Radar October/November 2008
Radar October/November 2008

Now back at West Beverly and teaching drama—what else? —the new 90210's Shannen Doherty opens up to Radar about her phobias (germs, sharks, tabloid reporters), her obsessions (Manolos, Choos, Louboutins), and the secret to her success (a higher power... and it's not Aaron Spelling). By Aaron Gell

The CW billed its launch of the new 90210 as "the most anticipated event of the year," a boast that, given the Beijing Olympics, the presidential election, and the Cheech and Chong reunion tour, might have smacked of promotional overreach but for one salient detail: After a 14-year hiatus, Brenda was back.

For a passionate segment of the TV viewing public—not only in America but also in the 90 or so countries that aired the original series—Doherty's comeback was monumental, Callas barnstorming into La Scala for one last turn as Medea. La Divina retorna!

Premiering in October 1990, the compellingly hokey series about well-to-do if absurdly attired teens navigating a seemingly endless series of issues didn't just stabilize the young and wobbly Fox network, rescue Aaron Spelling from professional oblivion, and launch the blessed career of Sex and the City creator Darren Star. The show was also one of the first pop offerings to woo the elusive and finicky Generation X. Despite the barbs of boomer critics like the Washington Post's Tom Shales, who called it "a vacuum, a perfect void, a black hole in the already vast and empty TV schedule," at its peak Beverly Hills, 90210 pulled in more than 17 million viewers. It was one of the key cultural touchstones of the '90s, giving us the sideburn, the high-waisted jean, and, most indelibly, the impetuous, raven-haired Minnesota transplant Brenda Walsh—the pluckiest Minneapolis native to hit TV since Mary Richards.

On paper 90210 was an ensemble show; in practice, not so much. Never mind the stridently self-serious if dreamy Brandon, the button-nosed little-rich-girl-next-door Kelly, and the rehabbed rebel Dylan, with his amazing washboard Forehead of Angst. Forget spear carriers Donna, Steve, and David. And that uptight editor chick with the glasses who was, like, 46 in real life? Banish her from your mind. Brenda was the heart and soul of 90210. Brenda was the one we tuned in for, the one we couldn't quite figure out, the one who somehow always just demanded attention. Shark-jump plot machinations aside, many of the best episodes were carried along on the blustery jet stream of her moods, which tended to start out chirpy and sarcastic before building to a fit of pique and climaxing in a punishing emotional shitstorm, which then inevitably gave way at the last possible moment—and here was the key point—to warm Brenda sunshine and smiles and hugs all around. Sure, the show ran six seasons after she was packed off to study in London, but the party, for all intents and purposes, was over.

Sitting outside under an arbor of bougainvillea in a favorite restaurant, Taverna Tony, located in a upscale strip mall a few minutes from her well-appointed Malibu dream house, the actress allows that some of the characters on the original series seemed uncannily responsible and sober-minded for their age, "except for Brenda, which is why I liked her. Brenda was realistic. She was normal. Not many 16-year-olds are so morally correct, you know? She had her moments where she was a great girl, and her moments where she was a bitch and you wanted to kill her, times when she was completely peaceful and times where she would bitch-slap Dylan in the face and never talk to Kelly again. She had those extremes."

When the CW first came a-calling, Doherty was dubious. "As an actor, to go back and play a character that I had already, in my opinion, exhausted?...?like, what's the challenge?" she says. In the end, she relented. For the fans. "I've worked for 27 years, steadily, thanks to very loyal fans. What's the one way to say thank you? To play a character that you thought you'd never play again in the one show they want to see."

That may smack of noblesse oblige (Eva Perón couldn't have said it better), but it's also undeniably true. Buzz about the show, which had been simmering throughout the summer due to an extraordinary promotional push by the network, boiled over with the announcement that, in addition to Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth, Doherty was coming back to school to give a master class, of sorts, in thea-teh. As if suddenly clueing in to who their real star was, the CW then rushed out a spot featuring Doherty delivering the deliciously coy come-on "Miss me?" Wild-eyed partisans of the old series were thereby mollified, declaring almost unanimously on the various fan forums and message boards that, okay, fine, they'd eagerly tune in for Shannen...but only for Shannen.

When Spelling subsequently withdrew amid reports that she'd been offered a lower salary than her classmates ($10,000-$20,000 per episode, reported Hollywood bloodhound Nikki Finke, as opposed to the $35,000-$50,000 Doherty and Garth were getting), the chatter went into overdrive. The operatic backstage drama that plagued the original series—and arguably deepened and enhanced it—was back. Yay, intrigue!

