You probably know Patricia Heaton from Everybody Loves Raymond, where she starred as Ray Barone's (Ray Romano) wife, a mother of three who didn't take any crap from anybody. But even though Raymond ended in 2005, Heaton's days of TV motherhood are far from over. She currently plays Frankie Heck on The Middle, where she stars opposite Neil Flynn (who plays her husband, Mike). I spoke with the actress—who just might be the nicest person ever—about her first year on the show, her thoughts on a hypothetical Middle-and-Modern Family meet-up, and what it was like to play Marsha Mason's daughter in tonight's "Mother's Day" episode.
TV.com: What was it like to work with Marsha Mason?
Patricia Heaton: Well, Marsha got her big break in this industry when she played opposite Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl. And then I ended up doing the remake of The Goodbye Girl for TNT, playing that same role. So we had chatted about that when that happened. Then I heard she was playing my mom, [and] I was so excited because she's such a great actress. And I didn’t remember, really, what a great sense of Midwesternness she has. When I came to the set and saw her, I thought, "Oh, my gosh, this is perfect casting!" She [had been] in the middle of rehearsing a play in New York, and she flew to LA and we worked 16 hours and got it all shot in one day, and then she flew back the next day. It was unbelievable. I'd played a mother for nine years on Raymond, I'm playing a mother again on The Middle. It was great to play a daughter for those 16 hours.
Is she anything like your real mother?
Maybe a little bit. My mom was a no-nonsense, no-frills, down-to-earth person. Marsha's character is one of those moms who's always done everything for her husband and everything for her kids and done it with a smile. And then, when I come over and hang with her on Mother's Day, it all kind of cracks. She’s had enough of taking care of everybody else. It's really funny.
How has your relationship with The Middle's child actors changed over the course of the show's first season?
It's so interesting when you start a show. You're supposed to be playing a family and nobody knows each other. Even hugging each other is weird! They've been terrific since the beginning, but it's great to have gotten to know them over the course of 20-some episodes. And I've seen everybody grow as actors as their characters expand, [and] as the writers find more for them to do. They're just so up-to-the-challenge, and it's really fun for actors to see where characters go and what their relationships are. Because when you start something, you don't know anything about them other than that one script you have.
What can we expect from upcoming seasons?
I'm not sure if this is going to happen, but at my house this year, we had a foreign exchange student stay with us for ten days, and I kept going into work and talking about it and how awkward it was. [laughs] And we were joking about what a foreigner would think of the Heck family. So there's a good chance that the Heck family might be hosting a foreign exchange student next year.
That would be really fun, especially in a Midwestern setting.
It's funny because my producer was saying, "Wait a minute, [your foreign exchange student] is going to think every American kid has a mom on television and a swimming pool and this glamorous life. He's going to go back with a completely skewed view of America!"
You’ve hosted some pretty great guest stars so far this season.
I know, for a first season, to have Brooke Shields, Betty White, Marsha Mason, Alexa Vega, who's a sweetheart, Amy Sedaris, I'm just so pleased because to me, it really says that we have a quality show, that we're able to attract those kind of actors.
Is there anyone else who you'd like to have on the show?
The actors are always so out of the loop. We don't know what the characters are going to be until we get the script. And then by that time, they've already cast everybody. So I don't know. There are a lot of wonderful actors that I love, but you always just want the right role for them.
What do you think would happen if the Heck family met the Dunphy-Pritchett clan from Modern Family?
That's an interesting question! I'm just picturing it all, because I watch that show, too; it's one of my favorites. You know, I think the Hecks would be a little bit intimidated because the whole Modern Family clan [lives] very upscale lifestyles. And I think the Hecks would be like the Beverly Hillbillies.
What if the Hecks met the Barones?
I'm sure [the Hecks] would be completely comfortable.
Between Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle, you've got two very popular family comedies under your belt. What do you think makes a family comedy successful and easy to relate to?
The main thing is that it's not about the jokes. It's about the humor, and the humor comes from the relationships. Both shows have very well-rounded characters; they're more than just cookie-cutter, cliche, comedy characters. I used, like, five Cs in there! [Anyway, the characters] are very unique, they're very individual, they're very specific, and they're very fleshed out. And I think the thing that anchors both Raymond and our show is the characters' love of family, their caring for each other and their realization that the most important things are not material. That the family unit is what matters. That's what makes it relatable.