Cheap Thrills - Heather Donahue screams success in the low-budget hit Blair Witch
-People Magazine 08/23/1999
It wasn't fear that rattled Heather Donahue during filming in the Maryland woods of the surprise hit thriller The Blair Witch Project. It was the filth. Six days with a 60-pound backpack, two men, one tent, no change of clothes and no shower. "At the beginning you're still relatively clean and happy," says Donahue, 24, who plays a pushy documentary film director who leads her colleagues to their demise. "Then it gets really uncomfortable. Dirt is caked under your nails, in the crevices of your hands, on your jeans. By the end, my hair was itchy---really, really itchy." But at a certain point, Donahue concedes, she had to surrender her vanity and comfort to the elements: "When you know you look like crap, you roll with it after a while. What was I going to do? Start putting on mascara?"
Happily not. Just a week after the nationwide release of the mock documentary, the scene known as "the confessional," in which a terror-struck (and decidedly makeup free) Donahue apologizes to the parents of her doomed companions and bids her family farewell, seems destined to make horror film history. In fact, if early fan reaction is any measure, the grainy movie will become a genre clasic. Shot on hand-held cameras in Maryland's Seneca Creek State Park for less than $50,000, the tale of three student filmmaker who disappear into the woods in search of the Blair Witch of local legend grossed $50 million in its first week in wide release. And the promotional is-it-fact-or-fiction Web site (www.blairwitch.com) has generated 3 million hits a day. Donahue, meanwhile, is fielding almost as many calls from folks wanting in on her sudden success.
"It's hilarious and overwhelming," says the actress, who not so long ago covered the $670-a-month rent on her one-bedroom L.A. apartment by working as an office temp. Now she has two agents, a manager and her pick of TV and movie scripts. "This was supposed to be a cool project," she says, "not a get-famous movie."
Back in those woods, Blair Witch seemed more like a get-tired-and-cranky movie. Co-creators Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick were intent on making the film's emotional meltdown feel real. The actors - Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams - used their own names; they were given minimal food; and they were directed by notes left along the way, including such vague scene prompts as "follow Josh's voice." Faced with the unexpected - such as the sound of babies crying that once wakened them after midnight - they had to ad-lib their responses. And Donahue had to film them. "there was a lot of tension," says Leonard. "You're cold and tired, and this girl won't stop shoving the camera in your face." Says Myrick: "We weren't worried about their comfort. We hoped Heather would roll the camera under duress, and she did."
Little surprise. She has been preparing for her big chance since childhood. The oldest of threee children of Jim, 50, a printer, and Joan, 47, a doctor's office manager, Donahue discovered center stage at age 3 during a dance recital in her hometown of Upper Darby, Pa.
"From that moment on, I was performing," she says. "Whenever someone came over I'd make them be in a show in the basement."
Her outgoing personality wasn't always well receieved. Donahue says she was teased by peers for "being a weirdo" and that her goal at Upper Darby High School was to blend in. In 1991 she enrolled in Philadelphia's University of the Arts to study acting. Her father took a second job running a memorabilia company to foot the bill. "Our parents discouraged us from pursuing our dreams," says Jim. "We didn't want to do that. We said, 'Go for it. We'll support you for as long as it takes.'"
It didn't take long. Her only other screen work was a low-budget coming-of-age film that was never finished. But it did serve to introduce her to her beau of four years, writer-photographer Gregor Hrynisdak. "I didn't want her to do Blair Witch," admits Hrynisdak, 28. "Sending her into the woods with strangers sounded suspicious." Now he has no regrets--and the couple felt no fear on a recent camping trip in California. After all, the only ones likely to be hovering in midair are Donahue's folks. "Our feet," says Jim, "haven't touched the ground in weeks."
-Karen S. Schneider
-Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles