Portia heart & soul

In an intimate interview, Arrested Development star Portia de Rossi talks for the first time about coming out to grandma and finding happiness with Ellen DeGeneres

BY Michele Kort

August 28 2005 11:00 PM ET

Portia de Rossi
must be a good actress, because in person she doesn’t
resemble at all the two TV characters she’s most
known for. She’s neither the frosty,
stiff-backed lawyer Nelle Porter from Ally McBeal nor
the spoiled, narcissistic O.C. rich girl Lindsay Bluth
Fünke from Arrested Development. Instead,
as she comes to greet The Advocate at the back
gate of a small, handsomely decorated house in a Los
Angeles canyon—a sort of outbuilding next door to the
grand dwelling where she lives with Ellen
DeGeneres—she appears warm, down-to-earth, and
remarkably more attractive without makeup and wearing just a
simple white tank top and loose white pants, her long
blond hair in a single braid.

Surprise 2: She
has no trace of an Australian accent, even though she was
born and raised Down Under. (She trained herself out of it
in the 10 years she’s been in Los Angeles,
having come to live here after her debut film role in
Sirens, a 1994 Aussie flick in which she costarred
with Hugh Grant and Elle Macpherson.)

Surprise 3: In
her first-ever interview with the gay press, she’s
decided to give an unabashed, no-holds-barred account
of her long struggle to come to grips with being a
lesbian. “I’ve had my years of being not open,
many years of it,” she says. “It’s an
honor for me to do this; it’s just nice to be
asked.”

Finally, no
surprise: Although neither Portia nor Ellen has jumped up
and down on Oprah’s couch proclaiming their
love, even a passing glimpse of them together confirms
it: They’re crazy about each other and deeply
content in the relationship that began in December after
VH1’s Big in ’04 awards show.

For De Rossi,
that contentment has obviously helped her come all the way
out of the closet she’s been peeking out from for the
past five years. Yep, she’s really gay, and
fans of DeGeneres don’t have to worry that this
actress-girlfriend will pull an Anne Heche and rediscover
her heterosexuality.

Shortly into our
interview—held on a screened-in lanai overlooking a
peaceful canyon scene—Portia reveals that
she’s just come out to the final person in her
family who didn’t know.

Portia de Rossi:
You think that’s the end of it when you tell one or
two people, “I’m gay.” Then, of
course, it continues throughout your life. The last
person I told was my grandma, a few days ago in Australia.
She’s 981⁄2 years old.

The Advocate: Wow! How’d you tell her?
I wasn’t planning on it, but I knew I
wouldn’t avoid it. So she made the mistake of
asking me about my love life, and I said,
“It’s great. I’m very, very
happy, and we’ve been together for eight months, and
everything is wonderful.” And she said,
“What’s his name?” And I took a
deep breath and said, “Ellen DeGeneres.” And
she looked really confused. “Alan?” I
said, “Ellen.” The talk show isn’t on
in Australia, but she remembered Ellen’s sitcom
and just remembered her as a personality, and a gay
personality.

First thing she
said was, “Well, this is a very bad day.” It
was the most honest reaction I’ve ever had.
Then she said, “Darlin’, you’re not one
of those.” It took her two minutes of being
angry and upset and frustrated and
disgusted—and then she just held her arms out to me
and said, “I love you just the same.”
When I left Australia, my grand said, “I’d
really like to meet her.”

I’m crying
already, my God. Four minutes in, and I’m already
crying.

When paparazzi pictures were published of you and your
ex, Francesca Gregorini, nearly five years ago,
you never said anything to the press about being
gay. But you didn’t deny it either.
That was exactly my stance. The most important thing for
me was to never, ever, ever deny it. But I
didn’t really have the courage to talk about
it. I was thinking, Well, the people who need to know
I’m gay know, and I’m somehow living by
example by continuing on with my career and having a
full, rich life, and I am incidentally gay, but it’s
not a big political platform. I justified it in so
many ways. Believe me, I had a very, very long and
difficult struggle with my sexuality.

