The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Patricia Heaton (“The Christmas Heart,” “The Middle”)

Although it’s not unreasonable to suggest that just about everyone knows Patricia Heaton best for her work in front of the camera, but she’s been known to step into the role of producer on occasion, including the 2006 film “Amazing Grace.” Her most recent procedural credit, however, can be seen throughout the month of December on the Hallmark Channel, and as is only appropriate for a holiday film, it’s a family affair: not only did Heaton co-produce the film with her husband, David Hunt, but it’s written by her brother, Michael Heaton. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Ms. Heaton during the summer TCA tour, and although “The Christmas Heart” was the reason for our conversation, I was able to split our time evenly between the film and her current full-time gig: playing Frankie Heck on “The Middle.” By the way, “Middle” fans, please note that, given the date of our conversation, I had no way of knowing that my theory about Frankie departing from her job at the car dealership really was in the cards. I’m like freaking Nostradamus over here!

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Bullz-Eye: As someone who has a sister myself, how weird is it to work with your brother on a project like this?

Patricia Heaton: Not as weird as working with my husband on it. [Laughs.] Too many relatives spoil the soup! No, it was great. You know, my brother and I have… Once he stopped torturing me and pinning me down and spitting on me and things like that when we were younger, we both lived and struggled in New York together at the same time. At one point we were both working at People Magazine: he was writing and I was a copy clerk. So we’ve been down the road together, and…he’s a great story guy. He has tons of stories, partly because he’s a journalist himself and he talks to people all day long, every day, and it just generates these stories in his mind. So this movie, “The Christmas Heart,” he had in his head for many years, and we’ve been trying to get it made. We’re so grateful that Hallmark gave it a home.

It’s an unusual Christmas movie, in that it’s very dramatic and there’s very serious themes in it. So it’s a little bit unusual, but I think that’s what’s going to be great about it. You’ll want to have popcorn on one hand and a box of tissues on the other. But it was great to have my brother having written it and my husband (David Hunt) and I producing it, and seeing the whole thing come off the page…we spent hours and hours and hours on the script, so when you start watching the dailies and you see it come alive, it’s so thrilling. And that’s what makes it addictive, ’cause it’s really one of the hardest things you can do, to take something from an idea to the screen. It’s a lot of hard work, but when you see it… It’s the kind of thing that really sort of lives forever.

And, by the way, Christmas movies do live forever. [Laughs.] “The Town without Christmas” is shown 18 times a year in December, and I still get these (residual) checks. I remember when we made it, we were, like, “This thing’s never gonna go anywhere,” because it was made on a dollar up in Halifax. But it was really fun…and it still runs! So there’s kind of a legacy with Christmas movies that they run together, so it’s kind of cool when you have something that you’re so proud of that you know it’s gonna get seen a lot.

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BE: You’ve obviously got your own full-time gig going with “The Middle.” How hands-on were you able to be as a producer?

PH: You know, unfortunately, I was not able to go up to Winnipeg, where we shot it, but my brother Michael was. My husband and I were both in L.A. working, so we couldn’t go. But I have to say that the Canadian crews and the Canadian actors are superb, and they really know how to get things done on a dime. We shot the movie in 15 days! That’s really short. So, y’know, I watched the dailies every day that they would send back. Unfortunately, what you’re watching is what can’t be changed. Fortunately, though, my brother and A.J. Morewitz, who runs our company, were on set to sort of be our eyes and ears there.

BE: Was there any talk of you appearing in front of the camera at all for the film?

PH: Yes, but it just turned out that it coincided with my work schedule. But I’d love to do something with Hallmark, and we’re working on doing some other things for them. I would’ve loved to have been a part of it, though. And, fortunately, we got the amazing Teri Polo and Tess Harper, who really give the most phenomenal performances. I’ve probably seen the movie six times now, and I cry every single time. And this movie…I’ve known it since page one, so there’s no surprises in it for me, and I’m still moved every time by their performances.

BE: Well, I have to tell you that I’m a huge fan of “The Middle.” In fact, I review the show every week for the Onion AV Club.

PH: [Excitedly.] Oh, you do? That’s you…? Oh, thank you so much! Those are really great reviews, because you really go through it.

BE: Well, you know, I’ve got a child. And I live a very low-to-middle-class lifestyle. 

PH: [Laughs.] Oh, okay, so you’re really connecting with it. Well, I read them every week! In fact, let me make sure I send out the link on my Twitter…

BE: How was it for you to settle back into a family-sitcom role after having had a brief-ish break to do “Back to You”?

