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Illeana Douglas at the Streamy Awards, 2009
July 25, 1965
Illeana Douglas at the Streamy Awards, 2009
July 25, 1965
Illeana Douglas (born July 25, 1965) is an American actress, director, screenwriter, and producer.
Douglas was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, the daughter of Joan Hesselberg (née Georgescu), a schoolteacher, and Gregory Hesselberg, a painter. Douglas had two older brothers, the late Stefan Gregor Hesselberg, a technician in the histology laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also trained racehorses in Verona, Italy, and Erik Hesselberg, a journalist. Douglas grew up in Connecticut, but said that really she grew up all over, in Massachusetts (where her father lived), Connecticut (where her mother lived), and New York (where her extended family lived), going back and forth between relatives for summers during her youth.
Douglas said that her parents were heavily influenced by the 1970s hippy culture—her father especially by the movie, Easy Rider—and parented with an artsy philosophy, where the kids were not pressured to go to college. Comedy albums were really big in her family. The family would put on dramatic interpretations and performances.
Douglas' mother's side is Italian and Catholic and were from Astoria, Queens near Ditmars Boulevard in New York City. Her maternal grandmother worked at Gertz', in the department store's restaurant in Astoria and her maternal grandfather was a welder. Douglas said that her maternal grandmother was a former Rockette, had really wanted to be an actor and dreamed of being in show business, so she instilled in Douglas a love for the movies, taking her to the movies all the time as a child.
Douglas' father's side is German-Jewish on paternal great grandfather's side, and Southern on her paternal great grandmother's side. As a child she would visit her grandfather, the actor Melvyn Douglas, in his apartment in Manhattan on the Upper West Side as well as his beautiful mansion on Senalda Road off Outpost Drive in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles. In contrast to her half summers with her maternal grandmother in Queens, Douglas said her summers with Melvyn Douglas were about experiencing with him his love of theater and elocution and reading, art, and history.
Douglas paternal grandfather was the actor Melvyn Douglas from his first marriage to artist Rosalind Hightower. Douglas has said that her grandfather's performance in Being There, in particular, was influential on her own career. Douglas said that her grandfather and Peter Sellers both served in the U.S. Army, had "met in the 1940s in Burma (during World War II) and met again in London during the '60s.... They often reminisced about the war days while on the set." During high school Douglas visited the movie set while they were shooting on location in Asheville, North Carolina and got to meet Peter Sellers, a very big deal to her as she was already a big fan of from his movies. It was the first time she was on a film set.
Douglas said that growing up she was both an insider and an outsider, which is reflected in her career, that there was a contrast between her working-class Italian roots and the glamorous Hollywood world of her paternal side of her family. Famous people like Myrna Loy, Gore Vidal, Gloria Steinem, politicians, writers, and others were always around in a salon-type world. Even so, Douglas said she feels more Italian than the other side of her family, that she developed more "rhythms and ways" from the Italian side of her family because she spent more time with that part of her family in Queens, but also had the contrast of a childhood based on the shoreline of Connecticut, in the Old Saybrook area. Douglas said it took her a long time to figure out the contrasting diversity, to put both halves of her family upbringing together.
In 1981, after graduating from high school, Douglas moved to New York City when she was 17 years old. Obsessed with the movies from her childhood, Douglas said she wanted to be in show business. She stayed with relatives in various temporary arrangements. Douglas attended American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she was a contemporary of the Canadian actor, Elias Koteas, and Lou Mustillo (Mike and Molly). Lou Mustillo and Douglas, after the first year, were not asked back to school.
After this, when she was 18, Douglas went to work for Steve Rubell at the hotel called Morgans. While there, Douglas decided to reinvent herself and began attending Neighborhood Playhouse, where she said she really found herself and studied with the acting teacher, Richard Pinter.
She was in a sketch comedy group called Manhattan Punchline and while she was doing that one of the troupe members suggested she try stand-up comedy. Douglas briefly worked as a stand-up comic at Stand Up New York, the writing and acting part was not a problem, but she found the performing very difficult. Douglas said the other women were doing very graphic comedy she didn't care for and she didn't really like the lifestyle.
On getting the role: "I was working for a publicist named Peggy Siegal, and I had given my picture and résumé to Martin Scorsese’s casting director." Nothing came of that but "I’m working for Peggy Siegal, and down the hall, they’re doing the editing for Last Temptation. One day, Marty’s assistant—this girl named Julia Judge, who had gotten me the job working for Peggy—said, 'You’re an actress, right? They’re looking for someone to dub screams for Mary Magdalene.' And I said, 'It says right on my résumé: "Special skills: bloodcurdling scream"'—because you have to have something funny or interesting to get a job. Sure enough, she’s like, 'Can you come down at 5 and just, like, scream for Marty?' So that’s how I met everybody. I met Thelma [Schoonmaker], Michael Powell was there. It was insane. They were all sitting there in the dark, and they’re like, 'Well, let’s hear it.' So I did my scream, and they all laughed and applauded. They said, 'That’s horrible! How do you do that?' I said, 'I work for a publicist. It’s pretty easy.' They laughed and said, 'We’re doing this thing tonight. Can you come by? It’s no money. Just doing crowd voices.' So I ended up doing all these different crowd voices—you know, 'Kill the Romans!' and stuff like that. The next day, I did my scream for the burning of Jerusalem scene, and then they just kept calling me again and saying, 'Could you do a couple of lines for Jesus’ mother?' Every time I’d come back, we would talk more and more about movies—you know, I’d quote something from Twentieth Century, and Marty was very impressed by that. I couldn’t figure out if they really needed me to do all these voices, or if it was just because of my vast knowledge of movies and Mel Brooks routines."
