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Miss Congeniality's Heather Burns Reminds Us She's a True Queen on the Perfect Date

In honor of the "perfect date," Miss Congeniality's Heather Burns looks back at her role as Miss Rhode Island with E! News and shares how she celebrates the unofficial holiday.

By Elyse Dupre, Ryan Gajewski Apr 25, 2021 3:00 PMTags
Heather Burns, Miss Congeniality, William Shatner, Perfect DateWarner Bros. Pictures

Two decades ago, Heather Burns declared April 25th the perfect date. 

"Because it's not too hot, not too cold," her adorably perky character said in the 2000 movie Miss Congeniality. "All you need is a light jacket."

And while temperatures fluctuate, fans' infatuation with the film stays the same. 

"I love it. It seems to each year get a little bigger even," Burns, 46, exclusively tells E! News about the viral reaction to the unofficial holiday. "And it's such a nice day for me because people come out of the woodwork sending me memes and things. And I go around town…people give me free coffee and, you know, it's just everyone's kind of happy to see me on that day."

Director Donald Petrie once told E! News he actually changed the original date in the script to reflect his wife's birthday. And while it's hard to imagine anyone other than Burns reciting the line, there was a point when she didn't know if she'd be in the movie.

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Sandra Bullock's Best Roles

The first time Burns auditioned, she didn't even get a callback. But as fate would have it, there was a director change, with Petrie stepping in, and she got another stab at the crown. The actress submitted a tape from New York and then flew to Los Angeles to read with Sandra Bullock, whose FBI agent character Gracie Hart goes undercover at the Miss United States pageant after it's the target of a threat.

"She was incredibly warm," Burns recalls. "She always is. She's just exactly how you would imagine her to be." 

Burns was cast as Miss Rhode Island's Cheryl Frasier. Although, truth be told, says the Chicago native, "I have no connection to that state except I think some of my ancestors came there in the 1600s."

Watch: E! Looks Back at Sandra Bullock in 1990!

Just like Bullock's Gracie, Burns underwent quite the makeover, dyeing her hair blonde because her brunette locks were deemed too similar to Bullock's. She also received a baton twirling coach from Syracuse University and attended a school in Pflugerville, Texas.

And though she was fired up about twirling those flaming batons, she also worked with "this wonderful body double" from the University of Texas at Austin. "She was getting her PhD at the time," Burns says, "and she had had a full ride just because she was an amazing baton twirler….So, she was my body double for, like, the really difficult maneuvers."

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But when it came to channeling Cheryl, Burns didn't have to look far for inspiration. "Cheryl just kind of came out of me naturally," Burns says. "I don't know where she came from." Though her neuroscientist mom has an idea. "She says, 'That's your mom impression. That's always been your impression,'" Burns notes. "So, I guess I'll give her the credit."

While the perfect date response is definitely one of Burns' most memorable moments in the movie, another would have to be when Cheryl wins Miss United States. In attempt to protect her friend from the explosive device secretly attached to the crown, Gracie tries to rip it off Cheryl's head. Despite the new queen fighting her off with her bouquet, Gracie ultimately succeeds and saves the day. Filming that part, Burns remembers, was a total blast. And "hitting her with the flowers," she adds, "I think that just came out of nowhere."

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Still, her favorite scene to film was the one in which Cheryl stops by Gracie's hotel room in her pajamas and curlers for some late-night hot chocolate. "It's [the] very essence of Cheryl that scene," Burns explains, "just complete earnestness."

The sense of sisterhood between the pageant participants carried off-camera, too—with Burns noting she formed a close friendship with her fellow top-five contestants. The co-stars stayed at the same hotel in Austin, she recalls, and Bullock, who lived there at the time, would take them out to dinners and concerts.

"I was never in a sorority or anything like that," Burns shares, "and it was just this period of my life where it was just a group of great girls and we were together all the time."