Don’t we all!
That’s what I mean—there’s nothing
special about it.

Except when you’re a public figure, it’s different.
It’s somewhat different because there are more
people to tell. And that’s the other
thing—I thought, I’m out in my life, that
doesn’t involve my public life. I introduced
Ron Howard and Brian Grazer [executive producers of
Arrested Development] to Francesca the
first time I met them.

Did your cast mates on Ally McBeal know you are gay?
I’d been on the show for about two months before
we had to go to New York to do press, and Greg Germann
[who played the head of the law firm on the series]
and I were talking in the bar one night and he said,
“There’s something about you I can’t
quite put my finger on…. Are you gay?”
Of course I stammered and stuttered and looked at the ground
and went, “Uh…uh…uh…maybe,
I don’t know, I think so, I’m not
sure.” And he looked at me and said,
“Have you struggled with it?” And to me, that
was so profound, because I thought, Yeah. [Dabs at
her eyes
] OK, number 2. But this wasn’t
a full [cry]. You can say, “Wells up with
tears,” you can’t say, “Tears were
rolling down her face.”

So did you freak out when those pictures of you and
Francesca were published?
I did, but I was so relieved at the same time. Every
single family member [except grandma], every person I
worked with, everybody knew all at once. There was no
turning back, and it was a relief.

What happened when you returned to the set of Ally McBeal?
David Kelley came to my dressing room and wanted to
write an arc for my character where she explores
having a relationship with a woman. But I said no. I
felt that was exploiting me. Here I was really worried that
it would be the end of my job on the show, and he was
so titillated by it he wanted to write a whole
character arc about it.

When did you get involved with Francesca?
Toward the end of the last year on the show. I had a
couple of pretty insignificant relationships before
her, and when I was in college I was in a relationship
with someone, but other than that I was stuck [with] a
decision that it was either my career or my private life. I
had left home in search of a way to support myself and
my family, so I just thought it was stupid and selfish
to try and have a [gay] private life when I thought it
was going to jeopardize everything that I’d worked
for. It was also a different time than it is now, even
though it was less than 10 years ago.

And you had a boyfriend in Los Angeles?
I actually married him, for a green card. But I
didn’t get my green card through him—I
couldn’t do it at the end. We had a really great,
caring relationship; it just obviously wasn’t right
for me. I didn’t choose the fact that I was
gay, but I did choose whether to live my life as a gay
woman—that was the terrifying thing for me.
Especially being a gay actress. I love playing all
different kinds of women, and the majority of women
aren’t gay, so the majority of characters
aren’t going to be gay.

When I first read about you and Francesca, I thought,
Portia de Rossi? Oh, my God, she’s so
glamorous! You were the last person in the world I
thought was gay.
I’ve got to tell you, I had a hell of a time
convincing people I was gay—which was so
annoying! First of all, you live with the fear people
might find out. Then you actually have the courage to tell
people and they go, “I don’t think you
are gay. No, no, that doesn’t seem right to
me.” It’s enough to drive you crazy.

When did you come out to your mom?
Actually, I came out to my mom three times. First at 16,
when she found The Joy of Lesbian Sex under my
bed. She was devastated.

You had that book at 16?
Damn right I did. I had to be prepared!

If you had that book at 16, when did you first start
thinking about the joy of lesbian sex?
I was very, very young. I used to play husbands and
wives with all my best friends and see how far
they’d take it with me. I was very sexual from
a very young age.

Would you be the husband or the wife?
The husband. I’d always be the one who’d
be made the martini rather than having to make
it—I would come home from work and my wife would have
a martini for me. Which is not dissimilar to what’s
going on here, by the way. [Smiles] No, just
kidding.

