Calista Flockhart: ‘I cannot believe I was scrutinised, pursued like that. It was intense and it was unfair’

The Ally McBeal star (59), who nearly disappeared from stage and screen at the height of her stardom, is back, playing a bouffanted Lee Radziwill in Feud: Capote vs. the Swans

On a chilly January weekend in Los Angeles, I turned into a truffle pig. I foraged relentlessly all over town, looking for truffle fries. By Monday, when it was time to go to my interview, the only thing in my suitcase I could squeeze into was a Spanx dress.

“My sister gave me this for Christmas,” I explained sheepishly to the famously lissom Calista Flockhart as I slid into a booth on the terrace of the Georgian Hotel. “I guess you’ve never owned any Spanx.”

“I love Spanx!” she said. “In fact, I just ordered – no kidding – a pair of Spanx jeans. They make really cute jeans. They’re very wide.”

Seeing my sceptical look, she reminded me: “It’s not only about sucking it all in. It’s about smoothing it all the way. No panty lines.”


And then, as we sat in this romantic spot, looking out at the ocean, she said the thing that made me fall in love: “Would you like to nibble on something? How about some French fries?”

And suddenly I realised how much I had missed the woman who shot to mega-stardom in the late 1990s as Ally McBeal, the quirky Boston lawyer with miniskirts and maxi-neuroses – a role she reprised at the Emmys this month, doing a whimsical dance with her male former co-stars on a set resembling the show’s fabled unisex bathroom, with Barry White on the soundtrack.

Flockhart virtually disappeared from stage and screen at the height of her stardom, riding off into the Brentwood sunset with another star, Harrison Ford. She had dropped out to be a mom, to focus on raising Liam, the baby son she had adopted a year before meeting Ford.

Now, at 59, she’s back, playing a bouffanted Lee Radziwill in Ryan Murphy’s latest nest of vipers, Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, the new season of his anthology series. Murphy has described it as “the original Real Housewives”.

For 30 pieces of silver, and to satisfy his literary ambitions, Truman Capote turned on his beloved “swans”, the willowy women who reigned over New York society in the 1950s and 1960s, in a sable-lined world of Champagne, cigarette holders and Porthault sheets.

As the show makes clear, the swans feared and loathed two things: bad lighting and younger women. They relished sharing a good bottle of Pouilly-Fumé at lunch while administering “a collection of cool scalpel cuts without the benefit of anaesthesia” on their friends, and then going home to sleep it off.

I asked Flockhart if she would have liked to lunch with this haute monde group.

“Maybe once,” she replied. “I felt very sorry for them. Here they are, the toast of New York – rich, jewels, apartments, houses in the country, houses in Europe. They travel all the time on private planes. They have yachts. They are dictating what is in and what is not. Underneath all that, they were very sad, very lonely and really unhappy women.”

As the Truman character tells his lover on the way to La Côte Basque for lunch with his swans: “Some swans actually drown under the beauty and weight of their fantastical, superficial plumage. They just can’t keep going.”

Wielding the excuse that writers must write, Capote betrayed the elegant Ladies Who Lunched by revealing all their seamy Upper East Side secrets – from adultery to alleged murder – in a 1975 Esquire article, La Côte Basque, 1965. In it, he referred to Lee Radziwill and her sister, Jackie Kennedy, as “a pair of western geisha girls”.

The exposé was society’s version of the Oppenheimer explosion. Capote – perhaps afraid that his talent had gone cold after In Cold Blood; perhaps avenging his mother, a Southern belle who had abandoned him to try in vain to break into Manhattan society – planned it as an execution.

“There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel and, finally, the bullet,” he told People magazine about Answered Prayers, the expanded book version of his piece, which was not published in his lifetime. “And when that bullet is fired from the gun, it’s going to come out with a speed and power like you’ve never seen – WHAM!”

Five decades later, Flockhart joins a flock of big-name actors on the latest instalment of Murphy’s Feud. Naomi Watts plays the No. 1 swan, a tortured Babe Paley, who was considered by Capote to be the most perfect woman ever made; Diane Lane is Slim Keith, who pushes to ostracise the Judas writer; Chloë Sevigny is the society doyenne C.Z. Guest; Molly Ringwald is a sweet West Coast swan, Joanne Carson, Johnny’s ex; and Demi Moore is Ann Woodward, a showgirl who shot her banking-heir husband to death but was never charged because she claimed she had mistaken him for a burglar – an excuse Capote airily dismissed.

