Exclusive: Christine Elise on Emily Valentine’s Pop Culture Legacy

23 08 2009

Christine Elise circa 1991 and today.

Aside from Beverly Hills 90210’s main players, there’s one character that still gets a lot of attention today: Emily Valentine.  Emily earned, let’s say, very colorful descriptions from viewers, including “stalker,” “crazy,” “fire-starter” and “freak” and sparked debates among fans that still occur today.  Some even argue she’s the inspiration for Silver’s character on the new 90210.

I recently spoke with Christine Elise, Emily’s portrayer, about the character’s genesis and legacy.

TeenDramaWhore: You joined the show as potential love interests for Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Dylan (Luke Perry). Did you have any idea the character was going to become the ‘crazy girl’?

Christine Elise: I was initially cast only for the first episode [ed. note: Episode 2.8, Wildfire] with the possibility of 9 more if things went well – whatever that means. I guess they did go well – because I came back.  Initially – I was very excited to play Emily because I saw her much as I saw myself in high school – as a girl with a personal style different from the mainstream and one that some others mysteriously found threatening.  I, too, was misunderstood & suffered many incorrect assumptions about what “kind” of girl I was.  I appreciated the “you can’t judge a book by its cover” theme of that introductory episode.   Later, as the shows progressed & it was revealed that Emily was nuts – I must confess to disappointment.  I felt they had betrayed her by – ultimately – saying “you CAN judge a book by its cover.”  It was pretty early in my career & a very big job for me.  I really had invested myself in Emily & I had a hard time with the things they made her do & say.  Still – in retrospect – that sense of betrayal might have informed my performance in ways I hadn’t intended.  I played her – even in the nuttiest scenes – as someone I felt really bad for – not a cold & wicked villain.    I think that might have saved her in the eyes of those fans of the show that related to her…and there were many.  Even today, kids that felt disenfranchised either because they were gay, or punk or new in town or poorer than their peers – whatever the reason – they still come up to me & tell me Emily was their favorite character.  I find that really gratifying.   And I hope it is due in part to how I played her & the sympathy I felt for her that allows her fans to forgive her for being such a kook. Or maybe her fans are all crazy, too!   Hahahah!

TDW: In all seriousness, your storyline touched on the important issue of mental health. Do you think people forget or overlook that part and just focus on things like the now iconic gas-throwing float scene (Episode 2.16, My Desperate Valentine)?

Elise: Well – let’s net get to taking ourselves too seriously <wink>.   I don’t think her mental health was covered with the same attention as her nutty behavior but that is totally fair.  After all – it was a soap opera not a PBS program.   As it turned out – the cure was Prozac – so she was simply suffering from depression, I guess.  Not to downplay the agony of suffering clinical depression – but she wasn’t, ultimately, portrayed as mentally ill in the traditional ways we use that term – despite the high drama of the early episodes.   It might have been interesting to show how much pressure is on kids when they change schools etc – and that not all deal as successfully as the Minnesota Twins [Brandon and Brenda] – but I think Emily was brought in not so much to tell HER story as to provide an antagonist  – or a catalyst for the stories of the main characters, you know? On a side note –  I couldn’t help but notice that the only other high profile, blue collar character – Ray Pruitt [Jamie Walters in seasons 5 and 6]- also went nuts & threatened & even injured a main character.    I wrote a Halloween episode once [ed. note: Episodes 6.8, Gypsies, Cramps and Fleas] that had Ray doing kooky stalkery stuff & I felt the same sympathy for him that I did for Emily.  Maybe something in the lunches at West Beverly makes poor people go NUTZ!!! I will also say that the float scene defined Emily in a way I still find pretty surprising.  I get asked two questions all the time: 1) What was it like kissing Jason Priestley? and 2) Why did you burn the float? and 3) Oh – and “Is Shannon [Doherty, Brenda] really a bitch?” I still haven’t developed a cute answer for any of these.  Kissing on camera is embarrassing & awkward & nothing like kissing someone in real life.  EMILY destroyed the float – not me (a detail overlooked by a shocking number of folks) and she did not ever burn it.    And the last question is less interesting to me than “Was BRENDA a bitch?”  – because I kinda think both Brenda and Kelly [Jennie Garth] were pretty awesome be-atchez despite being offered to the public as the heroines of the series.  They both were pretty judge-y  – especially considering the flaws in each of them that were revealed over the years.  But if that leads to characters spitting dialogue like, “Have fun at the GYNOCOLOGIST, Emily!!!” [ed. note: quote is from Wildfire]- well then I am all for it!!!!  Because that is some funny shit.

TDW: I don’t know if you’ve watched the new 90210 at all, but one of the characters, Silver, had a storyline similar to yours. Most of the press said she was either the new Emily Valentine or she was pulling  an Emily Valentine. How does it feel to know ‘pulling an Emily Valentine’ is part of the pop culture lexicon?

Elise: I think it is tremendous!  How many roles like that does your average actor get to play in a career?   I knew she was the Pinky Tuscadero of 90210 [ed. note: reference to a Happy Days character] – but I had no idea the extent to which she impacted people….or how enduring that impact would be.  There is a book called The Emily Valentine Poems and a band called Emily Valentine.   Nylon magazine devoted their ICON column to Emily a few months ago which I found super flattering.   There are several “We hate Emily” groups on Facebook.  I think it is all great.   I kinda felt the actress that plays Silver  [ed. note: Jessica Stroup] was offended by the comparison to Emily.  All I can guess is that she was NOT an outsider at school & identified more with the popular kids…hahahah.    Or maybe she, too, is invested in her character & feels protective of her – as I did Emily.    Clearly – she is no Emily fan.  [ed. note: related article] But, you know – I wonder if I would have liked or hated Emily if another actress had played her – therefore robbing me of the protective impulses I had toward her.  There is no way to know.  I didn’t come at the role from the perspective of the audience but from the inside out.    I still can’t watch the old episodes & really see the character objectively – or even purely as a fan of the show.  I just cannot separate myself enough to make that judgment   I can say that the show  – and my performances – crack me up now.  It seems so much, much campier in retrospect than it did while we were doing it.   I was so sincere & working so hard back then – desperate to do a good job.  Now – I watch & chuckle, with humor & nostalgia.