A lot of girls might play out those roles at a young age,
but it’s a passing thing. Did you feel from
a young age that this wasn’t going to be a
passing thing?
Yeah, I did. When I was about 16, I was crazy about this
girl. I had a certain amount of money in the bank
[from her early modeling career, beginning at age 11,
in print and TV commercials] where I could put a down
payment on a rental [apartment], and I went to her with
sunflowers. I remember holding out these flowers and
saying, “I want us to live together,”
and she just looked at me and said, “You don’t
understand what it’s like to be in love with a
man. This is just very childish and very trivial in
comparison to being in love with a man.”

A lot of models
call themselves bisexual, so I just hid behind that title
for a very long time. I thought it was just so fun to be
bisexual! It just suggests you’re a fun party
girl—who makes out with your best friend on the
dance floor. But I knew that I was gay, I knew it. I just
couldn’t see myself as a gay woman, even though
that’s where my heart was.

So when did you first go beyond being served imaginary
martinis by your girlfriends?
In high school I had sex with girls quite a few times.
They were straight women who I convinced to jump in
the sack with me. I did a lot of fast talking as a
youth; I was pretty good at it too. I was never talked
into it—I was always the one doing the talking. I
just thought, This is so great and so interesting, and
if only you knew how interesting this is and how great
it feels! But these weren’t real relationships with
women who were gay—these were with women who were
drunk! And they thought, It’s Portia;
she’s not a lesbian, so I can jump in the sack with
her.

When did you become Portia?
When I was 15, I changed it legally. In retrospect, I
think it was largely due to my struggle about being
gay. Everything just didn’t fit, and I was
trying to find things I could identify myself with, and it
started with my name.

I picked Portia
because I was a Shakespeare fan [Portia is the character
in The Merchant of Venice who famously declaims,
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d /
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”]. De
Rossi because I was Australian and I thought that an exotic
Italian name would somehow suit me more than Amanda
Rogers. When you live in Australia, Europe is so far
away and so fascinating, so stylish and cultured and
sophisticated.

You went to college and studied law—did you really
plan to be a lawyer?
Yes. I also really liked the effect it would have on
macho Australian men when they’d hit on me at a
bar and ask what I did. I’d turn around and say
I was in law school, and they’d kind of shrivel up
and go away.

But then I
stumbled into acting and I just loved it. I deferred law
school—and I’m still deferred.

In Sirens your character, Giddy, is innocent,
naive, almost a dumb blond. But in your TV roles
you’ve been much more knowing and
tough—and you were certainly icy on Ally
McBeal
. How did you get channeled into those
sort of roles?
That character on Ally McBeal was the most difficult one
I’ve ever played. I don’t naturally sit
or stand or walk or hold my head the way she did. That
sounds so actorly, but it’s true—I had to
consciously make sure my head was straight, because my
natural being is to slouch. It was four whole years of
making sure I didn’t shift my weight onto my left leg
and put my hand on my hip.

It’s
funny, I think everyone is typecast except for me! I look at
Arrested Development and think, I can kind of see
elements [of the actor in each
character]—except for me. I’m nothing like
Lindsay! Which is ridiculous, because obviously I am.

With her gray suit and platinum pulled-back hair, Nelle
reminded me of Kim Novak in Vertigo.

That’s exactly who I had in
mind—that’s weird, no one ever said that to
me before! That’s one of my favorite movies, and
she’s the most amazing actress—she is so
glamorous.

Just then, Ellen
DeGeneres pulls up in a black Porsche (guess she likes
that name!). “There’s my girl,” says De
Rossi. Ellen, wearing jeans and a green T-shirt,
enters the house with a bag of tomatoes from her mom,
Betty, and she and Portia share a l-o-o-ong kiss. Portia
tells her that she’s already cried a couple of
times, and when Ellen leaves for their house next door
she says, “Call me if you need me. If she makes you
cry again.”

You’re obviously happy.
I’m very happy. I’m happier than I ever,
ever thought I could be. Yeah. She’s
incredible.

