Elisa Donovan, Actress & Author
I was always a bit of a unicorn in my family and the only person who is a creative soul. I did a play in the first grade and I remember so distinctly feeling at home and thinking about how incredible it was to create this other person. Every time I went on stage, I just immediately came alive. But I didn’t understand a lot of it at that point; I was only seven years old. I had no idea that that would be something I could do for a living or that acting was an actual career or a job. So I did some plays, and then, in maybe seventh or eighth grade, I started to study acting outside of school at some Acting Studios.
When I was in high school, I got my first agent and started auditioning for commercials where I would take the train with my mom from Long Island into New York City. When I graduated from high school, much to my parent’s dismay and disappointment, I told them that I wanted to take a year off to study acting full time before going to college. We had an agreement that my parents allowed me to live in New York City and go to the Michael Chekov acting studio for one year, but I still had to work and make some money. And so I was studying, auditioning, and working in a restaurant – but unfortunately I didn´t get any acting jobs. Per our agreement, I went to Eugene Lang College in New York City a year later for the undergrad part of the New School University. I studied writing and literature and was an English major, essentially with a minor in acting and drama. All through that time in college, I was still auditioning for commercials and studying outside of school.
Later on, I got a new agent and went to Los Angeles for one summer. I still didn´t book a job but I tested for all these movies and TV shows. All of a sudden, I experienced all this momentum. When I went back to New York, I said that I needed to move to LA. I only knew two people in LA; my agent, and my friend Jennifer, who was a playwriter and whom I had worked with in New York on several plays before. Jennifer and I moved in together. Looking back, I think it was quite brave of me to do that. There was something about all the training that I had that made me feel very prepared and very motivated. Los Angeles felt so nice coming from New York, where you’re up against people and the city all the time. Just getting to auditions was such a challenge in some regard. I remember how relaxed I felt when I was driving to auditions in LA; I was able to breathe on my way there. It was just such a different experience. That’s why I think that I succeeded so early on. I was there for maybe three weeks when I booked my first job, which was for the sitcom Blossom. I was hired for one episode. They really liked me and the chemistry that my partner and I had, so they hired me again and kept writing me into the show. In the middle of filming for that, I auditioned for Clueless, and I got the job, which meant I had to stop doing Blossom. After that, everything just kind of fell into place.
Without a doubt, my mom has always been and continues to be my champion and cheering squad. My dad was supportive too, but he always wanted me to be realistic about what this would mean for me and my future. During my first year, he told me that I could go to this acting studio, but then we had to get real about life. I remember six months into that year, I went back home and we sat down for dinner. My dad said, “Okay, so it’s been six months, and you’re not famous. So let’s get real. You need to go to college to have a real job.” So I said, “Okay, yes, I want to go to college, but I want to go to college to become an educated actor.” My dad was an executive working for AT&T; he was a corporate guy and it was really challenging for him to understand my journey, even though he absolutely supported me.
I worked so hard on building my acting career and I wanted to make my parents proud. But most of all, I wanted to prove that I was serious about it. I think that helped my dad to keep supporting my dream, even though he still had concerns about me not having any consistency. In acting, there’s no linear path as in really any creative endeavor. The only thing you can do, is to take steps to prepare yourself, to study and to learn. But there are no guarantees. It’s not like you work your way up the corporate scale. There’s just a lot of faith, patience and perseverance involved. It was often a battle with my parents. But at the same time, I think I had such clarity that this was what I wanted to do, and that there was just simply nothing that was going to stop me. I think my parents really appreciated that, even though they didn’t understand it.
Credit: Elisa Donovan Private
Credit: Chris Connor
It´s always a struggle for actors when they´re not working. I remember, I went to the movies at the Beverly Center with my friend Jennifer. Beverly Hills 90210 had just started and it was right after Clueless came out. We were going up the escalator and this whole crowd of girls, some like teenagers and early 20s, were pointing at us and whispering. I said to Jennifer, “Oh, there must be someone famous on the escalator. We were both looking around wondering who it could be. As soon as we get up to the top and off the escalator, they all started pointing at me. That´s when I realized that they were talking about me. It was kind of a wake-up moment. It showed me, first of all, how popular that show was, but it also made me experience the whole other side of this. I didn’t really prepare myself or didn’t really understand how I would lose my privacy and I felt like I had to be accountable for what I would say or do. I felt this additional kind of responsibility to be kind and generous with people and to sort of set a good example because these shows and these films were very much for younger people. I realized that I was making an impression on young girls in particular, and be a role model, whether I would like it or not. That’s just a part of the job. I feel like that was a positive thing for me and helped me to sort of keep myself grounded.
I certainly didn’t have anyone to help me prepare for that. I had an agent and a manager back then, but it would have been useful to have someone who helped me mentally and emotionally metabolize how to deal with situations like this. Those things exist more now. Back then, it was a challenge for sure, but I could also see what the cast of Beverly Hills 90210 had to deal with, to a way bigger extent. By the time I was on it, that show had been on for several seasons and they were so famous. Every time I went out with any of them, they were just hounded at every corner. That was a whole other level. I could see how some of them handled it well, for others it was really difficult. For me, those situations where definitely lessons learned.