TDW: Emily’s romance with Brandon was ill-fated. First Emily got ill in season two, then they reunited in season four but she was moving across the world and then when she came back in season five, he was with Kelly. Were you rooting for them? And did you get any flack from “Brelly” fans?

Elise: Of course I rooted for them!  It would have meant more work for ME!   And that show was a lot of fun to work on.  But, yes, I get a lot of flack from fans – mostly in online message boards that called me things like Emily Frankentine  – and they mocked that Louise Brooks bob [ed. note: reference to a model] I had in the Kelly/fire episode [ed. note: Episode 5.13, Up in Flames] by calling me a “donkey in a Dutch boy wig.”   Those kinda things actually hurt a lot more than you think they might.   Sometimes they made me cry.  You have no way to fight back or defend yourself – and people are incredibly nasty when they are hidden in anonymity.  And though you KNOW you shouldn’t read it – it is nearly impossible to tear your eyes away.  I mean, even Tina Fey addressed those online bullies at the Golden Globes when she named a few by their handles and suggested that they “suck it.”  That was awesome & every actor with a computer knows exactly what she was talking about.  Everyone has read mean stuff about themselves & taken it harder than they wanted to….even if they won’t admit it.   I can also say, however, that nobody has ever sad anything mean to my face.  I am not sure if that is because people that hate either Emily or me don’t approach me.  I tend to think that the excitement of meeting someone you watched on TV over & over kinda trumps whatever bad feelings you might have about the character they played.  I know it does for me when I see actors around whose shows I love.   Also – though I tend to imagine my peers as the ones behind the cruel online posts – it is more likely random 10 year old girls who wouldn’t dream of confronting me in person to tell me my hair-do sucks.  Hahahaah!    Whatever the reason, I am relieved to report that, though I am approached all the time by 90210 fans – I have never had any of them be mean to me.  WHEW!!!

TDW: In your last appearance, during Up in Flames, Brandon and Emily share a kiss and retreat to her hotel room. Viewers don’t see what happens next but Brandon feels quite guilty about it. What do you think happened?

Elise: I never really thought about it but if I had to guess – I would say nothing much more happened.  Brandon was an enormously integrity-ridden character.   I imagine he would feel all the guilt he seemed to over just the kiss.  And as a chick – I gotta say – he SHOULD HAVE!   A kiss is cheating!!!  Does anybody think it is odd that none of the characters on the show thought it a sinister coincidence that Kelly was burned in a fire the very day firebug Emily showed up???

TDW: You co-wrote a couple of later episodes. How does that experience differ from the actor experience?

Elise: Writing is fun.  And writing on a serial like 90210 is easy-peasy.  They hand you a pretty substantial outline of what is going to happen & you essentially just fill in the dialogue.  I got to make a few personal touches, add some inside jokes etc – but, for the most part, I had to stay true to the structure they handed me.   I would happily do it again.  I am very grateful for the unique opportunities that show gave me.  But – it is very different from acting because when you write an episode – you can go from start to finish & never walk on the set.  You do it all from home & the occasional meeting with the writing staff.  So – it is an almost solitary experience – where working on a set as an actor is a very social affair & you work with everyone (from the crew to the cast) to get stuff right.  It is more of a collaboration  – in almost every minute – than the writing is.  If I could only do one – I would choose acting.  I like the social elements of being on set.

TDW: Without getting too personal, you dated one of your co-stars. How do you keep that separate from your work life and  professional relationship?

Elise: I am not sure what that question means.  Do you mean – did I get jealous of KELLY???  Haha.  No.  Though many fans have a hard time separating the actors from the characters – I certainly do not.  The entire cast & crew of that show was like a huge extended family.    I never took any storylines personally.   And both Jason & I were actors before we met & think of working on a set with the same casual attitude that other people approach their jobs.   Work is work.  There is never any confusion about that – nor does it complicate one’s life any more than any job with odd hours might.   But – I will admit – sometimes it is a drag to watch your boyfriend kiss a new gal every week!!!  But he had to watch me, too, so – it’s all just part of the deal…and you get over it pretty quickly.


Christine and Jason during their multi-year relationship.

TDW: Are you still in touch with any of the cast?

Elise: Jason (and his wife, Naomi [Lowde-Preistley) and I are still very close.  I see Tiffani [Amber Thiessen, Valerie] quite a bit, too.   Beyond that – I only rarely run into the rest of the cast at auditions or  – like – at Jason & Naomi’s wedding.

TDW: You’ve taken a few small acting gigs in recent years but mostly focus on art.  What kind of stuff do you and where can fans see your work?

Elise: Photography has become quite a passion of mine & my stuff can be seen at www.MyPinUpArt.com. I have driven from Los Angeles to Boston & back more than half a dozen times.  I like to photograph the decaying Americana along Route 66 and the little things that make each state unique.  I hate that uniformity is the order of the day today.  I hate that every mall in any city has the same stores.  I hate Starbucks & McDonalds taking over where mom & pop shops used to rule.  I hate how generic this country is becoming.  So – I try to preserve some vintage beauty with my camera.

Come back next Sunday for another exclusive interview!

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