PH: Well, it was really sad, because on “Back to You” I got to wear fabulous clothes. My character’s name, Kelly Carr, was actually embroidered into all the suits that I wore. I was, like, “Wow, yay, I finally get a fashion show!” And then that got canceled, and now I’m getting put back into the Midwest, with a family who’s on the lower end of the economic scale. So I don’t know what God’s plan for me is…but it’s apparently not for me to be Sarah Jessica Parker in “Sex and the City,” I guess! [Laughs.]

Part of “Back to You” was that you want to take a role that’s different from the one you just did, so I went from being the wife on “Everybody Loves Raymond” to being Kelly Carr on “Back to You,” which was really wonderful and exciting. Kelsey (Grammer) is a terrific person and actor. But when the script for “The Middle” came along, I immediately thought, “I’m not going to do a mom again,” but then I read it, and it felt extremely different from “Raymond.” And I had not done a single-camera comedy before, and I sort of wanted that skill set in my quiver. And as long as I could get used to the hours…I mean, it’s 12 to 14 hours a day, and I still have four kids! But it’s interesting that my children’s school schedules are such that they’re gone from seven in the morning ’til usually six at night, so they’re almost gone the same amount of time that I am. So it really worked out well that, when they were younger and they needed me there, I could have them on the set with me every day on “Raymond.” And now, when I’m working these much longer hours, they’re also working long hours, too, in their own lives, so I’m not missing too much of their lives. And the great thing about television…and I was talking to Teri about this…versus being in movies, you’re home. You come home every night and can have dinner, you have your weekends, you get some hiatus weeks off. So you can almost have a pretty normal family life!

BE: Over the course of the show to date, you’ve seen the car dealership slowly slip into the background. How have you felt about that? Certainly the home scenes are consistently hilarious. Do you enjoy being able to focus more on the family.

PH: Uh-huh. I think when the creators imagined the show, they have elements in it, and they explore those elements and see what really takes hold. And you sort of gravitate from one place to the next, and as the actors start to fill out the characters, you start to figure out what works and what seems to be resonating. Because the kids and Mike are so well-written and are so well-acted, of course, by Neil Flynn, Eden Sher, Charlie McDermott, and Atticus Shaffer, the writers and I think the audience was more interested in the family. So that’s why you tend to go there. And I think Frankie may have a change of workplace this year. I also noticed we weren’t going to Ehlert’s quite as much, and I think that’s because the characters had gotten so full, and we’ve gotten to know them so well and have started to explore different aspects of their lives at school or whatever, that it was just a natural progression to be more with the family.

BE: In fact, I think I’ve said in reviews a couple of times, surely they’re on their way to sending Frankie back to school or something. There’s got to be some way that they’re going to weed out the car dealership altogether sooner than later.

PH: Right. But she needs to be working, because they need the money, so we’ll find something. But it’d be great if I’d either go back to school or get another job…or maybe do a couple of things. You know, what’s great about the way they write the show is that it sometimes takes a couple of episodes to resolve an issue. Like the dishwasher.

BE: Uh, yeah, our dishwasher was going out right as that storyline kicked in.

PH: It did…?

BE: Yep. So thanks for that.

PH: [Laughs.] So, yeah, I think it’d be fun to see Frankie sort of searching for a job for a few episodes before landing in the right place. I don’t know if that’s what going to happen, but we’ll see.

BE: Do you have a favorite episode of the series to date? Or more than one?

PH: I have some favorite scenes. In fact, we were just nominated for a Humanitas award for last season’s opening…

BE: …when they were coming home from Aunt Ginny’s funeral (in “The Map”)?

PH: [Smiles.] Yes. The car scene. You know, we love car scenes as a cast, because we don’t have to worry about blocking, they shoot them pretty quickly because they only shoot them in one direction, so you don’t have to worry about them re-lighting so much. But it’s also fun to just get a chance to do a…that’s a very long scene. It was probably about 15 pages, or something like that. So just to have a really long discussion… And it just bounced back and forth so well between the different family members, like a real family talk, and went in all these different directions. I just thought it was so satisfying as an actor to shoot that scene. So that’s probably one of my favorite episodes. I also love anything that Sue’s involved in. You know, I’ve always said that if we ever get an Emmy nomination, it’s gonna be because of Eden Sher.

BE: If she doesn’t hurry up and get one…

PH: I know! There has to be some sort of protest if she doesn’t get one.

