Getting To Know Patricia Heaton Of Carol's Second Act

Patricia Heaton is ready for liftoff in her heartwarming and hilarious new TV series, Carol's Second Act. Read our exclusive interview and cover story with the beloved sitcom icon.
Posted on Oct 15, 2019 | 10:00am
By John Griffiths

Patricia Heaton needs a cup of joe—badly. "I've been having this issue lately where I'll wake up at 3 a.m. and stay awake until about 5," she says, sitting in her office near the Studio City, California, set of her new series, Carol's Second Act.

For a woman who likes to exercise at 6:30 a.m., attend Catholic Mass an hour later, and then chug a protein shake to help get her workday humming, her sudden eyes-wide-open phase is trying. "I have to figure this no-sleeping thing out because it's disrupting my routine!" Anxiety, she admits, is the likely culprit. Starting up a new series, even for a pro like Heaton, is no small task. And, the star confesses, "I judge myself a lot."

Pajamas by Alice + Olivia. Jewelry by Dena Kemp.

Heaton's Second Act character, Carol Kenney—a divorced teacher turned doctor-in-training—might prescribe a word of advice: Relax! "Carol's funny," Heaton says warmly, as if she's talking about her BFF. "She's raised children. She's taught high school. So now that she's older and working with these younger interns, she's not rude or disrespectful, but she doesn't stand on ceremony anymore. And I like that. The beauty of getting older," she declares with a laugh, "is that you don't have to play games, and you don't have to wear a bra."

While Act's producers have made Carol 50 years old, Heaton is happy to admit to being 61. The producers made the right call: Dressed today in jeans, a black tank top, a paisley print jacket ("$39 from Zara!"), and high-heeled platform boots, Heaton is not only gorgeous but also incredibly hip, a fact that could surprise people who know her only as the housewife type she played for nearly 20 years, first as Debra Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond and then as Frankie Heck on The Middle. "I've never gotten to really play dress-up on camera, which is one of the reasons I got into the business," she says. "And now I'm doing a show where I'm wearing scrubs the whole time!"

Pantsuit by Elie Tahari. Top by Elisabetta Franchi. Jewelry by Mahrukh Akuly Jewelry.

Wardrobe aside, Patricia Heaton says she's living out her dream as a child, the fourth of five siblings raised in a Cleveland suburb by their father, a newspaper sportswriter, and their mother, a substitute teacher who died of a brain aneurysm when Heaton was 12. Some kids who lose their parents at a young age rebel, but Heaton played it straight, making the drill team in high school and dating the homecoming king.

After majoring in theater at Ohio State, she set out for New York in 1980, where she spent nine years auditioning and powering through odd jobs. "I was a room service waitress, I modeled shoes, I was a proofreader in mergers and acquisitions at Morgan Stanley, and I ran the Xerox machine at People magazine for a couple of years." In 1987, she moved to L.A., where she slogged for two more years before finally landing a guest part on the sci-fi show Alien Nation. In 1989, she booked a recurring turn on Thirtysomething, followed by the short-lived '90s sitcoms Room for Two, with Linda Lavin, and the Designing Women spinoff, Women of the House, with Delta Burke. By the time Heaton hit pay dirt with Raymond, she and her husband, British actor David Hunt (they wed in 1990), were on their way to starting their own virtual baseball team: Their boys, Sam, John, Joe, and Dan, are now 26, 24, 22, and 20, respectively. The result, she says, with her trademark good humor and stoicism, was more than a decade of "exhaustion."

Gown by Zac Posen. Jewelry by Dena Kemp.

But now, like her TV alter ego Carol, Heaton is feeling the freedom to expand her world. A design and cooking buff, she has a new housewares line, Patricia Heaton Home, at Walmart. She's pitching TV concepts, has her eye on producing movies, and is learning Spanish on her iPad. Bottom line: "It's important to keep the creative juices flowing and not get complacent."

Here, the ever-creative, never-complacent actress opens up to Watch! about her past, her future, and why everyone should seize the day.

What drew you to Carol?

When I was doing Everybody Loves Raymond, my kids were the same age as the kids on the show. On the set and on the series, it was all about, "How do you keep the marriage going while you're exhausted and dealing with your kids, family, everything?" And then with The Middle, my kids were also the same age as my kids on the show. So I went through the same thing as Frankie: looking for colleges for the kids, the kids trying to get jobs. I didn't want to play another TV mom—I wanted to do something new and interesting. And Carol's in the same boat.

Patricia Heaton and the cast of Carol's Second Act. Photography by Sonja Flemming/CBS.

How else do you relate to her?

It used to be that as women got older, they became more invisible. But this is a great time to be a woman. I have a lot of experience, and hopefully wisdom, that I can offer others. And so does Carol. She might not be as tech-savvy as her junior interns, but she has experience that comes in handy, especially when you're dealing with life-and-death situations in a hospital. We need people around us in society who have experienced a lot in life, who understand the brevity of it, who can tell younger people, "Don't worry so much about the things you're worrying about."

Away from Hollywood, what is your latest big act?

