Back to the Woods
Upper Darby native—and “Blair Witch” actress—Heather Donahue gets back to nature
by Bill Donahue


In 1999, Heather Donahue seemed to have it all: interviews on late-night TV shows and her face plastered on covers of glossy newsstand magazines, all the result of her starring role in an unexpected mega-hit that has since become ranked among the scariest films of all time, “The Blair Witch Project.”


Then, for an encore performance, Donahue … well, sort of disappeared. The Upper Darby native did garner roles in a handful of other films, as well as spots in TV shows such as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” but she never was able to recapture the magic she bottled in the low-budget horror film about three wannabe filmmakers who went for a walk in the woods in search of a myth and, in the process, unearthed box-office gold; the film grossed more than $248 million worldwide.


Donahue [editor’s note: no relation] has rediscovered herself, in a way, thanks to a yearlong detour to a small town in Northern California, where she “worked” as a pot farmer for a year. She documented the experienced in a book called “Grow Girl: How My Life after ‘The Blair Witch Project’ Went to Pot,” due to hit bookstores on Jan. 5, 2012.


Suburban Life caught up with Donahue at her home in San Francisco to talk about life after “Blair Witch,” her experience rooming with chickens and, above all, what happens next.


Suburban Life: With “Blair Witch,” you were on top of the world, it seemed: talk shows, magazine covers, a huge box office. At what point did things change?

Heather Donahue: I know exactly the moment. I was shooting a movie called “The Morgue,” lying on the ground, my character dying a simulated death by [unsavory means], and I thought, Is this the right livelihood for me? Is this what I want to put into the world?


At that point I knew I needed to do something else, so I found myself at a meditation retreat, thinking it might show me what comes next. I guy sat down next to me and said he lived nearby, and I said, “How do you support yourself?” and he said, “I grow pot.” It was, like, Ding—that’s worth checking out.


SL: Which is the basis for your new book, “Grow Girl.” It seems like quite a story for anyone, let alone a Hollywood star. Give me the elevator speech.

HD: It’s a memoir about my time as a medical-marijuana grower in California … in a town I call “Nuggettown” in the book. I had been there seven years before, in 2001, and I fell in love with it. I remember telling myself, “I hope to live there one day,” so I burned all the stuff related to career and my relationship to L.A., and went to the meditation retreat. Everything else just sort of fell into place.


The experience [of living in Nuggettown] really got me interested in writing more, which I had done my whole life, but performance was what I had always gotten approval for. So I had an opportunity to get back to that, living in woods by myself except for 27 chickens, a puppy, a garage load of ganja and a lot of time to write. A lot of people would have gone back to school and get their MFA, so this was like my MFA time but with no debt. I found out what else I could become. I had been so entrenched in the identity of being “the girl from ‘Blair Witch,’” but it didn’t feel complete to me. It didn’t match up with what I felt about myself.


SL: What was life like on the farm, so to speak?

HD: The solitude was so amazing. You get the real sense of there being something greater. I was dwarfed by the forest and outnumbered by lizards and deer. I had a beautiful little house at the end of a red dirt road. When I originally got into it, I decided I would only do it for a year; I saw people who got trapped in the lifestyle and the isolation. The idea that you’re only really talking to other people who do what they do sort of frightened me.


It was a really helpful way to figure out what my calling was, which was to get back to writing. It took me six months to write [“Grow Girl”] … but I had been so deeply entrenched in the culture that I wouldn’t even write the word “pot” for six months because I was worried it would be on my hard drive.


SL: So how did “Nuggettown” compare to, say, Upper Darby?

HD: It’s pretty different. I definitely miss the down-to-earthiness of the Philly area. I was just overhearing a conversation last night with people around here [in San Francisco] reflecting like they were in a workshop, and … as much as I appreciate people who are trying to be conscious of how their words land, I do miss the down-to-the-earth nature of Philly.  


SL: What’s next for you? More books? Back to acting? Whatever happens is whatever happens?

HD: Preferably more books. I enjoy the autonomy and the periodic isolation, the marketing side. You've got this long period of isolation, followed by periods of “let’s talk about my book.” For me, writing books has been like realizing that finally, yes, this is what I wanted to do.


I look at [“Blair Witch”] as a distraction now, even though it was extraordinarily helpful. I’ll always appreciate it for the opportunity it provided.