Katherine Heigl worked to success as an actress, and once she attained it, she learned that being a public figure meant being under the scrutiny of others.
The Grey’s Anatomy alum tells Yahoo Life that she had started acting as an “after-school activity” when she was a young girl, not having any focus on turning it into a career. But as soon as she and her mother made the decision to move to Los Angeles to see if Heigl could make it big-time —which she did, with other early stints including 2007’s Knocked Up and 2008’s 27 Dresses — she lost herself in the process.
“Being suddenly kind of defined by public opinion was very new. And it was very positive at first, so it felt really good … And then it turned,” she explains over the phone, referring to being labeled as difficult to work with, ungrateful and unprofessional earlier in her career — sentiments that the media often highlighted. “I did feel very isolated in it, I really got in my head.”
Heigl had struggled with “mental instability” before and calls herself a “people pleaser,” noting that she’s gone to great lengths to earn favor and in turn became resentful over it.
“It was really hard for me to have public opinions sway so far the other direction, and I wasn’t grounded or stable in my own self enough to not believe them myself,” she reflects. “So I spent a lot of time in my early 30s worried that maybe they were right and I was this kind of person. But then defending myself, in my own mind, it’s like that horrible neuroses and anxiety.”
Under the spotlight and the negative headlines, she wishes she had built up a skillset to protect her well-being. “It would have saved me a lot of beating the s*** out of myself. And maybe that would have been great and I could have gotten help sooner and I could have changed it sooner,” she says, pondering what her experience would have been like if conversations of mental health had been more mainstream. “It’s, in my opinion, the worst thing I’ve been through as an adult, because I didn’t understand it. I thought it was completely on me that it was a moral or character weakness.”
She continues, “I was at such an incredibly heightened level of anxiety, and so afraid of every move I made and everything I said and everything I did … trying to be the perfect person to not ruffle any feathers … And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t win. I can’t win.’ And it was just the super lonely place because I let it mean so much to me.”
A piece of overcoming all of that the unsavory headlines, the reputation, and the internalization of it were simply getting older, Heigl says. “I’m about to turn 44 and I’ve started looking back a bit because you’ve got enough to look back on. And I have a lot of regrets,” she says. “I get frustrated with myself for not knowing better, and I didn’t know better. So I don’t know how I could have made different choices, not having any better understanding. But I wish I had known better, I guess, and that I had not spent so much time in this dark place of fear.”
She then quotes Maya Angelou saying, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” It’s something that Heigl’s mom would often remind her of — and something she keeps in mind in an effort to show her younger self some grace. Eventually, the hardships pushed her to gain perspective. “That kind of coming to was I guess born out of all that anxiety, all that confusion, all that inner turmoil of my early 30s,” she explains. “But I still wish it hadn’t happened.”
A bigger piece of coming out on the other side was educating herself on mental health, getting the proper help, and ultimately being put on medication. “It essentially saved my life,” she says. Now, through her portrayal of Tully Hart, who is fiercely dedicated to her job, on the Netflix series Firefly Lane, which resumes with part one of season two on Friday, Heigl is better able to reflect on the choices that she made throughout her career, and how she took the opportunity to turn trivial moments into triumphs throughout her life.