Co-executive producer Gabe Sachs admits that it's been a delicate balancing act, bringing in returning cast members while being careful not to overshadow the new cast of hotties, who include Degrassi dropout Shenae Grimes and The Wire's Tristan Wilds as the neo-Walshes. He also fretted about keeping the peace on set. "I thought I'd have to put one trailer on the other side of the freeway and one on this side, and post armed guards everywhere," he admits of the much-anticipated Kelly-Brenda reunion. "You hear, 'Oh, God. They're going to kill each other,' but it was nothing like that. When we finally saw them work together we just breathed this huge sigh of relief."

While Doherty has been cast in numerous roles since fleeing the zip code in 1994—on Charmed, North Shore, and the reality series Breaking Up with Shannen Doherty, and in a slew of TV movies—those of us who got to know her as Brenda are damned forever to conflate the two. Indeed, I bungle the name several times during our interview, prompting Brenda...er, Shannen, to observe, "Now, that's scary." Nonetheless, in person the resemblance is purely superficial. Doherty has a touch of Brenda's coquettishness and speaks in a familiar rapid-fire patter but displays none of her moody intensity.

Affable and pleasantly ironic, she has the eye-rolling humor of someone who's been around the entertainment industry long enough to know how the game is played—she got her first break at age 10 on the series Father Murphy, going on to regular roles on Little House on the Prairie, Our House, and Heathers—without fully acquiescing to its imperatives. Having consulted her mom on the day's wardrobe (they're very close), she's dressed casually, in a pair of Grass jeans, a loose black top falling off one shoulder, and a towering pair of Azzedine Alaia heels. One wrist is piled high with bangles and a fat steel Rolex. A youthful 37, she has grown out her bangs and wears her dark brown hair well past her shoulders.

Here are a few fun facts about the Real Shannen Doherty: She lives alone in Malibu with her dogs and an enormous collection of shoes numbering well over 300 pairs. Her most recent acquisition is a pair of "super-high heeled nude ankle boots" by Brian Atwood, shoes so exquisitely beautiful that she sometimes just stands there staring at them. In fact, when brush fires threatened her neighborhood not long ago, Doherty made sure her dogs were safe and then stuffed 30 or so of her prized possessions—"all high heels, like nothing reasonable or conducive to running"—into a bag before evacuating the area.

She's unabashedly particular about her food, ordering "a Greek peasant salad, no olives, no tomatoes, no cucumbers, onions, bell peppers, extra cheese, extra, extra, extra dressing, and you know how they cut up the souvlaki chicken on top for me?" And our waiter, Nicholas, seems ecstatically happy to indulge her. "Every time you come in here, the whole place get more value," he gushes in a raspy Greek accent. "It looks much better, too! She has such energy. She attracts." Doherty blushes, joking that she paid him to say that, and Nicholas places his hand over his heart and affirms, "She give me something more than money. She kiss me once in a while."

Doherty spends most of her free time on her own, reading at home, or off riding one of her horses. "I've always been a bit of a loner," she says. "I like to hang out with my friends, but it gets to the point where I'm like, 'Okay, it's enough. Go home. I need to be alone.'"

Though she lives just steps from the beach and was once a decent surfer, she hasn't dipped a toe in the water in years, since she and some of the wardrobe people on North Shore, which was shot in Oahu, decided to try being submerged in a shark cage. "You have a snorkel mask on, you're treading water, and the bars are like this"—she holds her hands about a foot apart—"and I'm not that big, so my legs kept drifting through the bars. They're throwing chum everywhere, and there are like 20 sharks, and I'm, like, floating out of the cage!"

She's a lifelong registered Republican who led the Pledge of Allegiance at the 1992 GOP convention (and caught hell for doing so). Several years back she shook hands with George W. "He was going through the receiving line and just stopped, did a double take, and said, 'I used to watch you on 90210 all the time!'" she recalls. While she still has a soft spot for the president, she acknowledges, "There's problems with our world right now, and our economy sucks."

As for the 2008 election, she hasn't made up her mind. Her top pick, Rudy Giuliani, was defeated in the primary, and she's giving both McCain and Obama a good hard look.

Currently single, Doherty does date occasionally, though she has yet to meet any guys lately "who make me stop in my tracks." After two marriages and divorces, she says she's learned to take her time. "I think everyone can put up a good front on a date," she explains. "It's called the 'honeymoon period.' And I've learned that just because it's the honeymoon period doesn't mean you have to run off and get married." When it comes to romantic suitors, she has a few rules of thumb: (1) no actors, because she hates chatting about the biz after hours, and (2) be hygienic. "I'm a germaphobe," she says. "Not Howard Hughes-freak level, but, like, really."

For example, she wouldn't dream of having a sip of someone's drink, and if you take a bite of her food, consider the whole plate yours. "I'm that girl," she says. Oh, and if you use her bathroom, the one off the master bedroom, God help you. Some clown recently tried it, inexplicably bypassing her four other bathrooms, and she freaked out.

