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An Interview with Elisa Donovan

Photo: Storm Santos

Elisa Donovan is an actor and writer. Having portrayed Amber in the 1995 classic comedy Clueless, Elisa is also known for her work on acclaimed films and series including A Night at the Roxbury, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and MDMA. I spoke with Elisa about studying acting, her career as a writer, and her upcoming book Wake Me When You Leave.

Did you always want to pursue a career in acting, and how did land your first role?

Oh, yes. From the time I did a play in the 1st grade, I fell in love with acting. Doing that play, I was obsessed with creating my character and the wardrobe and getting it all right. I didn’t understand at that time that you could make a career out of it. I had no idea that people got paid to become other people. Then I started studying acting outside of school in the 7th grade, maybe when I was 12 or so. Then I knew pretty quickly that was what I wanted to do. I had always wanted to be a writer at the same time, but I knew around the 8th grade that I was going to pursue acting full time. I did theatre for many years. I studied and was trained in theatre in New York. The first TV job that I had was a day player on a soap opera where I had maybe three lines or so. My Mom wrote a note to the network saying, ‘You should have that girl back. She was so great!’ I think she really believed that they might say, ‘Huh, let’s have that girl back!’ Then the first real job after that in LA was on the sitcom Blossom with Mayim Bialik and Joey Lawrence. They hired me for one episode and then they liked the character and me, so they wrote me into a couple more episodes.

So writing was something you were also interested in before you started out in acting?

Yes, from the time I was very young. I can remember 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade I would write these stories about a 'super granny' who flew around New York City and solved crimes and saved people. I would also dictate family events and then transcribe them myself. I grew up on Long Island, outside of New York City, and we had a pool in our backyard. Every spring, we would have to take the cover off of the swimming pool. It was this big family ordeal and we all dreaded it. But my father made us do it, it was one of our chores. I would take out my little marble notebook and write down what was happening as it transpired. Dad would be yelling at me and saying, ‘put that down!’ I was kind of always doing that. Then in high school I started to get into writing actual autobiographical fiction. Before I applied to college, I was really considering writing and took it seriously. I knew that I would be pursuing acting professionally, but in college I considered writing to be an equal. And so, my focus in college became writing and dramatic literature.

You’ve got a book coming out in June called Wake Me When You Leave

Yes! June 8th. It’s a memoir about losing my Dad to cancer and how that changed my life and my career. It’s about this period of time where, in very close succession I lost my job, my relationship, and my Dad was diagnosed with cancer and died. I was stripped of everything that made my life make sense. It began this whole journey that I did not plan on going on. Ultimately it changed my life in these really beautiful ways. My father came to me in dreams and these other worldly kind of experiences that really helped to remedy my life. It helped me through the grieving process. It’s a very raw and real book. I hope that people will find it funny and challenging because death and grief have every facet of the human experience within them. There are funny bits, horribly painful bits... It kind of encompasses everything. Ultimately, I feel it’s a hopeful and kind of triumphant book.

How have the acting roles you’ve been attracted to changed since you first started out?

That’s such a great question because I always considered myself this unconventional person, as an artist as well. The bulk of things that I, certainly what I became known for, were these one-dimensional, shallow, wealthy mean girls. Which was always so funny to me because I thought, this could not be further from who I am as a person. Initially I always felt as though I wanted to do something super dark. I wanted to play drug addicts and people struggling. I had this huge desire to do things that were really dark and difficult. Now that I’m older, I’m pretty happy that I have made my mark in an area that brings people joy. It allows for some levity. I feel the roles that I’m drawn to now are more about-- 'What am I putting out into the world? As opposed to 'Let me play some seedy, dark person' because it will challenge me and allow me to tap into some under-used part of my abilities, without any regard for what the project is actually putting out into the world. It’s just different. My intentions are less self-centered, I guess? That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for dark things, I just wrote a book about death! But I want to do things that have a respect for humanity and the experience of being alive on this earth. And there can be darkness in that, but I feel we have to have a responsibility and accountability within that kind of expression as well. I look at things through my lens as a parent, as well as a human who is creating things for other humans to consume.

Are there any projects you are currently working on?

There is also a film version of Wake Me When You Leave that is in development, and it will be my directorial (and screenwriting) debut. I’m super excited about it. This story is obviously something that is very personal to me, so this film feels like the perfect project to be my first as a director. I’ve spent many years as an actress wanting to direct and having that part of my brain be very stimulated creatively. I was always wanting to know why things were edited the way they were, and I was always wanting to set up shots. I always see the story in my head visually playing out even when I'm just acting in something. But as actors we are only one small piece of the storytelling. The power in storytelling in film is really through the directing and the writing.

We have a great team on board, and they are getting the financing together. Hopefully we will be ready to shoot over the summer, if the financing comes together. Making an independent film is very much a labour of love and people sign on to do it because they care about the material and have some personal connection to it. We’ve really got some great people involved who came on board because of the story and the script. I’m really excited for this next phase. Hopefully the book will help move all those things in the right direction.

Wake Me When You Leave is available to pre-order on Amazon:

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