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Katherine Heigl Needs to Keep Breaking Bad

We know how the star of ‘Unforgettable’ can escape rom-com and TV drama purgatory: play more evil characters

(ABC/Warner Bros./Universal/Ringer illustration)
(ABC/Warner Bros./Universal/Ringer illustration)

"[Katherine] Heigl tends to imbue her characters with an off-putting mix of insecurity and abrasiveness. This film is a prime example. She never relaxes, as if she’s aware that she’s miscast. She’s too movie-star glam, too stiffly prissy, and too lacking in any affection." — The New York Daily News One for the Money review, 2012

"Ms. Heigl doesn’t do perky all that persuasively." — The New York Times’ The Ugly Truth review, 2009

"Heigl and Duhamel, on the shoals of once promising careers, struggle mightily to persuade us they are playing humans." — Rolling Stones Life As We Know It review, 2010

The worst thing to ever happen to Katherine Heigl’s career was costarring in 2007’s Knocked Up. The sexy-but-affable resident on Shonda Rhimes’s then-fledgling Grey’s Anatomy, Heigl was pegged as that show’s breakout. Knocked Up confirmed that: She gave the movie a level of heart to balance out the manchild antics of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen. But as Knocked Up gave way to a string of rom-com leads for Heigl, the movie would prove to be a moment of unique (and hard to replicate) chemistry — a singular effort, rather than a sign of things to come.

The decade that followed was marked by miscasting masquerading as typecasting (by the industry) and self-sabotage (by Heigl herself). Heigl was tasked with recreating her professionally successful, personally doomed Knocked Up character for 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth, Life as We Know It, and others, but failed each time to give audiences someone they could empathize with. She wasn’t believable — as an unlucky-in-love lead, as someone to root for, as a person. At the same time, she was building a reputation as one of the most difficult, ungrateful, even mean actresses in the industry. In Hollywood, she was known as "Hurricane Heigl," according to a 2012 Vulture article. She publicly trashed the two things that made her famous, Knocked Up and Grey’s Anatomy, calling the former "a little sexist" and refusing to enter her name for Emmy consideration for the latter because, she claimed, the Grey’s writers hadn’t given her good enough storylines. Heigl was very quickly written off as a pain in the ass, and while the depiction wasn’t entirely fair — other actors have made comments like hers and been praised as "outspoken" — she at least fed into it. What’s worse, her output wasn’t critically acclaimed enough to absolve her of her behavior. Not even close: Since Knocked Up, Heigl is yet to lead a major studio movie to a Rotten Tomatoes score over 41 percent.

Turns out there was a solution lying in plain sight, and it rhymes with Shmurricane Shmeigl. If only Heigl and her collaborators had stopped trying to remake the magic of Knocked Up years ago and embraced her true calling as the uptight, possibly evil girlfriend or wife whose perfect facade slowly (and violently) cracks, she might have become the star we always thought she would.

Starring as a spurned, potentially unhinged ex-wife in Unforgettable, which hit theaters Friday, the now-38-year-old actress is wildly entertaining. The movie itself is awful, starting bad and only getting worse. But with a closet full of perfectly tailored monochrome dresses and hair so immaculately straight TRESemmé should try to package and sell it, Heigl is deliciously wicked as Tessa Conover, an overprivileged, type-A woman who’s hardly keeping it together as her ex-husband marries an artsy type (Rosario Dawson) and her perfect life begins to split at the seams. By any measure, it’s a laudable performance. But Unforgettable’s got something special: Brilliantly, Heigl uses all the criticisms made against her in the past 10 years to her advantage. That stiffness, that pervasive feeling of insecurity, that "struggle to appear human" is present in Unforgettable, and it’s precisely why Heigl’s villainess is so magnetic and watchable in a film that is … neither of those things. She vapes while committing cyberfraud (I’m assuming that clip was forwarded directly to the Academy of Motion PIcture Arts and Sciences). She savagely cuts the hair of her young daughter as an act of psychological warfare. Heigl plays Tessa with the ultimate chilliness, and it’s delightful. What took her so long?

In the last three years or so, Heigl has returned to television as a way to finally get off of the romantic-comedy track that she so clearly doesn’t belong on. First, she played a no-bullshit, please-don’t-call-me–Carrie Mathison CIA agent named Charleston in NBC’s 2014 drama State of Affairs. This year, she played a no-bullshit, please-don’t-call-me-Alicia-Florrick lawyer on CBS’s Doubt. Both were false starts, both were canceled after less than a season, and both still weren’t the right showcase for Heigl in the sense that they required her to play complex characters with emotional layers. Unforgettable, too, will probably be seen as a flop — it made just $4.8 million in its first weekend at the box office, and reviews are not good — but for Heigl, it should be seen as a blueprint for the future of her career.

Movies, specifically thrillers (and now more than ever, prestige TV), need characters who feel not-quite human, who seem to come straight out of the Uncanny Valley and cause audiences to squirm. It’s a tradition born from Norman Bates and continued by characters like Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). It took us (and her!) way too long to realize, but these are characters Katherine Heigl was born to play. She does dead-eyed so well — and I mean that as a compliment — embodying the soul-crushing existential despair that being a Stepford Wife must provoke. Of course, it helps that she’s a beautiful woman who just happens to be a perfect stand-in for WASPy overprivilegedness. The real-life context of her career also uniquely enables her to stand out as these types of villains. Audiences spent almost 10 years hating Katherine Heigl; because of that, the reaction to seeing her now play odious characters is that much more visceral. But also, as seen in Knocked Up, Heigl has just enough comedic sense to give this sort of character an appropriate layer of knowingness. "Now you’re perfect — just like mommy," is one of Heigl’s first lines in Unforgettable, and she delivers it with chilling enjoyment while staring into a vanity mirror à la Snow White’s Evil Queen. It’s all ridiculous. It also works.

This is Katherine Heigl’s lane, and if she chooses to stay in it — please, please, please! — she might be on track for an improbable comeback. The Heiglssance isn’t as catchy as the McConnaissance, but there’s still time before we actually have to name this thing. But imagine if Heigl utilized her abilities in a good thriller instead of one like Unforgettable that’s content to hit every rote genre beat. What if a drama actually used her insecurity and uncanniness as an actress as a weapon? And won’t that prospective second season of Big Little Lies need to add a cold, overprivileged, extremely hateable mother of three to the mix? Leave the generically handsome bores to make their own bad rom-coms and give me five more Evil Katherine Heigl roles instead. Let her vape again; give her the stage to trade passive-aggressive barbs over margaritas and say bland but oddly threatening things like, "I’m buying Lily a new horse." Heigl is amazing and scene-chewing and fun in Unforgettable. It would be a shame if it’s the only chance we get to see this side of her.