Patricia Heaton has a career that most women in Hollywood can only imagine. With Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle to her name, she’s headlined not just one but two wildly successful sitcoms. All the accolades of fame have followed: seven Emmy nominations, two Emmy wins, a star on the Walk of Fame, and fans across the globe.
Never shy about proclaiming her Christian faith, Heaton has decided to use her influence to help the poor around the world by highlighting the work of World Vision. I spoke with Heaton by phone about her career, World Vision, and how practicing the Christian faith is like keeping sober in Alcoholics Anonymous.
By any standard, your career has been tremendous. To what do you attribute your success?
When I moved to LA, I was 30—no agent, manager, or car, and one commercial to my name. If someone today came to me today and said, “Hey I’m a 30-year-old woman who’s not a model. I don’t have an agent or a manager or a car. Do you think I should move to LA?” I would say absolutely not. So my example is a little strange. I feel like God really held [back] any success until I was at a breaking point.
[After returning to LA from a mission trip to a Mexican orphanage], I woke up the next day and I had this deep sense of peace I’d never felt before, and it made me realize that up until that point, my entire identity was in my success or lack of success as an actor. That’s when I realized I needed to give that thing over to God and ask him what he wanted me to do, not what I wanted to do. I said to him literally, pretty much out loud, “I will go back to Mexico or to whatever mission field you want to send me to, but I have a few auditions here in LA so I’m going to keep doing those. If you want me to change course I will do it gladly, but you have to open the door really wide in one direction or another.” That’s when I started getting acting work.
Being an actor can be an intense, unstable [experience]. You’ll be the big thing for a while and then the crowd moves on from you and goes on to the next big thing. If that’s your identity, you’re going to be in for a really hard fall. It reminds me that God is the one who opens these doors. It’s not that I don’t work hard. You have to be really good at what you do. You have to show up and do your best, but the rest is up to God. Sometimes he opens the door and allows you to go into something that’s dangerous. But if you know that to the best of your knowledge you’re following him, it’s okay; you have confidence.
As a friend of mine said, it’s kind of like Alcoholics Anonymous. You have to commit to being sober when you wake up every day. Actually, Christianity is like that. Because we’re human beings, we have to keep recommitting ourselves.
What do you draw on to develop as an actor, and what inspires you?
The Middle has been really challenging for me because it’s single camera. With Raymond [which was filmed in front of an audience using multiple cameras to capture the action], it was like putting on a little play every week. Everything went in order. There’s an audience. The Middle is all out of order, you’re only present for your scenes. There’s no audience. You don’t see what else is going on. I’m still learning after eight years, still toying, fiddling with how to approach it. The lack of stability is actually a great way to live, because you’re fooling yourself if you think anything in life is stable. People take things for granted and are shocked when things are taken away from them. I learned that early on when my mother passed away.
Inspiration is my excuse for watching a ton of TV. I love watching performances that inspire me, and it’s fun to show my kids some of the movies that I love. I just watched Ordinary People for the umpteenth time. That movie holds up on every level. It’s so moving and profound [on themes of] grief, suffering family loss, and how particular family members deal with it.
What about World Vision made you want to join forces with them?
I like [projects] that are really well organized and long lasting, where you get a lot of bang for your buck, where there’s a larger vision and a plan to achieve that vision. Those are things that World Vision is. There are a lot of great little organizations out there that are doing good work. But when you’re trying to get clean water to all of Africa, you have to have your act together.
Nobody outside of Christian circles knows who they are. When I would tell people I was traveling to Zambia with World Vision, they’d say, “What’s that?” It’s the largest NGO in the world, and I was flabbergasted that no one had heard of it. That’s one of the reasons I came on board. It’s so unsung.
You traveled to Zambia to see World Vision’s work there. What was that like?
I took my son, who was 16 at the time. I was really happy to have him be exposed to all that. As much as I try to bring a Midwestern sensibility to their lives, the fact is, they’ve grown up in Hollywood, and there are certain things that go along with that. I wanted him to see what was going on [in the world].
Everywhere we went, we were greeted in song. When you see the human potential that is being restricted because some basic things that are not being provided, it’s heartbreaking. Like clean, running water nearby, so you don’t spend a quarter of your day walking miles to get water.
[Heaton’s guide was a young man who helps pregnant women learn about pregnancy and find medical care.] He told me, “I always wanted to be a doctor but because of my circumstances, that wasn’t possible, but now I feel I’m doing the next best thing, which is helping people with their health.” This really brought tears to my eyes. Because of his circumstances, he hasn’t become a doctor. But instead of letting that depress him, he’s still doing the best he can. And World Vision is helping him realize some of the vision for his life.
During your trip to Zambia, what lessons did you learn from the church in Africa that could be beneficial to the church here in the United States?
There is such a sense of joy. The wealthier a country is, the more difficult time people seem to have finding joy. These people have so little, and they’re so grateful for the smallest thing. And their love for God is incredible, given that there’s quite a bit of suffering going on. We have the opposite here. As Americans, we tend to do a lot of navel gazing, in terms of what’s going on with us and how we feel about things. The best way to feel better about yourself is to think about somebody else, and the thing that can really give your spirit a lift is when you impact somebody else’s life in a meaningful and tangible way.
There’s a lot of need in this world. There’s always something you can do to help someone else. You’ll find the Holy Spirit; you’ll find Christ; you’ll find God. You’ll find love and mercy and forgiveness when you’re helping the poor. That’s really what we’re called to do here. Once you know Christ, once you know what he did for you in your [spiritual] poverty, then it’s time to reach out to others in physical poverty and bring Christ to them.