Shannen Doherty on Acting, Facing Cancer and SAG-AFTRA’s ‘Broken System’ of Health Insurance

·11-min read

Shannen Doherty has acted since she was a child, and throughout the 1980s, she worked steadily on television (as Jenny on “Little House on the Prairie”) and in movies (as Heather Duke in “Heathers”). In the early ‘90s, she achieved icon status after the slow-burn explosion of the teen soap “Beverly Hills, 90210,” which propelled its cast into the spotlight, and led the gossip press to follow their every move. After that initial blast of celebrity, Doherty continued to work prolifically in “Mallrats” (1995), “Charmed,” a tonnage of TV movies and more. She even starred in a 2012 reality show, “Shannen Says,” which followed her planning her wedding to photographer Kurt Iswarienko.

Doherty was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, and went through treatment — which she documented on her Instagram — until her remission in April 2017. But in winter 2019, Doherty learned that it had recurred, and that it had become metastatic Stage 4 cancer — which is treatable, but not curable.

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Yet that spring, Doherty signed on to play a parodic version of herself on “BH90210,” Fox’s meta revival of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” She went public with her diagnosis in February 2020, and has continued to work since — though it hasn’t always been easy to convince potential employers that she’s hirable. This month, Doherty stars in not one, but two Lifetime movies — “Dying to Belong” and “List of a Lifetime” — that will air during the same weekend, on Oct. 9 and 10. She also directed the special content that accompanies “List of a Lifetime,” the plot of which centers on breast cancer: Kelly Hu plays a woman who is diagnosed with it, and reaches out to the adult daughter she had placed for adoption years before.

Doherty, now 50, was featured in Variety’s Power of Women issue, and talked about her fierce desire to keep working — and how she feels like she’s even become a better actor since facing cancer. In this Q&A, Doherty delves into what she continues to get out of acting, her experience on “BH90210” and why SAG-AFTRA’S health insurance is a “broken system.” (A representative from the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan responded to Doherty’s comments after this article was published, and that statement is at the bottom of the story.)

When you found out your cancer had recurred, what were you thinking about acting?

I don’t think there was ever even a thought that I wouldn’t work. Obviously, my first thought was, “Oh my God, how is this happening?” A little bit of fear kicks in, and panic kicks in. And then there’s resiliency. There’s strength — all of that kicks in. And you say: “OK, this is just another blow that I got dealt. But like the last blow in my life, or the many, many, many that I’ve had, I can get through this also.”

Then you start thinking about your life and everything that it entails. And I couldn’t imagine not doing the things that I love in life. Whether that be acting or directing, or playing with my dog or riding horses. Or hanging out with my family and my friends. Like, I can’t imagine not being able to do any of those things. So, when you can’t imagine not doing them, you just go, “Well, I’m gonna continue to do all of it!”

Right.

And then you have to break through to other people, and get them to understand that you are hirable. Stage 4 cancer, it doesn’t mean the end of your life. It doesn’t mean that you’re not viable in the workplace. It’s quite the opposite. I think we probably work harder than anyone because we have so much more to prove. I always feel like I have to prove that I can handle the long hours. So I won’t complain about a 16-hour a day. I won’t complain about doing 16 takes when we had it on the third take.

I can do this better than anybody — with Stage 4.

You signed on to do “BH90210” in 2019 before you’d revealed to the public that you’d recurred. How was it to keep that secret?

It wasn’t impacting my capabilities or my skills, and I really didn’t want it to come out before I was ready for it to come out. It solidified what I keep on saying — don’t write us off. If we can fight cancer, we can certainly go do a job.

Brian Austin Green, I think, was the only person on that show who knew about your recurrence.

Yeah, going into filming, Brian knew. I had said no so many times to doing it, and Brian would call me and talk to me about it. And be like, “Hey, it’ll be you and me, and we’re gonna have a blast!” Then finally I told him what was going on with me. And perhaps I had my own fears of saying yes, not just because it was “90210” yet again. I didn’t understand going back there. I didn’t want to play myself, because I’m an actor first. I had just so many hang ups about it. So Brian knew, and then at some point Ian [Ziering] and I had a discussion, and he knew.

I thought that show was interesting and fun. How did you end up feeling about it?

Listen, we all have ideas of how we would do a “90210” if we’d been in charge, right? I definitely created a character of “Shannen.” And I did appreciate that by probably starting around the third episode, and then all the episodes afterwards, they gave me a lot — and I mean, a lot — of freedom. I’m not sure I ever said one scripted line.

Brian and I would just do nothing but improv. We were pretty crazy working together. And to give credit where credit’s due, it was amazing that our writers and our head team allowed that.

