Bursting Your Assumptions with Actress Elisa Donovan!


Actress Elisa Donovan

This week I sat down with actress and author Elisa Donovan. She has been apart of cultural phenomenons including Clueless, 90210, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. We sat down to talk about how she has navigated working in an industry known for their gender inequality and what lessons she has learned along her journey.

As a female in an industry known for inherent sexism, what have you learned and has that impacted how you raise a daughter in today’s climate?

The Me Too movement made me reframe so much of my experience. All through my twenties, I had a lot of success but I never felt fulfilled or respected. The roles that I played were all predominantly the pretty, dumb girls. But I was the actor that showed up to set early and had creative ideas, wanted to make things better. For the most part, my ideas and questions were met with eye rolls. I didn’t realize how it made me feel small, like I wasn’t doing something that was worthy. I was achieving a thing that is really difficult to do, being in a successful show or film, and yet I thought, why am I not happy?

When I looked back, I realized it was because I was basically told to shut up most of the time. To just put on my short skirt and say my lines. If there was a male actor that had a suggestion or wanted to ask the producers about why something was written this way, he was looked at as proactive or committed to his work. But when I would do it, I was looked at as a little difficult or needy. When I think about this stuff for my daughter, I am hopeful that the shift is happening. At least the conversation is on the table now and the awareness is already there.

Elisa Donovan CluelessIt is an interesting point that you almost didn’t realize the unequal treatment even though it was so prevalent because as a woman you were taught that treatment was okay

Yes, it was just the norm.  As women, when we walk into any room we are managing a host of things. We have to look appealing, make everyone feel at ease, don’t be too overpowering, but make them like you, be smart but not too smart, etc. We’re balancing all of these things just to try to be heard and be on equal footing with men. It’s interesting, when I started Sabrina the Teenage Witch, it was it was different though. Melissa’s mom was the executive producer of the show and having a woman in that position made it different. There were a lot of women as department heads.

There are male producers that I have worked with over the years whom I consider friends. But when it came to me wanting to direct, they said “she doesn’t she doesn’t really want to do that. She doesn’t know how to do that.” I’ve worked so hard for these people over 20 years and to just be so shot down was really upsetting. Now I have a film in development that I wrote that is based on my book that’s coming out and I’m directing it. It’s thrilling to have producers who believe that I am equipped and capable, and not just brush me off like I’m some little girl wanting to have a big boy’s job.

Actress in CluelessYou have been in so many cultural phenomenon’s, How has that impacted you?

I would be lying if I said it hasn’t had any real impact on me.  It’s definitively embedded in who I am and how most people in the world see me. They have a lot of preconceived ideas about my life and about who I am. I have the opportunity to show people that we’re just like everybody else. It is odd because it creates this layer to me. I know when I meet someone, if they immediately recognize me and then they don’t know what to do, I shift. I just am a little bit less myself, a little bit more guarded. At the same time, it’s a great gift to be a part of something that has brought so much joy to so many people. I’m incredibly grateful, it has allowed me to do so many other things.

How do you approach situations with people that have preconceived ideas of you?

I really go back to that authenticity idea that I don’t have to be better than I am.  I just have to be genuine. And most of the time, I have found that people respond really positively to that because it allows them to be at ease. It allows them to be comfortable and not feel like they’re supposed to do or be something different themselves.

Clueless actressHas there been an experience you have face that has shifted how you fundamentally see the world?

Absolutely, the first one was when I was in high school. I had a mentor, John Gavriluk, who was an experimental theater teacher. Mr. Gavriluk put up posters around the school that he was going to create a play about the AIDS crisis and I auditioned for it. This was in the late 80s and my uncle had passed away from AIDS several years before, very early on in the epidemic. It was an improvisational play and the cast wound up writing this piece with him. It was this extraordinary experience where I began to understand who I was both as an actress and a writer and a creative person with a voice. I started to formulate my identity as an artist. I understood that being an actress isn’t just about putting on someone else’s clothes and saying words— you actually have the ability to affect people’s lives.

The second thing was losing my dad to cancer when I was thirty-one. Over the course of a really short period of time the TV show that I was on got canceled, the relationship I was in with the guy I thought I was going to marry ended and then my dad got cancer and died. I was stripped of everything that I had clung to as my identity: my sense of purpose, my sense of safety and joy. I’m leading a very different life today than I would have, had I not gone through what I did. The whole process transformed me.

When you felt you were stripped to your core, how did you start to rebuild your life into what it is now?

It was such a long process and incredibly painful. But I found that through losing everything, I actually let go. I let go of the idea of what I thought I was supposed to be doing. I ended up moving to Spain for a period of time and I went on all of these different journeys. Ultimately, I came back to my core, and knew that I would always be an artist. I can leave L.A. if I want to, but that doesn’t mean I leave who I am. It became clear to me that I didn’t want to disappear because it was still vital to me to fulfill my creative life. That’s one of my purposes in life.

ActressDid that experience change how you viewed success?

I think as we mature, our idea of success changes. That time period specifically though, made me look at success through a very different lens. I started to see success as truly fulfilling my souls’ purpose. Success is not quantifiable by any singular thing, it’s about your life put together as a whole. Sure there are some elements of success that are public and more literal. For example, I have a book coming out. Do I want people to buy the book? Well, of course I want people to buy the book. That will certainly be a part of my success— it’s something I’m very proud of. But overall, it’s more about the relationships in my life and whether I’m fulfilling myself in an authentic way.

When people are able to reach a true level of authenticity it also changes the relationships around you. Going into conversations vulnerable tends to draw that same level of trust from the other person.

When we are vulnerable, we are inviting others to be as well. It’s like you’re giving people permission to be honest. There is great power in that. We have to be vulnerable in order to grow and have meaningful experiences in life. But historically, when women reveal vulnerabilities it’s often considered whining or crying or being ‘too emotional’. When in actuality, we are just passionate about getting our point across. Expressing feelings about things that are of value and mean something to you is not whining, it’s being alive and present in your life. It’s showing that you care what happens.

Elisa Donovan familyWhat values in your life do you want to pass on to your daughter?

Resiliency, empathy, kindness, a strong work ethic. We send her to an all girls school so that she grows up seeing that girls can do and be anything. Girls are the scientists. They’re the athletes, the artists, the engineers, the leaders. They do it all. And her individuality is valued greatly. I don’t want her growing up thinking there are certain things that girls do and certain things that they don’t do. We live in San Francisco and she is in second grade now. But from the start of kindergarten her school has taught her about inclusivity and diversity. She’s learning about the Black Lives Matter movement and how black people have been oppressed for centuries. She is learning to be curious about and to celebrate differences in culture, religion, skin color. I think learning these kinds of lessons from a young age is so important.  People are not born racist and afraid, those are taught and learned beliefs and behaviors. She is also learning about important women in history who have changed the world— Katherine Johnson, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Marie Tharp, the list goes on.

mother and daughterThat makes me hopeful for the next generation because I know I never had the opportunity to learn things like that at school and it is so important.

I certainly did not grow up being taught those things in school. I grew up as a white, Catholic, upper middle class kid in the suburbs on Long Island. Then when I moved to New York City right out of high school, my experience changed dramatically. From an early age, my daughter is learning about inclusivity so I’m really hopeful for the future.

When you leave a conversation, what do you want people to feel and remember about you?

I want them to feel happy that we had the time together. I want them to feel like I’m an authentic person and someone who brings light to them.

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