This weekend, the Beverly Hills, 90210 episode that brought you “Donna Martin graduates,” the show’s most iconic line, turns twenty. To celebrate, we spoke to Tori Spelling herself. Here’s what she remembers about the season-three ep — in which Donna’s classmates fight for her right to graduate even though she got drunk at prom — including her first reaction to the script, the anxiety she felt before shooting it, and why she and the gang had no idea they were making television history.
Did you realize that the episode was turning 20 when you got the request to speak with us?
I had no idea. It’s so weird — I’m only turning 21 myself. So it seems odd for the episode to be turning 20 [laughs].
Ha, that’s great. But you are aware that the episode is one of the classics?
I’ve been told. I mean, literally, I don’t think I can walk anywhere down the street — like, at least once a week I get “Donna Martin graduates” or someone will be like, “Can I say it around you?” I’m like, “Yes, please.” They’re like, “Can you say it back to me?” I’m like, “For sure.”
Well, your character never actually says, “Donna Martin graduates.” Because she is Donna Martin.
So you can use that when someone asks you to say it.
[very sincerely] No, I don’t mind. I do the little chant. It feels awkward, but I don’t mind.
Why do you think the episode resonates with people?
I’m not sure. But I’m really proud. We did ten seasons and hundreds of episodes, so it’s obviously something that makes me really proud that this is the one that stands out the most to people. When we made it, we had no idea it would be that huge.
Do you remember your first reaction to the script?
I’m still like this today, and I feel like Donna’s kind of like this: I hate having attention on me. So I remember reading the episode and being like, Oh my gosh, it’s all about her, and they’re fighting for her … this is so embarrassing! Too much attention.
How else were you similar to Donna? She was the super nice and sweet one. Where did you end and she begin?
Donna wasn’t really a main character, she was kind of a small side character who was a friend to Brenda and Kelly, and she had a line here or there. And I just remember thinking, I want to do more. What’s gonna make her stand out? So I would always try to do funny looks. You know, I was gonna make the most of my “Hey, Bren!” No joke. I wasn’t given much. And I was like, I’m well aware I’m here because of my dad, but I feel like I could do more. I know I can act, I know I can do this. I want to create a character. So Donna was pretty much created from me. I added the ditzy blonde stuff, the Lucy stuff, for comedy. Because I felt like that’s what I could do well, that it was maybe something I could add that other people — you know, they did the drama really well, they had that covered. So I was like, Okay, what’s gonna make a different character? Oh! Donna will be funny and ditzy. So I created that part. But the sweet, nice part? I feel like that’s very much a part of me, and it very much spoke to me at that time. I feel like I’ve evolved from there and kind of opened up and become my own person through self-confidence and just building my character. But at the time, that was very much me: Very sweet, very shy.
Aww. You did have some drama, too. Donna had the learning disability, which Mrs. Teasley mentioned in this episode.
Yes. You know, we were a teen drama, and we kind of ran the gamut of everyone getting storylines that, socially, we felt people needed to address and parents wanted to hear about. I just remember always getting nervous when I got those. Like, here comes the drama. I’m way better at the comedy. You know, Donna with two contacts in one eye: Give me that! I can do that, no brainer [laughs].
So were you nervous when you had to give your big speech to the school board?
Yes! So nervous, any time I had to do drama. Because I was just starting out and I felt so in over my head. And whenever I’d get a big line, a monologue, I’d be dreading it. Like, all eyes on you.
What were you like the night before you had to shoot that scene? You were nervous, but did you do anything about it? Or did you just stay in your bed?
[in a deep, gruff voice] Just stay in your bed.
That’s what I do.
[laughs] Um, no, I was the type that would read the script, get nervous, then not think about it until that morning. But the night before I would be studying my lines. Because I did always feel the pressure of being the producer’s daughter. I never felt like I could be late or get a line wrong. I had to come across to be perfect. I did feel that in the beginning part of the show.
Of course Brandon was the one leading the protest. Did you find his Mr. Activist behavior charming or annoying? Because it could go both ways.
Noooo. I thought Brandon was awesome. I loved that he was an activist for people and rights and everything. I thought that was a really cool side of that character.
You said that when you guys were shooting the episode, you didn’t realize it would be a big deal. But what about the line itself? Did anyone react to it? Were you guys like, This is so cheesy?
I honestly can’t remember [laughs]. I have no idea. I wish I had some cool story to tell you, like, “It wasn’t even in [the script]!” and “Someone just said it!” And then the director was like, “Yeah, everyone say it!” But I remember when we were filming that scene, when everyone’s chanting, I just remember it being a really hot day and there were so many people and tons of extras and they all had signs. I don’t know.
What is one of your favorite episodes?
We used to love all the Peach Pit scenes, because we would always film those when we had a band, on a Friday night. And it sucked to be there filming until, like, one in the morning, but we would all be together and hanging out and we’d have music on in the dressing rooms. Filming at the Rolling Stones concert, that was pretty amazing. There was the episode I catch my mom cheating where I got to meet Color Me Badd. And what I remember most about that is I was wearing shorts and a red leather jacket, and I was super offended by that [laughs].
‘Cuz. I was like, Oh my god, that is the worst outfit. I guess at the time it was kind of cool. But looking back now I’m like, Really?
You remind Felice [Donna’s mom] of the cheating incident in the Donna Martin graduates episode. Because Felice is always so judgmental and she shouldn’t be talking.
[long pause] I need to go back and watch the Donna Martin graduates episode again.
Because you don’t remember that?
Basically, Felice is very hard on Donna about it, and Donna says to her, “But we caught you cheating and we forgave you.” So, anyway. Brian Austin Green has talked about that Color Me Badd episode with us before, too. And he also said that he doesn’t let his wife watch the show. What is your general rule on that? Do you cringe if people watch the show around you?
I mean, it’s on Soap Net all the time. The funny thing is, on DVR, my husband [Dean McDermott] and I put our names in because we want to pick up any news shows we do and everything. And it picks up all my 90210s, so we always have to delete them. One time I was watching it and Liam and Stella [her children] were there, and I was going to switch the channel, and then I was like, You know what? I want them to see me. And so I came on and I was like, “Guys, do you know who that is?” And they were like, “No, who’s that?” I will show them pictures and be like, “Who’s that? Is that Mommy?” And they’re like, “No.” If I show them pictures of anything Donna Martin, they have no idea. I don’t think I look that different. I mean, I know I’m older. But they can’t recognize me at all. It’s devastating.
Do you remember the last episode you watched?
It was something in the Peach Pit After Dark and I think Valerie was sleeping with Ray [laughs]. I also am a big fan of the episode where Ray pushes Donna down the stairs. And I’m probably a fan of it for a different reason than most people. Most people are like, “Oh my God. Poor Donna.” And I’m like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe that stunt double they used.” They literally — if you really look closely — it was this woman, but she was, like, very muscular and short and stocky, like that build. And when I was that age I was very thin and little and petite. And they just had this horrible blonde wig shoved on her. And I just remember looking and I’m like, “She doesn’t look like me whatsoever.” And they’re like, “Don’t worry. It happens so fast, no one will know.” And still to this day, when I look at the episode, I see me standing there and then all of a sudden I see — boom, boom, boom — someone else going down. I’m like, It could very well be a man in a wig. You can’t tell the difference. It could be anyone. It looks so bad. It looks like a skit.
I never noticed! I have to go back and look. [See above. She’s right.] Before we go, did you actually have a proper high school graduation?
I did. If you look back at pictures, I look exactly the same, except I had a blue gown on in 90210 and a white gown on for my actual graduation.