Jessica Lange plays the ghost of Capote’s mother, an alcoholic who took her own life in 1954; the phantom savours his takedown of the breed of women who had rejected her. And in portraying the Puck of Fifth Avenue, Tom Hollander manages the impossible, holding his high-pitched own against Philip Seymour Hoffman, the star of the acclaimed 2005 film Capote.

Radziwill, a US version of Princess Margaret and an OG influencer, poured her heart out to Capote, telling him about her disintegrating marriage, about being overshadowed by Jackie, and about Jackie’s purloining her beau, Aristotle Onassis. “My God: how jealous she is of Jackie,” Capote wrote in a letter in 1962 to Cecil Beaton. “I never knew.” He tried to help her be an actor, writing the teleplay for a new version of the classic Gene Tierney movie Laura in 1968, but that was a fiasco.

Radziwill called Capote her “Answered Prayer” and engraved those words for him on a cigarette case lined with gold. He took her term of endearment and made it the title of his devastating book.

As the show depicts, the writer repaid all that intimacy by setting a bonfire to the swans’ vanities – the alcohol, the anorexia, the plastic surgery, the straying husbands, not to mention the streak of feral bitchiness, which matched his own. La Côte Basque, 1965 may have finished off New York society, but it also finished off Capote, who spiralled further into alcoholism and died nine years later without having regained his seat at the table.

Murphy said that Flockhart had always been at the top of his list to play Radziwill, because he’d heard tales of her brilliant stage performances as a young woman.

“Lee Radziwill was, of all of them, the most viperous and the darkest, the most in pain,” he said. “She was the most famous – American royalty. I wasn’t sure that Calista, who had been Ally McBeal and really had a reputation of being America’s sweetheart, girl-next-door, would want to do something like that at this point in her life. But she said yes with no hesitation. She really went for it, which I admired. She was sharp and dagger-like.

“She was also so kind and prepared and helpful,” Murphy said. “And I took her out to see Isaac Mizrahi at a Valentine’s Day concert at Café Carlyle, and she was just a good-time girl. Hilarious and fun.”

People who have worked with Flockhart describe her as shy, drily funny and thoughtful about sending flowers and gifts to support staff members. She is not vain and prefers not to look at herself, either on television or in the mirror.

“She has a kind of molecular pixie dust,” said her old friend, playwright, television writer and actor Jon Robin Baitz. “It sort of courses through her veins. It makes her capable of the greatest thing an actor can do, which is to surprise you.”

Baitz worked with Flockhart more than a decade ago on the TV drama Brothers and Sisters, a show he created. He is also a co-writer, with Murphy, of the new Feud, and plays Radziwill’s third husband, director Herbert Ross, on the show. Baitz called Flockhart “the master of the panicked comic glance.”

“When someone does something weird, she will catch your eye, widen hers and exude, ‘Get me out of here!’” he said. “Then go back to an absolutely neutral expression. She has perfect comic timing.”

Flockhart said she loved the “Feud” costumes – “I should have lived in the ’60s, for sure” – but she does not share the swans’ dedication to the Best Dressed List.

“I’m not going to wear a purse that says Gucci all over it, because that just seems strange,” she said. “I’m also just very frugal. I have some really beautiful designer clothes, but 90% of my wardrobe is from Nordstrom. Just what’s comfortable, what works.”

She made the very un-Lee Radziwill decision to wear a 24-year-old canary yellow Ralph Lauren maxiskirt to the US premiere of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny in June. She had first worn it to the 1999 Emmys, when Ally McBeal took the award for top comedy.

She and Ford make a glamorous team on the red carpet. I asked her why she hadn’t gone to the Golden Globes with him the night before – the scene of their first meeting 22 years ago.

They had a lot of awards things coming up, she said, “so I opted to stay home, big bowl of popcorn, and we watched a lot of football. Liam was there. My dogs were there.” She flipped between the Buffalo Bills and the Globes.

Her personal style is casual. “I have a uniform,” she said. “I switch from a grey sweater to a black sweater back to the grey sweater to a black sweater.”

On this windy day, she is wearing loose-fit Levi’s, a white T-shirt, an oversized Jenni Kayne grey sweater and Adidas sneakers. She sports a large diamond engagement ring – “My husband has very good taste, I would say” – and a colourful beaded bracelet.

“I think it’s a Pride bracelet,” she said, “but it might not be.”

