Ed Bernero (Criminal Minds) — hired after the pilot — quit two months later over alleged disagreements with creator Joe Carnahan (The Blacklist) and was replaced by Dario Scardapane (The Bridge). And Episode 1 is sure to produce a reaction: Shot months before ISIS's public beheadings, it features a decapitation of a British aid worker by Middle Eastern militants. We talked to Heigl about her reputation, her comeback, and why that scene isn't going anywhere.
TV Guide Magazine: How did State of Affairs lure you back into the spotlight?
Heigl: Executive producers Rodney Faraon and Hank Crumpton are ex-CIA. Rodney was on the briefing team for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They'd tell stories, and I'd think about how no one really talks about those analysts. There's no real glory in the job, because they have to remain anonymous. There's not a lot of money in it. Plus, the idea of playing a grown-up woman in a powerful position seemed really appealing to me.
TV Guide Magazine: How is she different from Izzie?
Heigl: Izzie had a very serious grown-up career, but she was — and I was — young. She was still fumbling around life. So I was excited to play a true adult.
TV Guide Magazine: You've said returning to TV isn't a step backward. Are you tired of constantly defending your career choices?
Heigl: I find it interesting that people even ask if TV is a demotion. How can you say that and watch something like Matthew McConaughey in True Detective or Kevin Spacey in House of Cards?
TV Guide Magazine: The first episode has gone through many versions since you shot it. Has the process been nerve-racking?
Heigl: The pilot morphed from one thing to another and then back again, because, honestly, what Joe Carnahan made was so phenomenal. But I find the whole process fascinating rather than nerve-racking.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you ever disagree with where the writers want to take Charlie?
Heigl: Oh, yeah. That always comes up. But I think it does for every actor. There are moments where you're like, "That's not who she is, or who we're trying to make her." The beauty of also being a producer is they do have to at least hear me out.
TV Guide Magazine: Were there any changes you did insist on?
Heigl: My mother and I felt strongly that Charlie needs to have an intriguing love interest who is not dead like her fiancé. We added someone to the pilot.
TV Guide Magazine: Given recent events, why did you decide not to cut the beheading storyline?
Heigl: [Because] that was actually when I realized, "My God, what we're talking about isn't far-fetched." The story we're telling is relevant.
TV Guide Magazine: Charlie has a very high-security job with big secrets to keep. Can she trust her colleagues?
Heigl: Right now, Joe and I are arguing because he always wants to have someone either die or be really horrible. I'm like, "No, no, the team has to be the team! The audience has to be able to count on them. No one should be the secret bad guy." We'll see who wins the argument. I'm not sure!
TV Guide Magazine: On Grey's, you stood up for yourself and said, "Look, I don't think this material is good." If a male actor did that, it might not have been a big deal.
Heigl: Yeah, I know, we'd have to write a book if we were to talk about that. Look, there are gracious, classy ways of doing what I did. Then the not-so-gracious and not-so-classy ways. I fell into the latter at that point in my life. I spent the next couple of years wobbling. If people keep saying something about you, you wonder if they're right and you're wrong. It's uncomfortable to think, "My God, am I really this s--tty person?" But it wasn't the end of the world either. There's a lot worse I could have done. I'm always going to fight for the material to be great.
State of Affairs premieres Monday, Nov. 17 at 10/9c on NBC.Watch our interview with Heigl and Woodard: