What would you give to have the perfect man or woman to perform everything from a daring heist to a kinky sexual act? That is the premise behind Fox TV’s Dollhouse, which stars Eliza Dushku as Caroline Farrell, a former college activist who, against her will, has her personality and memory wiped and becames an “Active” or “Doll” for a worldwide organization called The Dollhouse. As Echo, she is programmed with various personalities depending on the needs of the person or persons who hire her. At the end of the show’s first year, our heroine had started to regain snippets of who she once was, and this (second) season, Echo is fighting to regain her true self while fighting The Dollhouse from within.
The daughter of an Albanian-American administrator father and Danish-American professor mother, Eliza Dushku was raised with ambition in her blood. At the early age of 10, she was discovered by casting agents for the lead role of Alice in the feature film That Night.
Most recently, Dushku co-starred with Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman in Bottle Shock, a drama about the birth of the Napa Valley wine country. In 1993, the actress landed the role of Pearl alongside Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life. The following year, she starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, opposite Paul Reiser in Bye Bye, Love and alongside Halle Berry in Race the Sun.
After high school, Dushku returned to acting with the role of Faith Lehane in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though initially planned as a five-episode arc, the character became so popular that the actress stayed on for the entire third season and returned for a two-part appearance the following season. The remainder of her original story arc was played out in the first season of the spin-off Angel. Repentant and rededicated, Faith returned as a heroine in a number of later episodes of Angel and the last five episodes of Buffy.
A few weeks ago, Dushku graciously spent part of her day off speaking with me and other journalists on a conference call about season two of Dollhouse. Here is an edited version of that Q & A. Enjoy!
How do you feel the direction of this (second) season differs from the last one?
ELIZA DUSHKU - Well, there’s so much being cracked open and explored, especially with Echo having this new place that she’s in, in terms of what we picked up from last year. She had all these personalities downloaded into her in one swift punch, and they’re not going away. This year, Echo is still tapping into these personalities. Sometimes it’s of her control, other times it’s not. Overall, she’s absorbing things from her engagements as well as The Dollhouse and she’s really becoming self-aware. However, it’s not necessarily as Caroline, but as Echo, as her own person, so she’s definitely more complicated. This season it’s a little darker all around. We’ll explore things such as the origins of some of the other Dolls as well as other characters. We’re also bringing in a number of guest-stars and other fabulous people, so there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening this year.
What trouble will Echo run into during her attempts to save everyone?
ED - I’m sure every kind and all kinds because it’s a Joss Whedon show. We’re starting episode seven and there are so many directions as well as layers. It’s all over the map. Of course, one of the main storylines is Agent Paul Ballard’s [Tahmoh Penikett], who spent last season trying to get into The Dollhouse. Now that he’s in and Echo’s handler, he’s working with her and they may possibly be trying to bring The Dollhouse down from the inside. We also get some backstory involving Dell [Olivia Williams] and her superiors along with other Dollhouses around the country and the world. We get an idea of just how big the Rossum Corporation is, and Summer Glau [Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles] will be joining us as well. She’ll play a programmer from the D.C. Dollhouse, and we’ll get an idea of the way the other houses are being run.
How does a Watertown (Massachusetts) girl become Joss Whedon’s muse?
ED - That’s such a funny and good question, and I have no idea. When I made my audition tape for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I went to the Arsenal Mall [in Watertown, Massachusetts] and bought my outfit at Contempo Casuals. I remember telling the clerk that I was making a tape for Buffy and they were so excited. And then I was actually emancipated by a Boston judge, who was also a Buffy fan. Obviously it’s a show that dealt with vampires who come out at night, and I was still technically a minor, so I had a great judge who emancipated me so that I could go out to Los Angeles and do the show. Fortunately, I was already out of high school at that time. I guess I’ve always gotten by with a little help from my friends, in Boston and everywhere else.
What do you like about working with Joss and doing his shows?
