Clueless's Elisa Donovan reveals how ageism has very dangerous consequences
Elisa Donovan is an amazing actor.
We know this because although she became famous for acting materialistic and kind of mean — but in a funny way, with characters like Cher's fashion nemesis Amber in Clueless and Morgan on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch — when SheKnows got a chance to talk to her about her latest project, The Dog Who Saved Summer, we discovered Donovan is nothing like the characters she so flawlessly pulled off in the past. A far cry from materialistic or mean, instead we found her to be funny, down-to-earth and passionate about her views on gender bias in the entertainment industry.
Donovan will be the first to admit that there's a possibility she might have pulled off her mean-girl characters a little too well and it lead to her being stereotyped into that "Amber" sort of role. "It's a funny thing. You think you get cast in something and these people like it and you do well, that means you're a good actor," Donovan said. "But people think, 'No, that's who she is,' so then that's all they want you to do... That's a challenging thing to go through, but you just roll with it and keep doing other things and then eventually as you start to shift and change, people slowly will allow you to do other things. And then the next thing you know, you're playing nice people!" she added with a laugh.
So roll with it Donovan did, and she was able to break through her typecasting to play more dynamic characters. Getting people to let go of the previous image of her didn't come without a fight, however, and she is far from clueless when it comes to issues of sexism in the industry and the risk it poses for future generations.
On the dangers of ageism in Hollywood
Donovan began to notice ageism in her own career when she was in her early 30s, attending a casting for a pilot, and found herself in a roomful of women her own age who were all vying for the role of a mother to a child in their late teens. "We were going, 'Well, wait a second. How can I? What, I had a baby when I was 12?'" she said, adding that she thinks ageism is probably an even bigger hurdle for the leading ladies of film because of the lack of major movie roles for women. "I think the way to respond to those things without internalizing them and starting to do weird things to your face is to really embrace it and talk about it," she said. "To be verbal in public."
Referencing fellow actor Frances McDormand in a 2014 interview in which McDormand revealed she had been told how important it is for young women to see her face and hear her voice, Donovan concurred with the impact of having positive female images that don't fit the Hollywood cookie-cutter mold.
"If we don't create images for young girls of diverse women, of diverse size, of diverse backgrounds who age gracefully, who age as you do in life, I think we're creating a very dangerous standard and a very limited one that truly focuses on the wrong things," said Donovan. "It doesn't mean that we all just have to let ourselves go and be unhealthy. That's the furthest thing from what I mean, because clearly I take care of myself and it matters to me how I appear, but it simply can't be the primary focus. It just can't."
On sexism in the industry
For Donovan, a light was shone on just how rampant sexism is in Hollywood after she did the voice-over on Sheryl Sandberg's audiobook for Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Sandberg's words made Donovan reflect back on her early career and how she had been the victim of sexism without even really realizing it. "I have always been a thinking actor and somebody who wants to make things as good as they can be and really kind of explore all the areas. And oftentimes, when you have ideas as a woman, they are disregarded," she said. "I had this feeling of, 'Oh, this was why so much of my 20s were so difficult in a way.' It's because I felt this constant, 'Mmm, OK, well that's great. We'll do that later, can you just say your lines now?' It's this insidious thing where — no one was ever obscene or anything like that to me — but there is a certain amount of dismissal."
Sexism in Hollywood is a very real thing that exists, but Donovan is optimistic for change. "I'm just so excited there are so many women's stories coming forward," she said. "It's really exciting. It's a really exciting time, because we're multitaskers. We have the ability to have very interesting stories and very multifaceted stories. So I'm just excited that people are talking about it and putting it out in the open and calling people out. I think the consciousness is changing and that's always the first part of any real shift."
For her part, Donovan is helping fight sexism by leading by example. She continues to thrive in the industry and has served as coproducer on The Dog Who Saved Summer as well as The Dog Who Saved Easter, two films of six in the fun family franchise she has starred in. She also produced and starred in the popular web-based NBC comedy series In Gayle We Trust, which ran from 2009 to 2011.
"It's really the truth, it's not a lie — I do think this is the best one," Donovan said about the latest installment in the Dog Who Saved series, which also stars Dean Cain, Gary Valentine, and Mario Lopez as the voice of the dog. "There's an homage to the Karate Kid. Martin Kove is in it, who played the mean sensei teacher in Karate Kid and it's a really, really funny angle."
You can get The Dog Who Saved Summer on DVD now. Check out the trailer below.