Katherine concedes she’s ‘terrible at politics’

Being prudent doesn’t come naturally to Katherine Heigl, as you might have heard. Even if, in her new role on NBC’s State of Affairs (Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT), she plays a savvy behind-the-scenes government operative.

“It’s ironic that I am doing a CIA show and it’s about D.C. — I’m terrible at politics,” she says. “I don’t understand the politics of things.”

No kidding. She’s referring to that time, back in June 2008, she pulled herself from Emmy consideration while on Grey’s Anatomy, blasting the show’s writers for not giving her “the material this season to warrant” it.

She called her first major movie, the blockbuster Knocked Up, “a little sexist” in an interview with Vanity Fair. And then, after adopting her daughter in September 2009 with husband Josh Kelley, she didn’t return to work after her maternity leave. Her final Grey’s episode aired in January 2010, when Heigl pursued a full-time movie career that didn’t quite materialize, and endured an equally bumpy ride, publicity-wise.

“I upset people. I wish I had kept that private, between us, behind closed doors. But I’ve also said I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. I was a bit flippant and a bit casual in vomiting out what I thought and felt about things,” she says.

Heigl has had a reputation as being, well, challenging. It’s followed her from Grey’s , a reality that deeply frustrates her as she takes on her new role as a CIA agent who briefs the president (Alfre Woodard). She says her work ethic on the series, which she headlines, is beyond reproach, and that she takes every storyline seriously.

“I’ve gotten to know our two executive producers really well, and they are ex-CIA. I find them so fascinating. Why the hell would you want to do this? I wanted to dwell into that psyche a little bit, people who make that choice. There’s a lot of things you can do with that level of intelligence. Why dedicate that kind of time and energy to something with no glory, no money? The stakes are so high. These people deserve a ton of credit,” she says.

Heigl, too, is a force of nature. Spend time with her, and you quickly realize she’s candid, almost to a fault, and outspoken, but in a way that isn’t off-putting.. There’s no sense of nastiness hiding under a gauze of publicity-trained politeness.

“When I hear the word difficult, I know exactly what I imagine that behavior to be. Is my definition completely different or the same? If you hear that about me, what do you imagine my behavior must be?” she asks, in her direct manner.

Well, it means you’re chronically late to set, you don’t know your lines, you quite possibly have substance-abuse issues, and you refuse to leave your trailer.

Heigl nods.

“That’s what I would think, too. They must not be professional or respectful, storming off sets and slamming doors. That’s what I imagine it to be. When they equate that to me, I’ve never done that stuff in my entire career. My mother would kill me,” she says.

So why the reputation, which simply won’t fade into the ether, especially after Grey’s showrunner Shonda Rhimes told the Hollywood Reporter this fall that all is calm on her ABC hit Scandal, explainingthere are no Heigls” on the set.

“I think because it sells. I did and said a couple of things and it turned into a persona. For a couple of years I was really struggling, getting defensive and angry and wanting to have my say. Hold on! That’s not true! That never happened,” she says.

Then a friend, who also is in the industry, sat her down for dinner and tried to give her some perspective. “She said, ‘Katie, it’s just business. Don’t take it so personally.’ I’m a commodity. I’ve found a fairly reasonable way of managing it so it doesn’t make me feel so (expletive) about myself. But I don’t like it. If I died tomorrow, this is the legacy I leave behind and that frustrates me to no end. It isn’t true. It isn’t me,” she says.

Not even close, says Affairs producer Joe Carnahan, himself not one to toe the political line.

“She was very candid in the past. She has opinions. She owns them. Guys do it all the time. I can be obnoxious and a blowhard. I accept those parts of myself that are less than flattering. I found Katie to be a kindred spirit,” says Carnahan. “Katie is a very open person. She doesn’t come pre-packaged.”

Nor is she demanding or lazy. “She worked until 11 p.m. on Halloween and missed trick-or-treating with her kids. She’s an adaptive creature. She’s not problematic,” says Carnahan. “She’s not insufferable.”

For Heigl, who relies on a nicotine inhaler to curb her nerves, it’s a time of anxiety and stress, as she builds up to her show’s premiere. She misses her daughters Naleigh, almost 6, and Adalaide, 2, who are back home in Utah with their dad. She struggles with mommy guilt, with knowing she has missed school events because of her workload.

“It was a hard decision to make. There’s no right way to do this,” she says. “I can only do the best I can. For me that was controlling the schedule to some extent. I need to be able to say to my kids that ‘I know mommy hasn’t been able to drop you off at school but come January, I’ll be there every single day. I will be there. Just give me this time.'”

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