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Eliza Dushku was in her early teens when she started appearing in movies like 1993’s This Boy’s Life and 1994’s True Lies, but her nascent Hollywood career took off when Joss Whedon cast her as brash bad-girl Faith in his cult TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In the years since, Dushku took prominent roles in Bring It On, City By The Sea, and the horror vehicle Wrong Turn, and she appeared for two seasons in the title role in the Fox science-fiction show Tru Calling. Now, Dushku has reunited with Whedon for the new Fox series Dollhouse, about an underground operation where “actives” can be imprinted with personalities and abilities that suit a client’s needs. Dushku plays an “active” named Echo who’s ostensibly a blank slate, but who’s haunted by stray memories and impulses that didn’t get erased. (It’s sort of a cross between Alias and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.) Two weeks into the show’s run, Dushku talked to The A.V. Club about the challenge of playing dozens of personalities, the cult of Whedon, Fox’s tinkering, and why viewers should wait for the show to hit its stride.
The A.V. Club: Dollhouse arose from a four-hour lunch you had with Joss Whedon. How did that conversation evolve? Where did the concept of the show come from?
Eliza Dushku: Joss and I have been friends since we worked together back in the Buffy days. I moved here at 17, and he was a big-brother figure, a mentor, and an unbelievable ally. And we would get together after the show ended and just sort of talk about life and choices and careers. We sat down initially to sort of do that again, and it just so happened that four hours into our lunch, we ended up with a show.
AVC: So going into that lunch, you actually did not even have an idea for the show?
ED: No. I had just made a deal with Fox, a film and television deal, and had thought about what it would be like to come back to TV. And I can’t lie, there was one person on my mind that I wanted to do that with, and it was Joss. And so a week later, when I took him to lunch, I didn’t have anything in mind, but I knew that I wanted his input and ideas, because he’s one of the most relevant and unbelievable writers and storytellers of our time.
AVC: So was the concept his or yours? Where did the idea for Dollhouse come from?
ED: Ours? I’m not a creator, so I can’t take that kind of extreme credit. But the show is sort of, Joss has said, biographical in the sense that it has so many parallels and identifications with my own life. And as we sat there talking about my career, my life as an actress, life in this business, life in this society today, and people having the Internet, and having so much control and wants and needs and sexuality and desires, the show sort of came up from him looking at my life and going, “You know, you really do wear so many different masks on a day-to-day basis.” And that’s fascinating to me, as a woman and as an actress, that we could put together a concept to showcase all of that. There’s a lot going on!
AVC: The show has gone through its share of delays and retooling. What was going on with it before, and what was done to work it out?
ED: We shot the first pilot, Joss did, in sort of a noir style, and I think first and foremost,Fox didn’t like that feel. So there were a few things they wanted different, and they wanted the story to unfold in different ways. It was a big deal for Fox, and they have a lot invested in the show, so absolutely their opinion matters. So we retooled it, and instead of doing a cut-and-paste job with the pilot and doing reshoots, Joss just sort of went, “I have an idea that I think that you’re looking for, so let me just reshoot a new pilot.”
AVC: It isn’t like Joss is some new kid on the block, though. He has a lot of shows under his belt, and he’s got this large cult following. Is it frustrating when you get that kind of feedback?
ED: Honestly, yes. I understand it from a business perspective, and from Fox’s view, but at the same time, we’ve now done 13 episodes, and people have said that the show took off once they finally realized that Joss is best off left alone to do his thing. That happens around episode six—six through 13 are just extraordinary. I love one, two, three, four, and five, but Joss’ first script that he did after the pilot is number six, which is called “Man On The Street,” and it is just unbelievable. From that point on, the world unfolds in Joss’ way, with Joss’ speed, and it’s really remarkable.
AVC: Are you biting your nails in the interim? There are still a few more weeks before that episode airs.
