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Elisa Donovan: “I would literally dry up and cease to exist”

I’m an artist. I can’t survive without creativity and expression, I would literally dry up and cease to exist. That’s what motivates me — the pure joy I get from the process. My belief is that art imbues life with magic and it connects people. As for changes I’d like to see: we are starting to see […]

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I’m an artist. I can’t survive without creativity and expression, I would literally dry up and cease to exist. That’s what motivates me — the pure joy I get from the process. My belief is that art imbues life with magic and it connects people. As for changes I’d like to see: we are starting to see this, but I want to see more stories told by women. That means written by AND directed by women. I could go on for hours about this, so I will try to keep it brief here, but I feel that we are still not culturally ready to hear certain stories told by women. The collective is still more comfortable with men telling stories through their lens, even when it’s inherently a woman’s story…which is so mind-blowing to me. I’m interested in more nuanced story-telling and I think women thrive in that arena.


As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Elisa Donovan.

For over 20 years, Elisa Donovan has been a part of iconic pop culture phenomenon’s. She began her film career originating the role of Amber in the iconic Paramount Pictures comedy Clueless. She followed that up with a turn on another pop culture sensation, the television series Beverly Hills, 90210, playing bad girl ‘Ginger LaMonica.’ She then went on to reprise her role of ‘Amber’ for three seasons on the television series of Clueless. During which time she shot the Paramount/SNL Films comedy A Night At The Roxbury. Then for three seasons Elisa played ‘Morgan Cavanaugh’ on the monster hit series Sabrina The Teenage Witch. Elisa has had recurring roles on multiple other TV series, and has starred in numerous telefilms, including Your Love Never Fails, Eve’s Christmas, 12 Wishes Of Christmas and It Was One Of Us.

Elisa’s first book “Wake Me When You Leave” will be released on June 8, 2021. The book is her very personal memoir about losing her job, her relationship, and her father to cancer, all over a very short period of time. Through her grief, she began to connect to her father to series of visitations and dreams, helping her to heal and remedy her life. The film version of “Wake Me When You Leave” is currently in development, with Richard J. Bosner producing. The film will mark Elisa’s Screenwriting and Directorial debuts.

Originally from Northport, Long Island, Elisa grew up studying acting, writing, and photography. She was also a competitive equestrian. She graduated from Eugene Lang College at The New School University in NYC, where she studied dramatic literature, acting and writing. Elisa currently lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughter.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, in a little harbor town called Northport, about an hour east of New York City. We were a very traditional family from the outside — My father commuted to the city for his corporate job at AT&T/ Verizon, and my mom was a stay at home mom. I am the youngest of 3 kids. We grew up riding horses competitively, and spent most of the summer weekends traveling up and down the east coast for competitions. Then in junior high, I dove headfirst into my creativity and became a non-conformist punk rocker, discovering combat boots, black lipstick, bizarre music, and teased hair…my parents were terrified and I had no idea why. Now that I’m the mom of an 8 year old girl,I think I understand!

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

No one in my family was in the arts at all, so I had no understanding that acting could be a profession. So, when I fell in love with acting after doing a play in the first grade, I had no idea you could actually make a career out of it. It was something that I immediately felt drawn to and felt a familiarity with, like a comfortable, but really amazing outfit or something…! It just suited me, and really ignited me and made me feel alive. I started taking classes outside of school when I was 11 or so. Then by the 8th grade, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life: I was going to be an actress. I had also been writing stories since I was around 7. I would narrate family rituals/holidays as they happened and write them down in my marble notebook. Do those even exist anymore? Those black and white marble notebooks? God, I loved those! I remember in second grade writing stories about a Super Granny who flew around New York City saving people. It was quite the series…I continued writing through high school and college as well.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I remember early on auditioning for a film that I thought was live action, but was actually animated. I had no understanding what a voiceover was, so I memorized the material, went in dressed like the character, and fully embodied the role. The casting director and producers were a little taken aback when I entered the room — voiceover actors usually showed up in casual gear and holding the script in their hands. I realized pretty quickly that something was amiss as soon as I saw the microphone and recording set up. I just went with it and acted as though I knew it was animated and I was just really invested in the work. I didn’t get the job, but I did earn the respect of those casting agents who hadn’t met me before. They eventually hired me for a TV pilot down the line. I learned that taking each opportunity seriously and committing to it fully would always serve me in the long run.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I think of three people, all at different points in my life: my high school experimental theatre teacher, John Gavriluk; director Amy Heckerling; and one of my current teachers, Kim Gillingham. Mr. Gavriluk helped me discover who I am not only as an actress, but as an artist. He really engendered a curiosity and a passion for my own creativity and expression that ignited my drive. I credit him for helping shape my creative life. Also, Amy started my film career. She taught me so much about film and character — she’s a genius director. She also pushed for me to get the role in the film A Night At The Roxbury. She really believed in me and was my champion. As for Kim, once we started working together, I was able to incorporate much more of myself and my soul into all of my work. She guided me to utilizing my unconscious and the power of dream interpretation to not only enhance my acting and writing, but to also enliven my life in general. I can’t express strongly enough how much joy and depth our work together has brought to my life.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of
failure?

