LOS ANGELES — Her nine years playing a no-nonsense wife on the hit sitcom "Every-body Loves Raymond" proved to Patricia Heaton that family strife has universal appeal.
"Everyone related to 'Raymond,' " says the two-time Emmy winner, because "family emotions are a big deal." No surprise, then, that the actress, in her first big post-"Raymond" role, is starring in TNT's "The Engagement Ring," which she describes as a "sort of comic opera of grand emotions."
Premiering Monday at 6 p.m., "The Engagement Ring" is a romantic story about the interwoven family lives of rival vintners of Italian heritage in California's Napa Valley (though most of the film was shot in British Columbia).
Heaton plays Sara Anselmi, whose desire to merge the two vineyards in order to create a new vintage heightens long-simmering resentments.
Heaton's husband, David Hunt, plays Sara's cold-hearted, business-minded fiance, his ear constantly pressed to a cell phone. Vincent Spano is Tony Di Cenzo, a member of the rival family, whose very different freeform attitude toward life and love stirs Sara's untapped emotions.
The senior generation in the families experience equally complex romantic entanglements, marked by fate and choice.
"In a way I'm the love interest" exclaims Lainie Kazan, 65, who plays Sara's mother, Alicia. Despite a girlhood romance with Tony's uncle (Tony Lo Bianco), Alicia married Sara's father (Chuck Shamata).
Kazan says she responded instantly to the script's "visceral emotions" because, "I have those feelings, big feelings."
Heaton, who had nurtured the film project for several years, says she was attracted to the script's exploration of "true love, and what it is, and how do you know what it is. Is it just chemistry, or is it years and years of commitment and being together and hanging in there building a history? And how do you find both?"
As the mother of four sons ages 6 to 12, Heaton knows about finding balance in life. Snatching time for a quick lunch at a coffee shop near her Los Angeles home, the 47-year-old actress exudes the air of someone who can cope.
But she explains that it was probably a little easier to organize her life when she was locked into the comfortable routine of sitcom production, where "the schedule gave a lot of time to be with the kids, be home, make good money, and have fun. And really what more could you ask for!"
Heaton and her husband run a production company, Four Boys Films, and she's in the "early, early" stages of developing a possible sitcom for herself. She'll play someone, she says, "fairly close to who I am."
Other projects from Four Boys, which produced "Ring," include a documentary feature called "The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania," a portrait of small-town America, and "Amazing Grace," a feature film, to be directed by Michael Apted, about William Wilberforce, an 18th century English anti-slavery activist.
Heaton says she and her husband like to seek out stories that "are fairly uplifting," and that their goal is to "explore humanity without being either sentimental or nihilistic."
As she moves on, she does so with no regrets about "Everybody Loves Raymond" ending. "It was a wonderful nine years, but I think it was really time to go."
Is she bothered at all by the fame and relentless recognition that "Raymond" brought?
"Bothered? Me? You're kidding! All my life I've waited for that moment. People say, 'Oh, you must get so tired of it.' I say, 'I didn't work in restaurants and hotels all those years in New York so people would ignore me!' I'm really at a point where I really enjoy it."