Midway through our phone conversation with Katherine Heigl, the 33-year-old Emmy Award winner (Grey’s Anatomy) paused to get out of her mother’s car and unload laundry supplies. “We carpool to do our grocery shopping,” explained Heigl, who lives just a mile from her mom in Utah. Theirs is a close and nurturing relationship, and resilient — the Heigl family has experienced great joy, such as the adoption of Heigl’s older sister Meg. They have also endured great sadness — the death of Heigl’s brother Jason, in a car accident at age 15. Through it all, Heigl says she is “very grateful for the family I have, and for what they taught me. Compassion was a huge part of our lives growing up.” Today, Heigl channels those same values into raising her 3-year-old daughter, Naleigh [NAY-lee], and into her advocacy of causes such as children’s rights, animal welfare, and organ donation.
Parent & Child: Let’s start with Naleigh, whom you adopted in 2009. How did you and your husband (musician Josh Kelley) decide to adopt?
Katherine Heigl: Josh and I started talking about it before we were even engaged. My sister Meg is Korean, and my parents adopted her three years before I was born. I wanted my own family to resemble the one I came from, so I always knew I wanted to adopt from Korea. We have talked about having biological children as well, but we decided to adopt first. I just wanted to be a mom. So however we do that, it’s fine with me. I’d like to adopt again.
P&C: Did Josh ever question whether adoption was right for him?
Heigl: Anyone who doesn’t have experience with adoption wonders, does love for a child come through DNA? I knew it didn’t. My mother had biological children and an adopted child and said it made absolutely no difference. They’re yours. You love them the moment they’re put into your arms. Josh had to learn that, but he was so gracious and accepting.
P&C: Tell us about the experience of meeting Naleigh for the first time.
Heigl: She felt really comfortable with Josh and they bonded quickly. It was harder for me. Our social worker told us that it’s pretty typical for kids to react differently to their new mother. It was a struggle for me because all I wanted to do was bond with her. But it takes time for a child to trust this new situation and to trust you. My advice is don’t be discouraged. The reward is so great.
P&C: What helped you two to bond?
Heigl: I had to embrace who I am as a parent. I watched Josh, and it was so effortless for him. I call him Disneyland Dad — he’ll get on the floor and roll around and make her laugh. That wasn’t really me. So I felt like, oh gosh, I’m not the kind of parent she prefers. Then I realized — I’m the cuddler. I’m the one she comes to if she’s hurt. And I have a ritual for putting her to bed. She has one blankie that goes over her, one that goes by her face, and one that she holds. It’s our little thing.
P&C: By the way, we love “Naleigh Moon,” the song Josh wrote that you two turned into a video. It’s very touching.
Heigl: The idea was to show how Naleigh changed our lives, Josh’s life specifically. We did it with no budget. I directed it, and we asked friends to edit it. We’re proud of it.
P&C: How do Josh and Naleigh bond?
Heigl: He takes her to his studio behind our house. Naleigh likes to play the drums and the harmonica. She’s very musically inclined, our girl.
P&C: What are some parenting values you and Josh bring from your own childhoods?
Heigl: We both have families who believe in character, integrity, and morality. Not to be overindulged, to be respectful of parents. We feel strongly about these things, especially because of the industries we’re in. We’ll have to work a little bit harder to keep Naleigh grounded and to make sure she understands how blessed she is — how blessed we all are.
P&C: You lost your older brother when he was fifteen. Can you tell us about the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation that you and your mother established in 2008 in his honor?
Heigl: The foundation carries on my brother’s legacy — he had a social consciousness that not many kids have at fifteen. Our mission is to help those who can’t stand up for themselves — children and animals. Right now we’re focusing on pet overpopulation in Los Angeles.
P&C: We understand that you’ve saved 4,500 animals from kill shelters.
Heigl: Yes, we save many by transporting them to other states that have waiting lists to adopt. We’re also trying to make spay and neuter programs accessible and to educate pet owners.
P&C: You also do work for organ donation?
Heigl: Yes, with an organization called Donate Life. Organ donation is hard to talk about, and our family faced it under the worst circumstances. The accident left my brother with a brain injury, but everything else was working. So we were able to donate most of his organs.
P&C: Did it help with the healing process?
Heigl: There’s a grace in it, this ability to honor him this way. It helps a little to know that he lives on at some level, that people say his name every day now.
P&C: On a lighter and final note, your new movie, One for the Money, opens in January and stars Debbie Reynolds. What was it like working with such a Hollywood legend?
Heigl: At first it was intimidating because I admire her so much. But we had such a good time. She always had a cough drop in her mouth and in one scene, I started choking on roast beef. She made me take a cough drop, and it worked. She said, “Yeah, old people know a lot. We just want to pass it along before we die.” She is the kookiest, funniest, raunchiest chick you’ll ever meet!
ONLINE BONUS: Katherine Heigl talks about the moment she adopted her daughter
P&C: Regarding your adoption experience, can you talk about when you first heard that there was a baby for you to adopt, and how that whole process worked?
Heigl: They call you to give you this referral number to call about the child. When they called us, I was working in Atlanta with Ashton Kutcher, and Josh was there. He visits me generally for a couple of days between tour dates. It was a really crazy time. You’re so amped up, you’re so excited, you’re so impatient — you know there’s a child out there waiting for you, and you just want to get your hands on her.
P&C: Sounds dramatic!
Heigl: It’s really difficult when you’re on the set; they have a very structured time of working. It’s hard to get away even for a 10-minute phone call. But the whole production team was so supportive, and they were working really hard to try to get a shot before the sun set so that I could make this phone call. And it worked out by the skin of my teeth! And [Josh] sat in my trailer on the phone and I sat on my phone and they told us about this baby girl that was born the day before me in November. They said she had a heart condition, and they explained the heart condition to us and told us it had been corrected through surgery, but they wanted us to take the time to [ask] our own pediatrician and our doctors about it and, you know, then decide. And we just said, look...
P&C: We want her?
Heigl: We were not going to say no. Whatever we’re walking into we’re walking into. The beauty is that Josh’s father is a heart surgeon, and we were able to call him immediately and tell him about the condition. We were able to get him her records, and he could look at her cardiogram and tell us the truth. For us it wasn’t about whether or not we were going to embark on this journey. We were definitely doing it. But we wanted to know what we were dealing with. For Naleigh, her condition once corrected is corrected. She’s perfectly healthy. She has a perfectly healthy heart. From that day until we had her in our arms — it was about four months that we had to wait.
P&C: That must have been hard.
Heigl: It was. I looked at her picture about 14 times a day. I had it up on my phone. I couldn’t — I knew that we were supposed to be somewhat discreet about this, but I would show it to people, like at the restaurant where we were eating in Atlanta. And I’d be like, we’re adopting this baby — she’s beautiful!
Click this: The music video for Josh Kelley's new song, "Naleigh Moon"
Photo credit, from top: Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton/Trunk Archive; Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images; Cheyenne Ellis, PMK-HBH/AP Photo