In fact, she still stays in touch with Melissa De Sousa (a.k.a. Miss New York) and sent Bullock a message after The Blind Side star won an Oscar at the 82nd annual Academy Awards.

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Miss Congeniality and its sequel aren't the only films on Burns' impressive résumé. She's also acted in classics like You've Got Mail and Two Weeks Notice and has made a number of television appearances, most recently on The Good Fight. And while she's taken on a variety of roles over the years, Burns will always hold a special place in her heart for Cheryl.

"At the time, I was so happy playing her," she says. "Just being in her skin made me a happier person in general, but especially during that time. I mean, I have such fond memories of both of those films, just a joy to work on. The effect that just the sweetness of the film in general has had on a generation of fans is also really, really lovely for me to experience, and I'm glad that the film had an effect in that way."

You totally want to watch it now, don't you? Well, before you take that victory lap, refresh your memory with all of these secrets from the 2000 hit.

1. A New Director to the Rescue

Donald Petrie stepped in at the last minute, replacing the previous director just seven weeks prior to the start of filming. Sandra Bullock and Michael Caine were already cast, and that was all he needed to know before saying yes. "I have no idea, frankly, why he left the project," Donald told E! News in the exclusive interview. "The main attraction for me was Sandra Bullock."

2. When in Doubt, Pitch Lethal Weapon Starring Sandra Bullock

The previous director was apparently trying to make the film as a "spoof comedy about pageants," whereas the vision Donald pitched to execs at Castle Rock and to Sandra was to make it an action comedy along the lines of Lethal Weapon but with Sandra as the tough-as-nails lead à la Mel Gibson. "In my opinion, if you take a pageant absolutely seriously, that's funny," Donald said. "If you try to make a joke of a joke, that's not funny."

3. Ellen DeGeneres Was the Original Miss Congeniality? 

Ellen DeGeneres told Parade in 2014 that inspiration struck for the film's writer after seeing TV footage of the talk show host rehearsing in heels and a dress ahead of her Emmys hosting gig. "Miss Congeniality was written based on me," Ellen said at the time.

Any truth to that? The director called himself a huge fan of Ellen's but says he wasn't aware of this origin story, telling E! News, "That would be a Sandy question."

4. There's Something About Benjamin Bratt

Matt Dillon, who was a hot commodity following the success of 1998's There's Something About Mary, came close to landing the role of Gracie's partner, Eric Matthews. The part ultimately went to Benjamin Bratt, who had a "comfort level" already established with Sandra, having previously co-starred with her in 1993's Demolition Man

Donald remembered he and Sandra liking Matt a lot, but the Wild Things star "wanted to beef up that role." As the director explained, "It was tough because you needed somebody who could really be truly an FBI agent, and yet didn't mind being second banana to Sandy. And often, major actors want to be the first banana."

5. Hair Today, Blonde Tomorrow 

The pivotal role of Miss Rhode Island, who becomes a trusted confidante for Gracie, went to Heather Burns. She had straight brown hair when she auditioned, but was asked to dye it blonde for the film in order to differentiate visually from Sandra. As Donald reasoned, "I didn't want anyone to be in the arena that was Sandy."

6. Sandra's Bra Gag Pays Off 

Among the director's favorite moments is a scene in which Sandra can be spotted in the background sticking donuts in her bra, although the audience doesn't know to watch her until Gracie gets called out moments later for pilfering the treats. "Michael Caine and Benjamin Bratt are arguing, and she's right in the background in between them putting those donuts in her bra," he said. "The audience never notices."

7. And the Award for Most Likely to Become a Real Housewife Goes To ...

LeeAnne Locken doesn't get much screen time in the tiny of role of Miss Nebraska. In fact, Donald was shocked to learn she later went on to join the cast of The Real Housewives of Dallas. "I didn't know that!" he exclaimed, although he admittedly didn't recall much about their interactions.

