Elisa Donovan

by Eirik Knutzen | Sep 10, 2001
Elisa Donovan In 1994, Elisa Donovan dropped out of college, gave up her New York apartment, turned down an off-Broadway play, declined a major daytime soap opera and moved to Los Angeles. In sunny Southern California, she knew only one person, was short on cash, had nowhere to live and there were no immediate prospects for a job. One week later, she nailed down the recurring character of Tanya on the last season of the sitcom "Blossom" (1991-95).

A whole month later, she was cast as the extremely fashion-conscious Amber Princess Mariens in the hit feature film "Clueless" (1995). Just weeks after the boffo box office opener, Donovan was signed for the comedy series version of "Clueless" (1996-98) - reprising her big screen role of Amber. Suddenly, she was moving down the fast track with blazing speed.

Working flat-out with no time for socializing, she was only dimly aware that a severe case of anorexia was creeping up on her.

"It was a slow process, but once it started, it snowballed," says Donovan, 27, who now co-stars as the incredibly self-centered Morgan Cavanaugh on "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch" (Fri., 8-8:30 p.m. The WB).

In two years, the lithe, 5-foot-6 actress saw her weight shrink from a healthy 125 pounds to an emaciated 93 pounds.

"I looked like a stick figure with an enormous head. I can laugh about it now, but it was the most painful experience I have ever gone through."

None of Donovan`s friends were particularly surprised when she ended up deathly ill in the hospital.

"I finally had to make some decisions or I would lose my life soon," she recalls. "To do so, I had to admit that I had a problem and that I could lose my job because of it. I could lose everything I had worked for overnight. It was very frightening."

Thinking clearly, Donovan took stock of the situation and decided to save her career.

"I just didn`t want to screw up, now that I had finally earned some success. Normally, this would not be a lasting reason to change something in your life, but it worked for me. It was then and there that I started the extremely slow and uncomfortable recovery process; my life had become totally unmanageable and unfulfilling because of the anorexia."

Shaken, but determined as ever, Donovan climbed out of her hospital bed and went back to work with a vengeance. Besides a slew of series guest shots, she appeared in the recurring role of Ginger LaMonica on "Beverly Hills, 90210," then segued into such telefilm and motion picture projects as "Encino Woman," "A Night at The Roxbury," "Pop," "Best Actress" and the upcoming "Liars Club."

The daughter of a homemaker and a telephone company executive, Donovan was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and reared with the upper middle-class horsey set in Northport, Long Island, along with a sister and a brother. Playing a bad man, Ralph Rotten, in a first-grade production of "Westward Ho Ho Ho" sealed her fate.

"I had a wonderful time acting," she says, "but I had no idea that you could do it for a living until I was in high school."

She had a great time at Northport High, where she competed in gymnastics while taking private dance and acting lessons. After watching her favorite uncle dying slowly of AIDS, Donovan became involved with a local avant garde troupe called The Little Theatre when it staged "Safe" (an early play about AIDS) under the direction of John Gavriluk - who quickly became her friend and mentor.

"I was terribly affected by the way medical professionals treated my uncle at the time," she says softly. "They knew little about treating AIDS and how to avoid infection. The orderlies left the food outside my uncle`s room and the nurses refused to bring it inside. My mother, devastated, was there to make sure her brother was fed and cared for. Dealing with all these things creatively in `Safe` solidified my notion of what to do with my life. Acting could truly affect people."

After high school, Donovan decided to take a year off before enrolling in college. She made ends meet working in bars and restaurants while studying full time at the Michael Chekhov acting studio in Manhattan. A handful of off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway roles provided plenty of experience and no money. Her professional acting debut came a few months later, with a regional TV commercial for a steak house chain that paid $500.

"It was fun and exciting, even though it was a low-budget, non-union thing," she recalls. "A real problem was that I`m a vegetarian - it was quite an acting job to hold a plate with a huge, glazed steak on it for 16 hours and talking about how fabulous it was when it was actually making me nauseous. I`ve only done a handful of commercials since, including an American Express spot with Jerry Seinfeld, which you can hardly see me in. They give me residuals anyway, so it`s brilliant."

Basically broke, Donovan finally went to college with her parents` blessings and financial support. A diligent student, she spent the next 3 1/2 years at New York`s Eugene Lang College at the New School for Social Research plowing through classical literature, acting and writing. With only one semester before obtaining a bachelor of arts degree, she dropped out to take part in a terrible play at Manhattan`s La Mama - then kept going until she hit Los Angeles.

A perennial student, she is continuing her studies with highly respected Hollywood acting coach Larry Moss. Looking to buy a house in the Hollywood Hills, she is currently renting a flat in Central Hollywood. Ideally, her next home will be freeway close and no more than 20 minutes from all the major studios. She also needs a spacious garden for her dog, Zulie, a Rhodesian Ridgeback.

"Single, never married, widowed or divorced - though I have some scars from close relationships," Donovan claims that she is not in the market for romantic entanglements at the moment.

"I have a lot of freedom right now and I like it. I took some time off this summer to work and play, traveling between L.A., Las Vegas, Key West and New York to do press things and see friends and relatives. At home, I love reading, visiting museums, hiking, horseback riding and going salsa dancing (she appeared in the NSync music video "I Drive Myself Crazy"). Unfortunately, I`m a really horrible singer."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Eirik Knutzen


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