On the evening of October 4, 1990, the FOX network aired the pilot episode of a show that would, over the course of its ten seasons and 296 episodes, expose viewers to a world of glitz and glamour while simultaneously redefining the concept of the modern serial drama. Beverly Hills, 90210 was the brainchild of acclaimed producers Aaron Spelling, Darren Star and Charles Rosin, and this week on Ten Minute Interviews, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the iconic show’s debut.
There was no shortage of memorable characters on Beverly Hills, 90210, but perhaps none burned brighter than that of Emily Valentine, played by actress Christine Elise. The character of Emily arrived midway through the show’s second season, and immediately began making waves, flirting with both Dylan and Brandon and infuriating Brenda in the process. Though her relationship with Brandon blossomed into romance, Emily’s wild side soon became too much for him to handle. After she spiked his drink with the drug U4EA at an underground club, Brandon broke up with Emily. leading to a series of bitter interactions before Emily’s increasingly erratic behavior eventually led to her institutionalization. Though she would make a full recovery with the help of Prozac and appear in later seasons, Emily and Brandon never truly rekindled the fiery romance of their younger years.
Christine Elise, the actress who brought Emily Valentine to life, hails from Boston and starred in Child’s Play 2 and China Beach prior to her role on 90210. In subsequent years, Elise had recurring roles on ER, L.A. Firefighters and Tell Me You Love Me. In 2010, she wrote, produced and starred in a short film entitled Bathing & the Single Girl, which has appeared at over 100 festivals, winning more than 20 awards, and in 2014, Elise wrote a critically-acclaimed novel based upon the film. Currently, Elise runs a food blog called Delightful Delicious Delovely.
How were you initially cast on Beverly Hills, 90210? What was that process like?
Head of casting at FOX, Bob Harbin, called me in for a meeting. He asked what I thought of TV. I went on a 20-minute rant about TV being soulless and, that if I were told my career would be only in TV, I would retire and go into plastics. Bob said, “Oh. Okay. I guess I will keep you in mind for other things.”
I asked, “Well – what were you thinking?”
“They are adding a new character to 90210 and I thought you’d be good.”
“90210!!? I’ll fucking do 90210!”
Very generously, Bob Harbin allowed me, despite my entitled rant, to be in the mix for the role of Emily Valentine. The character was described as drop dead gorgeous with cascading red curls, a singer, guitarist and motorcycle rider. I was none of those things. And I had to sing “Mercedes Benz” in the audition. I wore the outfit I wore on the show when we sang “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” I stumbled all over “Mercedes Benz” because I was petrified. Somehow, I got called back. I wore jeans and a 1950s vintage white beaded sweater. That audition was in Aaron Spelling’s office – which was like a football field with foot-deep, white shag carpet. I did the scenes again and butchered “Mercedes Benz” again. A few hours later, I got the job. It was just for one episode and, if it went well, there might be 10 more.
How did you prepare for the role of Emily Valentine?
I did not prepare. I have never really had to prepare for any roles. I have really only ever played people – fairly regular people. Plus, even if I got a job where some prep might have helped, there is never time. I am not the kind of actress that gets hired weeks or months before a job starts. That is an A-lister scenario. Regular, working actors often get hired and are on set the next day – which was the case, literally, when I got ER. So, no prep for Emily Valentine, but there was zero need. She was just a kid with regular kid battles.
How much of yourself was there in the character of Emily?
Well, none, really. I didn’t write her and the people that did create her had never met me. But – she was initially envisioned as more of a Julia Roberts type, so I certainly brought her my personal style. Lots of the clothes I wore, especially in that first episode, were mine. And, well, I guess all actors bring a little of themselves to roles – I think it would be impossible not to. I try to sympathize with any character I play and justify in my mind – everything they say and do. So naturally, my line delivery and expressions will come from within me. But as to her story and the words she said, those had nothing to do with me – though I, too, was sort of a misunderstood, punk rock (alterna) kid.
What are your fondest memories of your time on the set of 90210?
Basically, just the excitement of being a part of a show that was a phenomenon. It was pretty thrilling, and it increased my profile enormously. I started being featured in teen and gossip mags. I got recognized in the streets for the first time – really to the point that going to the mall and other enclosed places where lots of people congregate got hard. People stare – rudely – and shout things out. It got kinda crazy for me for a while there because my hair was so easily identifiable. Still, I got the opportunity to write for the show. I wrote three episodes and that was a great experience, too.
Did writing for 90210 present any unique challenges? What did you learn from that experience?
