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In 1999, Heather Donahue was literally the face of the low-budget horror sensation The Blair Witch Project. The close-up image of her scared face–illuminated only by a flashlight– became one of the signature shots of the fauxumentary about a group of friends terrorized by an unseen evil presence in a Maryland forest.
The movie was the first to harness the viral power of the Internet into an effective marketing campaign, grossing $248 million and landing Donahue and her co-stars Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez on the cover of Newsweek and Time. Overnight, Donahue went from a struggling actress to, uhh, a well-recognized struggling actress.
After kicking around Hollywood for a decade, Donahue chucked it all for a new man and a new life growing marijuana in a northern California town she calls Nuggettwon. The relationship didn’t last but Donahue stayed with the marijuana farming, learning the ins and outs of growing pot.
Donahue tells her story in a new memoir Growgirl: How My Life After The Blair Witch Project Went to Pot (Gotham Books, 304 pages, $26.00), an always funny and surprisingly sweet account of her attempts to learn how to grow pot and find love.
She recently talked with The Hollywood Reporter about her memories of the Blair Witch Project, about why she quit acting, and why growing marijuana is more Little House on the Prairie than Weeds. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation.
The Hollywood Reporter: Every story starts by mentioning that you’re the Blair Witch Girl.
Heather Donahue: I’m so used to that by now. I’ve been the Blair Witch Girl pretty much my whole adult life. It doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s my own fault for that confessional scene. I have no one to blame but myself.
THR: When was the last time you saw the movie?
HD: I watched it at the 10th anniversary screening [in 2009]. I found it really endearing. I hadn’t seen it in theaters when it first came out. It struck me as really sweet and earnest in a way that has been kinda lost in all the publicity. I found a lot of humor in it, which I had forgotten about. The whole endeavor was taken on with such innocence and enthusiasm. It was nice to be reminded of that because that got lost once the film became so successful.
THR: After a decade of bouncing around Hollywood you decided to give up acting and as a symbolic act you burnt most of your possessions in the desert, except for the iconic flannel shirt and wool cap from the movie.
HD: The flannel shirt I gave to a homeless man. But it was to hot for LA so he threw it over the fence of this abandoned liquor store where my friend Mr. Kim had been shot in the face. I watched it bake in the sun each day as I would walk by. About six months after I moved, I went back and it was gone. I still have cap.
THR: How did you end up Nuggettown growing pot?
HD: After I did my fire I met this guy. I went to this meditation retreat and at the end of the three days this guy just sorta appeared next to me and invited me to a hot springs. I started talking to him and asked him where lived and he said he lived in this town I had been to 7 years prior and completely fallen in love with. But I couldn’t figure out what people there did for money. I asked him what he did for money and he told me he grew pot. I thought let’s check that out. So I went up with him He had this great house and this veggie garden. He and his friends were able to go to the river on a Tuesday afternoon and swim in the sunshine. It felt like paradise. So I decided I was going to do it to. I felt very constricted by my life in LA. I got really tired of the whole comparing myself to other people in a small room, the grind of pilot season.
THR: The relationship ended quickly but you stuck around Nuggettown. What appealed to you about pot growing?
HD: You start out with these little cuttings off of the mother plant and in two weeks they’ve gone from these little cuttings to an individual plant in their own right. It’s the most amazing plant. Everyday they’ve grown visibly. It’s this little miracle inside your garage. This plant is so powerful, so strong, so hearty, so amazing! It’s a fool’s errand to think you can hold something like that back. So one thing I got out of growing was an awe at what the world looked like when I had the time and space to observe it.
THR: Were you good at it?
HD: I got good at it. It’s a farming endeavor. That’s the other thing I learned from it. No matter what you think you know every time is different. Every round with the plants is different. There are no closed environments. The world was always getting into the room. As much as an indoor grow room is about controlling the environment, I learned over and over again that I had no control. Spider mites somehow got in or powdery mildew would show up. You have to deal with these situations as they arise. It taught me to be really comfortable with flux.
THR: The book is also about the search for love and the story revolves around three men–the one you broke up with just before you left Hollywood, the one you moved to Nuggettown for and the one you left Nuggettown for. Have any of them read it?
HD: No. I was actually writing about falling in love with the German [the guy she left Nuggettown for] as we were breaking up, which was incredibly difficult. I did a fairly balanced job of writing about him even though it wasn’t the kindest of break ups.
THR: You make a nice ex-girlfriend or at least an authorial girlfriend. All of your ex-boyfriends come off pretty nice.
HD: That’s probably why it took two years to write.
THR: Have your parents read it?
HD: My mom has read the book. My dad has read an expurgated version. I come from a loud, loving, funny family. I’ve always been sort of the odd one who has ventured out so it wasn’t that much of a surprise.. I come from a working class family in Philly so if anyone is going to understand the need for autonomy and not get caught working for someone else thanklessly it was my family. My dad worked for a company for thirty years and then his job was gone. So I think my parents understand that the America I inherited is not the America they grew up in. They had concerns about me growing pot mostly about my safety. My mom was worried about my safety but she certainly did get a little badass twinkle when she was working on those plants.
THR: The family that grows together, stays together.
HD: Very Little House on the Prairie
THR: If Michael Landon was a hipster stoner.
HD: It would be just like Little House on the Prairie. My parents working the land and me feeding the chickens.
THR: A stoner Little House on the Prairie. I’m sure someone has made that pitch before.
HD: That would be a great show. It really is nothing like Weeds. It’s just like Little House on the Prairie except skankier. Little House on the Prairie but now with nudity and hot tubs! How’s that for an elevator pitch?
THR: This could be a great little indie movie. Those are probably the last words you want to hear. Any interest in returning to Hollywood?
HD: I would never want to be an actress again. But my good friend Uta Briesewitz [the director] just had Hung cancelled so we’re scheming together on this story and other projects. There’s a lot in the book but there’s a lot that is not in the book. I think it’s a series. It’s a whole world.
Watch the book trailer for Growgirl here:
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