Douglas is known for her role in Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991) – one of four Scorsese films in which she has appeared – plus her starring role as singer-songwriter Denise Waverly in Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart (1996) and supporting roles in To Die For (1995) and Ghost World (2001).
Douglas said that when she worked on 1995's To Die For, the director Gus Van Sant taught her about the technical aspects of filmmaking: "He was an amazing teacher. I started learning all about the camera, how to clock your performance for different lenses, things like that." It was also a movie where she felt that the Meisner technique she learned at the Neighborhood Playhouse started to connect for her.
After Cape Fear, Douglas experienced a string of roles in films, but eventually getting cut out of them: "I did a movie called Household Saints and worked incredibly hard on it, but I was cut entirely from it. I did a Spike Lee movie (Jungle Fever), a Robert Redford movie (Quiz Show), Household Saints, and I got cut from all three of them. Oh, and another Woody Allen movie (Husbands And Wives), where I played Liam Neeson’s girlfriend. I got cut from every single part. It was kind of depressing. Marty gave me some advice. He said, 'I think you’re going to have the same problem that Joe Pesci has. You’re more interesting than the parts you play, and sometimes it’s great, but it almost takes you out of the movie. You should start developing relationships with directors.'"
Douglas did a low-budget movie called Grief that got into Sundance, which led to her meeting director Allison Anders. "We just gravitated toward each other, and just kept in contact to try to figure out something to work on. For months we tried to do the biography of Anne Sexton, but we were having problems with the rights, and it just didn’t work out. We’re both obsessed with music, and she was obsessed with girl groups. I said, 'You know, I worked at the Brill Building. Maybe we could do something about that.' It was a true collaboration in which I got to express a lot of things. So much of the movie is autobiographical from my point. It explored where my relationship was with Marty at the time. The Matt Dillon character is kind of like Marty."
On her first starring role as Denise Waverly née Edna Buxton in 1996's Grace of My Heart, where she plays a "singer‑songwriter from blue‑blooded suburban Philadelphia who finds herself writing teen anthems for ghetto girl group" Douglas drew parallels to the Connecticut of her youth and the many contradictions of her childhood. Allison Anders said, "The women I cast have to embody all sorts of contradictions.... I have to find the right woman to speak to other women. And Illeana just does, naturally."
On television, Douglas appeared briefly as Garry Shandling's love interest on The Larry Sanders Show, starred in the series Action (1999) with Jay Mohr, guest starred on Seinfeld, Frasier and The Drew Carey Show, and has played a public defender on several episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2002 and 2003. She appeared in two episodes of the critically acclaimed HBO TV-series Six Feet Under, both of which earned Emmy nominations for Guest Actress in a Drama. She also appeared as Mrs. Ari's sister Marci in the Season 7 finale of Entourage.
In 2006, she starred in the Lifetime TV film Not Like Everyone Else and played herself in Pittsburgh opposite Jeff Goldblum. In 2007, Douglas was added to the cast of Ugly Betty, playing Sheila, an editor for MODE magazine.
At the Walt Disney World Resort in the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park, Douglas plays Aerosmith's manager in the preshow video for the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster attraction. She later appeared in an Aerosmith music video as Liv Tyler's mother.
Douglas has written and directed a comedy short The Perfect Woman (1993) (a satire about what men really want from women), the documentary Everybody Just Stay Calm—Stories in Independent Filmmaking (1994), and the satire Boy Crazy, Girl Crazier (1995). She has been the producer for several projects including Illeanarama, a collection of her short films for the Sundance Channel.
For four and a half years, Douglas starred in a web series sponsored by IKEA called Easy to Assemble, where she plays herself as an actor-in-recovery-from-acting who goes to work at IKEA. Douglas said the show was a metaphor for "disassembling myself, then putting myself back together, and then realizing the best role I never played was myself. I fused finally these different elements of myself." Douglas said that Ikea "gave her great autonomy, asking her only to keep the content family-friendly."
Douglas and the comedian Sarah Sweet produced and co-starred in a series professional variety shows called The Living Room Show, that is hosted in various Los Angeles living rooms. The shows are described thusly: "In exchange for free entertainment, the couple had promised to provide dinner (courtesy of one of the city’s ubiquitous taco caterers) and drinks for 60 guests plus the performers and assorted friends. No money would change hands."
