Saturday, February 13, 2016
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Eliza Dushku Returns to TV in 'Dollhouse'

By Christina Radish

 Eliza Dushku at the Fox Winter All-Star Party held at My House in Hollywood, Calif. on January 13, 2009.
Joss Whedon, creator of the groundbreaking cult favorites Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, reunites with fellow Buffy alumna Eliza Dushku for Dollhouse, a thrilling new drama for Fox television. On the provocative series, Dushku plays Echo, a member of a highly illegal and underground group of individuals who have had their personalities wiped clean so that they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Hired by the wealthy, powerful and connected, the “Actives” don’t just perform their hired roles, they become -- with mind, personality and physiology -- whomever the client wants or needs them to be. Whether imprinted to be a lover, an assassin, a corporate negotiator or a best friend, the Actives know no other life than the specific engagements they are in at that time. Meanwhile, FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) risks his career in his search for the elusive Dollhouse.

Discovered at the early age of 10, the 28-year-old Boston native worked opposite Robert DeNiro,  Arnold Schwarzenegger and Halle Berry, before landing the role of Faith Lehane on Buffy. Though initially planned as a five-episode role, the character became so popular that Dushku stayed on, and continued to play her role on the spin-off Angel as well.

Dushku spoke to MediaBlvd Magazine about teaming up again with Whedon, for their return to television.

MediaBlvd Magazine> How did this show come about? What did you say to Joss to get him to do this?

Eliza Dushku> We were at lunch and I said, “Joss, I need you to write me show, and it needs to be the best show that you’ve ever written with the best role for me that’s ever been written. I’m here and we’ll do it together, but it has to be you.” I bought him a Gouda pizza, and he accepted. The next thing I knew, we had a show. I’m just really thrilled!

MediaBlvd> What did you really respond to with this concept?

Eliza> I’m always careful to say that we came up with the idea together, but we are really close friends. We’ve known each other for 10 years, since back in the Buffy days. When I moved out to L.A., I was 17. When we sat down, we were talking about my experience and what it’s like to be a young woman in this business, and the feeling of that universal theme that you wake up every day and feel like everyone wants you to be a different person and there’s this identity crisis. He really understood that. Joss really gets women. There’s a woman somewhere, deep inside of him, that is just always there. He will tell you, loud and proud. That’s what we started talking about, and the challenge of that, and what I face in our culture today. With that, he went to the bathroom and, when he walked back, he said, “The show will be called Dollhouse,” and I said, “Okay, I’m in!” So, I’m playing this young woman who has had her own personality wiped clean, and she can be imprinted with any skill or language, to be out for hire. It was important to me that she was human, and that it wasn’t so science fiction that deep, down somewhere, I wasn’t human. Therefore, my character starts to remember, and that’s where a lot of the challenges come up.

MediaBlvd> How did this show develop from that first meeting into what viewers are actually going to see? 

Eliza> When we first sat down, I had just negotiated a deal with Fox, to do a show with them, and Joss was really the only person on my mind. I thought, if he wasn’t going to do a show with me, he at least knew me well enough to guide me and help me put together the ideas that were in my head , so that I could figure out what kind of woman I wanted to play and what I wanted to be a part of. So, when we sat down, we just started talking about life and our careers and different projects, we were talking about what it’s like for me, waking up every day and having to be a different person, and we were talking about the Internet and how, with just the click of a button, people can find anything that they want, need or desire, and what actually happens when they get that. We were talking about sexuality and what’s taboo, and objectification, and just things that are relevant to us. Four hours later, Joss sprang forward with the basis for the show and said, “It will be called Dollhouse, and it will basically be this. You will have the ability to be imprinted to be someone sexy, or anything, and we will show how that affects people. We’re going to stir people up and we’re going to make people uncomfortable because that’s interesting to us.” Here we are, 13 episodes later, and we’ve done that. We’re super excited about it. The cool thing is that the show gets better, with every episode. Joss is really a novelist, and you have to give him chapters to tell the story. I participated on a lot of levels, as a producer, with ideas of my own. The show just goes so deep, and it’s so exciting, thought-provoking and relevant. 

MediaBlvd> Is the fact that you’re essentially a different character in every episode what appealed to you, in regard to the premise of the show?