It was really fun writing for the show because I knew it so well. There were no challenges outside the norm. Because it was a serialized show, storylines had long since been planned out so, as a guest writer, they basically give you a pretty detailed outline and you fill in the details, like dialogue. And what I learned is that there are opportunities that come with access to people but you have to grab them. I got the job writing because I pitched a story to the writers where the gang goes on a three-hour booze cruise and a storm erupts. Donna falls and bumps her head and has a sort of Wizard of Oz dream while unconscious, but the dream is the Mosquitoes episode of Gilligan’s Island. The cast of 90210 dropped pretty nicely into those classic Gilligan characters.
Sadly, 90210 could not get the rights to do that episode, but they offered other episodes to me instead. So I would never have been asked to write if I had not reached out. Most people do not even have the access to reach out, but many who do fail to make the most of it.
Did you have any interesting or downright strange interactions with fans of the series during or after your time on 90210?
Not really. I got lots of hate mail from young girls. I got letters that had pictures of me that had been defaced and that kinda thing.
My favorite experience of fame was when I got a knock on my door and opened it to see Tim Curry standing there. “There are photographers on the hill across the canyon photographing your house. I confronted them, but they claimed to be shooting the sunrise – but they are facing north.” Tim fucking Curry was at my door and talking to me!
So I closed the drapes on that side of the house and had security chase them from the front of my house. Several weeks later, I was on the set of In the Heat of the Night and everyone kept being really weird and asking if I was okay and telling me to let them know if I felt unsafe. I finally asked someone WTF was going on. Apparently, A Current Affair – or Hard Copy or one of those shows – had been behind those cameras and they ran a completely fake story about “poor, sweet Christine” being attacked by hate-filled fans. They said I had to lock myself inside to protect myself and they showed footage of me closing the drapes and talking to security in front of my house but it was the tabloids that were stalking me – not fans. The piece is hilarious!
What do you think it was about the show that made it such a massive hit, especially among younger viewers? Do you think we’ll ever see a TV phenomenon like that again?
I think the younger crowd responded to being spoken to with respect. I think handling bulimia and sex and rape and addiction and other sensitive topics was unheard of on mainstream TV despite the fact that these things were and are realities in kids’ lives. The topics were handled with honesty and delicacy and sincerity. People, even kids, know when they are being talked down to or if smoke is being blown up their asses and I think they appreciated that 90210 did not do that. Plus, it did not hurt to have a pretty cast.
As to another phenomenon – who can say? Breaking Bad was a bit of a phenomenon but not the sort that started mall riots. So, who knows?
What inspired the story of Bathing & the Single Girl?
I was challenged to participate in a stage show several years ago. It was called Four Stories & a Cover – and four writers read true-life, comic essays about their lives and someone played a cover song. I wrote a ten minute piece that I eventually turned into a short film – which can be seen here. That film did 100 film festivals and then someone suggested expanding it into a novel, which I did. It is the proudest achievement of my life and I promise everyone, it is THE FUNNIEST book ever written. Awkward, dirty, funny. It can be purchased on Amazon.
How did you initially become interested in photography?
My mother is an amazing photographer so I always had access to a camera and her shots were inspiring. Still, I mostly did self-portraits – when I was a kid – and I do them to this day. I also like to photograph decaying Americana. My pin-ups and Americana and pet photos can be seen and purchased at www.MyPinUpArt.com.
What’s the best meal you’ve had recently?
Well, I very seldom go out to eat so it is a good thing that I always enjoy the food I cook! I have a food porn blog – www.delightfuldeliciousdelovely.com. I create lots of vegetarian and vegan recipes and post them there. It is a great way to satisfy my interests in food, photography and writing – all at once. There are a few meat and seafood recipes, but the blog is increasingly leaning vegan. I encourage everyone to check it out. The giant majority of the recipes are quick and easy so that even novice cooks can whip up dishes to impress the villagers.
What TV shows do you enjoy watching these days?
I like Louis, Pitbulls & Parolees, Orange is the New Black — that kinda stuff. I don’t think I watch any network TV. I am more of a movie and doc person though, right now, I am completely immersed in (and loving!) Narcos. I also like to binge watch and just get totally immersed in stories. I recently watched Breaking Bad (I know! I was the last person on Earth), and I really liked it. It did not, however, replace my all-time top two in ranking: The Wire and Twin Peaks.
If you had to venture a guess, where do you think Emily Valentine is these days, and what do you think she’s up to?
Well – I guess she is off somewhere being a marine biologist. When the new 90210 had their troubled character (Silver) and were casting a sort of enabling mom to the cast, I pitched that that mom be Emily Valentine. The mom was a drummer and Emily was an established musician who dabbled with drugs so I thought it would be great to bring her back as sort of a 40-ish Amy Winehouse type. Alas, they did not bite and they cast the lovely Kelly Lynch in the role. Damn!