Raising a family, I was limited in the amount of philanthropic work I could do, just because I wanted to be with my kids as much as possible. So now I've been committing my time to World Vision [International, a humanitarian aid organization]. I've been to Zambia, Uganda, the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, and Sudanese refugee camps. And I was just in Rwanda. It was the 25th anniversary of the genocide there, and the country is really booming, turned around completely. It's amazing. But there's Ebola in Congo, which is right next door, so they just had their first case of Ebola in Uganda [last spring]. I used to just pass over those kind of stories in the paper—they were just places over there. Now that I know people there on the ground, and I know their families, I'm like, "Oh, my gosh."

Romper by Gucci. Jewelry by Dena Kemp.

Where do you think you got your passion for life?

My mom died pretty suddenly when I was 12. So I think I have always had this sense of carpe diem. Make the most of the time you have. I'm also 61 now. God willing, if I live to be 90, that's only 29 more years. That goes fast. Not a lot of people get the platform I have right now. The phrase "To whom much has been given, much is expected," that's very real to me. It's my duty to try to do what I can.

If only everyone felt that way.

We can all do little things that really make a difference. There are people who are dying in the world because they don't have clean water, and that's fixable. In our country right now, instead of focusing on the politician or the people we don't like, I think it's important to just volunteer at a Boys and Girls Club, or be a Big Brother or Big Sister. There are shut-ins who could use Meals on Wheels, people who just want to have some contact. Feeling connected is so important, you know?

You've gotten into some controversies, and offered some mea culpas, on social media. What's your takeaway from that?

That's been a journey for me. I personally love social media. I've met wonderful people through Twitter. But as I've gone along, I've seen that it's too easy for politics to become someone's religion, to wrap up your identity in one party or another. That can make you angry all the time. The fact that politics would divide friends and families—that's not worth it. So I made a conscious decision to try to bring positivity and encouragement to Twitter. Social media is just people saying things. I really try to look at what people do with their lives.

Dress by Tadashi Shoji. Jewelry by Dena Kemp.

You could have a talk show. Any Patty's Book Club recommendations?

Ha! There's a book called The Second Mountain by David Brooks, who's a columnist for The New York Times. He talks about how the first mountain of your life is made up of your career, your family, and setting things up. But then there's the second mountain—after you've set it all up, wondering, Is that all there is? Or, if you've had to deal with a catastrophe, What's this all really about?

Speaking of dealing with catastrophes, have you ever had an interest in medicine?

Well, as I get older and everything starts falling apart, I'm deeply interested in it. What can cure all these ailments?

Do you go crazy on Google looking for diagnoses?

Yes, yes. But I'm more interested in mental issues, how the brain works. I don't think I would be a good doctor. My husband would tell you I don't have the greatest bedside manner. I'm like, "Snap out of it!"

Do you take care of yourself?

I do, more and more. Since the pressure of working and taking care of four kids has somewhat subsided, I've been able to go back to focusing on diet and exercise. I go to Pure Barre, a ballet bar class. That's a good full-body workout. I try to do that three times a week, and then I do cardio, even if it's just on the treadmill, three times a week. And I took up golf. I'm terrible. But I'm working on it. And I've given up eating any kind of bread, wheat, or dairy.

Dress by Alexander McQueen. Bracelet by Dena Kemp. Ring by Mahrukh Akuly Jewelry.

You and your husband have been together almost 30 years. Any relationship tips?

We went to a marriage retreat the first year we were married because we were having really huge problems. It was not working out at all. You know, two actors—it's not a great combination. And the pastor who was leading the retreat—he had married us—said how he was lucky to have his wife, their children, and their grandchildren. That he was seeing the fruit of all the hard work they put into things. And George Harrison's wife said this in an interview: The secret to staying married is to not get divorced. If that's not on the table, then you have to work stuff out.

Your kids seem to have survived the pitfalls of Hollywood.

If you walked into our house, you wouldn't see any showbiz pictures or anything. I have a small office in the back of the house and there's one shelf that has some awards on it, but for the most part there's just artwork. We've tried to make life as normal as possible for the kids. We would go to Ohio in the summers or for Christmas, or we'd go to England and be with Dave's family. It's not always easy. When the kids were little, we got invited to family movie premieres, and studios would often send a limo for us. One time, I said, "Hey, you guys want to go see this movie?" It wasn't a premiere. We started heading to the garage, and Joe said, "Where's the limo?" I was like, "Dude ... "

Listen, my boys have had a really privileged life, but my two youngest are in college, and my two oldest are financially independent—working in restaurants, whatever they have to do to keep it going.

Any advice for people who are beginning their own new acts?

Start looking at the things you're not that good at, and challenge yourself there. Like I said, I'm not very good at golf. I did this tournament, and everybody else was killing it. My goal was just to be able to hit the ball straight. Everybody was hitting 250 yards and I was hitting 75 yards, but I didn't flip out because I was hitting it straight. Results don't come right away. I've learned over the course of life to be patient.

Photography by Andrew Eccles. Styled by Linda Medvene.

Originally published in Watch! Magazine, September-October 2019.

Watch all-new episodes of Carol's Second Act on Thursdays at 9:30/8:30c on CBS and CBS All Access.