Eliza> Joss and I came up with the show together and we were talking about what kind of show would suit me, right now, in my career and my life. Basically, Joss and I have had a more than 10-year friendship. He knows me very well, and he knows how hard it is for me to sit still for five minutes, not to mention for an entire episode, so the premise of the show was based on my own life, on keeping things moving, on keeping me active, and having the chance to play and jump around in between these characters every week, and sometimes multiple times in every show. That was planned from the get-go. I just have a lot of energy, and an appetite for people, for telling different stories, for being in a different place, and traveling and experiencing different emotions. One thing that Joss gave me, with this project, is the ability to show some other colors of mine, that other creators, writers, directors and executive producers haven’t given me in the past. He wanted to give me the stage to act them out. It’s a gift, and it’s a lot of fun.

MediaBlvd> How do you find a character, when her personality is changing in every episode?

Eliza> I relate in a very sick way. I just get it. For me, as someone who has always been vocal about my ADHD, and growing up in a family where I’ve traveled all around and I have three older brothers, it’s like a personality playground. So, every week, I get to go in and put on a different outfit, and take on a different language or skill, or learn a dance. I’ve challenged Joss, telling him that I want as many different experiences as possible.

MediaBlvd> How has that challenge gone?

Eliza> Last year, I was in Iran for two weeks, for a study tour. I had an amazing trip there. I was sending Joss photos of me in my full hijab and chador, and he said, “Okay, I see sweeps week!” He definitely counts on me to give him the inspiration for all of the zany and exotic things that I do in my life, and then he incorporates them into the show. That’s our relationship.           

MediaBlvd> Is there more to this role than just being an actress, since you have to be somebody new, every week?

Eliza> That’s why I’m in this business. I love people, and I love people’s stories. My mother is a political science professor, and we’ve traveled around the world, since I was very young. She would take groups of students, in the event that she could always bring a kid, so we’ve traveled. And, one of the things we did was just hear people’s stories. People just want to be heard. I think Oprah said that somewhere. The greatest gift that you can give to anyone that you meet is to promise that you’ll share their story. I feel like that’s what I have the opportunity to do, in this business. The more authentically and realistically we can do that, the better -- the more I feel fulfilled and enjoy the work.

MediaBlvd> Are you ready for the network experience again?

Eliza> Sure. I’m pretty up for anything, as long as I’m with people that I trust, and I wholeheartedly trust him more than anyone in this entire town, and this entire world, in some ways.

MediaBlvd> Is there any way to prepare for the unknown of network TV?

Eliza> I just knew that, if I was going to make a commitment like this again, it had to be with someone that I would follow anywhere, and I would follow Joss Whedon anywhere. Even back in the Buffy days, it was one of those experiences where, every single script that came, hot off the printer -- some days, an hour before we would shoot it -- was genius. I hate to overuse the word genius, but to me, Joss is a genius. He’s a feminist. He’s a comic. He gets so many elements and weaves them into one. It’s just a true joy and thrill to be working with him. I’m also one of the producers on the show and he said, “It’s not just going to be a title. I want you to participate.” He’ll come into hair and make-up some mornings and go, “Can I grab you? Bring your producer hat because we’re going to do producer talk.” I love that! That way, I really feel involved, on a whole different plane.

MediaBlvd> How has the show has changed from the original pilot that you read? What are your thoughts on how the show has evolved, since then?

Eliza> We changed the pilot, more for logistical reasons, and that happens any time that you’re dealing with a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Fox had an idea of the pace that they wanted in the first couple of shows, which differed from how Joss originally wanted to set it up, but Joss and I both feel that where we came out is exactly what we had talked about, when the idea first came up. We’re telling this young woman’s story, and following her and these others as they go through these first 13 trials of engagements, and of self-realization and identity.                                                                  

MediaBlvd> When you sign on for a show and you do a pilot, and then you have to do a new pilot, what’s the leap of faith that you have to take to know that everything is going to be all right?

Eliza> We follow Joss Whedon. What he says goes because -- and I’m going out on a limb -- he’s pretty good. I’ve followed him other places, at other times in my life and career, and he makes it right. He’s the captain of the ship. We all have a fundamental, full-force sense of trust with where he’s taking us and the decisions he’s making.

MediaBlvd> This show is being described as game-changing and mind-blowing. What makes it that?

Eliza> It’s provocative. It’s disturbing, in some ways. It’s controversial. We’re dealing with altering and programming people, and that’s a very sensitive topic, but it’s relevant and exciting. I’ve always wanted to do work that has to do with evolving and questioning, and making people uncomfortable. To me, interesting storytelling is asking different questions and taking a closer look at desires, fantasies, taboos and sexuality, and those are all things that Joss and I discussed, when we were talking about making a show. They were things that I knew that he, as a creative genius, had the ability and the imagination to create with me, while rolling in a story that just puts those parts together tightly, cleverly and with drama, humor, pain and joy. Anyone who’s known his work on Buffy, or who knows him as a person, knows that he’s all of those instruments. That’s what makes this such an extraordinary show. 

