October 23, 2006 12:00 PM

Returning to a full-time job isn’t an easy decision for any mom to make. So when Brothers & Sisters executive producer and director Ken Olin approached her, Calista Flockhart had many, many questions. “She loved the script,” says Olin, “but then she’d go, ‘What is the schedule going to be? And what are the expectations?'” Olin patiently waited for her to decide—the role was written with her in mind—but was just about ready to begin searching for someone else when Flockhart finally said yes. She was intrigued by the role: a conservative talk show host at odds with her liberal family. And she could not resist the challenge of playing someone “whose political views are fundamentally different than mine,” she said in July. “That definitely attracted me to the part.” Plus, she told Olin, “I miss acting.”

After all, Flockhart, 41, had all but retired since Ally McBeal—the TV show that had made her a Mary Tyler Moore for the new millennium—went off the air in 2002. Her post-Ally acting work has been very limited; a play here, a couple of indie films there. Away from the cameras, she settled into a new life with Harrison Ford, 64, whom she met at the Golden Globes in 2002, and her now 5-year-old son Liam.

It was a much-needed break. During her Ally McBeal years, the spotlight burned bright—and hot. Her controversial character on the show, a brainy attorney, was criticized for also being neurotic and boy-crazy. And speculation over whether Flockhart was getting too thin also provided years of media fodder. Then there was the nonstop schedule. “She worked her a–off 24/7 on Ally,” says Elizabeth Stewart, her stylist and pal of eight years. “Now she’s in a great relationship and she has an amazing kid. She’s much more relaxed. Her life is more balanced.” But after being a stay-at-home mom for the better part of four years, Flockhart liked the idea of going back to work. “I love being a mom, but as any mother will tell you, if you stay home with a [toddler] 24/7, you get mush brain,” Flockhart said. “You start wishing you were working. Then when you’re working, you’re wishing that you’re home. It’s a tough dilemma.”

Flockhart still finds time for the things she loves: cooking at her and Ford’s L.A. home, taking piano lessons, reading (she’s currently into Fiasco, a critique of the Iraq war by Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks) and spending a lot of time outdoors with her son. “She loves to take Liam and her dogs hiking,” says a friend. And when she’s stuck on-set for those long days of shooting, Flockhart gets a piece of home delivered to her when Ford comes to visit. “He and Calista are fantastic together,” says Dave Annable, who plays Flockhart’s brother Justin on the show. Adds Sally Field, who plays Flockhart’s mother: “Harrison doesn’t have that actor’s nature where it’s all about him. He’s a real guy and a good person.”

Liam, however, would rather stay home and play with his Legos than get a visitor’s pass to the ABC studio lot. While other cast members’ kids (like Rachel Griffiths’s 2-year-old son Banjo) hang out in the on-set nursery, “Calista says Liam doesn’t really have much interest in [being on-set],” says Olin. “He loves being in school. He’s a very happy kid.” In fact, the little guy, who just started kindergarten this fall, adapted to Flockhart’s new schedule more quickly than she did. “I can’t say I had an easy time,” said Flockhart of her first few weeks on the set of Brothers. “But he’s really okay with it. He always says, ‘Well, you’re a mom, but you’re an actress too.'”

Still, for Flockhart, the role of Mom is clearly the more meaningful one at this point in her life. “We talk about Liam a lot,” says Field. “Calista and I will look at each other and I know we’re going to get through a scene as quick as we can because she needs to get home to put him to bed. Many times I’ve leaned over and said, ‘I’m gonna get you out of here!’ We’ll do it in one or two takes, then I say, ‘Go, go, go!'” Not all days are so easy. “It sometimes catches up to her that she really misses her kid. It’s got to be hard, that first job back,” says Annable. “But any time his name is mentioned, a huge grin comes on her face. You can really tell where he stands in her book.”

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