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

When the newlyweds relocated to Tucson, where Walsh’s stepfather was pursuing a doctorate in psychology, 11-year-old Kate was the only one of the kids they brought with them (most of her siblings were already on their own; a brother stayed with their father to finish high school). Over the course of her childhood, Walsh moved at least 10 times, mostly within Arizona, and went to 15 schools. Quick to form bonds, she always had friends. But as a latchkey kid—her mother was “a social worker, a nurse’s assistant; she did lots of different things”—Kate would return home to an empty house each day and whip herself up a snack of Stir’n Frost single-serving cake. “You’d just add water,” she says. “There was a foil pouch of frosting. You cooked the cake in the microwave, put the frosting on and then . . . ” Walsh mimes shoveling food into her mouth. “Yellow cake with chocolate frosting. It was very comforting.”

The one consistency in every new city was her devotion to school drama clubs and community theater. When her parents first split up, Kate and her mother settled into an evening ritual that would eventually inform her career choice. “My mom and I would watch Million Dollar Movie,” she recalls. “It Happened One Night. Sergeant York. Miracle on 34th Street. All the musicals with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. I would go, ‘This is great! These look like wonderful people, and they’re really having a good time.’ ” Inspired by such film classics, she starred as a pint-size, silvery-voiced Glinda the Good Witch in a second-grade production of The Wizard of Ozand has been onstage ever since. The only time she gave up acting was when she enrolled at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Determined to steer away from the dramatic arts, she ran through En-glish, business, art history and political science as majors, then dropped out at 19 and became a full-time ingenue at the desert community’s a.k.a. Theatre, whose productions ranged from Shakespeare to Shepard and Rabe.

After Tucson came Nagoya, Japan, where Walsh spent a summer teaching English to Japanese familiesto make some extra cash. “No one spoke English,” she says. “It made me feel like I was in Heart of Darkness. I definitely had some Kurtzian moments.” Then Chicago, improv classes and a stint at the Piven Theatre Workshop, an acting school run by Jeremy (Entourage) Piven’s parents. Her four-year stretch in New York City began with her sharing a fifth-floor Lower East Side walk-up apartment with her older brother, Joe, an artist, where they slept head to toe in the same bed. When she landed an audition for The Drew Carey Show, it was time to decamp for Los Angeles. If she got the job, they told her, she’d have to start right away. “Either pack for a day—or 30 days,” the casting director advised. “I chose to pack for 30 days,” she says. “And then I got the job, and then I stayed.” She’d scored a recurring guest spot as Nicki Fifer, Carey’s newly svelte girlfriend who slowly packs the pounds back on. Walsh has worked steadily ever since, mostly playing straight to someone else’s funny: She was Norm -McDonald’s love interest on The Norm Show, Will Ferrell’s wife in Kicking & Screamingand the calm significant other of a prone-to-hysteria Sandra Oh in Under the Tuscan Sun. But she was so daunted during her first year in Los Angeles that she stayed in drab corporate housing simply because it was close to the studio. “I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t know how to move around the city,” she says. But there were some familiar faces at the complex: “I saw Jeremy Piven’s father, Byrne, my acting teacher. He was getting into the Jacuzzi with a book in a black Speedo. He was, like, 70 then.”

First Published March 23, 2011

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