Ali Larter cringes at the memory of her first dinner party, a disastrous affair she threw as a “young, struggling actress” in New York City. “I wanted it to be chic and I wanted everyone to relax, so I didn’t start cooking until 10:30 p.m.,” she recalls over lunch at Fred’s at Barneys in the Gold Coast. “I wouldn’t let myself sit in any conversations, and I was sweating, calling my mom and crying, never wanting to do it again.”
Several years after swearing off the role of dinner-party host, Larter — now married to actor Hayes MacArthur — was charged with hosting his Chicago-based parents for their first Thanksgiving as a family. “I was terrified,” Larter admits. In hopes of settling her nerves, she invited friends to a trial-run dinner a week before the holiday.
Unexpectedly, the evening turned into a raucous celebration. “It was this wild party, with red wine spilled all over the couch,” she laughs. The messy, imperfect bash (which Larter now recreates yearly) led the self-proclaimed type-A personality to an epiphany that she now extends to every aspect of her life. “I realized it’s you who makes the party. It’s not the food, the apartment, the plates,” she says. “Nothing tastes better than a great sense of humor, having fun.”
That philosophy inspired Larter, 37, to write a cookbook, Kitchen Revelry: A Year of Festive Menus From My Home to Yours, released last month. The first-time author, who says she learned to love food at a young age while cooking with her mother and sister, worked on the book for several years, filling it with personal recipes, stories and photos. In true type-A fashion, she painstakingly organized it by month: tree-trimming cocktail party recipes for December, a February “sweetheart’s soiree” and a July “Americana BBQ.” But the dishes themselves are low-key and lived-in. “It’s not about spending all of this money, putting all of this pressure on yourself,” Larter says. “I shot the book in our home, with crumbs everywhere and lipstick on the glasses.”
The carefree sensibility on display in Kitchen Revelry didn’t come naturally to Larter. The knockout New Jersey native was discovered at the age of 13, and spent her teens traveling to modeling shoots around the globe before finding cinematic stardom in the late ’90s, landing memorable roles in hit films like “Varsity Blues,” “Final Destination” and “Legally Blonde.” But despite her early success, Larter says she never felt good enough.
“I was questioning whether I even wanted to be an actress,” she says of the several years she spent holed up in New York after finishing “Final Destination.” “I didn’t love the movies I was in, I didn’t think I was good at acting. I was putting so much pressure on myself to be perfect. That’s the worst thing you can do as an actor, and it’s not the way to approach life.”
“I realized it’s you who makes the party. It’s not the food, the apartment, the plates. Nothing tastes better than a great sense of humor, having fun.”
At her lowest point, Larter was ready to walk away from show business. Then she received a script for a TV series called “Heroes.” “It was darkness before the light,” she says, smiling. “I finally felt like I was on the right path.” In 2006, Larter signed on to play the supernaturally strong Niki Sanders, and immediately became a part of a critically acclaimed global phenomenon. “Filming the first season will always be one of the best years of my life,” she says. “There was excitement, there was fear — people really connected with that show.”
“Heroes” not only solidified Larter’s place in the zeitgeist, but also incited a philosophical shift. She explains her transformation with, appropriately, a food metaphor: “The lid was on so tight on this boiling pot — I was holding all of the pressure in. But as soon as I released it, I was able to enjoy my life rather than coming home at the end of the day crying because I wasn’t good enough.”
Behind the scenes, Larter was channeling her newfound peace into her relationship with MacArthur, whom she met while filming “National Lampoon’s Homo Erectus” in 2007. Her mother-in-law, Shelley MacArthur Farley, laughs about a phone call she received back then from her love-struck son: “He said, ‘Mom, I’ve met the girl I’m going to marry. Besides being beautiful, she can really cook.’ ” The LA-based couple wed in 2009, and had a son, Theodore (Teddy), in 2010. According to Farley, Larter and MacArthur are the real deal. “She really loves my son. We’ll be standing somewhere, and she’ll look at Hayes and say, ‘Isn’t he gorgeous?’ ”
The couple comes to town several times a year to catch up with the Farleys, take in a Blackhawks game (both are avid fans) and dine at Gibson’s, a family favorite. “I’m really lucky to have ended up with a Midwestern man,” Larter says. “He’s just a really bright light. And I’m so lucky that his family is here … Chicago is full of really cool people who are enjoying their lives on a level that’s different than in most cities.”
