lleana Douglas has a knack for creating memorable moments. Years later, such scenes as her serene yet macabre ice-skating routine in To Die For and her brutal encounter with Robert De Niro in Cape Fear are still burned into our collective consciousness. In the new film Expired, she accomplishes a similar feat. As mousy meter maid Claire's (Samantha Morton) tart-tongued best pal, Wilma, Douglas doesn't have a ton of screen time, but she creates such a vibrant presence that she nearly steals the movie.
"It's not like I'm trying to make [my parts] memorable, but I try to approach every role, if it's small or big, by just having very strong intentions," she says. "And then I just try to be very, very committed to everything that I'm doing. I enjoy acting, so maybe that comes across—I get a kick out of it."
Douglas has always known she wanted to be an entertainer of some sort. Growing up, she imagined herself writing sketches for Saturday Night Live, perhaps landing on a sitcom. And she admired actors such as Expired co-star Teri Garr: funny ladies with solid chops and diverse résumés. "She was an example for somebody like me of the kind of career I thought I could have," she says. "You could be in Close Encounters, you could be in Mr. Mom, you could be in After Hours—you could do this great variety of movies. She was funny, but she was also poignant."
Like Garr, Douglas has built a wide-ranging career, landing beloved indies such as Ghost World alongside popular TV shows like Six Feet Under. After doing dinner theatre and musicals as a kid, she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at age 18. "They hated me there," she recalls in refreshingly frank fashion. "I had one teacher who told me I would be lucky if I sold refrigerators for a living. I was actually told numerous times to give up acting. And I considered it. Because when someone so definitively tells you you're awful, you have to kind of weigh in, 'Maybe I really am awful.' But I decided to give it one more shot, and thank God I did."
On the recommendation of a teacher there who believed she had promise, Douglas went to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, which ended up being a much better match. "The whole Meisner technique, for me, just became a lifesaver; it changed my life," she says. "Everybody has to find the training that fits for them."
Douglas then landed a job as a publicist's assistant, which led to a couple of crucial breaks. First, director Frank Perry, who shared offices with the publicity firm, cast her in a bit part in his film Hello Again. Then filmmaker Martin Scorsese happened to be in the building, dubbing The Last Temptation of Christ. "Martin Scorsese's assistant, who had helped me get the publicist job, remembered from my résumé under special skills it said, 'Blood-curdling scream,' " recalls Douglas. "They needed to dub screams for Barbara Hershey when she was getting stoned. So I went down and I did my scream for them and made them laugh." That top-notch scream led to work in a string of Scorsese films, including New York Stories, Goodfellas, and of course Cape Fear.
Since then, in addition to continuing to take on diverse roles, Douglas has stepped behind the camera, creating projects such as Illeanarama: Supermarket of the Stars, a series of shorts featuring the actor as a version of herself who decides to leave Hollywood behind and work at a grocery store. She says she's gotten some funding from IKEA to continue that series as a Web show, which she will write and direct. "Hopefully, it will become a big hit and will lead to some sort of television show," she says with a chuckle. "I would love to see a female-driven comedy show that's not necessarily potty humor—that's more like a female Larry David or Extras, something in that vein. I know it's possible."
If anyone can make it happen, it's Douglas. She's a big believer in being proactive in your career—in not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. "The odds are so much against you as an actress," she says. "There are just not enough parts, and the type of parts [is] very narrow. You can't sit and complain about it; you have to do something. There are amazing stories, and there are people out there that want to hear these stories. I just kind of take matters into my own hands."