The Cruelest Game: How Ann Heche Clobbered Me in A Match of Backgammon

The pastime is part of the actresses newly centered existence

Anne Heche wants to know how much I’m good for. “So did the magazine give you an amount of money that you could spend to bet?” the 35-year-old actress asks, setting up the chips on her opulent backgammon board with equal parts unconsciousness and aplomb. Poolside at her gabled Tudor revival apartment building, she is sipping German wine ferried down from the penthouse by her husband, Coley Laffoon. Beneath a straw cowboy hat as warped and stiff as a corn chip, Heche’s formerly close-cropped gold hair now flows in willowy wisps toward her shoulders. The voice of this slender, quick-limbed woman is a lazy nasal yawp you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish from Roseanne Barr’s, and it is just as likely to veer from tenderness to acidity to mirth.

Backgammon is part of Heche’s newly centered existence after much-publicized turmoil. She’s been honing her playing skills with “some wonderful gentlemen” at a Michigan lakefront where the Laffoon clan has summered for decades. “They call it ‘the cruelest game,’ you know, because things can change like that!” she says, snapping her fingers. As she flings the shuddering dice out of the cup, her elbow juts up sharply. I ask what her strategy is. “I don’t think women view strategy in the same way men do,” she says. “I don’t think women are inclined, and I’m saying I’m not personally inclined, to look at a game board as two armies fighting.” We begin playing for a dollar a point, and our first game devolves into not so much a skirmish as a hopeless slaughter. “You understand that a double game is if I get all my men off before you get any off the board,” she says. “So you want to move your ass, basically.”

The same rule should apply, she says, to a career. “You’ve got to keep up momentum, and that’s something that I’ve never focused on too much.” In the spring of 1997, Heche fell in love with Ellen DeGeneres. Their relationship, which began sensationally about the time DeGeneres came out on her self-titled sitcom, would deteriorate into sour exile in Ojai, while Heche’s own mental state veered toward messianic self-delusion. The day after she broke up with DeGeneres, Heche found herself hopped up on ecstasy at a stranger’s Fresno farmhouse waiting for a spaceship that would speed her to heaven. Forgotten in all this pandemonium were the subtle performances she gave in seven major films during the late 1990s—her presidential aide delivering whip-smart David Mamet dialogue alongside Robert De Niro in Wag the Dog; the beleaguered wife she played to Johnny Depp’s FBI agent in Donnie Brasco; her Cassandra geologist in Volcano, warning of L.A.’s doom.

A year after waking up in a hospital bed and choosing sanity, Heche married Laffoon, the assistant cameraman on the documentary she’d been making about DeGeneres, and six months later she gave birth to their son, Homer. She began her return to acting via Broadway; taking over the lead in Proof and followed that with a revival of Twentieth Century, which earned her a Tony nomination. This season she has joined the cast of the WB networks Everwood. She has a role in the upcoming independent film Sexual Life, and this month a supporting part in Birth, Nicole Kidman’s latest film, directed by Sexy Beast’s Jonathan Glazer. “It’s funny,” Heche says, “it’s not necessarily the career I had before, but it’s the life I want.”

She continues her relentless advance across the field of play, amassing her chips into bulwarks, and scattering and imprisoning mine. She doubles the stakes, accepting when I quadruple them and octupling me in return. She keeps her focus on the game, assuming control of the conversation as brutally as she lords over the board. What hints there are of Heche’s disorderly past are upstairs, confined to the bookshelves of her tidy living room. Among the books are The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks’s account of his most intriguingly delusional patients; the early UFO contactee classic Flying Saucers Have Landed; and Treating the Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Missing its dust jacket is Heche’s 2001 memoir, Call Me Crazy.

Laffoon returns with a mixture of vodka, orange juice, lime, and soda. “What a lovely cocktail!” Heche tells him, raising the crystal fleur-de-lis tumbler to her lips. Heche’s past loves—DeGeneres and Steve Martin among them—were accustomed to being centers of attention, but in this household the actress’s own career and needs have primacy. Laffoon manages Heche’s schedule, shops for groceries, and has cooked a pungent ragout for dinner.

Picking up her dice after yet another punishing roll, Heche looks up with a frown. She can’’ help venting her irritation that the money being lost is not really mine. “You’re not invested in the game,” she says, her blue eyes radiating dissatisfaction. That doesn’t make it very fun for me. You can win or lose, and it doesn’t matter. So I’m doubling you, and you asked me my strategy. So my strategy is that I’m going to whoop your ass on this game.” She does, and then in the next one raises the stakes to $20 a point. Suddenly I’m down $136, and despite unusual luck and an enormous lead, barely pull off a win in which the ante’s been raised to $80. “I’d better stop being so cocky. Focus, Anne, focus!” she murmurs to herself, in these, the remaining seconds of my sole victory.

“You owe me $56,” Heche tells me. “Do you want to play another game, or are you ready to fold?” I pull out a fifty, a five, and a one and place them on the board. Laffoon takes her aside and tries to talk her out of taking it, but she shrugs him off and scoops up her winnings. In the dying day, hands waving above her head, she does a victory dance beside the swimming pool, her smile shadowy and triumphant beneath the brim of her cowboy hat.