Career-wise, Larter has continued to ascend post-“Heroes,” acting alongside Beyonce and Idris Elba in the 2009 thriller “Obsessed,” playing post-apocalyptic heroine Claire Redfield in two “Resident Evil” installments, and starring in two upcoming films, “You’re Not You” and “Lovesick.” Recently, she filmed the pilot episode of “Legends,” a TNT drama from the producers of “Homeland” that’s scheduled to premiere in the summer of 2014. The show may shoot subsequent episodes in Chicago, a prospect that thrills Larter. “I’ve been in LA for so long without any family, and to be close to people who can help out with Teddy would be incredible,” she says.
Larter could certainly use the extra support — she admits that managing her career, promoting her cookbook and playing mom can get a little stressful. “In the business I’ve chosen, it’s not a marathon; it’s sprints,” she says. “There’s always a lot on the line. There are so many hats to wear, and I feel overwhelmed all the time.” But her lighter outlook, combined with some serious family time, helps keep her calm. “I go home, take the baby to the park, make dinner for the hub,” she says. “We chill out together. That’s where I get my strength.” As for expanding her brood? “Later, we’ll have more kids. But my son is happy and thriving, my husband is happy and working. Things are just really good right now.”
Her joy is evident: Even as she gets up from the table to sprint to her next appointment, she’s animatedly doling out cooking advice (“Make a homemade herb butter and do a pan-fried steak — it’s not the easiest, but it’d be so fun”) and detailing the parties she still regularly throws for her friends (“Last week, I hosted a football party with chicken cheesesteaks and wing dip; that was a big husband request”). Finally finding that contentment — as well as the courage to pursue her career on her own terms and embrace life’s imperfections — is something that Larter doesn’t take for granted. “I think of myself as juicing life,” she says. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Role play: We ask Larter to look back at her classic roles
‘Varsity Blues,’ 1999
Role: Beautiful cheerleader Darcy Sears, who, in a now-infamous scene, sports a bikini made of whipped cream
Q: What’s the most common reaction you get to the ‘whipped-cream bikini’ scene?
A: Sometimes I see [friends] and they’re like, ‘Just watched it again,’ and I’m like: ‘You’re still watching this movie? You’re such a perv.’ It makes people laugh, and it makes them remember a time in their life, and that’s what makes what I do for a living really fun.
‘Final Destination,’ 2000
Role: Clear Rivers, a teen who’s convinced she’s being stalked by Death
Q: Do you believe in the concept of destiny?
A: I believe that people have a destiny, but I also think if you stay in a room and don’t open any of those doors, you won’t fulfill what you’re supposed to be doing on this earth. I really believe that if you honor your instincts and gut, it will lead you in the right direction. That’s what I’ve always done.
‘Legally Blonde,’ 2001
Role: Fitness instructor Brooke Taylor Windham
Q: Your character in the film confesses to liposuction. Would you ever consider plastic surgery?
A: It’s not something that I’m comfortable with, but I think whatever makes a woman feel beautiful, they should do.
Role: Niki Sanders, a mom with superhuman strength
Q: Have you had any real-life heroic moments?
A: We were leaving the airport six months ago, and Teddy was getting into the elevator, and he ran into the doors as they were closing. I threw our bags down and was like, ‘Aaaah!!!’ and pulled the doors apart. He was so relaxed about it, but I was crying after because my adrenaline was pumping so hard. It made me realize that a woman could definitely lift a car [if she had to]. If I thought something was gonna happen to my son, I’d move heaven and earth.