BE: I am 100% behind that.

PH: I think part of the issue is that there’s a lot of product out there. So we’re competing against a lot of different people, and there’s a lot of shows in the comedy category that don’t necessarily jump out at you and scream “comedy,” so…it’s a little odd. It’s sometimes like comparing apples and oranges in the comedy category, so it’s tough.

BE: Well, I feel like “The Middle” has been perpetually underrated since it first started.

PH: I agree. But I also am so grateful that the critics keep saying that. [Laughs.] And keep our name out there in the process!

BE: Do you find it hard playing Frankie as self-centered as she so often comes across?

PH: [Bursts out laughing.] Okay, you’re the first person who’s said that Frankie’s self-centered. That’s such a…it’s probably because you’re a guy. I see Frankie as completely selfless, and I think if you think she’s self-centered, it’s because she worries about everything, so… [Hesitates.] What about her do you find self-centered?

BE: Okay, well, maybe self-centered isn’t the right word. But she gets so obsessed with things…

PH: She does get obsessed. [Laughs.]

BE:  …often getting caught up in them to the point that sometimes she’s not even paying attention to the person or thing responsible for starting the obsession in the first place. If that makes sense.

PH: Okay, right. That’s different. That’s not self-obsessed. But I would definitely agree with you that she does get obsessed about things. And I think that early on in my parenting, I was obsessed with doing things for the kids and trying to make sure that this was happening and really being controlling and thinking I had to make all these things happen in my kids’ lives for them to be successful human beings out in the world. And as I’ve gotten older and just more tired… [Laughs.] I’ve just sort of realized that my children have a certain set personality that no amount of my interfering is going to change. There are certain things that you can do to sort of open them up to different experiences and see if they respond. I think that’s the most parents can do. “I notice you like to read. Try this.” “I notice you have really good hand/eye coordination. Try this.” That’s the most you can do as a parent, I think. And once I started realizing that, I was able to relax. Frankie hasn’t realized that yet. I think she knows that her family’s at quite a disadvantage financially, and she knows that she and Mike aren’t the greatest parents, and their kids aren’t going to be doing dressage or whatever.

The thing I really relate to is that they’re very busy, and they can’t be driving the kids all over the place and showing up for everything. I’ve had that in my life. I remember we had four kids in AYSO Soccer, and what it meant was all day Saturday and all day Sunday we had to sit and watch completely talentless kids run around on a soccer field. [Laughs.] And my husband, who’s British, could not stand it. He’s, like… [Adopts a British accent.] “Look at what they’re doing! The coaches, they’re ridiculous!” And we just said, “Nope, we’re not doing it.” We pulled everybody out. Same with baseball. We pulled everybody out of Little League. The kids didn’t really want to do it, anyway. And as a result, our kids are big, fat couch potatoes who only play video games. [Laughs.] So see how that worked? Really successful. So I totally relate to the Hecks in that I just can’t be that kind of parent…and yet I feel guilty that I’m not that kind of parent.

BE: Lastly, I’ve read how everyone brings their own ideas to the writers for possible story ideas. Is there anything from your own life that’s made into an episode?

PH: One of the most obvious ones was during the first season. For some reason, I thought it would really add a lot to our family to host an international student from Japan. My son was studying Japanese at the time at his high school, so they had asked if they had any parents who would be hosts. And that happened once when I was growing up, the people across the street had these Italian guys stay at their house, and I thought, “That’s one of my clearest memories from growing up. I want to recreate that for my kids!” A lot of things that parents do is because they’re trying to create memories for their kids. That’s why they involve them in all these activities. So we did that, and I just remember every day coming to the set, going, “Omigod, this Japanese kid’s just standing in the corner staring at us, and he doesn’t speak any English.” So I said, “Can you imagine if the Hecks…”

I mean, I think my life is pretty good, but when this kid’s staring at us, I’d start feeling like we’re the ugly Americans, and everything we do is awful. Can you imagine if someone came to the Heck house and watched how they operated? I said, “We have to have them have an exchange student.” So that was really taken from that. And the young man who stayed with us, who was a lovely guy, came and visited the set, so they experienced firsthand how he just kind of stood there and never smiled. We have pictures of him, and he’d just… [Offers frozen stare.] So we did that episode with Matthew Moy (who now plays Han on “2 Broke Girls”) as the Japanese exchange student, and it was just so much fun. Matthew is such a wonderful, funny actor.


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