She’s that unforgettable 90s redhead that made the “whatever” hand sign a thing, as she remains a timeless hot topic of pop culture conversation. Now, Elisa Donovan is working hard to create new projects that are much more personal to her and a far cry from her well-known “Amber” character made famous in the 1995 hit film Clueless, which followed the comedic adventures of a group of Beverly Hills high school rich kids.
Elisa has penned a new book titled Wake Me When You Leave, a personal memoir surrounding life-changing moments and experiences that have helped give her life more clarity, direction and purpose. “So in very close succession, I had my father diagnosed with cancer and die, Sabrina [the Teenage Witch] was cancelled and the relationship that I was in with the person I thought I was going to marry ended,” Elisa reveals to me at Forbes. “All of these things happened one after another. My whole life essentially fell apart. Everything that made my life make sense to me, everything that gave me a sense of accomplishment and peace and joy was just completely gone. So, I started this journey that I didn’t choose to go on or I didn’t know I needed to have and it really shifted my whole life. I needed to re-evaluate what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be, where I wanted to live. Through the grief process, my dad started to come to me in dreams and these other worldly waking experiences that really shifted my life and it helped me to heal. So, I hope it does the same for other people.”
After going on this emotional journey, I felt it was appropriate to ask Elisa what she would like to say to her late father today. “That’s a great question. Nobody’s actually asked me that. There are many ways that my dad comes to me, but these days, it’s primarily I see hummingbirds all the time. There is a hummingbird outside of my window pretty much every time before I start any interview and I feel like he is so with me. I think I would want to say to him I hope he is really proud of me and I hope that he feels I did him justice. I hope that he feels like I really understand him and I hope he feels the gratitude I feel for him, having been my dad.”
Even as Elisa’s book is in the height of its release, she is already in the process of turning her shared experiences within Wake Me When You Leave into a narrative destined for the big screen. “The film version of my book is in development that I am attached to direct and I wrote the screenplay for,” Elisa continues. “I am over the moon with excitement about that. We are raising the money now. We are hoping to have the funding in place, so that we can shoot by the fall.”
Elisa knows that a lot of the success she has had throughout her career (additional credits including Beverly Hills, 90210 and A Night at the Roxbury) and the opportunities in front of her today would not have been possible without the ongoing success and popularity of Clueless and her sharply comedic performance as the often times “frenemy” character of “Amber.” Clueless made a modest $56 million dollars at the box office during the summer and fall of 1995, but the film’s real longevity is in large thanks to more than two decades of film sales (VHS, DVD and Blu-ray), endless cable television airings and now its video streaming accessibility. Those effects have allowed Clueless to maintain an unprecedented loyalty with its original fans, while newer generations are discovering this beloved comedy. Now 26 years since the world was first introduced to this iconic teen film, the cinematic impact this project continues to have on society is not lost on Elisa. “I am consistently shocked at how much this film has resonated with people and continues to over the years and I feel like it’s getting a second, third, fourth life now. There’s all this affinity for the 90s and I think it just represents this time of real joy and colors and comedy. People still come up to me today and that’s a nice thing. It’s wonderful to be a part of something that people have such a love for.”
Elisa was only 24 years old when Clueless was released in theaters and she went on to play that role for three television seasons of a continuing Clueless storyline from 1996 through 1999. When asked if she has ever experienced any difficultly getting new roles since, when filmmakers and fans could only see her as “Amber” after all this time, Elisa (who is now 50) says, “Oh for sure, but I think that happens. The blessing and the curse of being in something that makes a major imprint on people is that they think that’s who you are and they want you to do that again and again and again. It was a big challenge for me to get out of that. Very frustrating, yes, but at the same time, I always had gratitude for it because these were successful projects that brought me other successful projects. When we’re younger, we have a harder time metabolizing everything, so I look at things differently now that I’m older. People go their whole careers without ever having anything that anyone sees and I have had this great fortune of being a part of some of these really iconic projects, so I feel pretty good about it now.”
For those that might wonder where “Amber” would be today in 2021, Elisa has a pretty good idea. “I’m sure she would be bossing a lot of people around. I always imagined that she’s probably running her own fashion line. A very avante-garde, wildly expensive and unaffordable line of clothing. She’s probably married to an absurdly wealthy man and driving him crazy (laughs).”
Being thrown into the spotlight of Hollywood at a young age, Elisa experienced firsthand the demands and pressures of being a promising actress, new to the industry. Now as a new author, seasoned actress and upcoming filmmaker, Elisa has some words of encouragement for young Hollywood women in her shoes today. “I would say the single most important thing is to stay true to yourself and what I mean by that is the way to become successful is to be who you are. I would say never compromise your moral barometer and don’t ever give up. Don’t let anybody make you feel like you’re not good enough.”