It may be the toughest task of all at a press tour in Los Angeles packed with TV critics from across the nation: How to ask a celebrity a tough question about her bad reputation without looking like a jerk yourself.
That moment surfaced for me Sunday, when trying to ask star Katherine Heigl about longstanding rumors in Hollywood that she and her manager/mother have been difficult to work with across many projects.
Heigl was appearing during the TV Critics Association's summer press tour in Beverly Hills, facing a roomful of journalists and TV critics, ready to field questions about playing a CIA analyst in NBC's new fall drama, State of Affairs.
But perhaps the last thing she wanted to do was answer questions about why her mother is also an executive producer on the show — sitting onstage with her daughter among the show's four other executive producers — or rumors printed in The Hollywood Reporter that the two were "exceptionally difficult," with a habit of sparking abusive arguments and airing grievances in public.
But for TV critics assembled in the room, that was mostly what we were buzzing about. This series — also featuring Alfre Woodard as the president of the United States — felt like a bit of a comeback for Heigl. She was playing a more serious character after years of appearing in lackluster romantic comedies, leading a show that felt like equal parts Scandal and Homeland (her character was romantically involved with the president's son, who gets killed in a terrorist attack).
Here was her chance to live down those rumors and show that she and her "momager" (a word used by an NBC executive to describe Nancy Heigl) could play nice with others and fly the NBC flag at a press conference.
In the past, she had criticized her film breakthrough Knocked Up as "sexist" and said she didn't submit herself for Emmy consideration during one season of Grey's Anatomy because the writing hadn't been strong enough, which seemed to insult the show's creator and showrunner, Shonda Rhimes. But now, Heigl seemed ready to face the press as a different kind of TV star.
Still, as the minutes passed, few critics ventured near the subject everyone was curious about, apparently stuck on the same issue: how to ask, what a fellow critic called later, "the elephant in the room" question.
I chose to reference the Hollywood Reporter article, noting that others said she may have been punished for speaking her mind in a way male stars rarely are. (The story quotes unnamed sources saying that Heigl's mom cursed out people in arguments and demanded top accommodations on a publicity tour. Other producers and directors quoted on the record said the stories were exaggerated.)
But Heigl recently did an interview with Marie Claire UK where she noted of her career in Hollywood: "This thing that was my best friend for a long time suddenly turned on me ... and I didn't expect it. I was taken by surprise and angry at it for betraying me."
So I asked, essentially, which is true? Did her career get out of her control, or has the media whipped up an image of her as difficult, in part because she's a woman who speaks her mind?
At first, producer Ed Bernero tried to answer for her, apparently unaware of how bad it looked for a male producer to try speaking on Hollywood sexism for the female lead of his TV show (a fellow TV critic on Twitter called it an instance of "mansplaining").
But I insisted we hear Heigl speak for herself. And after hedging a bit, visibly uncomfortable, she finally did.
"I don't know that I said I felt my career was not in my control," she said. "I think I said that I felt I had stopped challenging myself and I was making choices that I loved that I was excited about. I love doing romantic comedies. I love them, and I love watching them. But I stopped sort of ... exercising different muscles of my ability. And then in that moment I felt that I was sort of letting down my audience, that I wasn't challenging them either."
Why State of Affairs feels like a progression: "A lot of people want to know 'Why this show? Why come back to television?' Because ... it's an extraordinary opportunity ... for me to flex some different muscles and show a different side of myself as an actor and performer and storyteller that I hope my audience will be excited and love."
And on the "difficult" question: "I can only say that I certainly don't see myself as being difficult. I would never intend to be difficult. I don't think my mother sees herself as being difficult. ... It's most important to everybody to conduct themselves professionally and respectfully and kindly. So I never — if I have ever disappointed somebody, it was never intentional."
This answer was eventually featured in pieces written by The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly, The Huffington Post, The Daily Mail, Variety and more.
It will strike more than a few people that this is a lot about a little. Who cares if a highly paid actress is fending off Hollywood gossip that she's difficult?
But it's also about finding a way to respectfully and firmly ask a question about a star's reputation that has dogged her for years and may affect how many see the work she's doing now. Especially when that answer may also speak to Hollywood's longstanding problem with sexism.
This is the dance that fills so many sessions here at TCA, where finding a way to have open conversations about touchy subjects becomes one of the biggest challenges in Hollywood.