Douglas worked on a Turner Classic Movies series called Friday Night Spotlight, a prime-time show featuring a month-long festival of movies programmed by special guests. The season she was on focused on the theme, "Second Looks," featuring "films that were not highly regarded during their original release but now seem ripe for reappraisal." Douglas said that curating, writing, and working on this series was able to take her vast movie knowledge and put it into a show, making it funny and entertaining and informative. Douglas said, "It was the first time in my career that was the actual representation of me."
Douglas spent time in Sweden shooting a TV show called Welcome to Sweden, which is produced by Amy Poehler and stars Lena Olin and Will Farrell. A co-Swedish/American production that will air on Swedish TV but will be sold on Netflix.
After breaking up with Scorsese, getting married and then divorced, and after spending a long time living in Los Angeles, Douglas said she "hit bottom" emotionally and financially. Douglas said at that point she moved back to her roots, moving back to New York. She started writing and tried to figure out who she was, very painful, she said it took about 10 years of re-examining what was it she wanted to do with the second half of her career. She asked herself the questions: Where did the writing go, where did the comedy go? She started taking acting classes again at Neighborhood Playhouse and dancing classes, hearkening back to a time when she really felt like she knew who she was, going back to the beginning, starting from scratch, and re-defined her goals. Douglas did some theater work, and decided to write and direct and do comedy again, finding her voice again.
Douglas is a vegetarian.
|1987||Hello Again||Mother in park|
|1988||The Last Temptation of Christ||Crowd member|
|1989||New York Stories||Paulette's friend|
|1991||Guilty by Suspicion||Nan|
|1991||Cape Fear||Lori Davis|
|1993||Alive: The Miracle of the Andes||Liliana Methol|
|1993||Household Saints||Evelyn Santangelo|
|1994||Quiz Show||Woman at book party|
|1995||Search and Destroy||Marie Davenport|
|1995||To Die For||Janice Maretto||Nominated—Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress|
|1996||Wedding Bell Blues||Jasmine|
|1996||Grace of My Heart||Denise Waverly|
|1997||Picture Perfect||Darcy O'Neil|
|1997||Weapons of Mass Distraction||Rita Pasco||Television movie|
|1997||Rough Riders||Edith Roosevelt||Television movie|
|1997||Bella Mafia||Teresa Scorpio Luciano||Television movie|
|1998||The Thin Pink Line||Julia Bullock|
|1999||Stir of Echoes||Lisa Weil|
|1999||Happy, Texas||Doreen Schaefer|
|1999||Message in a Bottle||Lina Paul||Nominated—Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Supporting Actress – Drama|
|1999||Lansky||Anna Lansky||Television movie|
|1999||Rock 'n' Roller Coaster||Band manager||Short film|
|2000||The Next Best Thing||Elizabeth Ryder|
|2001||Ghost World||Roberta Allsworth|
|2002||The New Guy||Kiki Pierce|
|2002||Point of Origin||Kate||Television movie|
|2002||The Adventures of Pluto Nash||Dr. Mona Zimmer|
|2003||The Kiss||Joyce Rothman|
|2003||Missing Brendan||Julie Conroy|
|2005||The Californians||Olive Ransom|
|2006||Not Like Everyone Else||Toni Blackbear||Television movie|
|2006||Factory Girl||Diana Vreeland|
|2006||The Bondage||Elaine Edwards|
|2007||Walk the Talk||Jill|
|2007||Order Up||Waitress||Short film|
|2008||The Year of Getting to Know Us||Christine Jacobson|
|2009||Life Is Hot in Cracktown||Mommy|
|1995||Homicide: Life on the Street||Gina Doolen||Episode: "Autofocus"|
|1995||The Single Guy||Martha||Episode: "Sister"|
|1998||Seinfeld||Loretta||Episode: "The Strong Box"|
|1999||Brother's Keeper||Ginny||Episode: "Dating the Teacher"|
|1999–2000||Action||Wendy Ward||13 episodes|
Satellite Award for Best Actress – Television Series Musical or Comedy
|2001||Frasier||Kenny's wife||Episode: "Hungry Heart"|
|2001||The Drew Carey Show||Rachel Murray||2 episodes|
|2001–2005||Six Feet Under||Angela||3 episodes|
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series
|2002–2003||Law & Order: Special Victims Unit||Gina Bernardo||3 episodes|
|2006–2007||Shark||Gloria Dent||2 episodes|
|2007||Ugly Betty||Sheila||3 episodes|
|2008||Law & Order: Criminal Intent||Beverly Tyson||Episode: "Contract"|
|2008–2012||Easy to Assemble||Illeana||48 episodes|
|2011||The Cape||Netta Stilton||2 episodes|
|2013||Drop Dead Diva||Dr. Reza||Episode: "The Kiss"|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Illeana Douglas.|