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

Bursting 30 minutes late into Figaro Bistrot, a popular cafeĢ in the hilly L.A. neighborhood of Los Feliz, Kate Walsh issues a heartfelt “I’m so sorry.” She settles into a low leather chair, adjusts the hem of her asymmetrical, deep-purple Isabel Marant knit dress, then immediately sheds her stilty gray suede ankle boots. “I walk from the car to here, then I take them off,” she says of her footwear MO. It’s a trick Walsh learned from Addison Forbes Montgomery, her briskly efficient, Christian Louboutin–wearing neonatal surgeon alter ego on the ABC hit series Private Practice. “If you think about it, in the OR, Addison doesn’t wear them. She wears Crocs,” Walsh notes. “So she just really walks down the hall in her heels looking badass, then goes back to her desk and sits.”

In fact, with the show in its fourth season since being spun off from Grey’s Anatomy, Walsh admits that she has now spent so much time faux-bringing little ones into the world that she occasionally forgets she’s not a real doctor. “A friend is pregnant, and I was asking her questions as if I were some sort of expert,” Walsh says, laughing. “I mean, who do I think I am?”

Well, let’s see. In addition to embodying the romantically challenged physician, Walsh is one of television’s most beloved and easygoing stars. “There’s a reason she keeps getting work,” says Mike O’Malley, Kurt’s blue-collar father on Glee, who starred with Walsh in a short-lived NBC sitcom in 1999. “Part of it is that people just want to work with people they like. I don’t think Hollywood is any different.” And she is the architect of an immensely satisfying second career as creator and marketer of a fragrance line that she launched with her own cash and promoted with Web commercials she produced herself rather than ceding control in the more standard celebrity-licensing deal. She is also, colleagues say, much funnier in real life than her deadpan Addison character would lead one to believe. Finding Lady Gaga’s justification for her infamous 2010 Video Music Awards meat dress lacking (“The explanation was so convoluted; it was like, ‘Freedom and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—I’m trying to get that repealed’ . . . and I was like, ‘What? You’ve lost me’ ”), she decided to go on The Tonight Showwearing a dress festooned with plastic sushi and sashimi.

Her point? Walsh admits, “I do stuff just to amuse myself.”

In Hollywood, where talent and beauty are not always enough, Walsh’s wry geniality makes her stand out. When asked to rewind to her first meeting with Walsh back in 2004, Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, recalls how every actress vying for the role of Addison was inexplicably wrong—until Walsh blew in for an audition. “Kate’s very socially adept in the sense that when she comes into a room, she’s very funny and self-deprecating, and you think, She’s kind of great! I don’t remember what her reading was like, just that she [left] and I thought, That’s Addison,” says Rhimes, adding that Walsh also seemed smart, strong and “beautiful but not creepy-beautiful, so she’s believable as a doctor.”

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?’ ”

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.”

Remembering those days, Walsh says, “I have a great support system. I think I’ve always created community. That’s part of moving around so much. I can create an instant home.” She adds with a laugh, “I think that’s served me well and other times not served me well. Like thinking, Oh, hey! Let’s get married!” Walsh now lives in a 1920s-vintage Spanish-style house in the hills of Los Feliz. Recently it dawned on her that she’s been a card-carrying resident of Los Angeles for the past 12 years, actually achieving the geographical stability she’s always longed for. “About a month ago, I had this epiphany: Oh, I live here!” she says. “There’s this thing that was ingrained in me when I was a kid of, like, ‘We got to get somewhere else now.’ I think I just got used to it. I was used to the stimulus that was moving.”

The punishingly long days required of the star of an hour-long TV hospital drama could provoke restlessness in anybody. One way Walsh passes the time is by thumbing Twitter updates into her BlackBerry. “It’s mildly addictive. But when you’re on the set so much, you can kind of check in on people,” says Walsh, whose chatty posts (“Oh Tw’eeties, busy day, very busy. Small anxiety attack. Must keep all the good holiday calm going”) read as if she is corresponding with 80,000 of her besties. “In a strange way, it keeps you company, this world of Twitter people.” She sees it as sort of a salon, albeit with boundaries.