8. 50 Is a Big Number

Donald admitted that they didn't cast the full number of actresses to play contestants representing all 50 states, with the actual number being closer to 40. "In a wide shot, who is going to go, 'Hey, there aren't enough girls up there!'" he quipped.

9. A Gilmore Girls Star Ended Up on the Cutting Room Floor

In initial test screenings, the film included a scene in which Gracie shows up late to her father's wedding. Her dad was played by the late Edward Herrmann, perhaps best known as Richard Gilmore on Gilmore Girls. The actor was a "dear friend," Donald said, but his scenes didn't make the final edit. "It's a very funny scene," the director recalled, and it made the trailer despite not appearing in the actual film. "It's one of those things where we're just too long."

10. Craft Service Wasn't Much Fun

With less than a month left before shooting, Donald took each of the pageant contestants aside, Sandra included, to chat about the potential challenges of the film's premise. "I said, 'I want you to know that we're going to start shooting in about three weeks, and I'm not gonna be on camera in a bathing suit, but you are.' And they all kind of went, 'Oh, my God, yes,'" he told E! News. "So the craft-service table on the set was not as popular. We kept it stocked with nice, healthy stuff."

11. Sandra Has a New Fallback Career?

Los Lobos' cover of "Mustang Sally" plays during the film's makeover montage and Sandra herself performed the tambourine on the song. "It was like, 'Everybody take an instrument,'" said Donald, who himself played a shaker on the recording. "She was involved in every step of every bit of that movie." 

12. If You're Fighting With Sandra, Be Sure to Wear a Cup

In the first half of the film, when Eric wrestles with Gracie in the gym to convince her to participate in the beauty pageant, Benjamin needed to stop the scene because Sandra accidentally hit him in the crotch. "It was the scene where they kind of roll into a position, and he stopped it with, 'Oh, my God! You got my testicles.' And we just had to stop," Donald recalled with a hearty laugh. "She managed to clip him right in the cojones." 

13. Sandra Did All of Her Own Stunts

The director joked that Sandra and Benjamin are "still mad at me" for not using stunt doubles in the film. "Benjamin is like, 'My back has never been the same,'" Donald said with a laugh. "They got more than a few bruises and sore muscles from shooting that wrestling match." 

14. The Opening Scene Wasn't in the Script

Screenwriter Marc Lawrence had been working on the project for years, over the course of dozens of different drafts. During an offhand chat with the director, Marc mentioned that a previous version had started with the scene that ended up opening the final film, in which a grade-school Gracie beats up a bully and then beats up the victim as well. Donald knew that this was the perfect opening and needed to be added to the shooting script. 

15. The Snort Was Rooted in Reality

Gracie becomes known for snorting while she laughs, but that wasn't in the script. Donald recalled being at a dinner with the actress where he said something and she reacted by snorting, and he exclaimed, "Oh! Keep that!" 

16. How Do You Make Sandra Bullock Look Like She's Not a Beauty Queen?

A key part of getting the film to work was figuring out how to make Sandra somehow seem less gorgeous in the first third of the film, which they achieved with a combination of her own acting plus a little help from makeup, hair and lighting. "Sandy used to kid about the fact that her makeup only took a half-hour to make her look ugly, but it took two and a half hours to make her look beautiful," he said. "I disagree with that. She could have arrived on set with no makeup. All you have to do is brush her hair, and she is stunningly beautiful."

17. Sandra Wanted Food in Her Teeth

A memorable early scene features Michael Caine's character taking Gracie out for steak, in which the British pageant expert expresses his annoyance at seeing a "half-masticated cow, rolling around in your wide-open trap."

As Donald remembered about the actress, "She wanted to have a piece of steak caught between her teeth so she could suck at it. I remember them taking dental floss, which you would normally use to get stuff out of your teeth, but using it to pull steak in between her teeth."  