ED: I think it’s going to be important for Fox and for us to really push that message. Every show needs time to grow, and it’s really difficult to set up a show, especially one with such a complicated, complex premise, that’s so multi-dimensional. We wanted—and Fox also wanted—the first six episodes to be episodes people could pick up and understand what was going on even if they were late getting to the party, which I agree with. So the first six episodes are more self-contained. But once we sort of hit that place where the show takes off, I think it’s going to be important to send some screener copies back out there to some of the reviewers that maybe didn’t jump on board the first time around, or some of the diehard Joss fans that felt they were missing his voice in some of the first shows. Because his voice is back, and it’s loud, and it’s as exciting as ever once we get rolling.
AVC: How are you feeling about the network? Have you been given any assurances from them about allowing the show time to develop and cultivate its audience?
ED: I have a great relationship with the network. They’ve been straightforward and honest and communicative through this whole process. Every time something has happened with the show that was surprising or confusing, I’ve gotten phone calls where I heard it straight from them, and they gave me a why and a reason. And from everything they’ve told me, they believe in the show, they want the show to grow, they believe the show is a crossover that will grow past Joss’s firm fan base. But it’s a tricky time right now. It’s a tricky time in all the entertainment business, and they absolutely just keep reiterating their investment and their confidence in Joss and myself and the show as a whole.
AVC: What do you take away from the first week’s performance, and being on Friday nights in general?
ED: I think that people have to get used to Friday-night television, because it hasn’t been around for some time. Which I find sort of strange myself. I truly am not just saying this because my show’s on Friday nights, but I can just remember being in on Friday nights, because let’s be honest, you can’t go out and rage necessarily both nights every weekend. [Laughs.] I like to have one night on the weekend where I can just cuddle up at my house. But I think it’s going to be interesting to see how that happens. And with our economy right now, and where we are in our country, and with Obama saying we need to scale back and cut down with this inordinate amount of consuming we do, we need to take responsibility, and I think this is a nice reason to give people to stay home on Friday nights. [Laughs.]
AVC: In a promotional interview you did for the show, you talked about how it would show a side of you that Joss has seen, but that maybe other people haven’t. What did you mean by that?
ED: Well, when I moved to L.A. at 17, I had just come out of high school. I grew up and went to public school in Boston. I was a tomboy and had three big brothers. I had created an entire survival mechanism, just “Kill or be killed.” Basically, protect yourself at all costs. I was definitely that tough tomboy. And as I got to know Joss, and every year that I sort of recovered from middle school, I have developed a lot of other colors. I have a lot of vulnerability, I think I have a pretty fair sense of humor at all times—which you can see a little bit in Bring It On, a little bit in Jay And Silent Bob—but really, I think Joss just wanted to give me an opportunity to showcase some of the other parts of my personality. There’s a softie, there’s a love in me. [Laughs.]
AVC: Echo seems like the opposite of Faith, at least when she’s in the Dollhouse. She does have a certain curiosity, but she’s also blank and subservient, for the time being, anyway. Was that a conscious decision for you and Joss? To have her so far removed from the character that you had established so strongly in the previous series?
ED: It’s important for the formula of the show. It’s important that in order to be imprinted to be anyone, she has to start as no one. She has to start as a blank slate.
AVC: Is it a challenge to convey that?
ED: It is, but it’s also strangely peaceful, in a way, because you’re just completely void of fear or inhibition or self-consciousness, and that’s actually, especially in this day and age, kind of liberating, and a lovely place to escape to.
AVC: It’s very childlike.
ED: I always channel the 6-year-old me when I’m doing my Echo. Well, at least for the first part of the season.
AVC: As Echo becomes more self-aware and perhaps less childlike, the dynamics of the show stand to change pretty dramatically. How do you pull that off without losing a grip on the basic idea of the show?
ED: I think that’s what makes the show fascinating. I think the main question has been “How are people going to come back every week with a heroine that they don’t recognize?” And I think that the point is that as Echo becomes self-aware and starts to evolve past this giant system that’s objectified her, people will be rooting for her strength and her evolution as a woman and human being.