“She’s set up a really nice blueprint of how to let people in but still keep things personal and private,” says Taye Diggs, who plays Addison’s current Private Practicelove interest, heart surgeon Sam Bennett. Diggs is also inspired by Walsh’s multitasking. “There’s not much downtime for her—she’s a busy woman, very driven,” he says, adding that she’s always hosting potluck Sundays or throwing cast-and-crew parties at her house or inviting Diggs and his wife, Idina Menzel, to go out dancing. “She’s kind of a trip: She’ll be away for the weekend doing [charity projects]”—Walsh works with an LGBT youth suicide-prevention hotline, the Trevor Project, and is the face of Oceana’s Getting Sea Turtles Off the Hook campaign—“then report on time on Monday morning having memorized a monologue full of medical jargon.”

As for the show’s numerous “bad news” scenes, Diggs admits to having trouble keeping a straight face during them: “At this point, we’ve said every possible version of ‘You know, I’m sorry, but she’s not going to make it.’ ” For her part, Walsh describes her handsome costar as a “living Adonis” and jokes about the futility of trying to “match up to that” for their love scenes. “It certainly requires you to take care of yourself. But I like to eat food, and I don’t diet. I do Pilates, and I hike with my dog. It’s weird. As you get older, everything changes. Everything starts getting . . . looser. But I think it’s important to accept that. I’m lucky. I’ve got pretty good genes. But I think it’s a weird thing to fight it.”

Walsh’s professional plate was already full when she had a brainstorm: Why not invent a floral fragrance that also evokes a man’s scent—faintly woody—and call it Boyfriend? After developing the product, she launched it last year with a series of witty online “webisode” commercials she wrote, directed and starred in. Walsh also hawked the Boyfriend kit (which includes eau de parfum spray, dry body-oil spray, pulse-point oil, body cream and a votive candle) on the Home Shopping Network. It sold out. “It’s all my investment,” she says. “I made the prototype. We went out and sold it to HSN, to Sephora. Then I got a loan from the bank. It was a big thing to go, OK, I’m doing this! I’m making this whole thing come together. This weird orchestra. Some part of me really clicked in. My feeling was, If this is successful, it would afford me a little freedom to do what I want.” Emboldened by the Boyfriend experience, Walsh is toying with the idea of expanding her product line and maybe trying her hand at directing or following in Dick Cavett’s ’70s footsteps with a smart late-night (online) talk show.

On Private Practice, if there is a question that is consistently posed to Addison, it’s about having it all. “I think Shonda [is] interested in writing something more adult, more what [is] going on with people in their thirties and forties,” Walsh says. “What happens after your dream comes true? Then what?”

These are concerns that also churn in Walsh’s mind: “You know, it’s real issues, what it’s like to be a woman in your forties, childless, in a relationship, been married, divorced.” Walsh pauses, then intones jokingly, “Not that there are any parallels to my life!”

Sometimes, she confesses, “I feel like a loser. I would definitely love to be a parent. But I definitely don’t think I want to do it on my own. Things are just going to go the way they go.”

Back in January, ABC announced it had picked up Private Practice for a fifth season. That means Walsh knows where she’ll be reporting for duty at least until 2012. Occasionally, though, she feels a flutter of her old childhood wanderlust, and she starts thinking about returning to the East Coast. “It’s easy to romanticize the past,” she says. “When I lived in New York, I lived in a rent-controlled apartment. I had three bills to pay: rent, gas and electric, phone. A very simple life.”

Then she reminds herself that 15 years ago she was also waitressing unhappily in jazz clubs at night, going to auditions during the day and wondering if a big break was ever going to come her way. What am I trying to get back to? is what she asks herself. “I live here,” says Walsh, snuggling into the thought. “I have a great life. It’s pretty glorious.”

Originally published in the April 2011 issue of More.


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First Published Wed, 2011-03-23 12:37

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