Denise Richards Looks Back on How Her 'Public Divorce' Affected Her: 'It's Hard Being Misunderstood'

"That was a hard thing for me to go through and deal with," Denise Richards tells PEOPLE of that period in her life

Denise richards
Denise Richards. Photo: Gregg DeGuire/Getty

Denise Richards is busier than ever with her acting career despite the difficult year — but there was a period when the actress experienced a setback during her public split from Charlie Sheen.

Recently, Richards, 49, was seen in the family film Timecrafters: The Treasure of Pirate's Cove, which played in theaters. She also wrapped production on the upcoming medieval drama series Glow & Darkness, from writer and poet Alejandro Guillermo Roemmers, and co-starring fellow Bond girl Jane Seymour. And on CBS's The Bold and the Beautiful, Richards continues to play her character Shauna Fulton.

The actress says she's "grateful" to be working during a period when so many aren't in Hollywood.

In 1997, Richards broke onto the Hollywood scene with a lead role in the the blockbuster Starship Troopers, catapulting her to instant fame. A year later, she appeared opposite Neve Campbell and Kevin Bacon in the steamy thriller Wild Things, soon followed by the now-cult classic Drop Dead Gorgeous and the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, in which she played Bond girl Dr. Christmas Jones.

Around that time, Richards met Sheen while shooting the movie Good Advice in 2000. It wasn’t until the actress guest-starred on Sheen's former sitcom Spin City in the fall of 2001 that a romance began to blossom. They married in June 2002 but by March 2005, it was over, with Richards filing for divorce while Sheen was in the midst of a drug and alcohol relapse.

Looking back on her early fame during her twenties, Richards tells PEOPLE there was "no real handbook" on how to handle the attention. "It's not something you can really prepare someone for."

"When I would do interviews I was very private, which I'm sure people now would find hard to believe because I've done reality shows and I'm on Instagram and stuff," says the former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star. "When I started out, they wanted to imagine the actor in that role. And we would do our best to keep it and keep our private life private."

Denise Richards in Starship Troopers. TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett

"It was a hard thing to navigate and I've made a lot of mistakes. I obviously went through a very public divorce. It was hard for me to comprehend that my public divorce affected my work. I didn't understand it at that time because I thought, 'How come? That's my private life. It shouldn't affect my work.' But it did."

When Richards left Sheen, she was six months pregnant with daughter Lola, now 15. (They also share daughter Sami, 16.) It wasn't until 2006 that their divorce was finalized.

While they were still together, she worked steadily, appearing in films like Undercover Brother and Scary Movie 3 (which also starred Sheen). But after they split, Richards remembers "that time as one of the hardest of my life."

"That was a hard thing for me to go through and deal with," she reflects. "I just wanted to keep doing what I loved to do and keep plugging away."

RELATED VIDEO: Denise Richards on Filming B&B Love Scenes with Husband Aaron Phypers: 'It's Been Fun'

Things are different now for the mother of three, who's happily married to Aaron Phypers, with whom she shares daughter Eloise, 9. (She adopted Eloise in 2011 and announced in May 2019 that Phypers was also in the process of legally "adopting" her.) The star values having the ability to "dispel rumors" about her life on social media.

"It's hard being misunderstood and having stuff that is not true out there," says the actress and reality star. "My older daughters, they're teenagers now and I can't keep stuff away from them at all. They will hear everything. I miss the time when I was able to shelter them from the negative publicity around our family quite frankly."

Richards also enjoys the chance to interact with her fans on Instagram. "The actors that I liked watching, I would have loved to have been able to engage with them other than writing a fan mail and hoping I got a headshot sent back to me," she says.

The Bold and the Beautiful airs Monday through Friday at 1:30 p.m. ET on CBS.

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