Sitting Pretty: Portia de Rossi
by Scott Huver
A day after returning from a whirlwind five-day trip to her native Australia, Portia de Rossi recounts a packed itinerary of throwback moments that included a long-overdue reunion with an old friend, catching up with her cousins and—for a segment on her wife Ellen DeGeneres’s afternoon talk show—a visit to her all-girl boarding school, Melbourne Girls Grammar, to surprise the students there. But the actress’s comedy-inclined spouse had an even cheekier surprise in mind.
“On camera, Ellen made me change into a school uniform, and I can’t tell you how creepy I felt being a 40-year-old woman in a school uniform that was a tiny bit too small for me,” she laughs. “She’d go to hold my hand and I’d be, like, ‘No, don’t. Don’t hold my hand.’ The whole thing was just too weird... but it was fun!”
“It was just the loveliest homecoming you could ever imagine,” de Rossi admits, still without a hint of her indigenous accent. After almost five years of marriage, she finally experienced her homeland through DeGeneres’s eyes (it was the talk-show host’s first time in Oz)—and her own fresh perspective. “I forgot how stunning Sydney Harbor is—it really does take your breath away,” she says. After venturing forth from her hometown, Geelong, to begin a career as a child model (born Amanda Lee Rogers, she self-selected her exotically elegant pseudonym at 15), memories of Sydney skewed big-city scary. “It just used to terrify me because I’d be like 12 years old and staying in my booker’s apartment. But it was really nice seeing it with Ellen now.”
The getaway left DeGeneres, an architecture buff with an admitted obsession for real estate, contemplating putting down renewed roots Down Under one day. “Ellen was actually talking about looking for a house there,” says de Rossi, fantasizing about a ranch-style spread that would facilitate her still-passionate pursuit of horseback riding. But that kind of move seems part of a hazily distant horizon, as once again de Rossi finds herself front and center in the pop-culture pantheon, rejoining the dysfunctional Bluth family of the triumphantly returning Arrested Development, creator Mitchell Hurwitz’s groundbreaking series. Perhaps the ultimate “before-its-time” cult-favorite sitcom, it inspired enough infectious passion after its cancellation to become TV’s most unexpected yet somehow inevitable comeback kid since Star Trek.
De Rossi’s big breakthrough, of course, came in 1998, when she joined the cast of the zeitgeist-defining dramedy Ally McBeal during its second year as chilly attorney Nelle Porter. But her subsequent role on Arrested Development became even more iconic, if not nearly as highly rated: Lindsay Bluth Fünke, the shallow socialite whose penchant for self-serving philanthropy and absentee parenting is only overshadowed by her sexless union with Tobias, her husband of dubious sexual orientation, played by David Cross.
A critically hailed Emmy magnet upon its debut in 2003 but woefully viewer-deficient, Arrested Development powered through three seasons thanks largely to its loyal fan base and industry admiration until Fox finally pulled the plug in 2006. Its actors went on to other gigs—in de Rossi’s case, playing Veronica Palmer, the title character’s boss, in the similarly underappreciated sitcom Better Off Ted (“Arrested is my favorite show, but [Veronica] was actually my [all-time] favorite character”)—but for years they fielded an increasingly persistent fan clamor and media interrogation regarding some sort of Arrested resurrection.
“It never annoyed me,” she explains. “Every single person that came up to me and asked me about Arrested Development was great, and I would end up talking to them about what I thought was going on. The only thing I wouldn’t do is the chicken dance,” she laughs, referencing the family’s shared method of shaming anyone, especially Lindsay’s brother Michael, played by Jason Bateman. “So, yeah, you can stop asking for the chicken dance.”
Finally in 2011, Netflix, where binge-viewing of the original episodes kept skyrocketing among subscribers, made official the once unlikely news that the band would indeed get back together: a new 15-episode fourth season would debut this spring with the original principals intact, with hopes for a feature film to follow. The actress admits that, like everyone involved, she’d certainly entertained reunion fantasies, but didn’t really take the possibility seriously—until The New Yorker assembled a retrospective panel in 2011. “Everybody was there, even [episode narrator and executive producer] Ron Howard was on speaker phone, and from that point, it became a lot more serious,” she recalls. “Mitch started talking to us as a cast about the possibility of Netflix, and we all thought that was a genius idea. It’s the perfect show to do something that is perhaps the future of television.”
Slipping back into the role of Lindsay was “effortless,” she says with a grin. “When you have a character that’s either incredibly vapid or nasty or insensitive, you think, Gosh, that’s quite a character for me to play because, of course, I’m none of those things. And then, it just comes back like that, and you’re like, Wow, that didn’t take much effort at all! And you have to wonder.... For me, this version was even more fun than the original because it was kind of like a celebration: We know that we have a fan base who are as excited as we are.”