18. The Trailer's Most Memorable Moment Was a Sandy Ad-Lib

Gracie teases Eric in the film by flirtatiously singing, "You think I'm gorgeous, you want to date me," which was a highlight of the trailer. As it turns out, that recurring moment was unscripted, and it all came from Sandra. "She absolutely did that," Donald shared. 

19. Sandra's Kiss That Wasn't Meant to Be

In that flirty scene when Gracie first sings, "You want to kiss me," the pair were indeed supposed to share a smooch after that. The director filmed the scene with them kissing, and also filmed a version where Eric leans in for a kiss and instead bites a candy bar, and that's the one that made it into the film. "I said, 'I think it's too early in the movie for them to be kissing,'" Donald recalled.

20. The Classic "Perfect Date" Line Has Special Significance

Every year on April 25, memes pop up to celebrate the film's beloved quote from Miss Rhode Island about the "perfect date," which she mistakenly interprets as her favorite day on the calendar rather than her ideal romantic outing. As it turns out, screenwriter Marc Lawrence wrote the line, but Donald tweaked it by changing the date to his own wife's birthday. 

"I just said, 'Could it be April 25th? That's my wife's birthday,'" the director revealed. "So I'm very happy that each year on her birthday, there are all these memes going about."

21. Getting the Last Laugh

Donald said he intentionally includes extra scenes in early cuts of his films, just in case anything pops with audiences that he wasn't expecting, so critics are never invited to those screenings. But, the director remembered, film blogger Harry Knowles snuck into a test screening and "gave it the most scathing, worst review of any movie ever, including calling me out for having personally ruined Sandy Bullock's career."

Luckily, the studio appeared to be unfazed by the early negative buzz, and ultimately the film was still a hit, grossing $212 million worldwide from a budget of $45 million. "The only thing I can say," Donald said, "is that I'm sure glad the movie went on to be a huge success and kind of a classic comedy, earning big bucks, so that I can kind of gently flip my finger at that review and go, 'Heh, heh!'"

22. The 20-Year Difference

Donald was quick to point out that elements of the film, including Gracie's co-workers speaking dismissively of her and imagining what she would look like in skimpy clothing, would probably not remain in the film if it were made today. "Absolutely, I think it would change," he said of certain scenes. "It was 20 years ago, long before #MeToo and much change in attitude toward the glass ceiling. A lot of it would stay the same, but you would definitely have to address certain pieces in order to bring it into today's zeitgeist."

Of course, one moment that certainly feels forward-thinking was a scene toward the end in which a Black contestant comes out as gay and professes her love for her girlfriend. Donald said he always hopes that his films will feel motivated by a "higher purpose," which he sees this moment as achieving. "I have to credit the writer Marc Lawrence, and indeed Sandy, for putting that in the script, and I loved it."

23. A Different Director Helmed the Sequel

Donald opted not to direct 2005's follow-up, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, which was not as well-received as the original. "For me, as the director, I think there's not a lot of upside to that," said Donald about making sequels. He pointed out that he directed the 1993 hit Grumpy Old Men but similarly skipped its sequel, Grumpier Old Men.

Whether Miss Congeniality could ever get rebooted, as is currently happening with the similarly themed 1999 flick She's All That, Donald admitted, "I don't think it would be the same without Sandy." 

24. The Movie Gets Chandler's Stamp of Approval

Donald was convinced that the film had made an impact after Matthew Perry's Chandler defends his love for the movie in a 2003 episode of Friends. "I knew we'd become pop culture because Friends did an episode," the director said.

25. The Rom-Com Market Isn't What It Was in 2000

Donald stressed that it is much tougher to get a rom-com made these days, let alone to get a theatrical release for it, than it was when Miss Congeniality became a hit. "For the past few years, until Netflix came along, rom-coms went the way of the Western," he said. "Nobody was making a rom-com."

Despite a bit of a resurgence for the genre, he isn't convinced that rom-coms will again have a theatrical heyday anytime soon. "The streaming sites were a threat before, but COVID has only cemented their power," Donald lamented. 

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