ED - First and foremost, I love the guy as a friend. Joss has been a friend, a brother, a teacher, a mentor, but the other obvious thing is just his talent. Joss’ skill is so beautiful to me, and he’s just wildly creative as well as smart, a feminist, funny, dark, scary and twisted. Joss combines all that and more into such a sweet little package, and he gets me every time.
As great as the show is, as talented as the cast is, and as clever as Joss and his team are, obviously you want people to watch the show, and I’m just wondering, do you think Fox has put the show in a position for that to happen, airing you on Friday night after a comedy?
ED - Well, I think they realized last year that people who wanted to find the show did, and, obviously, there has been a lot of talk about DVR and TiVo and how we really are alive for a second season because of that in a major way. I can see how they would say that people found the show last year, so we’re just going to leave it where it is and hope that that continues.
Ratings are obviously important, but, you know, having a professor for a mother, she always taught us about qualitative versus quantitative research. I know we’re making a quality show and that we have quality fans and people who tune in experience something different and out of the ordinary. There are so many shows on TV that are instant hits; we’re not that, but we have a core following, and I think that people check the show out and aren’t intimidated by it. In fact, they find themselves being sucked in pretty easily. It’s sharp, intelligent fun. Sometimes it’s off-the-wall TV, too, and I know that when I’m spending an hour of my life sitting down to watch the boob tube, I love getting a rich experience out of it. And I’ve always found that to be true with Joss, in particular, as well as his shows. Having been given a second season, we’re just so grateful to the fans and to Fox for giving us another chance, and we’re making the most of it.
You and Summer Glau shot a promo last year, and back then your two shows kind of were fighting for the last spot in the line-up. Now that she’s part of your show, what’s the dynamic like between you and her?
ED - Summer is great. I love her. We’ve had such a good time during the past two episodes. She has come in with her A-game and is such a sweet, positive and fun actress. Summer is great to play off of. Our characters have some backstory that we have to fight out, and so that’s a lot of fun. Also, anyone who’s from Joss’ past and who he’s bringing back to work with, I assume he had a great working relationship with them. He wouldn’t bring any bad eggs into our house, so I can always pretty much safely know that we’re going to have the cream of the crop coming back and coming in.
You mentioned that Echo was kind of all over the place this year as a character; as an actor, how do you approach that?
ED - It’s easier this year because we don’t have as much of that sort of ‘dumb down Doll’ with Echo. She has all these personalities and is the sum of all these parts, including Caroline. At the same time, she’s not really any of these personalities, but is, in fact, Echo. There’s something grounding in that, and there’s a strength in the personality that she’s forming through that. Echo is picking and pulling information from all these different people that she’s been, and as a result she’s coming to understand and form her own ethics and morals. This character is constantly absorbing, thinking and processing, whereas last year she was switching from this dumb down Doll to a singular personality imprint, and it was always a different one. This season, there’s something going on inside Echo that’s not just what you’re seeing on the surface and it’s fun for me to play.
It seemed that you guys had such a strong fan base even before the show premiered. Do you guys pay attention to the blog sites and what the fans are saying when you’re coming up with how to shape the episodes and the series as a whole?
ED - I know that Joss and I have always paid attention to the fan love, and we love the fans right back, absolutely. I don’t know how much he takes tips from the fans when it comes to storylines. On the contrary, from what I’ve seen, when he sees someone falling in love with a character, he’s been known to assassinate that character or do something else terrible to him or her. Maybe that’s a blessing in itself, but Joss definitely has a mind of his own. Within the group of writers, they aren’t really conformists, I can confidently say. So whether it’s fans or critics or studios for that matter, they do their best work when they’re sort of left alone and they reveal things as and when they feel they should be revealed. And that goes for me and the other actors as well.
Sometimes it’s really exciting for me. I don’t want to necessarily know what’s going to happen three episodes down the road because it may affect the way I’m playing Echo today. I enjoy the thrill, the adrenaline that comes from reading the next new chapter, and the next layer that Joss reveals is one of the most exhilarating things that I’ve experienced as an actress.
Is there a particular role or character in an upcoming episode that you’re going to play that was hard for you to get into, and if so, why?
