Practice Makes Perfect

A surgeon in stilettos on her hit show, "Private Practice," Kate Walsh takes off her shoes and opens up about her unusual childhood (her divorced mom, the “original cougar,” married a guy 17 years younger!), her tabloid divorce and what it’s like to be the hardest-working perfume mogul in show business.

by Margy Rochlin
Kate Walsh, Private Practice, Grey's Anatomy
Photograph: Peggy Sirota

It was Walsh’s dramatic versatility—and Addison’s—that made Rhimes think that of all the dazzlingly telegenic stars on Grey’s, it was Addison/Walsh who should be the focus of the spin-off she was planning. “When we were in the writers’ room, you could pitch stories for that character all day and never run out,” Rhimes says of the brainy, glamorous, insecure supersurgeon whose life and foibles sometimes eerily echo Walsh’s. The day Rhimes summoned her to deliver the good news, the actress assumed the worst: “Shonda called me into her office. She and I are friends, but I’m still thinking, What’s wrong? Panic. I thought I was in trouble. A real principal’s office kind of moment.” Private Practice debuted on September 26, 2007, to big ratings and a rocky critical reception. (“One of the most depressing portrayals of the female condition since The Bell Jar,” was the New York Times’s glum assessment.) But by season two, the weekly travails of the attractive middle-aged doctors at the privately owned Oceanside Wellness Center in Los Angeles began to find a groove.

Of course, making it to the big leagues has had its challenges, including the paparazzi, who on at least one occasion that she remembers captured her as she sleepily picked up the morning newspaper on her porch. “It’s a totally surreal experience,” Walsh says. “That’s why I put up hedges. Ugh.” And she clearly could have done without the blazing 48-point headlines following her split from film executive Alex Young. The couple married after dating for just seven months, only to announce their separation 14 months later. The highly publicized divorce proceedings included reports of Young’s rejected demands for spousal support as well as of mutual restraining orders. “Do you mean The End of My Marriage?” she says when asked what it was like to have such a private matter play itself out in the media. “Oh my God. The worst thing ever. It was so public, and yet it was so legal-embroiled. You couldn’t talk about anything. And I still can’t really.” However, she does allow that she no longer makes hair-trigger moves without getting a consensus from her friends first: “I’ve always had that courage thing down, but then I had to develop the rest. I’ve learned to seek other people’s counsel more. That’s a good part of growing up.”

Queries about her current romantic status elicit fizzy deflections, like “I’m sexy and single!” and “Just say I’m ‘dating’!” But ask Walsh if she’s living the life she imagined when she was small, and she gives a straight answer. “No,” she says as she polishes off a seared-tuna Nicoise salad down to the last lettuce leaf. “I thought I’d be married and have three or four kids. I always knew I wanted to be an actress, but I think I always wanted a quote-unquote normal life because I had a very untraditional upbringing.”

It's no surprise that Walsh has always dreamed of the ordinary. Born in San Jose, California, the youngest of five kids, she was only six when her parents divorced. At 42, her mother married a man 17 years her junior. “I call her the original cougar,” Walsh jokes. “She’s 77 now, and he’s about to be 60. I said, ‘Mom, if I want a grand cougar for my next [perfume] webomercial, can I dress you up and put you on a throne with, like, a cougar head and an amulet and a staff?’ ”

First Published March 23, 2011

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