I should get this next question out of the way now…
I just have to stop you—thank God that question
isn’t, “Are you gay?” Because
I’ve had so many interviews where the last question
is, “Are you gay?” I had to find very
creative ways to say that I was gay, but that I
wasn’t going to talk about it. But please, continue.

Well, having been in my fair share of relationships, I
know that when people seem to break up all of a
sudden, it’s never all of a sudden.
Something’s been wrong for a long time and people
haven’t admitted it. But when people saw
you and Ellen break up with the women you were with
[Ellen had been with Alexandra Hedison for several
years] and immediately get together with each
other, it seemed very sudden. What was the real story?

Well. [Sighs, then answers slowly and
carefully
] There are many different layers to
this. I had met Ellen about five years ago, and there
was definitely a lot of chemistry between us, but I
didn’t allow myself to think of being with her
just because of the place I was at. I was still on
Ally McBeal and still closeted, and this seemed
inconceivable. But I really never stopped thinking
about her, because I just haven’t felt that
kind of energy with anyone in my life. So there’s
that.

I had a great
relationship with Francesca. But I just kind of knew deep
down in my heart that there was the possibility of something
more. And that’s it, really. I think that we
really weren’t suited for each other for a long
period of time; I think we were [suited] for the time we
were together. We have very different backgrounds and
interests, and there’s a lot we had to kind of
make work. But we still had great respect and love for
each other.

Then I ran into
Ellen at a photo shoot about a year ago and she took my
breath away. That had never happened to me in my life, where
I saw somebody and [experienced] all of those things
you hear about in songs and read about in poetry. My
knees were weak. It was amazing. And it was very hard
for me to get her out of my mind after that. And then when I
saw her again that night [at the VH1 awards show] we started
talking and that’s that. We just were kind of
supposed to be together. That’s my side of the
story. I really, really hated all the pain I put Francesca
through, and I really didn’t want to hurt her. But I
just couldn’t ignore the feelings I had for
Ellen.

Did you ever talk to Ellen beforehand about what
you’d have to deal with—how getting
together with her would force you to be very publicly out?
Not before. My feelings for her overrode all of my fear
about being out as a lesbian. I had to be with her,
and I just figured I’d deal with the other
stuff later. [Pauses] It’s hard having a
relationship that’s public. It’s hard
living a life that’s somewhat public, and hard
when you put that life together with someone who is so
famous and so loved and admired. It’s also real
exciting.

What’s the exciting part?
Just being a couple—being able to walk down a red
carpet holding her hand, that’s exciting for
me. I respect her so much. She was so courageous and
so loud in ’97, and now she is doing something that
is more subliminal. She’s changing the world,
she really is, and it’s exciting to be a part
of that.

Besides the chemistry, what else connects you with Ellen?
You certainly must have some funny times together.
We do. And it’s a very respectful, very loving,
peaceful relationship. We have a lot in common; we
share the same outlook on life. I really feel not
alone for the first time in my life.

Since you have come so far out now, are you concerned you
won’t get roles that you want because
you’ll be somehow typecast?
No. I want the roles that are interesting and quirky
like Lindsay Bluth. I like shows that are smart like
that and show runners who wouldn’t take into
consideration if I was gay or not. There’s a lot that
I won’t do. I don’t feel comfortable with sex
scenes, and I don’t like being “the
girl” to get in a movie, and I don’t like
playing the sidekick to an action hero.

You won’t do sex scenes, period?
Uh-uh. I have in the past, which is how I discovered I
just didn’t want to do them. I really
don’t think it’s because I’m gay; I
just find it way too compromising.

This must make Ellen happy.
Well…yeah. I don’t want to kiss somebody I
don’t want to kiss. It’s just not worth
it to me to feel compromised in that way. I don’t
even like watching sex scenes in movies. I have a
slight prudish side to me.

You seemed to be the only woman on Ally McBeal who
didn’t get to kiss Calista Flockhart, yet I
assume you were the only gay woman in the
cast—that’s ironic.
Believe me, I know that. And no one knew I was gay when
Calista did that famous kiss with Lucy Liu. I
couldn’t believe it, that whole
episode—I hated it so much. It was just so upsetting
to me as a gay woman.