“Portia simultaneously can play very cold and very warm,” says Hurwitz. “There’s just something very appealing about her, despite how unlikable the character. And in the new series, we really go much further with her then we did before...She really said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s jump off this cliff.’”
“I think Portia’s just about the best thing ever,” says her costar Jason Bateman. “She has all the best qualities of a woman and all the elements I would ever look for in a friend. I don’t have a lot of female friends, but she’d be at the top of the list. Yeah, she’s fantastic.”
She feels fantastic. “I’m pretty happy with my life,” de Rossi admits, “so whatever I’m doing professionally has to actually make it even better than it is right now.” At the center is her rock-solid union with DeGeneres, 55. “We were together for four solid years before we got married, but the minute we said ‘I do,’ the minute we stood up in front of our parents and our friends and committed to each other, our relationship changed,” she reveals. “I don’t think people understand how important that little ceremony is and what it actually does to people. To my mother, instead of thinking of our relationship as a little bit less than my brother and his wife’s relationship in some way, it made them instantly equal in her mind, and Ellen became her daughter rather than someone that I was with or dating. It just made it more like family, and our commitment to each other just strengthened instantly.”
She understands that as a married lesbian celebrity couple they’re often considered to be role models, especially recently as the debate on the topic of gay marriage in America deepens, but de Rossi takes a Zen-like approach to the distinction. “All it means for me is if your lifestyle is somewhat different from other people’s, then people are going to pay a little bit more attention to you and learn about a different perspective from you,” she says. “But it’s not like we’re going out and saying, ‘Okay, here’s how to be a happily married gay person.’ All anyone can do is live her life as honestly and openly as possible, and that’s it. If people get something from that, then it will be a positive thing, because that’s all we are.”
She recalls a Victor Hugo quote: “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come,” evoked by self-help author Wayne Dyer while officiating her wedding. “Gay marriage is the idea whose time has come,” she explains. “You can’t stop it. We’re all talking about it so much because it actually already is here. If there weren’t such a strong debate, it wouldn’t actually ever get done. So I welcome the strong debate. I welcome people really hashing it out and thinking about it and talking about it, because it really is the last civil rights issue that we’re going to have to deal with in our country.”
Her open-book approach to life found fullest expression with her 2010 memoir Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, which revealed her eating-disorder struggles and how she came to terms with her sexuality. She made peace with her past prior to putting pen to paper. “I actually didn’t care what people thought anymore,” she explains. “What I did care about is that 12-, 13-year-old girl, the girl that I was, without anyone to identify with. If I had Unbearable Lightness when I was 12, it would have really helped. I would have still struggled, no doubt, but it would have been really nice to be able to read someone else’s take on it from the other side.” As for her public coming out—“The thing people don’t realize is you don’t just come out once; you start coming out incrementally for your entire life,” she explains—de Rossi recalls the moment in 2005 at HBO’s Golden Globes afterparty when, after dating DeGeneres for about a month, she joined her on the red carpet. “I took the deep breath and held her hand and went, ‘Yep, I’m gay,’” quoting DeGeneres’s famous 1997 coming-out Time magazine cover blurb, “in my own way.”
Her latest deep-breath occasion was her 40th birthday in January, which began with feigned indifference. “I was like, 40? Who cares?” she recalls. “Ellen did an amazing surprise party at our farm [north of LA] and had this amazing chef, Tal Ronnen, do a five-course meal with a wine pairing. Then I woke up the next morning and I went, “F- -k, I’m 40!” All of a sudden the party’s over: What does it mean to be 40? It’s an interesting milestone because it does ask for a little self-reflection. It asks where you’ve been, are you happy with what you’ve done, where do you want to go, and what do you want to change? Lindsay from Arrested Development is actually going through a similar thing, trying to figure out who she is.
“I’m never going to look the way I looked when I was 20, and I’m kind of happy about that,” she says sanguinely. “I look different, but I’m also growing into the kind of sophisticated-looking woman that I’ve always wanted to be. I used to look at women like Diane von Furstenberg and Isabella Rossellini and hope I could be elegant and sophisticated and know how to live life a little bit better and wear that kind of self-esteem.” Then she pauses and regards herself with a wry smile. “Hell, I don’t know,” she says, mussing her post-photo-shoot locks and eyeing her not-so-glam footwear. “I’m in flip-flops, but I’m hoping one day that I will understand and feel that way!”
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.