MediaBlvd> Being an executive producer of the series, and developing it with Joss, has that given you any new perspectives on making a TV series that you might not have had before?

Eliza> It’s been what I expected. I have been in this business now for over 15 years. I grew up in this business, and it has been validating to have a friend and partner in this like Joss, and to have him acknowledge that this was something that he believed, made it an undertaking that I could take with him. He obviously has 10 million things to do in a day, most importantly, being up in the writers’ room, breaking stories and knowing that this is our baby. This is something that we decided to do together, with passion and enthusiasm. I have picked up and learned a lot about how the machine operates, over the years. It was more exciting than anything, and it also made me that much more invested in the fine details of the show -- the political aspects, the morale on the set, making sure our crew members felt heard. There are just so many elements, but I absolutely love it because this is something that I asked for. I asked for every single bit of it, and I can truly say that I’ve loved every bit of it, including the responsibilities, the effort and the enthusiasm. The whole crew and the whole cast has wanted it as badly as Joss and I have. Those are the people that we wanted to surround ourselves with and by. It has certainly been challenging, but it’s been the best kind of challenging because I’ve learned so much, but I’ve also just gotten the opportunity to be more hands-on than I ever have.

MediaBlvd> Are you in the writer’s room as well?

Eliza> I know every writer, and I adore every writer. I’m not a writer myself, but just because of our relationship, and because of the openness and the comradery, we all get to inspire one another.                                                                                                  
MediaBlvd> Which of the personas that you’ve played so far, have you enjoyed the most?

Eliza> Honestly, the Amish girl threw me for a loop and I thought, “This is going to be so crazy for me,” but I loved it. I played this blind woman, and they implanted cameras into her eyeballs and send her into a cult, so they could get information through her eyes. The woman that she’s imprinted to be went blind at age 8, and she’s this religious, lovely, open, hippie, garden of God momma. She believes she is led by God to this compound. It was actually really fun. I did some research. We had a lovely woman come down and spend the day with me, who had gone blind after having had sight for the first years of her life. Just doing the research and trying to realistically and authentically play each character as an individual, is what’s cool. That one was very exciting for me. And, also, Tahmoh and I have a great rough-house scene where I’m imprinted as a highly intelligent, super-fierce assassin. That was one of my favorites as well. There was also a particularly special episode, being the personality of a 50-something-year-old woman, in my own body. I don’t know if I have a favorite because they’ve all had their own special nuances. The show has surprised me because, on the one hand, it’s awesome and exhilarating to be the sexy assassin, but at the same time, I also really enjoy playing other characters. It’s challenging, and yet liberating to have the opportunity to be in the world, in these different skins.

MediaBlvd> Did you feel out of your comfort zone, playing a woman with a 1940’s up-do?

Eliza> Yes. I grew up a total tomboy with three big brothers, and I was this little girl, running around with this mop of tangled hair, climbing trees and playing tag football with my brothers. There’s just something about a polished, bobby-pinned, hair-sprayed up-do, with the composure and sophistication. It’s thrilling and fun for me to play, but it definitely threw me, at first. It was something that was out of my comfort zone, but from the very get-go, Joss told me that he intended on taking me out of my comfort zone, as much as possible on this show. I welcome it.  I’m up for any challenge, and any uncomfortable scenario that he wants to throw at me, because that’s what this is about. 

MediaBlvd> How difficult is it for you to prep and do these different skill sets, week after week, on a TV schedule?

Eliza> It’s on the fly, I’ll tell you that much. We get an episode, and we’re shooting the next day. It’s like, “Hey, can I get a tape of this kind of accent?,” or “Can I get a tape of this language?” It’s a good thing I’m a quick study, and I’m a pretty good mimic. That’s helpful.      

MediaBlvd> How physical is the role for you?

Eliza> I’ve been on a motorcycle in leather pants. I jumped out of a moving vehicle. I may be jumping out of a plane. That works for me. The more action, the better. I like to be on the move.

MediaBlvd> Are you doing any training?

Eliza> I work out every day, and I’ve been physical since I came out of the womb. I grew up with three older brothers, and I’ve always been game for everything. That was one of the connections that Joss and I had, way back in the Buffy days. I showed up and was like, “Who’s that girl dressed like me? I don’t need a stunt double. Just throw me in the action. Throw me off a building. I love it!”                                                                                                      

MediaBlvd> Is it hard to give up some of those special skills since, by the next personality, they’re no good anymore?