She looks Ally-young, more like a graduate student in English literature (her mother was an English teacher) than a woman closing in on 60. I gazed into her eyes to see if they matched Capote’s description of Lee Radziwill’s as “a glass of brandy resting on a table in front of firelight”.

“It depends on the light,” she said. “Green-brown. Hazel. Sometimes brown. Sometimes beige.”

Although Jackie Kennedy is featured in only one scene in the show, Flockhart said she had read up on Radziwill’s competitive relationship with her older sister.

“Truman Capote recognised that she was living in her sister’s shadow,” Flockhart said, “and he would say things: ‘You’re so much prettier. You’re so much smarter. You’re more interesting. You have better style.’ She really needed to hear that. I think it made her really love Truman. He was fun, and she confided in him, like they all did.”

Does she have a squad like the swans?

“I have four really good friends that I’ve had since my son was in kindergarten, and then I have two other ones,” she said. “All mothers. Our kids were friends. It’s been 16 years, and I feel like they’re my army. There through thick and thin.”

But she doesn’t have lunch with them because, she said, “I hate going to lunch. I love going to dinner. I’ll even do breakfast. But to spend my time in the middle of the day at lunch is not my thing.”

Murphy appreciates that Flockhart and some of the other actors playing swans had shared the experience in the 1990s of “being a young person and wanting to be a star and famous, and then you get sucked up in that system and it’s not all it cracked up to be. It’s hard. They were both revered and punished. They got through the gauntlet of a tremendous amount of tabloid journalism.”

When I told Flockhart this, she agreed. “Yes, it seems a lifetime ago,” she said. “I have a lot of distance and perspective, and I’m still incredulous. I cannot believe that I was scrutinised and pursued like that. It was intense and it was unfair.”

David E. Kelley, the creator of Ally McBeal, said he had become interested in Flockhart because of her appealing turn as Gene Hackman’s daughter in Mike Nichols’s drag celebration The Birdcage. She was an instant success and a cultural lightning rod when Ally McBeal debuted in 1997. Some feminists complained that the character was too ditsy and man-crazy and that her skirts were too short.

Flockhart recalled how casually that wardrobe decision had been made: “I said to the costume designer: ‘It either has to be long or short. It can’t be in the middle, because that doesn’t make my leg look good.’ She said, ‘OK, let’s go short.’ I said, ‘Cool, let’s go short.’ And then all of a sudden there was this huge short-skirt scandal, which was really fun.”

That didn’t bother her, although she was taken aback by a 1998 Time magazine cover that showed headshots of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem alongside a picture of Ally McBeal above the query “Is Feminism Dead?” Nancy Friday, the late author on woman sexuality, was quoted: “Ally McBeal is a mess. She’s like a little animal. You want to put her on a leash.”

Flockhart recalled: “I don’t think I was hurt. I was surprised. I thought, this is just a character that is invented out of a man’s mind to entertain. I don’t think I saw it as such a statement. I was just trying to remember my lines.”

Kelley concurred: The character “was a cocktail of good and bad and fragile and strong emotions and attitudes. When I saw the cover of that magazine, oh, man, I just wanted to crawl into a hole, because that was never our intent to be proffering the character of Ally McBeal as a beacon of either feminism or womanhood at the time.”

He noted that, as an actor withstanding an avalanche of publicity, and as a woman, adopting a baby while she was single (as his own wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, did), Flockhart was always “a very brave person.”

Far from killing feminism, Ally McBeal inspired many young career women to stop imitating men at the office in how they acted and dressed and emoted – or didn’t. She rebutted the idea, then in fashion, that any display of “woman behaviour”, talk of clothes or dates or babies, was a mark against women. She was a proponent of the idea – later reinforced by Sex and the City – that femininity and feminism weren’t mutually exclusive.

“Now we can be who we are and still run the world,” Flockhart said.

I worried at the time that several of the actors in Kelley’s universe – Flockhart, Lara Flynn Boyle, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Portia de Rossi – were getting too thin. Thorne-Smith and de Rossi later talked about their 300-calorie-a-day eating disorders.

Flockhart said she had been hurt by chatter about whether she had anorexia.

“I don’t think that would ever happen today,” she said. (Especially in an Ozempic-chic time, when Oprah Winfrey and a hefty slice of Hollywood are getting as skinny as Ally.) “They call it body-shaming now. I haven’t thought about it in a long time, but it’s really not OK to accuse someone of having a disease that a lot of people struggle with.

