`SIX DAYS, SEVEN NIGHTS’ ACTRESS HECHE IS AS MUCH A SURVIVOR IN LIFE AS IN FILM

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NEW YORK- It was a sink-or-swim moment for Anne Heche. There she was on the set of “Six Days, Seven Nights” in Kauai, Hawaii, diving off a speed boat when she realized just how far she was from the shore. As she and co-star Harrison Ford began swimming back to dry land, her legs started turning to jelly and her arms felt like they were about to fall off.

“All I know is that we had to swim a long, long time,” says Heche. “It was an unbelievably grueling experience because there was all this undertow. When we got to the shore, we were both so beat we practically collapsed. The worst part is that we ended up having to do it all over again. But on the next take, Harrison made them move the boat a lot closer to shore.”

Despite that experience, “Six Days, Seven Nights” is smoothly sailing into theaters on Friday. Heche, however, has a few more sink-and-swim moments left to go. As the first openly gay actress to star in a big-budget summer romance, she is entering into the choppiest waters of her career. And, as she’s the first to realize, the sharks are circling.

Ever since she stole “The Juror” away from Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin, Heche has been on the fast track. Her turn in the Sundance Movie Festival favorite “Walking and Talking” helped her land small but showy roles in “Donnie Brasco” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” She won a best-supporting actress prize from the National Board of Review for “Wag the Dog” and managed to hold her opposite Tommy Lee Jones and lava flow in “Volcano.”

But then in April 1997, just as “Six Days, Seven Nights” was going into production, Heche opted to come out of the closet with girlfriend Ellen DeGeneres on an episode of “Oprah.” It wasn’t, as some predicted, career suicide. Heche has since been cast in two high-profile studio movies- Joseph Ruben’s “Return to Paradise” co-starring Vince Vaughn, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Joaquin Phoenix, and Gus Van Sant’s remake of “Psycho.”

But conspicuously absent from her upcoming roster of flicks is another mega-bucks romance. Heche has heard more than once that “Six Days, Seven Nights” is the movie that will make or break her as an A-list star. Asked if she’s worried about possibly missing the brass ring, she shakes her head and laughs.

“People have this idealized perspective on celebrity and superstardom,” she said. “It’s not a priority for me. I’d rather lose a career than lose a love. My goal has always been to play different parts, to change around a lot, to be a character actress.”

During an interview at Manhattan’s Essex House Hotel, Heche alternates between disbelief that people would care what she does in her private life and resignation that they do. Smartly dressed in a starched black-and-white top and beige slacks, the actress, who has the clearest blue eyes this side of Paul Newman, talks with animation.

SIX DAYS SEVEN NIGHTSPin

“What I don’t get is why everyone takes it so seriously?” says Heche, 29. “We’re actors. We go and play dress-up every day. We go and put on different wigs and glasses and makeup. We put on a show. Why would anyone think that just because I’m in love with Ellen, I couldn’t put on a show anymore? That’s ridiculous.”

Heche is hoping to win over her critics with “Six Days, Seven Nights,” an Ivan-Reitman-directed picture about the romance that blossoms between a free-wheeling pilot (Ford) and an uptight magazine editor (Heche) after they are marooned on a deserted South Seas island. Faster than you can say “The African Queen” meets “Blue Lagoon,” opposites are attracting and sparks are flying.

So, does Heche believe she and Ford pass the chemistry test?

“Of course, I have good chemistry with Harrison,” says the actress, who reportedly beat out Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock for the role. “That’s how I got the part. What I find funny is that Harrison Ford is married and nobody goes, He can’t be in love with another woman if he’s married.’ I guess that’s OK because he’s heterosexual.” Heche, who talks faster than most human beings think, takes a long pause. “Sometimes, I’ve done performances that I think are great and then I see the movie and I’m mortified. This time, I believe we achieved a lovely movie that’s beyond what I expected. I’m thrilled with it and I hope everybody else is too.” Despite breaking a toe and suffering a scorpion sting on the set, Heche says she had a great time shooting “Six Days.” Offscreen, she became so chummy with Ford that he piloted her back and forth to the set in his helicopter. “All I kept thinking about was him hanging off the wing inAir Force One,’ ” she says. “No, no, no, he’s a great pilot. He knew I was afraid of flying. So he’d try to make me squirm in my seat a little bit.”

Ford is as enthusiastic about his co-star as she is about him. “From the very first time we read with Anne, we knew she was the one. She just had this way of making the material her own.”

Ford says he wasn’t upset when Heche came out of the closet on the eve of the movie’s shoot. “I never comment on my co-star’s personal lives nor do I care about them. But I loved working with Anne.”

“Return to Paradise” producer Steve Golin, who was the first Hollywood type to hire Heche knowing she was a lesbian, says she’s a big asset to his movie, which is due in theaters Aug. 10. “Sure, there’s the potential for negative publicity and a backlash and all that stuff, but it was still an easy decision for me,” he says. “These people are actors. Nic Cage is not a tough, action guy. He has to act like that. Anne was the best person for the role- and she’s great in the movie- so we signed her. And that was that.”

For Heche, the decision to go public about her relationship with DeGeneres was a no-brainer. She met the comedian for the first time in March of 1997 at Vanity Fair’s Oscar party. Although Heche says she’d never been involved with a woman before, she fell head over heels in love.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Heche says. “I wanted to fall over. I was always the one who said I’d never fall in love. I thought it was way too much work and I didn’t want to deal with it. I wanted to work on my career. Yes, I was surprised (that love) came in the form of a woman. But, heck, I felt like, Let’s toss gender up in the air and say who cares?’ ” Heche’s handlers warned her it wouldn’t be as easy as all that but she refused to believe them. “They wanted me to shut up,” says the actress, once linked to 24-years-older comedian Steve Martin and budding actor Billy Cusack. “They told me not to show up at theVolcano’ premiere with Ellen or I wouldn’t have a career. I took Ellen and fired the agents.”

Heche has had plenty of experience taking charge of her destiny. Born in Aurora, Ohio, and raised in South Jersey, she grew up in a strict Baptist household, the eldest of four children. Her father was a church organist and closet homosexual who died of AIDS when he was 43, leaving his family penniless, with no apparent source of income. After a short time living on the streets, the Heches were given a temporary home by neighbors.

When she was 12 years old, the actress went to work at a Swainton, N.J., dinner theater to help her mother make ends meet. The family moved to Chicago, where Heche was spotted by a talent scout who offered her the role of twins Vicky and Marley on the NBC daytime drama “Another World.” Four years and one Daytime Emmy later, she began landing TV movies like “O! Pioneers” opposite Jessica Lange and “Kingfish; A Story of Huey P. Long” opposite John Goodman.

“I think the main thing I learned from my upbringing is that pain can be transformed into joy,” says Heche, whose voice still carries the remnants of a Jersey twang. “If I could get through that pain and be as joyous as I am now, I’m an example of just how anything difficult can become pleasurable.”

As “Six Days, Seven Nights” is about to hit theaters, Heche knows exactly where she’d like to spend the next six days and seven nights. “I want to go to our brand new house (in Los Angeles) and get some peace with Ellen and our dogs. That would be my idea of an adventure.

“I feel like it’s a good time for me. I want people to refocus on my work. And I think it’s coming back around to that. They sort of picked me apart here, they said it was going to be bad for me there, and now I hope people will realize, it’s not so bad after all. You know life goes on.”

Anne Heche and Harrison Ford in `Six Days, Seven Nights.’

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