Clearing a Path to Wellness
by Allan Richter
On her situation comedy “Easy to Assemble,” Illeana Douglas plays an actress fed up with the value that Hollywood affixes to glamour and shallow characters. So she takes work as an entertainment director of sorts at an Ikea store of all places, bringing a little showbiz sparkle to the Swedish furniture retailer. Like the show’s character, who happens to share her name, Douglas is driven to take matters into her own hands with alternative solutions to the trials of conventional living. In her personal life she tends to favor natural remedies while in her career she is known for some offbeat roles in independent films (“Happy, Texas” and “Ghost World”), though she can also be seen in bigger-budget movies like “Goodfellas” and “Cape Fear.”
More recently, Douglas is taking an unconventional path with the Internet-only distribution of “Easy to Assemble,” which finished its second season on MyDamnChannel.com. Last month, the show picked up seven Streamy Award nominations, the equivalent of the Emmys for
That the show, which Douglas created, revolves around the lives of sales associates reflects the blue-collar mentality with which she is fascinated and that harkens back to her New England roots. “The character is really kind of an offshoot of me and my life and where I’m at now,” Douglas said over a halibut lunch at the Society Café in the Encore resort in Las Vegas.
She is in town for a panel discussion on the delivery of entertainment content with the actor Richard Dreyfus and other industry heavy hitters. At the panel session, a slender Douglas is dressed in jeans and a sheer black blouse. During lunch, she wears a more conservative white turtleneck and sports a pendant with the white silhouette of a woman’s profile.
Her show is a blue-collar comedy implicitly making the point that there’s no sleek Hollywood-scripted path to resolving problems. Douglas figures those solutions come by adding the kind of hard work, humor and song she recalls from the working class neighborhoods of her youth and that were loosely represented in “All in the Family,” “Laverne & Shirley” and other blue-collar sitcoms of the day. “I’ve been trying to pitch shows to network television about blue-collar workers for five years,” she says. “Nobody is interested.”
Hard work, humor and song also happen to be some of the very ingredients that Douglas says are part of her natural health regimen. Sing-alongs, comedy and positive thinking all figure prominently in the actress and producer’s approach to wellness, complementing her fitness routine and largely fish-based diet.
For the positive-psychology elements of her health regimen, you won’t find Douglas looking to Hollywood studios. For that, she says, she turns inward.
“You’ve got to have the ability to turn off the media noise and not focus on what the media is telling you about how you should live your life and how you should look and how you should be. You know better what the secret is. We all have the ability to be successful, but we don’t believe it. We don’t trust our instincts, so we look to outside sources to say, ‘Well, maybe I should be a cougar.’ It’s insane. We have to redefine what is true failure,” she says.
“Maybe you’ve got the best biscotti recipe ever, and everybody tells you that. I always say to the person, ‘That’s what you should be doing.’ And they say, ‘What are you talking about? I can’t make money with that.’ But I have a theory that that is the very thing, the key to everyone’s personal success.”
Douglas takes rejection to heart, but not the way most people might. She embraces failure as a necessary precursor to success and has seen her fair share of both. She was once fired from a television pilot, then by her agent and her manager—all in one day—because the show didn’t work out.
At the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, the acting teacher Sanford Meisner once told her: “Your scene was like watching a concert pianist realize halfway through the performance that he had failed to lift the lid of the keyboard.”
It was at the same acting school that teacher Richard Pinter imparted the value of failure. “He said, ‘You better fail now—and often,’” Douglas recounts. “‘You better try to do the worst British accent now because one day when you’re on a closed set you won’t be able to fail.’
“I’m very glad I had those experiences. You’re taught, you go home, you beat yourself up and you think, ‘Maybe I’m terrible—do I really want to do this?’ And then I think, ‘You know what—I really do want to do this.’ So it’s good sometimes for people to drive you to the brink of thinking that maybe you don’t want to do this anymore so you can pick yourself up and decide that you really do.”
A Test of Strength
Douglas says people should care for their health not just in career lows but also when deeper challenges strike. Douglas and her positive-thinking approach were severely tested when her brother Stefan was diagnosed at age 47 with glioblastoma, the same kind of brain tumor that killed Ted Kennedy. Her brother died last year, two years after his diagnosis.