Would you want to play a gay role?
As long as there weren’t any sex scenes.

Is a kiss OK?
Not really.

What about the lesbian tickle rub in Sirens [as
her character, Giddy, lies on her back, three
women surround and touch her]?

That was an entire day with three women putting
their hands all over me.

Was it horrifying?
It was fantastic, are you kidding me? I mean, Elle
Macpherson…what’s so bad about that?
[Pauses] Yeah, I would

play gay. I have
turned down gay roles in the past. I actually was
offered the role of the makeup artist in Gia. That
was really, really early in my career, and I just
couldn’t imagine playing gay.

Do you know how
many women would say, “You turned down doing sex
scenes with Angelina Jolie!”

I know, but
that’s where I was at the time. I wouldn’t
even drive down Santa Monica Boulevard [in very gay
West Hollywood, Calif.]—I’m not
kidding—in fear that someone would look in the car
window and think I was gay.

I remember when I
got Ally McBeal, I went to [popular, now-defunct
lesbian coffeehouse] Little Frida’s, and it was the
day before the first episode aired, and I sat there
and thought, This is the last time I can actually be
who I really am.

Would you want to be in a film with Ellen?
[Big smile] Yeah! I’d love to be! It would
be really fun. She’s a great actress, a very,
very versatile actress.

What do you think of butch/femme attitudes among lesbians?
I hate that. When I finally decided to live my life as a
lesbian, I felt [pressured to choose] what kind of a
lesbian. “Lipstick” would be the first
choice—I’m obviously quite femmy—yet
I’m not really attracted to butch-looking
women. What do I do? I was wearing suits for a while and
really trying to look very boyish. Which is so ridiculous! I
am who I am. Everyone is their own kind of lesbian. To
think there’s a certain way to dress or present
yourself in the world is just one more stereotype we
have to fit into. And I hate lipstick! I wear lip balm and
then wipe it off. Yet I love wearing makeup when it
comes to a photo shoot. I love being able to wear
dresses and clothes that make me feel feminine and
beautiful—and I love the fact that I don’t
have to all the time; I can wear a tank and jeans. The
whole butch/femme thing just limits us.

Do you think people stereotype you and Ellen?
I see Ellen as very feminine—she’s so
compassionate and there are so many characteristics of
her that are typically female. She’s so caring
and kind, and she’s beautiful and open.

If same-sex marriage becomes legal, would you like to get married?
Well, I have to be asked, I guess. [Smiles] But I
love the idea of marriage. I think it’s
beautiful. I’m such a romantic, and I always
have been.

What’s next for you, actingwise?
I’m very excited about the new season of
Arrested Development. I think it’s a
brilliant show—all the characters are so deplorable,
and yet somehow likable. Even scarier, they’re
relatable. Incidentally, I asked both of the [teenage
actors on the show] if they had any gay friends at
school, and they were like, “Sure! Steve’s
gay, Sarah’s gay….” If I was 14
and knew some gay people, I wouldn’t nearly have had
the struggle I had. Our world is definitely changing.

Anything new with you and Ellen?
We’ve just had an amazing summer. We bought a
ranch [in California] with 120 acres. Ellen just
bought me a horse, Jones, who’s a beautiful big
gray gelding. Eventually I just want to rescue animals and
live on that farm.

Does Ellen ride too?
She doesn’t right now. Oh, but she will.

You’ve been so open and honest about being gay in
this interview.

When I watched Ellen come out in ’97, my
jaw was on the floor. I thought, There are some people
who break the doors down, hold them open, and some
people who walk right through. I always thought I was the
latter. Thanks so much, everybody—thanks for
making gay marriage legal, thank you for everything
you’ve done—I’m just going to walk
through that door.

[Dabs at her
tear-filled eyes once again
] Number 3. Unbelievable.

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