AVC: You’ve done several personalities over the course of 13 episodes. Do any stand out as particularly fun to do?
ED: I did love playing the blind cultist in an episode from Tim Minear, who is one of my favorite writers, who has been with us since the Buffy days, and Angel as well. They implant cameras into my eyeballs and send me into a cult compound as a true believer to get intel on what’s happening inside. And yet, because we’re not spies, because we’re not in the loop, so to speak, I just go in there as a pure true believer. And that was very interesting.
AVC: Do you have a sense of what you can and can’t pull off? Is this show testing where your limits are as an actress?
ED: I think that remains to be seen, and Joss has a lot of confidence in me. He’s said on a few occasions that at the end of the day, he wants to take me out of my comfort zone as much as possible. And he’s done that quite a bit. For the first 13 shows, I asked for every single bit of it. So I’m game for it all.
AVC: Would you be game for, say, a musical episode of Dollhouse if such a thing were conceived?
ED: I’m game for whatever he’s bringing.
AVC: What’s it like being a part of Joss Whedon’s cult? What are the upsides and downsides of that kind of intensity?
ED: Well, on a personal level, I have one of the best friends in the world in Joss, and from a fan standpoint, a lot of love, but also a lot of scrutiny. Based on having this show [Buffy] that came seemingly out of nowhere and was a hit, despite the network not necessarily supporting it, fans really feel like they discovered something that people weren’t on to yet. So I think they feel very protective, and with that comes some insecurity. Like a child, they don’t want it to fail. And then comes a certain level of expectation. They’re very involved, but at the same time, I can’t think of anything more flattering and admirable than that kind of passion, and that kind of devotion and loyalty.
AVC: Do you remember what the fan reaction was like when you first appeared as Faith on Buffy?Were you braced for whatever that was going to be?
ED: Kind of. I didn’t expect it, but at the same I could feel, as we continued, that something magical was going on. So I definitely knew that we were making something special, and I think it was satisfying to have it received so well, and to have it end up being such an important piece of that puzzle.
AVC: Do you ever get interested in how a character like that ends up taking off in the subculture? Have you followed Faith or Echo in other realms? Comic books and fan fiction—do they interest you at all?
ED: Sure, it absolutely does. Because my friends do it, my friends are involved in it. I mean, Joss does so many of those comics, and it’s just fascinating to me. It’s a world that I really didn’t know before I knew him. It’s fantasy, and yet you can exaggerate everyday, universal themes and use metaphors to really drive the message home.
AVC: Are you done shooting the 13 episodes?
ED: We finished the 13th episode about two weeks ago, and since then, I’ve been on a full-blown press tour. I actually just got back to L.A. two days ago, and every morning, I’ve been doing radio and talk shows and shock jocks. It’s been really fun, but I’m just glad that it’s finally here. We had that lunch two Augusts ago, and it’s nice that it’s here. And again, we want people to come and show up on our first Friday night, but we want people to stick around and see the show evolve. Especially for some of our diehard fans, take it through episodes six through 13, because that’s where I feel Joss got to take the reins back a little bit. And the show really gets pretty remarkable at that point. The first six episodes are sort of tailored and monitored for the network and for people that are late to the party, and every episode is more or less self-contained, and people can come into the show and get the premise. But that being said, there were some things we had to sacrifice.
AVC: And then it’s more novelistic toward the back half?
ED: Yeah, Joss is a novelist. He’s best when he has his chapters to roll out the stories and the personalities of the people and the places.
AVC: With the shooting done for now, what are your plans in the interim? What are you working on next?
ED: I’m producing a biopic, and I’m producing a couple other things, and also acting in them. The work will be hard, especially since we just finished such an arduous shoot, but I’m ready for the next challenge. I have a new outlook on my career at this point, because this is a career I tripped and fell into, and it took me a few years to realize that I have such an opportunity. I’ve been redefining who I want to be in this business in the past few years, and with the added producer element, it’s just a whole new level of excitement.