“My grandmother, who was Italian, lived to be very old, and one of the things that I thought was fascinating, and that I’m going to try to do as I get older, even though it’s very difficult, is to adopt this immigrant mentality of toughness they had,” Douglas says. “They managed to cope with catastrophic things happening. They didn’t fall apart. Now a brother dies and then you get depressed and you get an illness. You have to make a decision: ‘This is horrible, but I’m going to live. I’m going to be tough about it.’”
After her brother died, Douglas says, “I immediately pulled myself into making sure that I’m healthy and making sure that my parents are healthy. There’s a period of time where you can see yourself susceptible to an illness because you’re depressed and your immune system is down. That’s when you have to think most about your health. You have to fight it.”
Her positive approach is as much about wellness in the moment as it is about healthy aging, which Douglas says must include lessons in readiness for the kinds of unexpected hardships and tragedies that claimed her brother.
“We have no rules for dealing with a catastrophic illness—none,” Douglas says, her signature silver-dollar eyes growing wider. “You’re suddenly trying to find your way through the health system, support groups, clinical trials, traveling here and there. And the stress on the families—we really need some education before one day, in an instant, you get that diagnosis and your life savings and everything is turned upside down.
“I felt like I didn’t have the tools to deal with it; I felt like I was back in colonial days, physically. I was really shocked. A hospice worker comes and hands you a box of morphine, and they go, ‘Good luck. Let us know when it’s all over.’ They give you the little ‘grimace card’ to tell if your terminal patient is in pain or not. That’s how primitive it is. You’re on the phone going, ‘How much morphine do I administer?’ I never thought I’d be administering morphine, you know?”
For a time, her brother also tried a natural approach, using visualization techniques. During that period, Douglas says, her brother’s tumor had not returned and his mood had improved. More than debating the value of conventional versus complementary medicine, however, Douglas wants to see better communication between the disciplines. “Can’t we have the nutritionist, the yoga person, the massage therapist?” she says. “Can’t it work together?”
Douglas’ focus on preparedness also comes from a concern about falls that the elderly endure—falls that are often a catalyst for declining health. “If you are elderly, that’s the beginning of the end,” she says. “You fall, you can’t move as well, you lose your muscle tone, you get depressed, fluid builds up in your lungs, you get pneumonia. You want to make sure your house has all the safety bars in your 50s, when you’re still active so that when you’re in your 70s you don’t have to figure out, ‘I can’t get up the stairs anymore’ or ‘I can’t put up this railing.’ I think it’s up to us in our 40s to think about how to not get dementia; it’s a combination of eating well and living well.”
If untreatable dementia comes to the family, as it did for Douglas’ grandmother, accept it with grace and humor, Douglas says. She recalls how her family handled their matriarch’s depression over no longer living on her own. “We’d be sitting at breakfast and she would say, ‘This is some great hotel here, isn’t it?’ We’d go, ‘Yeah, it is.’ She would say, ‘They give such good portions.’ She’d go wake my brother up and say she needed to go home. She said it so many times he finally put her in the car and drove her around the block. When she drove up the driveway, she’d say, ‘Thank God I’m home.’
“I think that when as a family these things are happening to you, there’s shame and embarrassment. We don’t air our dirty laundry, yet we know it’s happening to everybody. You have to look at it, laugh at it a bit and see it as part of life. That’s part of the aging process, and embracing it is healthy.”
For Douglas, living well also means regular singing parties with friends at her Los Angeles home. The parties—a West Coast version of Southern hootenannies, she says—start in the early evening and last well into the night.
Actor Eric Lange, who plays the Ikea store manager on “Easy to Assemble,” is one of the regular piano players at Douglas’ parties. His first time there Jeff Goldlbum was on piano and actors like Zooey Deschanel and Jane Lynch were singing with fervor; Lange picked up a shaker. “It’s not about how big a celebrity is there, it’s the camaraderie,” says Lange. “Everybody brings some talent to it, whether it’s singing or playing the piano or banging on a chair. It’s just a lot of fun. It’s good for the soul.”
Douglas believes acting gives her a similar boost. “It’s contact with people and very intimate,” she says. “When you’re doing a scene with someone, you’re reaching through 10 levels of intimacy. To be a good actor you have to let yourself be totally open.”
Douglas is continuing in the tradition of her grandfather, the actor Melvyn Douglas, who worked well into his later years. “My grandmother said to me he never lost interest in his work,” she says. “I see that as something that has longevity.”