Yes: If you can do anything else, you should. If you are afraid of failure, this is not the career for you! That sounds odd or harsh, so let me explain. I mean if this isn’t calling to you from every sinew in your body, if you don’t wake up knowing this is what you’re meant to do, what you have to do, if you can’t handle rejection and you can imagine yourself doing something else, I would do that. This business is too hard, too unpredictable, and too disappointing. Your whole soul has to be in it and you must have perseverance beyond comprehension. You have to have gratitude for it all. You have to want to work hard. The hours are long, the challenges are mighty — and those things are gifts. Wait, was that advice? Ha — ok, I guess my advice is: don’t ever give up. Study and know your craft. Remember there is only one You. Learn from other actors, but don’t try to imitate other people. Develop your personal skill and follow your own bliss.

What drives you to get up everyday and work in TV and Film? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?

I’m an artist. I can’t survive without creativity and expression, I would literally dry up and cease to exist. That’s what motivates me — the pure joy I get from the process. My belief is that art imbues life with magic and it connects people. As for changes I’d like to see: we are starting to see this, but I want to see more stories told by women. That means written by AND directed by women. I could go on for hours about this, so I will try to keep it brief here, but I feel that we are still not culturally ready to hear certain stories told by women. The collective is still more comfortable with men telling stories through their lens, even when it’s inherently a woman’s story…which is so mind-blowing to me. I’m interested in more nuanced story-telling and I think women thrive in that arena.

You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m thrilled that I have a book coming out on June 8! It’s a memoir called Wake Me When You Leave, about losing my job, my relationship, and my father to cancer over a very short period of time, and how that transformed my life. It’s about grief, but it’s a hopeful (and funny) book about being sent on a journey I didn’t know I needed to go on. It’s about a journey full of visitations, dreams, and inexplicable synchronicities that made me realize even after someone dies, they never really leave us and that it’s never too late to make peace. The film version (which I wrote the screenplay for) is also in development and I am attached to direct. This is the beginning of a whole new phase of my career and I am over the moon with excitement about it. Both of these projects embody all parts of me and my artistry, which I’m sure is why it feels so good to have them finally coming to fruition.

Where do you see yourself heading from here?

I see myself writing another book, getting the television series I’m writing produced, directing some of those episodes, and maybe acting in a few as well. I do miss acting! I’ve been so focused on the book and getting the film off the ground these past few years, acting has taken a bit of a back seat. I do love it and hope to squeeze some of that back into the program!

We are very interested in looking at diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture and our youth growing up today?

It’s vital that we have diversity in the entertainment industry for a multitude of reasons. Entertainment — especially film and television seeps into the collective unconscious of society. If we only represent a small portion of humanity in our art, we are perpetuating inequity as a whole. If a young person doesn’t see someone who looks like them doing a variety of things, they will have a more difficult time imagining themselves doing those things. Children need to grow up seeing and learning about a whole host of colors and cultures and sexual orientations, so that they embrace differences. They need to be taught how diversity enriches our lives, so they learn to have a curiosity and interest in ideas and people that are different from themselves, rather than a fear of them. I am fierce about teaching my daughter these things. She is 8 years old and these are conversations we have in our household. I consider it my duty as a parent and as a contributor to that creative collective that ripples out into the world to teach her about inherent biases and how important it is to dismember them.

Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.

Yoga has been the most beneficial and consistent self care practice in my adult life. Salsa dancing is another. Both of these things have been nearly impossible to do with any normalcy in this pandemic, and I’ve missed them both terribly. I also get great peace and energy from running, so thankfully the pandemic hasn’t taken that from me! I don’t eat processed foods at all and I drink tons of water. I swim in the ocean when I can (in San Francisco it’s freezing most of the time, but whenever I’ve braved the low temps it’s been well worth it). I also never underestimate the healing power of a really good laugh because that can really heal the soul.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” — RUMI. I am huge fan of Rumi and I could give you a dozen quotes off of the top of my head that have supported me on my path, but this one I love so very much. It speaks to embracing the darkness, the challenge, and the tragedy, for it is what allows us to feel healing. Pain isn’t to be ignored or avoided, it is a part of the natural order of life. It connects us to humanity and shows us light, enhancing our lives.

You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I am not one for huge movements or trying to influence a herd- like mentality. Those kinds of words scare me! It makes me think of cults, which seem to be on the rise and are extraordinarily dangerous. So, if I had to inspire any kind of movement, I guess it would simply be to inspire empathy.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Well without a doubt that would be ‘Prince’… but, may he rest in peace, I will have to settle for having him in my dreams. Which, incidentally, he does seem to inhabit fairly regularly! As for lunch with the living — probably Linda Perry or Greta Gerwig. Linda because her music has been on the sound track of my life (just like ‘Prince’) for many, many years. Her singular voice and individuality as a musician, a songwriter, a singer, a producer, and a collaborator… she’s the bomb. And Greta so she can tell me step by step how she got her first film (Ladybird) made. She’s my spirit animal!

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

Yes — Instagram @RedDonovan https://www.instagram.com/reddonovan/, Twitter @RedDonovan https://twitter.com/RedDonovan , Facebook Elisa.Donovan https://www.facebook.com/elisa.donovan/

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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