The paparazzi and all of that got so much worse later; in the 90s and the early 2000s, when I was really much more in the public eye. They were not as aggressive and invasive as they are nowadays. Nobody was following you around in a car and trying to run you over and get your picture. That kind of thing was not happening yet. I feel like, for people who really started to become visible in the mid 2000s and later, it had to be so much more difficult. Especially now with social media and people having their phones everywhere. It’s really a different business now. As a famous person, you really have no privacy now.
I tried to explain to my daughter the other day, that fame comes with many sides. Just because you see someone on television or in a movie and you may look up to them and think, “Oh, wow, they have this great life”, it´s often times not what it seems to be. There are a lot, especially young kids, who have gone through the industry all up to their 20, and they have horrible mental and emotional breakdowns, because they have lost their sense of identity. The psychological pressure and the scrutiny are just so extreme, and there’s a reason why so many, especially women and young girls, wind up having this kind of trouble. The pressure is just immense. Unfortunately, a part of being successful in this business means that people know who you are. It’s a piece of the puzzle and there’s no way around it. You have to take that part with you. We often just look at the shiny, successful part, but there’s a whole other side that takes a lot of mental balance and care, that really needs to be attended to.
I actually talk about this in my book. There were several occasions when things in my life essentially changed everything. For example, when the TV show I was on was cancelled, when a relationship ended with the person that I was going to marry, and my dad died – all these things happened within a month. My life was just turned upside down. My dad was already sick for five months, but he died during that timeframe where everything else came on top of that.
There were several moments, two in particular, where I was just having dinner with friends, and I just started crying and I had to leave. When my friend walked me outside, I was still bawling, these women just came swarming out to me. “Oh my gosh, we’re such big fans of yours. Can we take a picture?” They didn´t know what was going on, but I was obviously not feeling well. They didn’t realize that it was disrespectful in this moment. Something similar happened at the day of my father’s funeral in North Carolina. I scratched my cornea and I had to go to this Emergency Medical Center where they were flushing out my eye; it was very painful. So while the doctor was telling me to try and not cry, I still had to go to my dad´s funeral. When I came out of the office, everyone starts crowding around the door; the nurse, the receptionist, all these people. They walked in with an InStyle magazine, asking me “Is this you? Can we take a picture?”. I thought, how on earth could they have recognized me when I just looked like a wreck? And how could they think this is okay to come up to me at that moment? These were not mean-spirited people, but it’s really like you’re a zoo animal.
I really feel for some celebrities who have had very public incidents of responding poorly to someone or losing their cool. I can imagine, if those experiences would have happened repeatedly to me, over and over and over, and it kept going for months, I think that I would have lost my mind too.
I’ve always been a writer, and when all these things happened, at first, I couldn’t write anything. I just really retreated into this depression and state of grief. And then, as I started to write for my own healing and processing, I kept coming back to thinking, if I’m having such a hard time handling this, how was my mom handling this? I mean, they were married for 50 years, and she didn’t know anything else. And now she’s by herself. I felt like my whole life was changing. It became this definitive moment of reevaluating everything. When you lose everything, you have to let go of your attachments to what you think your life is supposed to look like and what you’re supposed to be doing. I’ve really questioned if I wanted to be an actress any longer. Was I really happy doing this? Did I like living in Los Angeles? Did I want to be married? I just reevaluated everything. It was a spiritual shift in my entire existence.
I came back to this place of truly understanding who I am; a creative person who will never stop acting. But the kind of art I wanted to put into the world was changing. I really want my time to be spent in a meaningful way. I felt like, I understood how resistant we are to talking about difficult things; to include grief and trauma and challenge into the fabric of our lives. We just want to talk about all the successes, the magazine covers and all these things. And really, we’re robbing ourselves of three quarters of what life is about. All the successes are so important and celebrating them are vital, but it shouldn’t be considered negative when we have challenges.
My life is so different today and so full of meaning on a different level than it ever was before. When I started writing, I didn´t write it as a book, but later on I had this very strong feeling, that I should publish this as a book. My agents wanted to try to get me on another TV show instead, but I told them, I need to write this book. Friends of mine suggested then to write it as a performance piece. So then I wrote it as a one woman show, and performed it at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles. I did it one night as a benefit for the Big Brothers, Big Sisters Foundation, which turned into this incredible evening. It was so overwhelming. People were weeping, laughing and just embracing me and each other. This was the kind of thing I want to do. This is how I wanted it to feel. I want to be able to touch people, communicate the human condition and be able to share these kinds of stories to allow people to experience life. This is how I wanted my work to be from now on. Sure, I would love to still do Comedy TV shows and things, I love that as well, but this was really going to be my focus from now on.
The film and the book have been kind of in tandem for years. I didn’t know for a while which was going to happen first. Then the book deal came through first and then the film started to be in development. One helped the other over time. The book is here now and the film is still in development and we’re currently raising the financing for it. We have a great team of people involved and it just feels amazing.
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