The granddaughter of actor Melvyn Douglas and Congresswoman Helen Gahagan, Illeana Douglas was born in Massachusetts. From a young age, Illeana knew she wanted to act and began her initial studies at the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. As a teen, she performed in numerous plays and did stand-up comedy.
The saucer-eyed actress made her film debut in the comedy Hello Again (1987). While working as a publicist's assistant in NYC, she secured the role of a blood-curdling screamer in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). This led to further work with the bushy-browed director, most notably Goodfellas (1990) and 1991's Cape Fear.
Her collaboration with the director also took place offscreen, as the two dated for years. Following roles in a number of films, including Household Saints (1993) and Quiz Show (1994), Illeana was cast in Gus Van Sant's To Die For (1995). She won some measure of recognition and critical praise for her role as Nicole Kidman's sarcastic sister-in-law, and the following year landed the lead in Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart.
Although Illeana was again praised for her work, portraying a Carole King-like singer/songwriter in the film, it did poorly among critics and at the box office. The actress went on to do a number of made-for-TV films, including the satirical Weapons of Mass Distraction in 1997. In 1999 she had a full plate, doing both television work (appearing as a prostitute on the Fox series Action) and more film work.
She also appeared with Kevin Costner in Message in a Bottle (1999) before going on to make the independent film Happy, Texas (1999), the supernatural thriller Stir of Echoes (1999) with Kevin Bacon, and Can't Stop Dancing (1999), a comedy in which she acted alongside Margaret Cho and Janeane Garofalo.
In 2002 she received an Emmy award nomination for her guest appearance on the acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under. The same year, she played a recurring role on three episodes of the NBC crime drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Illeana has also played roles on popular series such as Ugly Betty, Entourage, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Grey’s Anatomy, to name a few.
Other feature film work includes the biographical drama Factory Girl (2006), the comedy She's Funny That Way (2014) starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, the psychological thriller Return to Sender (2015) headlining Rosamund Pike and Nick Nolte and the romantic comedy The Late Bloomer (2016).
In 2019, she playing a supporting role opposite Billy Bob Thornton during the third season of Amazon Prime's acclaimed drama series Goliath.
Illeana was married to producer Jonathan Axelrod from May 1998 to March 2001.