Eliza> Sure. Then, she’ll be imprinted as a young woman who’s being abused or being beat down and you think, “Man, those ninja skills would be cool right now.”                   

MediaBlvd> In the first three episodes, Echo gets an asthma attack, is hunted by a client, and gets wiped in the middle of a mission. What else can go wrong?

Eliza> Anything and everything, at any given time. We’re dealing in real situations and that’s why we have our handlers there, hopefully to protect us from the bad. But, that sort of thing is going to go down because it’s obviously not a perfect system and it’s not a perfect world. 

MediaBlvd> Is there a reason that Echo is the one that is becoming more aware? Is there going to be a reasoning behind her glitch, or is she just the one that we’re following because she’s the main character, and she is just happening to become aware?

Eliza> I can tell you that you’re going to find out what kind of time frame the Dollhouse has been operating under, and what happened to previous dolls. We just come into the story with Echo, but there have certainly been dolls before her, and there will certainly be dolls after her. Why Echo? Probably because Joss and I came up with the idea together, so we decided to bring the story up with me, at the head of the herd.                   

MediaBlvd> Given that the clients of the Dollhouse are expecting their fantasy girl, are we going to see any episodes from a client’s perspective, where they learn that getting what you wish for can be a curse instead of a gift?

Eliza> Absolutely. That’s one of the main themes in this whole story that we’re telling. Objectification hurts, whichever side you’re on, because that’s why we’re all different, and that’s why there are certain parameters and morals in our society. When you step outside of those things and you put such control in certain people’s hands, in terms of what people want, need and desire versus what they think they want, need and desire, they may be surprised. You’re absolutely going to see clients wishing that perhaps they had not decided to add that extra element to their “active,” or doll.

MediaBlvd> How is the relationship between Echo and Sierra (Dichen Lachman) going to develop?

Eliza> The dolls are starting to have these memories, develop these little flickers of self-awareness, recognize one another, and remember things from engagements. Of course, that’s considered a glitch in the Dollhouse system, and that’s where all hell breaks loose. That’s where the show expands and gets interesting.                          

MediaBlvd> What are the best and worst parts about getting to play such a variety of people, yet still playing a single character as the base? 

Eliza> The base character, Echo, is simple. She’s blank. She’s had her personality and memories erased. She’s like a child with no inhibition and no fear. She’s a blank slate. It’s exciting, in the sense that, every week, there’s a new star of the show, and it’s whatever character I am imprinted to be. Early on, we found that one of the challenges was that each character, when they’re introduced, needs a good scene full of story. You basically need to give that character’s background, and we found that it was nice to get me in the role in some of the easier scenes first, before having me step on set in the outfit as the person, with five pages of dialogue explaining who I am. Whenever possible, and when locations and shooting schedules permit, it’s better to ease into it. It’s nice to get in the skin and find something to latch onto that makes that person distinct, as opposed to forcing it and using the dialogue, the scene or exposition to tell the story.  I am a really adaptable person. I was just raised that way. Throw me in the water and, hopefully, I can learn how to swim and survive, and get very comfortable, very quickly. There is that initial shock to the system, so we figured out, early on, that it’s helpful to do some of the other scenes first because some scenes are easier than others to slide into. And, I have worked with Joss, specifically, on certain characters. I also have a coach that I’ve worked with, since I was 10 years old, who actually lives in New York, and we work on the phone or he comes out to L.A. I’ve taken it very seriously, and I really want to, as much as possible, take Eliza-isms out, when they’re not necessary, and add other elements and colors to these characters, to portray the reality that I’m a different person, every week, as much as possible. It’s absolutely been challenging.  It’s been humbling. It’s been exciting. And, I’m ready for more.

MediaBlvd> Are you aware that you have a really big lesbian following?

Eliza> I have been made aware of that, over the years, particularly around my Buffy years.

MediaBlvd> Why do you think that is?

Eliza> During Buffy, a lot of people really dissected that show and thought that Faith and Buffy had this deep-down love for one another. I’m obviously very girly, but I grew up with a lot of boys, so there’s definitely a tomboy in me. I’ve found that I have fans equally, in males and females. I have a lot of lesbian fans out there and a lot of gay men, who still do cheers in supermarkets from Bring It On. It’s awesome! I love loving from all sides, in my fan world. I appreciate every individual that appreciates watching me work.