"I go in there, grab his arm, and, like, drag him out, mid-piss!" she recalls with a laugh. Then she poured disinfectant all over the place. "Don't use my bathroom," she says. "Even my husband, when I was married, just don't use my bathroom."

As for kissing, "I'm always sort of wondering, Where were your lips, like, two hours ago?" she says. "I mean, sure, kissing is nice, but I make observations about people I'm getting in a relationship with. I look at their nails, and I ask, 'Do you shower in the morning or at night?'" Turns out most guys shower in the morning. Not good. "I'm like, 'Reeally...So, you go to sleep with the dirt you've accumulated all day long on your body?'" She grimaces deeply.

By her own reckoning, Doherty, the younger of two children, was an exceptionally well-behaved kid, reared by strict but loving parents—a mortgage consultant and a beauty salon manager—in Memphis, Tennessee. Watching TV was strongly discouraged (sort of ironic), and the family ate dinner together every evening, during which the kids were expected to hold forth on current events. Every Sunday found the Dohertys in the pews of their Southern Baptist church. "My upbringing gave me a really strong moral base," she says now. "It doesn't mean you don't make mistakes, but when you make that mistake, you come back to the person that you should be and the person you want to be."

One of her earliest showdowns with authority was over her interpretation of religious doctrine. She was in ninth grade, attending a Baptist private school in Los Angeles. The school had a no-dancing policy, which Doherty considered ridiculous. She organized her own dance, off school property, and invited the entire student body. The following Monday, she found herself facing off with the principal. "I was like, really? You're getting me in trouble? I can pull out passages from the Bible where it says they danced and rejoiced. I mean, if Jesus did it, it can't really be that bad!"

In the end, Shannen's parents took her side, yanking her out of school and enrolling her at the prestigious Lycée Français instead. (Which explains where she acquired that French accent she deployed in the legendary "American in Paris" episode.)

Doherty still prays several times a day, usually just to say, "Thank you so much, God!" Though she parts ways with the Southern Baptist church on certain issues—for instance, she can't imagine that nonbelievers are really bound for hell—she says she never doubts that God is watching over her. "How could I?" she says. "My mom had a 10 percent chance of living when I was 10—she had an aneurism. Doctors said she'd be paralyzed. She survived, and the only thing wrong was that she couldn't move one of her eyebrows, and eventually she worked that out! My dad has had seven heart attacks, quintuple bypass surgery, eight strokes...he's on dialysis, had diabetes, high blood pressure, and he's still alive. I have terrific friends. I've experienced what love is, and I've been given so many chances in my life that I, of all people, could never question Him, ever."

Doherty landed the role of Brenda Walsh at 19, after Tori Spelling saw Heathers and nagged her father to check it out. "None of us had any idea what we were getting into," she says, sipping a Diet Coke. "We all signed on to do a cute little show. Our first season, it didn't really pop out, and then they showed the summer episodes"—a radical move for a network at the time—"and overnight it got huge." The moment she realized just how huge was when she wound up on the cover of Rolling Stone, in a pouty teen sandwich with Luke Perry and Jason Priestley. Then the frenzy really kicked in. She recalls one trip to Italy for an awards show, during which thousands of fans thronged the street in front of the auditorium, shouting "Brinda! Bellissima, Brinda!" and where, despite her police escort, scores of hunky Italian boys on motorbikes chased her car through the streets.

Doherty's usual partner-in-crime behind the scenes of 90210 was Jason Priestley, and though she has hinted that there was something between them—eew, incest!—she declines to specify just what actually transpired...that is, if anything transpired. "We had a very, very nice flirtation," she says, noting that any further details are "nobody's business. First off, it's unladylike; second, it goes against everything that I believe in, and third, the minute that you start opening up about insanely private moments is the minute you go, 'It's okay to ask about that.' If we had fallen into bed together, it should be a private moment between two people. But by the way, you're not the first person to ask me that."

Doherty readily admits she entered a somewhat adventurous phase during the first few seasons of the show, for which she places the blame squarely on that nutjob Brenda Walsh. "I actually think she had a bad influence on me," the actress says daintily, dipping a slice of pita bread into a plateful of hummus. "I think when you've been very sheltered and protected, and suddenly you're on a show, you're 19, and you've got the red carpet rolled out for you, and you're playing a character that's going through all this teenage angst, there's a part of you that's like, What have I missed out on? This crazy bitch is going through all this stuff and I haven't experienced anything. So you try it. You go to a few clubs and see how it is. You date the wrong guy—I dated the wrong guy many times," she says with a laugh. "But you know, it happens. And the difference is, now that I'm older, I never have to do any of that crap. I can live vicariously through my character, and when they call 'Cut,' I'm me again. And that's kind of cool."

