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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Katherine Heigl lands a Plum role in 'One for the Money'

LOS ANGELES – For years, there was one mystery author Janet Evanovich couldn't crack — finding the right Hollywood actress to embody Stephanie Plum, the crime-solving heroine of her best-selling books.

Author Janet Evanovich, right, saw Katherine Heigl as Stephanie Plum, but had no say in her casting. The film is due Jan. 27. By Larsen & Talbert, for USA TODAY

Author Janet Evanovich, right, saw Katherine Heigl as Stephanie Plum, but had no say in her casting. The film is due Jan. 27.

By Larsen & Talbert, for USA TODAY

Author Janet Evanovich, right, saw Katherine Heigl as Stephanie Plum, but had no say in her casting. The film is due Jan. 27.

A major break occurred when Evanovich saw 2008's 27 Dresses, notably the scene in which Katherine Heigl's straitlaced character rushes from a bar cursing at the top of her lungs.

Discussing the moment with Heigl for the first time during a joint interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Evanovich explains that, right then, everything clicked.

"I just knew it," Evanovich says to Heigl. "From that instant, you were Stephanie Plum to me."

In January, Heigl, 33, will be Stephanie Plum to the rest of the world when the film adaptation of the first novel in Evanovich's series, One for the Money, hits theaters. Seventeen years after the book was released, the actress will finally put a face to the lingerie saleswoman turned bounty hunter who has sparked a behemoth 80 million copies in book sales (including nine No. 1 USA TODAY best sellers) and an audience of die-hard fans.

"I don't know why it took so long, but as far as I'm concerned, the search is over," says Evanovich, 68, who last week released her 18th Plum novel, Explosive Eighteen (Bantam, $28). "Every time I write Stephanie Plum, it's going to be Katherine Heigl's face there. She totally nailed it."

Amazingly, Heigl's casting had nothing to do with Evanovich's 27 Dresses epiphany, because the author had relinquished any say in production matters when she sold the rights to One for the Money before it was published in 1994. Despite the early sale, there was no concrete movement on a film adaptation for years. Evanovich continued churning out new, increasingly successful novels, while actresses' names occasionally surfaced as potential players — none to the author's total satisfaction.

Fans wanted Bullock

"Every now and then, I would get a phone call that would be: Jennifer Lopez is going to be attached to this," says Evanovich, clearly unimpressed. "Or Reese Witherspoon. There was never anybody really there." Her fans clamored for Sandra Bullock. "They could see her with the dark hair. And she has great comic timing."

The author, who was a successful romance writer before moving to mystery writing in the early '90s, never had a Hollywood personality in mind for the sassy character she was creating. Stephanie Plum featured a little bit of Evanovich herself and some of her daughter Alex, then 20. But that changed once she set eyes on the former Grey's Anatomy star.

"I had been going around to everybody saying Katherine Heigl has to be Stephanie Plum, and then one day, I got that phone call saying that it was Katherine," says Evanovich. "I was like, 'Oh, my God.' "

On the set of 2009's The Ugly Truth, producer Gary Lucchesi had presented Heigl with a copy of One for the Money. The avid reader was hooked.

"Two months later, someone was able to get me to come out of the bedroom after I had gone through 10 books," says Heigl. "(They are) so addicting."

Lucchesi and Lakeshore Entertainment acquired the rights with their choice, Heigl, to star as the unemployed Plum, who takes a job as a rookie bail bondsman hunting down a cop accused of murder. The suspect happens to be her hunky ex-boyfriend (Jason O'Mara). The View's Sherri Shepherd was cast as Plum's street-level informant, Lula, and screen legend Debbie Reynolds signed on as kooky Grandma Mazur.

But a major hurdle lay ahead: Fans were not pleased that Heigl is famous for her blond hair while Plum is a brunette.

"They had a hard time with it because (Heigl's) blond," says Evanovich. "But 90% of them were just so excited that the movie was going to get made."

Heigl tried dyeing her hair, but then had to go to a plan B to get the desired look. "I wigged it," she says. "Sorry."

Hair done, Heigl moved onto the finer aspects of bounty-hunter training. She took her first trip to a gun range, where she proved to be a sure shot. ( "I called my dad and kept my target to show him," she says, beaming). Producer Lucchesi says Heigl also showed impressive skill behind the wheel of a 3-ton, stick-shift truck in another scene.

Still, there were some low points while delving into the New Jersey crime business, such as Handcuffing 101. "Ugh," says Heigl. "I could never get that smooth handcuffing motion."

Even tougher was her first on-camera accent — and a broad one, to boot.

"It was nerve-racking," says Heigl. "There were moments I saw it wavering. I'm normally the jerk in the audience who goes, 'Blah, they totally lost the accent there.' This was karmic."

Her attention to detail also played into her dedication to keeping the movie true to the book.

"I became very possessive of Janet's material," says Heigl. "I was really loud about how important it was to honor the book."

Mutual fans became friends

Evanovich, meanwhile, stayed in the dark during the film process. "I always felt once it goes into movie land, the book belongs to someone else," she says.

So neither producers nor Heigl had any idea what Evanovich would think once she finally saw the completed film. Evanovich concedes that she, too, fretted about the final result and put off the screening for months.

"I was terrified to see it," says Evanovich. "But when I did, it was everything I could have wanted and more. I was almost in tears when the movie ended. I was so relieved."

The author's stamp of approval caused the filmmakers to literally pop the Champagne.

"That was the best call we got in the entire process — that Janet loved the movie," says Heigl, exhaling dramatically. "We were like, 'Thank God!' "

Movie wrapped, Heigl reached out to Evanovich, and the two immediately talked over the phone for an hour and a half for the first time about everything from dog rescues to kids. This led to an instant e-mail relationship.

"I get the funniest, quippiest e-mails from Janet, none of them appropriate for sharing," says Heigl. "I don't have to censor myself. I can just be me."

"That's another thing we have in common," adds Evanovich. "I'm from New Jersey. I have an extensive vocabulary. I'm totally politically incorrect."

After their first in-person meeting for this interview, the two fast friends even escaped back to Heigl's Los Feliz, Calif., house for a home-cooked meal that lasted late into the evening. Evanovich reported back that she was especially tickled when the Hollywood star searched in vain to find all the ingredients for a martini.

"It was like Stephanie searching through her apartment for a Snickers bar," says Evanovich. "I knew she was one of us.

"She had the vodka, she had the chilled glass, but she couldn't find the vermouth," the author adds. "It showed the human side of a person who has a lot going on in her life."

The ingredients for a suitable martini were eventually found ("She located an olive, and we were good to go," says Evanovich), and now the duo feel they have the ingredients for future Plum adaptations for the screen. With 18 novels in the can (and counting), it could lead to unlimited possibilities.

Or a new set of problems, since Plum remains 32 years old throughout the series — a tough feat to mimic, even for Heigl.

"You'll have to go to the gym and no Cheetos," says Evanovich.

"This could be a dilemma. I'll have to keep my face frozen with Botox so I can be ageless for years," jokes Heigl. "Jason (O'Mara) and I were talking about it. It's like, 'Oh, my God, if we do all 18 of these books, how old will we be? How will we pull this off?' "

"But if we shoot six at a time," she adds in a light-bulb moment. "There we go."

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