“It wasn’t the case, and there was nothing I could do to convince anybody or get out of it. If I had worn a big padded bra, they probably would never have been able to target me in that way. I look back at pictures, and I’m the same then as I am now, and nobody says a word now. I was an easy target, I guess. It was painful, it was complicated. I loved working on Ally McBeal, and it just made it sour. I was very sleep-deprived and I was depressed about it. I did think that it was going to ruin my career. I didn’t think anybody would ever hire me again, because they would just assume I had anorexia, and that would be the end of that.”

“Clearly,” she continued, “I had days where I was really hurt and embarrassed and infuriated. I was lucky that I had to work. I just put my head down. I always felt like, ‘Calista, you’re a good person, you’re not mean to anybody,’ and I’m confident in that.”

She added: “I honestly have never been in a situation where I have to watch my weight. My mom is 4-11 now, and she weighed 93 pounds when she was married. Talk about a little tiny elf. I just have small bones, and I just am lucky.”

Another stressful element was the kerfuffle around Robert Downey Jr, who joined the cast in its fourth season, as a fellow lawyer and love interest. He and Flockhart had great chemistry; the ratings spiked, and he won a Golden Globe. But he was fired the next year, after he was arrested on drug charges.

“We were such good friends, and I loved acting with him,” Flockhart said. Lately, they have been attending the same awards shows, as Downey collects laurels for his role as Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer. “I am really happy for him,” she added.

Asked about the talk of an Ally McBeal revival, she said, “I would definitely consider it.”

On the family drama Brothers and Sisters, she played a pundit inspired by me, in reverse. Her character, Kitty Walker, was a conservative who tangled with her liberal siblings and her mom, played by Sally Field.

“So how was that, playing me?” I asked.

“It was amazing,” she deadpanned. “It was the best ever.”

I wondered if you could even have a show about “a tender conservative” in the era of Donald Trump.

“Now there’s a whole different polarisation happening, obviously,” she said. She added that she hates the politicisation of climate change and finds the conservative rollback on women’s rights “infuriating.”

I have done interviews over the years with married stars, such as Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and the ego management seems hard. But somehow Flockhart and Ford seem to have maintained a romantic and playful relationship.

“They get a kick out of each other,” Baitz said.

They hold hands on the red carpet; they get caught on camera canoodling at the airport as they shuttle between Brentwood and their ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and they play practical jokes on each other.

“I’m called the ‘Scare Monster’ in my house because I hide behind every corner,” she said. “And so Harrison will walk in, and then I’ll go, ‘Raaah!’ And he’ll go, ‘W-uy-aah!’ And then I die laughing. I’ll put a plastic spider inside his big ice cubes in the tray, and then he’ll drink it. But then I’ll go to bed two weeks later, and he’s out of town in Jackson, and I’ll take the covers down and there’s this little rubber scorpion. It’s fun.”

She mused that one of the reasons that it has worked is because she was “really content being home” as a full-time mom. “I didn’t have the same dreams at the time, so we weren’t competing with each other.”

“We’re very independent of each other in some ways,” she added, “and probably incredibly codependent on each other in others.”

Her independence startled him at first. “It scares him, I think, sometimes,” she said, laughing. “When I first met him, he said, ‘You are the most self-sufficient woman in the world, and I don’t know how I feel about that.’ I remember I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ Because I didn’t recognise I was self-sufficient.”

She added: “The other reason it works is, we’re both pretty introverted. We stay home a lot, homebodies, which is nice.”

He is known to bend the ears of dinner partners about how proud he is of her, as a mother and an actress. He told me he was “blown away” by her portrayal of the raging Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2022; he had never seen her onstage.

They have never worked together. “We’ve explored it a little bit, but it’s never really happened,” she said.

Flockhart, who played Helena in the 1999 film of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” has the ethereal air of a fairy queen who wandered out of the enchanted forest of Arden on to Santa Monica Boulevard. So I wasn’t surprised when she said her favourite thing to do is get up at 5:30am when the moon is up and go for a hike with her dogs.

“It’s my happy place,” she said. “I love being in nature. I used to be a city girl. You couldn’t take me out of the city. Now I just want to be quiet.” In nature, she said, “your guard goes down. You don’t have to look any way or feel any way. You just are.”

She loves to read – everything from Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov to “Harry Potter.”

She just reread the wizard’s tale for the first time since Liam was little. “Harrison rolled over in bed,” she said, “and he said, ‘I have never seen you stay until 3 o’clock in the morning to read a book.’”

