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A Doll's House: Eliza Dushku Talks "Dollhouse," Echo, and Tattoos

Eliza Dushku is not exactly known for her shyness. The actress, who stars in Joss Whedon's new drama series Dollhouse (which launches tonight on FOX), is perhaps best known for her role as Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and as Tru Davies on Tru Calling. (Not to mention her turn as the less-than-perky cheerleader Missy in Bring It On.)

"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," said Dushku, speaking to press earlier this week.

Still don't peg Dushku as someone with a very limited definition of comfort zone: "I have a few," said Dushku saucily, speaking of her tattoos, "but they’re all actually in places that can be covered with just a swimsuit."

On Dollhouse, Dushku plays an operative named Echo who is imprinted with various personalities and skills and sent out on a variety of "engagements," ranging from the criminal to the sexual, for well-paying clients.

So what did Dushku have to say about the genesis of the series, what to expect about upcoming plot twists, and Dollhouse's overarching themes? Let's dive in.

What about Dollhouse excited her?

"Well, it’s provocative," said Dushku. "It’s disturbing in some ways. It’s controversial. We’re dealing with altering and programming people and I think that that’s a very sensitive topic, but I think that it’s relevant and I think that it’s exciting. I’ve always wanted to do work that has to do with us evolving and questioning, making people uncomfortable... Interesting storytelling to me is asking different questions and taking a closer look at desires and fantasies and taboos and sexuality. These are all things that Joss and I initially discussed in our infamous first lunch when we were talking about making a show. They were things that I knew he, as a creative genius, which I truly believe he is, had the ability and the imagination to create with me and at the same time roll in a story that just puts those parts together tightly, cleverly, with drama and humor and pain and joy. Obviously, anyone who’s known his work in Buffy and anyone who knows him as a person knows that he’s just all of those instruments. That’s, I think, what makes this such an extraordinary show."

Dushku said that it's not all roses and romance where the engagements are concerned and that clients may wish that they didn't get what they wished for.

"One of the main themes in this whole story that we’re telling here is that objectification hurts," said Dushku. "When you step outside of [society's moral code] and you put such control in certain people’s hands in terms of what people want and need and desire versus what they think they want and need and desire they may be surprised at sort of the Frankenstein story. You’re absolutely going to see clients wishing perhaps that they had not decided to add that extra element to their Active."

Given that Dushku excels at playing a bad girl, was there a specific character type among the numerous personalities she plays in Dollhouse's thirteen episodes that she most enjoyed playing?

"It surprised me, because on the one hand it’s awesome and exhilarating to be the sexy assassin, but at the same time I’ve been surprised time and time again how much I also really enjoy playing [other types of characters]," she admitted. "I play this blind cultess and it was just so different than anything, than any skin I had ever been in and I really, really enjoyed it. It was challenging and yet it was liberating to have the opportunity and be in the world in these different skins. That was a particularly special episode, as was being the personality of a 50-something-year-old woman in my own body. That was another one that’s coming up that was very interesting. I don’t know if I have a favorite, but they’ve all had their own special nuances for me."

So will viewers discover a reason within the series' narrative that explains just why Dushku's Echo is the one doll who seems to be exhibiting signs of self-awareness?

"I think you’re going to," said Dushku carefully. "Well, I can tell you that you’re going to find out sort of what kind of time frame the Dollhouse has been operating under and what maybe happened to previous dolls. I think that 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 I’m me and Joss and I came up with the idea together, so we decided to bring the story up with me sort of at the head of the herd."

What else can viewers expect to see in Dollhouse's later episodes?

"I can tell you I enter a cult [as a] blind cultess and they send me in with cameras implanted into my eyes and some things go down there," she said slyly. "I can tell you that there’s upcoming contact with Agent Paul Ballard, who is Tahmoh Penikett, and there is going to be some charged stuff in those episodes."

Dushku also recounted the genesis of the project and that fateful lunch she shared with Dollhouse's creator/executive producer Joss Whedon, where the concept was first hatched.

"When we first sat down I had just sort of negotiated a deal with Fox to ultimately come up with a show to do with them and Joss was really the only person on my mind," said Dushku. "I thought if he wasn’t going to do a show with me he at least knew me well enough to sort of guide me and to sort of help me put together the ideas that were in my head and to help me sort of figure out what kind of woman I wanted to play and what I wanted to be a part of. So when we sat down and we just started talking about life and talking about our careers and different projects, we were talking about sort of what it’s like for me, Eliza, waking up every day and having to somewhat be a different person every day and we were talking about the Internet and how people can get so much and, with just the click of a button, find anything that they want or need or desire or think that they want or need or desire and then what actually happens when they get that."

"We were absolutely talking about sexuality and what’s taboo and objectification and just things that are relevant to us," she continued. "Four hours later Joss absolutely sort of sprang forward with the idea, with the basis for the show and said, 'It will be called Dollhouse and it will be basically exactly this. It will be you with the ability to be imprinted to be someone sexy or to be anything or to be objectified every week or multiple times a week and how that affects people. We’re going to stir people up and we’re going to make people uncomfortable because that’s sort of interesting to us.' Here we are thirteen episodes later and we think we’ve done that. I mean the first show on Friday we’re super excited about. I love 'Ghost.' I love 'Target.' I love the first three, four, five episodes, but the cool thing is the show gets better even from there. I mean Joss is really a novelist and you have to give him chapters to tell the story... I participated on a lot of levels as producer also with ideas of my own. I mean the show just goes so deep and it’s so exciting and so thought provoking and relevant."

