Portia heart & soul: in an intimate interview, Arrested Development star Portia de Rossi talks for the first time about sex at 16, coming out to grandma, and finding happiness with Ellen DeGeneres
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 Funke 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 98 1/2 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 toll. 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 Gormann [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 ar 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 are 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 room?
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, 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?
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.
Kort’s most recent book is Dinah! Three Decades of Sex, Golf, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.
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