Her husband’s hobbies are more physical. He started as a carpenter and has a workshop at home. I confessed to Flockhart that my girlfriends and I used to fantasise that Han Solo would come fix our kitchen cabinets. Does he fix hers?

“He built the table at the end of the bed for the TV to come up and out of,” she said. “I can boss him around pretty much about everything. I’m not guaranteed that he’ll do it. He has been exploring his carpentry roots lately, because he had more time with the strike.”

These days, she leaves him to his more adventurous pursuits.

She no longer flies with him in small planes, following his 2015 crash on a Los Angeles golf course in a vintage second World War plane that suffered a mechanical failure. She rushed to the hospital and learned he had a shattered pelvis, a broken right ankle and a broken back.

“It might, in fact, be one of the worst things I’ve ever been through in my life,” she said. “It was horrible.” A couple of years later, Ford was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. “I won’t fly in any little plane,” she said. “I’ll only fly when he’s in a jet, with a co-pilot.”

She no longer goes motorcycle riding with him. “I went once, when I was young and stupid,” she said. “We were riding on a highway in Jackson on the way to the airport, and the wind was so strong and the helmet was so heavy that I couldn’t move my neck for three days.”

What do they like to do as a couple?

“We loved watching ‘Barry’ together,” she said. “When Liam was young, we all watched Hercule Poirot obsessively. We started doing some jigsaw puzzles during COVID.”

She got certified in scuba diving for trips with Ford and Liam to Bonaire in the Caribbean and Raja Ampat in Indonesia; she loves it because it’s “so peaceful under the water.”

Her favourite thing about her husband? “I love his sense of humour and I love it when he’s tender with the dogs,” she said. She has three: a 19-year-old Chihuahua, Muggs, and two terrier mixes, January and Juno.

I confessed that I had tried the trick she used to meet Ford – spilling a drink on someone – but just ended up with irritated guys. That meet-cute story is not quite accurate, as it turns out.

Flockhart told me her version of the night that is now part of Hollywood lore, and later, in a separate interview, Ford told me his.

They met at the 2002 Golden Globes. She was nominated for her role in “Ally McBeal,” and he received the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award. She looked fetching in a strapless dress, designed for her by Oscar de la Renta, in shirred pink lace over a nude base, with ruffles cascading at the bottom.

Harrison: “I saw this lady. I asked my agent: ‘Wow! Who’s that girl?’ He said, ‘That’s Calista Flockhart.’ I said, ‘Oh, what does she do?’ He says, ‘She’s Ally McBeal.’ I hadn’t really seen it. I said, ‘Well, could you introduce us?’ He said, ‘Yes.’”

Calista: “Harrison came over to say hi. When he left, I said: ‘Ugh, what a lascivious old man. What is he doing?’ After the show, we started talking. Then I was really charmed by him.”

Harrison: “I had this thing, the award, in my hand, and it was easier to hold upside down.”

Calista: “I joked: ‘Oh, what’s that? A place for me to put my red wine?’ Then, of course, because he’s who he is and he can’t hold still, he went, ‘Ugh,’ and then the red wine went everywhere. It didn’t land on me. I was safe. It was all over him, maybe. Maybe on the floor, mostly.”

Harrison: “She spilt wine on me, or I spilt wine on her or something, and that sort of sealed the deal. I said, ‘Where do you live?’ She said, ‘I live in Brentwood.’ I said: ‘So do I. Would you want to have a drink?’ She said, ‘Well, maybe, but I have to bring my agent.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll bring my agent, too.’ We went to the old Brentwood Bar and Grill and had a drink. I lured her up to my house and we danced, and then I took her home. Make sure you put that in the story. And we’ve sort of been together ever since.”

Ford was not daunted by the idea of dating a new mother. “Didn’t scare me off,” he said. “When I met Liam, he was just beginning to walk, and it just didn’t matter to me. I had four children already, and I can’t count that well, so it didn’t make that much difference.”

And Flockhart was not daunted by the 22-year age gap. She said she often feels like the older one, adding drolly, “because he’s so immature”.

As the sun began to set and the wind whipped up, we ordered chamomile tea to get warm.

“We’ve had to work,” she said about her marriage. “We’ve had our ups, we’ve had downs like everybody else – mostly ups, which is good – and we just stay together. He’s the person that I want to call when something happens. That knee-jerk thing where I have to call Harrison.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.