For reasons she still isn't quite clear on, the tabloids vilified her in those days—while her less newsworthy co-stars tended to receive far gentler treatment in the teenybopper mags. Sure, Saddam Hussein was traipsing over the Kuwaiti border (yawn), but somehow a young actress became public enemy No. 1. I ask her how it felt. "Horrific," she says. "I was exploring who I was as a person and testing my own boundaries and trying to be a normal 18-, 19-, 20-year-old, and I got raked over the coals. Many nights I cried myself to sleep over that stuff."

At one point, a pair of L.A. hipsters even published a 'zine, The I Hate Brenda Newsletter, detailing her many alleged crimes. There were T-shirts, bumper stickers, even a record album. "Well, that's the thing about TV," Doherty says philosophically. "People fall in love with the characters, and people hate the characters. And it's pretty rewarding. Even if you're hated, it's rewarding. I just kept trying to remind myself that 'you're doing a good job. You're evoking emotions in people. That's not bad.'"

I ask her the worst lie she ever read about herself. "Give me a list—the top 100!" she says. "There've been so many." Back when she was on Little House, a tabloid reported that her mother was so overweight they had to wheel her out of bed. "My mom is a beautiful woman who has never been overweight!" she insists. Later "one of those bullshit rags" wrote that she'd entered AA. "They said that I was so, quote, 'scared of the drink' that I was sleeping on my sponsor's couch. Now, I've never been in AA. I accompanied my husband to AA meetings—actually, I forced him to go to one—but I've never actually gone for myself. Sometimes you can find some truth, a little nugget somewhere, but not one thing about this was true."

Perhaps most damaging was a string of items suggesting she was difficult to work with—some of which she later determined had been fed to the tabloids by the show's crew members. Doherty attributes some of the stories to her desire to keep her father's health problems to herself. "I think you can probably tell, I'm open but I'm not open," she says. "I'm very private about certain things, and my own cast mates never knew about my dad and his medical problems. Nobody knew I was at the hospital till 5 in the morning and came straight to the set. People just thought, She's unprofessional."

Doherty's eyes glisten as she talks, and the emotion suddenly seems fresh. "Back then, you know, if I seemed moody, yeah, you try having a father be that sick and calling and saying, 'I don't think I can work today,' and being told, 'No, no, no. You're working or we're suing you.' It's brutal. But people sell their stories and make their 500 bucks at your expense, and it's like, wow. Really?"

That's not to say Doherty didn't make a few mistakes along the way. "I think my impulsiveness got me into a lot of trouble," she admits now. "I mean, it was impulsive to confuse a crush with love. And impulsiveness makes you lack diplomacy. Somebody says something you don't like, you don't sit there and go, hmm, let me mull that over. You go, 'What did you just say to me?'"

Around her late 20s, she continues, "it started hitting me that you can butt heads throughout your life or figure out a way to do what makes you happy but not constantly have conflicts around you. It was like, Oh God, I just need to chill out." Gabe Sachs confirms that Doherty seems to have mellowed considerably. "She's just totally cool," he says. "She's at a place where she's got this Zen-ish thing going on. She's evolved." As Nicholas removes our plates, Doherty's jaw suddenly drops and she points behind me. "Oh my God, do you see that puppy?"

At the next table, another diner is getting up to leave, holding a miniature dachshund. "Awwww! Let's snatch him!" The dog's owner looks over, nervous, and Doherty dissolves into giggles. "That's right, we're coming for you," she whispers. "We're going to knock you in the head and steal that puppy right out of your arms." The man takes his dog and ducks out. "Yeah, look at him," she says slyly. "Guy's like, 'I know that crazy bitch!'"

Wedged into a corner booth of the new and improved Peach Pit—actually the Kokomo Cafe on Beverly Boulevard—Joe E. Tata, the avuncular actor who for a decade played the supernaturally goofy diner proprietor Nat and has been brought back for the new series, lights up when he talks about his old costar. "I love her. I love her. Shando!" he says. "Shandoooo, the Magician! That's what I used to call her. 'Cause every time something happened with Shannen, some problem, that little devil got out of it. She always escaped."

"Yeah, right!" Doherty replies with a laugh. "Maybe in his eyes. Not in mine. I definitely took my hits, and I definitely got punished for the bad things I did. And you know what? Some of those I deserved. Having been given a second, third, whatever chance, I don't think that's being a magician." She leans back in her chair. "Maybe it's about having an absolute blind faith in a higher power," she reasons. Maybe there's something I'm supposed to do that I haven't done, and that's why I keep getting chances."

I ask Doherty what she thinks her special purpose may be. "I have no clue," she says, laughing. "But I pray every day for that knowledge."