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A character actress possessed of inarguable talent, Illeana Douglas was one of the more versatile performers to emerge on film in the early 1990s. After small contributions to a few of director Martin Scorsese's films, including "GoodFellas" (1990), the actress grabbed the attention of audiences with her gutsy performance opposite Robert De Niro in "Cape Fear" (1991). She followed with a plethora of supporting roles, among them turns in the survival tale "Alive" (1993) and Gus Van Sant's dark satire "To Die For" (1995). As a lead, Douglas was impressive and impassioned in the music industry-set "Grace of My Heart" (1996), and later flexed her comedic muscles as the classic "hooker with a heart of gold" in the woefully underappreciated comedy series "Action" (Fox, 1999). Occasionally, she ventured behind the camera for such efforts as "Stories of Lost Souls" (2005), for which she directed the segment entitled "Supermarket." As an actress, she continually sought off-kilter indie films like the horror-comedy "Otis" (2008) and collaborated on personal projects such as the web series "Easy to Assemble" (2008- ), a fictionalized comedic version of her life, which she wrote, directed and starred in. Equally adept at eliciting either tears or laughter, at ease in a supporting role and more than capable of carrying the lead, time and again Douglas proved herself a welcome addition to any production.
Born Illeana Hesselberg on July 25, 1965 in Quincy, MA, she was the youngest child and only daughter of educators Gregory and Joan Douglas, and grand-daughter of Academy Award-winning screen legend Melvyn Douglas. Growing up in a self-described bohemian household in Connecticut after her parents' divorce, Douglas was enthralled with film and theater from an early age. Having performed in grade school productions and done a bit of stand-up comedy as a teenager, she left for New York at age 18 and began studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Neighborhood Playhouse. She later embarked on a NYC stage career, acting in "Takes on Woman" and "As Sure as You Live" with the Naked Angels theater company. While working as an assistant to publicist Peggy Siegel, Douglas - who had thus far only picked up some uncredited film work in the romantic comedy "Hello, Again" (1987) - had already auditioned for and been rejected for a small role in director Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988). As luck would have it, Scorsese's production office was located on the same floor as Siegel's in New York, and when they were looking for someone who could provide a good scream for some post-production sound dubbing on the film, the director's assistant recalled a specific talent Douglas had placed on her résumé - "great legs, bloodcurdling scream." She was called in, screamed as advertised, and was given several bits of background voice work. Douglas had scored her big break.
Although turned away by co-director Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese subsequently gave Douglas a bit of actual screen time when he cast her as Rosanna Arquette's friend in his segment of "New York Stories" (1989), alongside two other vignettes helmed by Coppola and Woody Allen. A highly influential figure in her life, Scorsese would not only go on to become a mentor of the young actress, but a longtime romantic interest as well, after the pair began seeing each other during the filming of "New York Stories." Scorsese next cast her as one of psychotic gangster Tommy DeVito's (Joe Pesci) many girlfriends in his seminal mob drama, "GoodFellas" (1990). The following year, Douglas was seen briefly as the secretary of movie mogul Daryl Zanuck in Irwin Winkler's McCarthy-era drama "Guilty by Suspicion" (1991), which starred Robert De Niro as a film director placed on the dreaded "black list" of the 1950s. It was, however, in another Scorsese film that same year that the young actress was given her breakout role. Cast as a pawn in a deadly game of revenge and brutally abused by psalm-quoting ex-convict Max Cady (De Niro), Douglas employed her trademark bloodcurdling scream to devastating effect in one of the more disconcerting scenes in "Cape Fear" (1991), the intense remake of a 1962 thriller by the same title.
Two years later, Douglas played one of the initial survivors of a plane crash in the Andes Mountains in the harrowing docudrama "Alive" (1993), followed by a turn as an ambitious secretary in the indie comedy "Grief" (1993), a backstage look at the creation of a fictional tabloid TV show, "The Love Judge." Looking to exploit her comic sensibilities in addition to her firsthand knowledge of the travails of movie making on a budget, Douglas directed and appeared in the satirical documentary "Everybody Just Stay Calm: Stories in Independent Filmmaking" (IFC, 1994). With her nascent career picking up momentum, she landed a small role (as did Scorsese) in the Robert Redford-directed "Quiz Show" (1994), and was charming as an aspiring screenwriter and mistress to a self-help expert (Dennis Hopper) in the low-budget "Search and Destroy" (1995), co-produced by Scorsese. More notable that year was the critical attention she received for her work in director Gus Van Sant's pitch black satire "To Die For" (1995). As the sharp-tongued, ice-skating lesbian sister of Matt Dillon, hers was the only character who saw his wife (Nicole Kidman) as the sociopathic opportunist she truly was from the very beginning.
Douglas made her television acting debut in a 1995 guest-spot on the acclaimed crime drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC, 1993-99), and later played Jonathan Silverman's abrasive, on-again/off-again girlfriend, Martha, during the first season of "The Single Guy" (NBC, 1995-97). Douglas returned to theaters with her most prominent role thus far, as a gifted songwriter struggling to find her own voice in the male-dominated music industry of the 1960s and '70s in writer-director Allison Anders' "Grace of My Heart" (1996), a pop music laced drama, co-starring Matt Dillon and John Turturro, and executive produced by Scorsese. Beginning to divide her efforts between film and television in equal measure, other small screen credits included the Larry Gelbart-scripted media satire "Weapons of Mass Distraction" (HBO, 1997), the feminine crime miniseries "Bella Mafia" (CBS, 1997) and "Rough Riders" (TNT, 1997), another miniseries in which she truly shone as U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt's wife, Edith. Douglas made a strong showing in the role of a corporate cutthroat and best friend of Jennifer Aniston in the romantic comedy "Picture Perfect" (1997), then continued in best friend mode alongside Robin Wright Penn in "Message in a Bottle" (1999), adapted from the best-selling tearjerker by Nicholas Sparks.
