Details October 2008
Details October 2008

She pouted, tantrum’d, and prima donna’d herself out of the Hollywood spotlight. Now the original mean girl is returning to a familiar zip code—and role.

Not long ago, Shannen Doherty, the once and future Brenda Walsh, took a day off from shooting the short-lived TV show North Shore in Hawaii and went on a shark-diving trip with a couple of friends. Hundreds of yards offshore, Doherty descended into the water in a protective cage. Members of the boat’s crew chummed the water, sharks gathered—and Doherty freaked.

“I couldn’t breathe, I started having an anxiety attack, I couldn’t stay out of their reach,” Doherty says, shuddering. Her Irish brow crinkles into slight worry lines that make her look her age, which is 37. “They were slamming into the cage—they looked so frickin’ mean! My leg slipped a little through the bars, and a shark swam up against me and rubbed off a layer of my skin.”

Doherty is telling the story in a restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway, in Malibu, a few hundred yards from the beach. She still owns nine or ten surfboards but hasn’t been on one—or even swum in the ocean—since the shark encounter. “I tell myself the least I can do is give the ocean back to the sharks,” Doherty says. And then she giggles. “No, that’s just a bullshit rationalization—I’m just terrified now.”

Doherty, who’s reprising the role of Brenda on the CW’s revival of 90210, could look at her shark-cage experience as an apt metaphor for her twenties—not-so-tender years marked by catfights, nude photo spreads, a turn leading the Pledge of Allegiance at the 1992 Republican National Convention, and a slew of ill-chosen male companions. Her eyes widen when she’s presented with the parallel. “I never thought of that before,” she says. “And now I’m playing Brenda again. Wow.”

Doherty lets the concept sit a moment before elaborating: “Well, I’ll go to the beach and I’ll wade up to my knees. But I’m not going to start swimming again.”

Shannen Doherty may not have been a nice girl, but she is a sweet woman. Then again, there is nowhere to go but up after you’ve singlehandedly defined the modern American mean girl.

The journey began with her performance in 1989’s Heathers, as the quiet yet lethal member of the troika of button-nosed title characters. But Doherty went hard-core after she was cast on Beverly Hills, 90210, which made its debut in 1990. As Brenda Walsh, she played a virginal daughter of Minnesota relocated to the zip code of the entitled and wealthy. Brenda was initially a likable, naďve beauty, but her equanimity didn’t last long: she soon morphed into Elizabeth I in Guess jeans, adopting a kill-or-be-killed attitude toward all of teendom. Kurt Cobain’s refrain “Here we are now, entertain us” might have captured the nineties Zeitgeist, but so did Brenda’s Season 2 bon mot, “To be a bitch or not to be a bitch—that is the question.”

“I don’t think Brenda was a complete brat,” Doherty says. “She was fueled by her insecurities: not being from Beverly Hills, not feeling safe in that environment. And then the love of her life was stolen from her. That can really injure a young girl’s esteem.” Alas, poor Doherty was playing the role of a lifetime as her TV and real-life personae began to merge. There was boy trouble and more boy trouble. Doherty’s relationship with Dean Factor, heir to the Max Factor makeup fortune, ended when a restraining order was filed against her after she allegedly tried to run him down with her car. (Her memorable line: “If I really wanted to run him over, I wouldn’t have missed.”) Then there was a teen-angst-worlds-colliding liaison with Judd Nelson. Next Doherty met George Hamilton’s son, Ashley. They married after two weeks; the union lasted all of seven months.

Her chaotic personal life exacted a professional toll. Amid rumors that she was consistently showing up late to the set, Doherty left Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1994, after the fourth season. She lay low for a while, except for a winning turn in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats in 1995 and an appearance in Playboy. Then, in 1998, Aaron Spelling cast her in Charmed—as an actual witch—opposite Alyssa Milano. Just as the “Shannen is back” story line began to gel, she quit, reportedly because she was at odds with Milano.

But that was seven years ago. Since then Doherty has, much to her relief, fallen off the tabloid radar. “I have a great life now,” Doherty says. She owns three horses and rides them obsessively, and her parents live a five-minute drive away. “If you could see me with my horse Picasso, how I call his name and he sticks his head out of his stall and then licks me from the neck up—that’s what my life is like now,” she says. “It’s really kind of boring.”

An obvious question arises: If Shannen Doherty is so happy with her placid life, why is she raising Brenda Walsh from the dead?

