Heather Burns’ journey into acting was so serendipitous, Nora Ephron could have written it. Straight out of college, Burns went to a general casting call, only to find herself face to face with the writer/director herself. She was cast as Christina Plutzker, a sardonic bookstore employee, in what would go on to become one of the most celebrated rom-coms in history, You’ve Got Mail. Twenty years later, the movie has not waned in its popularity, but Burns never suspected she’d play a role that fans would quote to this day.
The character of Christina was responsible for some of the film’s more memorable lines (“I’ll have to move. To Brooklyn.”) as well as a few under-the-radar gems (“Don't [have cybersex], 'cause the minute you do, they lose all respect for you.”), and was lucky enough to count herself among Kathleen Kelly’s (Meg Ryan) inner circle. Her matter-of-fact, slightly cheeky personality often grounded Kathleen’s flighty optimism, but for Burns, it just meant she got to spend her days hanging out with Meg Ryan.
You might also recognizs the actress as Miss Rhode Island in Miss Congeniality (who famously declares her love for April 25), or from her various appearances on TV shows like Sneaky Pete, Friends From College, and Elementary. Nevertheless, when I spoke to her on the phone about You’ve Got Mail’s 20th anniversary, she was happy to reminisce. She still thinks of the movie when she walks through New York City and notices how it’s changed, or when she takes her son to Books Of Wonder, the inspiration for The Shop Around The Corner. Burns spoke to Refinery29 about how she managed to stumble into the beloved film, as well as the piece of advice Nora Ephron gave her that she’ll always remember.
Refinery29: How did you hear about the movie?
Heather Burns: “I just went on a general call for Francine Maisler, who was casting. I was just starting out, and then I got called back to meet with Nora. I’ve never had an audition like that. She pulled up a chair right in front of my face and read with me, about maybe a foot and a half away from me. And that was it! I got the part, and it was the first film I’d done out of school.”
Did you know the movie was going to star Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks?
“I knew that going in. I knew it was going to be them, and obviously I was a big fan of both of theirs at the time. So I did know that, but I didn’t go in with high expectations. I just thought, ‘Oh this is kind of a general thing with a casting director.’ So I wasn’t really nervous or anything because I thought, you know, it was just another audition. Then I got it and was really surprised and thrilled and overwhelmed at the same time.”
What was working with Meg Ryan like?
“She’s great. She was so wonderfully supportive and just a really nice woman, very kind and down-to-earth and laid back in a lot of ways, I found. It was wonderful watching her work because she’s so brilliant at what she does. She’d be this kind of regular, friendly woman. Then they’d call ‘action,’ and it was like a switch went on. She lit up from the inside, and it was like this creature that was Meg Ryan would turn on in an instant. It was so incredible to see that.”
Do you have a favourite line?
“I like the moving to Brooklyn line, because it’s just so funny. At the time it was such a tragedy to have to move to Brooklyn, and now it’s even more expensive than parts of Manhattan. That just cracks me up now...it’s just funny how much Brooklyn’s changed.”
Have you been in touch with any of the cast since then? Would you ever do a reunion, like You’ve Got Mail: 20 Years Later?
“I’d love to. I kept in touch with Nora over the years, but no I don’t think I’ve seen any...Sara Ramirez, we know each other. There’s some people that I keep in touch with loosely, but it would be a blast to get together even on a panel or something. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years.”
“When I did that film I was really idealistic and young, I remember saying to Nora, ‘I just can’t believe she ends up with this guy. He puts her out of business. He’s so corporate. The store is a monstrosity.’ I’ll always remember her voice in my head every time I’m walking around the city and I see something new that’s upsetting me. She said, ‘Heather, the city changes and life changes, and you’re gonna get used to that one day.’ And I did.”
Do you have one standout memory from filming?
“What really comes to mind is the way Nora ran the set. I had the honour of working twice with her [the second time, on the 2005 movie Bewitched]. She was so incredibly generous. She’d take everyone out to lunch. Before [shooting the film] we worked at a bookstore for a week. We rehearsed, we improvised. She really worked on fostering a sense of us having relationships before we went in. And then she just ran this kind of glamorous set. There were crab cakes — she loved food, which I’m sure you know. So much revolved around food and eating, and those were my warmest memories of the film.”
I didn’t know you prepped at a bookstore before!
“It was Meg and Steve Zahn and Jean Stapleton and myself, all the bookstore people. We [wanted to] look natural behind the register so we knew what they did. We went to Books of Wonder, which is still there. I just was there a couple weeks ago with my son. I think it was more just to make us feel like we naturally knew our way around the store. At the time Books of Wonder was smaller, and as I recall they pretty much designed the set to mimic that. They were pretty similar layouts, so we kind of knew our way around.”
The Shop Around The Corner is the cosiest, nicest part of the whole movie. Did it look like a bookstore when you stepped in?
“It was very detailed. They were all real books, which was wonderful because we could just sit there and read the books. It was in a studio. They shot the interior at Chelsea Piers. They transformed a store into the exterior in that neighbourhood where it takes place.”
Back then, how did people feel about meeting on the internet? Would that have been crazy?
“I don’t know about ‘crazy,’ but it was definitely...it was a little weird, but it wasn’t crazy. It would be like if someone went to a matchmaker today or something. That’s a little out of the ordinary, but I don’t think you’re mentally ill. It definitely was all new, but that was when I think it started to become normal to meet people that way.”
What are you doing now?
“I’ve been writing a lot lately. The last couple years I’ve been doing a lot of theatre, but there’s nothing to look forward to because it’s ephemeral. I’ve been doing lots of television work, guest spots and things like that. I write a lot, and I had a son a couple years go.”
Has he ever watched the stuff you’ve been in?
Will you ever show him?
“I probably will. Especially because a few of the movies I’ve done are good for kids, You’ve Got Mail being an example.”
Did you think the movie was going to be such a classic?
“I didn’t think so. I was so new to everything and so oblivious. I knew it would be a big movie and a big deal for me, but I didn’t really think beyond the immediate. Even when I went to the premiere I was completely unprepared. I had never been to one of those things before, and I just thought, ‘Oh, everyone will show up and no one will pay attention to me.’ I’d never done a red carpet, any of that. So that even shocked me. Then it was so successful and so great, and I’m just so grateful that it’s become this classic film because it’s so lovely and it does continue to stand up.”
Why do you think it’s something people return to?
“When things come together it’s always kind of a miracle, but I do think the script was so beautifully written. Nora was such a talent. She was such a lover of New York, so the fact that it was here and it was her neighbourhood and so close to her heart I think really made it impeccable. And of course all the actors were so great. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, they had the incredible chemistry. It’s just such a joy to watch.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.