Not surprisingly a favorite among indie directors, Douglas provided some of the more memorable moments in the comedy "Happy, Texas" (1999), as a quirkily-attired school teacher. Back on television, she garnered some of the best notices of her career playing a former child star-turned call girl-turned movie studio exec in the criminally short-lived comedy series "Action" (Fox, 1999). A blisteringly hilarious indictment of Hollywood players and the film industry, the series, about a morally bankrupt movie producer (Jay Mohr) attempting to make a comeback in the business, was never given an opportunity to find an audience, despite the glowing reviews it received. It was a busy year for the actress, who also appeared, all too briefly, as mob boss Meyer Lansky's wife in director John McNaughton and screenwriter David Mamet's organized crime biopic "Lansky" (HBO, 1999). Douglas also offered able support to Kevin Bacon and Liza Weil in David Koepp's ghostly thriller "A Stir of Echoes" (1999), following with work alongside Madonna and Rupert Everett in John Schlesinger's well-intentioned misfire "The Next Best Thing" (2000). Back in the world of indie film, she lent her talent to the wonderful adaptation of Daniel Clowes' acclaimed graphic novel "Ghost World" (2001), as a well-meaning, albeit, misguided, art teacher.
Douglas worked again with her "GoodFellas" co-star Ray Liotta in the arson investigation thriller "Point of Origin" (HBO, 2002), then took part in the Eddie Murphy space comedy debacle "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" (2002). Working behind the camera once more, she directed and co-starred with Darryl Hannah and Jeff Goldblum in a segment of the indie anthology film "Stories of Lost Souls" (2005). Working with more frequency on television, she next played the mother of a young high school girl accused of modern-day witchcraft amidst the hyper-reactive period of post-Columbine America in the docudrama "Not Like Everyone Else" (Lifetime, 2006). Continuing with the medium, she made repeated guest appearances on several weekly series, including "Six Feet Under" (HBO, 2001-05), "Shark" (CBS, 2006-08) and "Ugly Betty" (ABC, 2006-2010). In one of her more offbeat projects, she appeared alongside Daniel Stern in the horror-comedy "Otis" (2008) as the fretful parents of a girl kidnapped by the titular Otis (Bostin Christopher), a deranged killer intent on re-enacting his botched high school prom. In a more personal light-hearted, project, she played a fictionalized version of herself in the web series "Easy to Assemble" (2008- ), in which the talented actress quits the Hollywood rat race, only to take a job at a local IKEA store.
Douglas later joined the ensemble cast for "Life is Hot in Cracktown" (2009), a gritty crime drama about the devastating effects of rock cocaine on the denizens of an urban neighborhood. At opposite spectrums of TV success, she later guest starred in a two-part episode of the quickly axed superhero adventure series "The Cape" (NBC, 2011) in addition to reprising a role on the more successful buddy comedy series "Entourage" (HBO, 2004-2011).
By Bryce Coleman
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Special Thanks (Special)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Made uncredited film appearance as a mother in a park in "Hello Again", starring Shelley Long
Acted in NYC stage production of "Dream House" at Cubiculo Theatre
Film debut as a screaming woman in "The Last Temptation of Christ" ; first credit with director Martin Scorsese
First acting role in the Scorsese-directed segment of "New York Stories"
First film not directed by Scorsese, Irwin Winkler's "Guilty By Suspicion", starring De Niro; Scorsese had acting role
Offered a memorable turn as a woman savagely beaten by Robert De Niro in Scorsese's remake of "Cape Fear"
Played only woman in the "Alive" plane crash
Wrote and directed the short film "The Perfect Woman" (debuted at the New York Film Festival and aired on Bravo cable channel)
TV debut, producing, directing, writing and hosting the documentary "Everybody Just Stay Calm--Stories in Independent Filmmaking"
Garnered critical and popular attention as Matt Dillon's suspicious older sister in Gus Van Sant's "To Die For"
Third short project as writer-director, "Boy Crazy, Girl Crazier"; won prize at the Aspen Film Festival
TV acting debut, guest appearance in an episode of the NBC police drama "Homicide: Life on the Street"
First starring feature role in Allison Anders' "Grace of My Heart"; last collaboration (to date) with Scorsese (who executive produced), picture reteamed her with Dillon, who played a character resembling Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys
Portrayed Teddy Roosevelt's wife Edith in TNT's "Rough Riders"
Supported Jennifer Aniston in "Picture Perfect", playing a corporate cutthroat
Had pivotal role in the thriller "Stir of Echoes"
Played Meyer Lansky's first wife Anna in HBO movie "Lansky"
Co-starred in the short-lived Fox series "Action"
Won notice for her supporting role in "Message in a Bottle"
Announced to make feature directorial debut with "Sorority Rule"
Co-starred in Terry Zwigoff's "Ghost World" as Roberta, a flaky art teacher
Had co-starring role in the Off-Broadway play "Surviving Grace"