Doherty is greeted like an old friend at the Greek restaurant where we meet. She orders a salad, subtracting four ingredients and adding five, punctuating her request with pleases and thank-yous. She has been acting since the age of 7, and, perhaps because of this, she teeters between charmingly innocent and girl-in-a-bubble oblivious.

“I don’t spend any time on the Internet,” Doherty says. “I used to, but then I’d cry myself to sleep, thinking everyone in the world hates me. So I stopped. But when the news came that they were bringing back 90210, friends started e-mailing me stuff from fan sites that said Brenda had to be on the show. I can pay my mortgage and ride my horses because of those fans. This is how I can repay them.”

It’s true that a 90210 reprise without Brenda was unthinkable for longtime enthusiasts. “If you have a show called 90210 and you’re bringing characters back, you can’t not bring Shannen Doherty back,” says Kevin Smith, a noted Dohertyolgist since their Mallrats days. “That’s like putting on Hamlet and leaving out Hamlet.” But Doherty has returned for another reason: She’s looking to rewrite the personal history of her alter ego, and maybe her own. Doherty wouldn’t commit to 90210 until she was given assurances that Brenda wouldn’t wear an arrested pout. Ms. Walsh implausibly returns to West Beverly High from Broadway, as a drama teacher.

“I wouldn’t have done it if she was stuck in the same spot,” Doherty says. “There were moments when I hated Brenda, but there were other moments when I saw vulnerability and greatness in her, and believed her passion for life would make her a great actor—but not someone you would necessarily want to hang out with.”

Doherty’s view of her own past is Rumsfeldian “stuff happens” with a sprinkle of “life’s a journey” pixie dust. “I wouldn’t be the person I am now if I had not had those experiences,” Doherty says. “Do I say ‘Ooh, I wish I hadn’t done that?’ Sure. But I don’t regret anything, because I think I’ve turned out to be a pretty good person.”

Doherty was born in Memphis to Tom and Rosa Doherty, devout Southern Baptists who’ve now been married for 40 years. (The family relocated to Southern California when Shannen was 7.) “Try dating when you have ridiculous expectations,” Doherty says. “My father is a gentleman. When you’re used to that, it’s a culture shock.”

Confronted with the observation that none of her paramours have been exactly genteel, she lets out a giant laugh. “Um, I think I’ve admitted I haven’t made the best choices in men,” she says.

Perhaps her biggest personal blunder was marrying Rick Salomon in Las Vegas in 2002. The marriage was later annulled, but it still made Doherty the answer to an unwanted trivia question: Who was Rick Salomon involved with before he made the Paris Hilton sex tape?

Nevertheless, Doherty is sticking to her “no regrets” line. “There was something that Rick provided that was amazing to me,” the currently single actress says. “I look at what he did [with Hilton] and think, God, that’s disgusting. But when we were married, I never had someone make me laugh so much. I was madly in love. It was a really hard marriage. When it ended, it was a heart-crushing thing.”

Doherty is slated to appear in just a handful of 90210 episodes. “We all agreed we’d see how it goes,” she says. Her first day on set was marked by knocks on her trailer door as the new kids shyly paid their respects to the veteran. “They’re so much better prepared for this than we were,” Doherty says. “We were on a new network and had no idea what was about to happen. It just happened so quickly.”

While resuscitating a long-dead TV series hardly guarantees success, the new 90210 has generated buzz, resulting in a push from the CW. The old faces are counted on to bring in the post-Clearasil crowd. Hence, the cast also includes Jennie Garth, Doherty’s old on- and offscreen nemesis. “Every reporter rubs his hands together and goes, ‘So, you and Jennie, how’s that going to work out?’” Doherty says, rolling her eyes. “I hadn’t seen her for years, but we get along fine.” Her phone rings. “It’s my mom,” she says apologetically. “Hey, Mommy, I have some wardrobe choices. Come help me choose.”

Doherty explains that for much of her adult life, her father has been seriously ill, and that she left 90210 to help take care of him. “He’s had six heart attacks, and now he’s been taken off the transplant list because it’s too much of a risk,” she says. “I’m sure some of my mistakes have been acting out against that fear I was going to lose him.”

Doherty drifts into a pensive silence. But then she spies a waitress and requests a plastic container for the remnants of her salad. “I probably shouldn’t do this in front of a reporter,” she says. “But I’m going to be hungry in a few hours and I’m not going to want to go back out.”

Just then Rosa Doherty appears in the restaurant lobby, flashing an incandescent smile. Shannen explains, “Mommy!” As the two hug and walk arm-in-arm into the Malibu sun, for a moment the ocean—and all the sharks in it—seems miles away.