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Still the object of their projection

Not Ally, not Kitty, Calista Flockhart just can't seem to get a real-world break.

February 18, 2007|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

CALISTA Flockhart is enjoying a glass of red wine at the bar of the boutique hotel she called home for six months when she began working on "Ally McBeal," the show that, for better or worse, catapulted her into stardom. The Hotel Bel-Air, she says a bit nostalgically, brings up "friendly feelings" and the bar itself, with its East Coast vibe, reminds her of New York, the city she longs to return to so she can perform on its stages again.

That isn't likely to happen for a while. Her 6-year-old son, Liam, just started kindergarten and loves the outdoors. Her partner, Harrison Ford, has a teenage daughter in school in Los Angeles. There's also the six-year contract she signed with ABC to costar in "Brothers & Sisters," which is attracting 12 million viewers a week and seems to be gaining momentum, especially with women.

In the late '90s, when Flockhart lived in this lush, urban hotel with her dog, Webster, her award-winning turn as Ally -- the miniskirted, legal eagle singleton -- transformed her from an off-Broadway actress into a household name, giving way to a public persona that has always seemed at odds with itself. Is it possible to be at once shy and diva-like, a team player and a prima donna, aloof and warm? Or did the actress just get caught in a cultural flashpoint and not have the desire or wherewithal to shout to the world: "This is who I am!"

Flockhart's reluctance to engage with the press to dispel rumors or explain herself after "Ally" went off the air made her a conveniently blank slate to be filled in with conjecture: She was just like Ally. She was self-centered and neurotic. She was difficult. And her longing to disappear seemed to play out literally. Had anyone seen her eat? Was she wasting away?

Smoldering fire refueled

IF she was hoping that her reticence would play better when she reemerged after a five-year absence -- as part of a notable ensemble that includes Sally Field, Rachel Griffiths, Patricia Wettig and Rob Lowe -- she was quickly dissuaded. Last summer, she stepped into the center of another whirlwind when she appeared on a panel before the press with her cast mates and producers to promote the new show. Flockhart did her best to answer the three softball questions lobbed her way, then sat blankly, shoulders drooped, staring into the audience, as the others played the game. By the time it was over, writers and bloggers from across the country were describing the 42-year-old actress as "miserable," "depressed" and "spaced-out."

Flockhart responded not with triage interviews but by disappearing into her work once again. It was only with great reluctance -- after the show was a hit and people were marveling at her performance -- that she agreed to sit down for her first interview since her awkward appearance.

Certainly, Flockhart has never been a couch-jumper. She is reserved and private, and she didn't recite prepared anecdotes, but seemed quite aware of the tape recorder, at first. As time passed, she became more open and asked many questions, indicating her desire to have a conversation instead of a standard interview.

"I don't know what people expect. I don't know what people want me to do," says Flockhart, who is much more upbeat talking about her son or her TV character than being a TV star. "And if they get disappointed that I don't satisfy something that they're looking for, I don't quite know what that's about. But, for me, I was happy and content to be [at the panel]. I did my job, I went home and I felt like it was all fine."

Then the press accounts hit. Though Flockhart felt the characterization of her behavior at the press conference was "unfair and inaccurate," she says the articles "did not bother me."

But executive producer Ken Olin did feel badly that he had lured Flockhart away from her nest, where she has spent the last half-decade bonding with her son and enjoying her time with Ford and their two dogs, only to have her lambasted on her first public outing.

"Wherever she shows up, for whatever reason, she's such a lightning rod for media and scrutiny and a certain kind of resentment, and I don't think that's always easy for her but she's doing it," Olin said. "She's had to be tough. That hurts her feelings. When you're held up being iconic and you represent things -- and for her these are things that [ticked] off a lot of people: the neurotic, man-hungry female that is a setback for intelligent, liberated women -- people take shots at you. But it's this character of Ally McBeal that is held up to represent something that she's not."

Olin and Flockhart's co-workers protectively fill in the back story and shadings of personality that she might provide herself if only "approachable celebrity" were a role she wanted to play.

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