Calista Flockhart Gets Back to Work

The actress loved being a stay-at-home mom, but she's returned to TV on Brothers & Sisters

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,” Olin tells PEOPLE, “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.

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.

For more on Calista Flockhart, pick up PEOPLE on newsstands now.

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