Given this project's unique development (Whedon originally shot a pilot and shelved it), how has the project changed since the redo of the pilot?

"We changed the pilot for sort of more logistical reasons," said Dushku. "I think that any time you’re dealing with a lot of cooks in the kitchen and FOX had sort of an idea of a pace that they wanted in the first show or in the first couple of shows. It maybe differed from how Joss originally wanted to set it up, but I think that absolutely Joss and I both feel that where we came out is exactly what we had talked about when we sat down at the first meal when the idea first came up. We’re telling this young woman’s story and following her and following these others as they go through these first thirteen trials of engagements and of self realization and identity."

Still, it's a highly complex and complicated series to describe in a brief logline. Dushku attempted to encapsulate the main theme or message that Dollhouse is going to explore into one major theme.

"I mean without over simplifying it too much I’d say it’s sort of about not the search for one’s true identity, but it’s about sort of identifying what makes us who we are and our thoughts and our surroundings and what happens when you start to allow other people or a big corporation or a mass of people," she mused. "I think objectification is a huge theme of the show and just sort of how and why we are authentic individuals and what helps make us sort of – I guess I’m now getting so philosophical it’s just getting so big in my head, but just what it means to be an individual and to have that toyed with or to have that taken from you and what that means and how we come out and how strong our sense of self is at the end of the day no matter up against what, any kind of technology or any kind of tampering, like what makes us who we are. There you go; I got it out."

What does Dushku make of her large lesbian following?

"I have been made aware of that over the years, particularly around my Buffy years," she said. "Right on. I know during Buffy there was a lot of people really dissecting that show. I remember a lot of people leading into Faith and Buffy having this deep down love for one another... I’m obviously very girly, but I grew up with a lot of boys and so there’s definitely a tomboy in me and I’ve found just that I have fans equally in males and females. I have a lot of lesbian love fans out there and a lot of gay men, who still do cheers in supermarkets from Bring It On. I think it’s awesome. I love loving from all sides in my fan world, so I appreciate every individual that appreciates watching me at work."

However, Dushku's gay fans shouldn't necessary look for the actress to be involved in a gay-themed storyline on Dollhouse. At least not in the first season, said Dushku.

"To be honest, there was one [storyline] that was pitched and some how it didn’t make it into the first thirteen episodes, but we’ve only told thirteen here and we’re all so excited," she said. "Joss said it’s crazy because we just finished these thirteen episodes and it’s been such a hustle and it’s been so 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 thirteen episodes. I mean I already am 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 I think - I know that given the opportunity we’ll explore every form of sexuality... or that 9 pm on FOX allows."

So at the end of the day then, who is Echo? And is it a challenge to play a character who is so trapped in such a blank slate state?

"The base character, Echo, is in a word, simple or in a few words, she’s simple," said Dushku. "She’s blank. She’s had her personality and memories erased and she’s [a] child with no inhibition, no fear. She’s sort of a blank slate and it’s exciting in the sense that every week there’s sort of a new star of the show and it’s whatever character I am imprinted to be."

"We found sort of early on that one of the challenges was each character, when they’re introduced, sort of needs a good scene full of story," she continued. "You basically need to sort of give this 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. There was something about sort of easing into it whenever possible and when locations permit and shooting schedules. It’s nice to sort of get in the skin and find something to latch on to that makes that person distinct as opposed to forcing it and using the dialogue or the scene or exposition to tell the story."

"I, Eliza, am a really adaptable person. I was just sort of raised that way. It’s sort of like throw me in the water and I can hopefully learn how to swim and survive and get very comfortable very quickly, but there is that initial sort of shock to the system... We figured that out early on that it’s helpful to do some of the other scenes first, but some scenes are easier than others to slide into and I have worked with Joss specifically on certain roles. I also have a coach that I’ve worked with since I was ten, who actually lives in New York and we work on the phone or he comes out to LA. 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 add other colors to these characters to portray the reality that I’m a different person every week as much as possible, so it’s absolutely been challenging. It’s been humbling. It’s been exciting and I’m ready for more, more, more."

Does Dushku think that there will still be places she haven’t gone yet with the concept of Echo, say, four seasons along the line?

"Absolutely," she said emphatically. "I mean I think look at how much we as human beings have evolved in a day. There’s constant evolution... Apparently, from day one Joss has had a five-year plan for the show and we’ve talked about what some of those are. I think that’s one of the things that’s so 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 and it’s thoughts and it’s thoughts and wishes and desires; they’re by the millions, by the trillions."

Dollhouse premieres tonight at 9 pm ET/PT on FOX. For my advance review of the first few episodes of Dollhouse, click here.


Anonymous said…
I think it's interesting that Eliza was so involved in the project and it's clear that she's really passionate about what she's doing. And I think it's impressive that Joss is open to working with his actors in this way. I know that Sarah Michelle Gellar was very hand-on in the Buffy universe too. I think that working this closely can make it really challenging but, hopefully, more rewarding at the end of the day.
ERIKA said…
Anonymous said…
¡¡¡Congratulations Elizaaaaa!!! you're the best actress
Always a fan of Eliza Dushku forever

att L@UR!$


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