Was everyone doing that, or was that just you and Brian?

Brian and I might have taken it the furthest? Half the time, I would just say nothing. And I would just stuff my face with food in every scene. So it was my own take on a crazy version of Shannen, but a version that had some of me in it — the animal advocacy, all of that, that was important for me to get across. The fact that she was an enlightened human being, if you will. Whether she was or was not, she viewed herself as one.

It’s an actor’s dream to be allowed that much freedom.

When there were same old/same old rumors about you from that show, you shut that down immediately on Instagram. And it worked, it seemed?

I mean, it’s just so tired, right? But I was definitely not going to allow it. It’s something I will not allow in my life anymore. And as much as I cannot stand social media to a certain extent, I do understand and appreciate what it allowed me in that moment. For me to be able to address it immediately, say my piece about it, and shut it down was a wonderful thing. Because that’s certainly not something I was able to do in my 20s.

Do you feel like you would have had the language to be able to do that in your 20s?

I think so. Had I had the platform, yes. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so eloquent. And perhaps it would have been a bit harsher of a shutdown. But it still would have been a shutdown.

But I’m very much of the opinion that you can’t look back. Only move forward.

From what I gather, SAG-AFTRA health insurance isn’t easy to keep. Has that been a concern for you?

Oof. There’s a conversation! There are a lot of unions where you get your health insurance based on points. And those points are accumulated over the course of the time that you’ve been in the union. So I’ve been in the union for 40 years; I’ve been paying on top dues for 40 years. And the fact that if I don’t work for one year, my insurance gets knocked down to a lower tier, and the price of it gets jacked very high.

What? No!

And then that lower tier only lasts, I don’t know, a year or two years, maybe. And then what? Look at Ed Asner — he wasn’t able to get SAG insurance anymore. And this is a man who worked his entire life!

Nobody’s gone in and changed it. And it is something that I worry about, of course, like: “Oh, my God, I’ve got to make sure I earn a certain amount of money every single year to get insurance.” Whereas if you just looked at my 40 years of paying dues, and the pension and all of that the producers pay in on behalf of me, you would think that that would cover my insurance for the rest of my life. And it should.

That’s the Writers Guild system, right?

Correct. It’s a very, very broken system that we have at the Screen Actors Guild. And I hope that it changes.

New president Fran Drescher — breast cancer survivor!

Yes! And I hope that she had her moments of being fearful about insurance, and takes that into deep consideration to try to change how SAG deals with healthcare.

Are you in active treatment right now?

I’m on pills. One of them I take every single day, and will for the rest of my life. The other one, I take until my body stops responding to it. I’m very good about — I get my bloodwork done once a month. I get my PET scan and everything else done every six months.

So it’s just about follow-through, and hoping that you stay on one protocol for as long as you possibly can. So, obviously, my hope I do not blow to my protocols. That my body stays responsive to the one that I’m on, and I can stretch it out as long as possible. Because at some point, we’ll have another treatment, we’ll have something new come out.

What do you get out of acting that you don’t get out of the other parts of your life?

It’s the chance to leave my own life behind. And when I’m playing this character, I don’t have all of the same concerns and fears and worries that I have in my own personal life. I’m getting to explore somebody else’s personality; I’m creating from the ground up.

As an actor, we’re diehard creative human beings. And if you’re a creative person, when you can’t be creative anymore, I think you go a little crazy. So what I get out of it is I’m fulfilling that creativity that is inside of me. It’s the same with directing.

What of your past roles do you find yourself thinking about the most?

Oof. Why. Why that question?

I wondered whether there was something unexpected!

Not really. I mean, maybe over the last few years I’ve been thinking about Rene in “Mallrats.” But that’s just because Kevin Smith keeps on sending me scripts for “Mallrats 2.” So that’s been in my head.

Is that going to happen?

I don’t know. I certainly hope so. Because I love working with him.

Having done a deep dive into your Instagram, I wanted to ask you about your support system.

I have an amazing family. And when I say “family,” it’s all-encompassing — my friends are my family. And obviously, there’s my mom and my husband, and everybody is just awesome.

No one in my immediate circle looks at me differently. None of them treat me differently. It’s just me. There’s rarely talk about what I’m going through. And they would all probably tell you that they never hear me complain, they never hear me cry or be upset about it.

And I think having normal in your life is important when you’re dealing with something that’s not normal.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Subsequent to this story posting, a representative from the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan told Variety “that health coverage is neither dependent on nor otherwise related to members paying dues, and that the Health Plan and the union itself are different entities.”

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