MediaBlvd> Is there anything in Dollhouse that they’ll be able to connect to? Does it have any gay elements?Eliza> To be honest, there was one story that was pitched, that didn’t make it into the first 13 episodes, but we’ve only told 13 stories and we’re all so excited. Joss said to me, “We just finished these 13 episodes, and it’s been such a hustle and it’s crazy, and yet now that I haven’t been in the writer’s room in a week, I’m already thinking up ideas for the next 13 episodes. I am already dying to get back in the writer’s room and tell more stories, and tell stories that we had ideas and plans for, from the get-go.” We’re exploring every element of human desire and, given the opportunity, we’ll explore every form of sexuality that Fox allows at 9 pm.                        

MediaBlvd> Have you ever wished, in your own life, that you could have some of your memories wiped clean?

Eliza> Absolutely! There are many things that I’d like to forget. At first thought, I would want to forget them. But, actually, truly, deep-down, I would not because they’re all the sum of who I am. My grandmother passed away this year. She was going through dementia in her final years, and it was just fascinating to me. We spent so much time together, so to see that immediate switch and that immediate confusion, it was heartbreaking, but also a fascinating look at our brains and our make-up.      

MediaBlvd> You’ve said that you have tattoos, but you can’t actually see any on the show. Do you cover them up?

Eliza> I have a few, yes, but they’re all actually in places that can be covered with just a swimsuit. Sometimes we cover them up.

MediaBlvd> In a lot of your roles, you’re a poster child for strong women. Do you ever take time to appreciate that and understand that you’ve done some ground-breaking things?

Eliza> I’ve always appreciated it. There have been a few times where I’ve had an interviewer ask me, “Are you concerned about being typecast?,” and I’m like, “Well, I can think of a lot worse things to be typecast as, than a strong woman who’s trying to navigate in this world.” To me, if that’s something that people respond to, and I can participate in it and contribute, then that’s the ultimate career.

MediaBlvd> As a strong woman, how was your trip to Iran? What did that teach you?

Eliza> Honestly, I found that women were much more empowered. I was traveling with an American group through Global Exchange, a human rights organization out of San Francisco, and many women said, “There’s a misconception here. As opposed to some of the other Muslim countries, we feel very empowered.” I don’t want to get too political, but I think it’s always hard to distinguish the difference between a people and their government. We don’t want to be judged on our government. It’s really complicated, but I was really impressed by how unafraid I was. It was a non-threatening environment, more than I would have expected. Iran has really been lumped into this axis of evil and is demonized, in a lot of ways. I wanted to go for myself and have an experience, and it was wonderful. I was there for two weeks, and the people were welcoming and warm and lovely. It was a really amazing trip!

MediaBlvd> Is there a lot of pressure in being involved in a show that is this anticipated?

Eliza> That stuff is so flattering. I feel less pressure with this because, no matter what happens, I know that we’re doing good work. I know that Joss Whedon does not write or create bad work. It’s going to be good, any way you slice it. No one has a crystal ball, and you never know if a show’s going to gel, or what the country wants to watch, but I know, at the end of the day, that when I go in to work, I believe in the work that I’m doing and I’m excited about it. The topics are relevant and important. I’m not really feeling any pressure. I’m happy as a clam about where I am.                                                                                            

MediaBlvd> What would you say is the main theme or message that Dollhouse is going to explore? 

Eliza> Without over simplifying it too much, I’d say it’s not about the search for one’s true identity, but about identifying what makes us who we are, and our thoughts, and what happens when you start to allow other people to influence you. Objectification is a huge theme of the show, and what makes us authentic individuals. It’s about what it means to be an individual, and to have that toyed with or taken from you, and how strong our sense of self is, at the end of the day.

MediaBlvd> Four years from now, when you’re working on season five, do you think that you’ll still have places to go with this character, that you haven’t gone yet?

Eliza> Absolutely! Look at how much we, as human beings, evolve in a day. There’s constant evolution. Apparently, from day one, Joss has had a 5-year plan for the show, and we’ve talked about what some of that is. One of the things that’s exciting about this show is that it’s so open for endless possibilities. You’re dealing with so much. It’s human. It’s mankind. It’s thoughts and wishes and desires.                

MediaBlvd> Are you glad that you waited for this show, instead of doing a Buffy spin-off?

Eliza> Yeah. Everything happens for a reason, and this was organic. It was the right time. I’m not really a cosmic person, but I’m more ready than I have been, in a number of years, to commit to something like this. All the stars aligned on this. I’m psyched!