ED - Well, I’ll tell you, playing a mother was certainly something I hadn’t expected. I’m an aunt, and I’ve always loved other peoples’ children and babies, but playing a mother and trying to tap into that maternal instinct was a challenge, but also a thrill, and a beautiful thing, too.
Do you sit down with a script and break it down insofar as how aware Echo is of what’s going on with her, or do you just sort of do a scene and see what feels right in how to play it?
ED - We’re absolutely breaking it down more this year because those realized moments with my character are much stronger. It’s actually been deeper work for me, but, again, it makes the character more interesting and challenging for me to play. I have to say it’s been a blessing this year to also be shooting in HD [high-definition] because we have more time,which means i get to spend a lot more time with the material and these characters and their glitches, etc. I feel like that’s paying off for me a lot this year, and that my performance has gotten stronger and more honest.
In the season opener with Jamie Bamber there’s that scene in the office where he catches me, then bashes my head off the table, and then I end up in that sort of tailspin. I sort of famously now burst into tears in the middle of that scene because it was so emotional, and I now feel this real connection to the character that came from the inception of the show. Joss and I have tried to make this character a little bit based on me where it’s this struggle, this battle of who I am. Even with all the pressures of society and things pouring in on me, where does that break and where is my authentic self, and how it feels to stand and live in that. So it’s very personal as well as exciting, terrifying and gratifying.
Do you feel like Dollhouse is really about the experience of being an actor living and working, in particular, in Los Angeles, and people expecting you to kind of fulfill their fantasies and the dark side of that? Is that something you feel when playing Echo?
ED - Yes, I absolutely think there’s a layer or more of that. When Joss and I had our infamous lunch, that was one of the threads and one of the themes, but I think it also translates to young women all over the world. I was the only girl in a family with three boys, and I remember my mother reading this book called Reviving Ophelia about adolescent girls and the way young women are broken down starting in their teens, where they’re starting to get hit from all sides by images in the media and how things start to change in their lives, especially when it comes to their fathers as well as their peers. It’s like the spirit of a young woman is so fragile and can be so toyed with and broken. My mother was always aware of that and really tried to fight against it and to teach me how to be comfortable in my own skin and all of that. So when I sat talking about that stuff with Joss, it’s so extraordinary that, as a man, he tapped into that in such a profound and intelligent way. I can’t think of anyone else that gets that and can create a fantasy show that encompasses such a universal and serious thing in our society. So it’s definitely parallel to me and, I feel, to women all over the world.
How much closer will Echo get to rediscovering her true self this season?
ED - Every single episode it’s been a little bit more. Again, we’re on episode seven now, and in this one we’ve been building to a real extreme. I’m scared to say too much because I don’t want to ruin it for the viewers, but Echo really is becoming an entirely different character in many ways. She’s getting further away from Caroline, even though she is Echo’s original self. Caroline is there, but Echo is discovering things about her that are unsavory or that are not Echo.
The development of my character has been so exciting and fascinating because of the way Joss and the writers pick pieces from each of her experiences and weave them into this new character. So you’ll be seeing a whole new Echo this season who is the sum of all the parts that she’s been.
They just released a film you did called Open Graves that kind of flew in under the radar. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
ED - I shot Open Graves in Spain about two-and-a-half years ago, and as is sometimes the case in this business, there are times that movies don’t come together at the pace or with the expectation that was initially intended. I actually haven’t seen the movie. It premiered on TV when I was in Italy, but I have yet to even watch it on my TiVo. The movie was a cool experience. I was interested in working with the director [Alvaro de Arminan], who had worked very closely with [producer/writer/director] Pedro Almodovar, and I thought the script had some interesting and different Sci-Fi/Horror twists to it. I enjoy working in that genre but it never quite gelled into the movie that I had anticipated, but, again, it happens, but you keep going. You don’t quit, and I certainly won’t quit that genre.
How much of a factor does (the Dollhouse episode ) Epitaph One play into season two, because it wasn’t originally broadcast but is part of the DVD set. Joss Whedon was saying that he’d like to revisit that in the future. Could you tell us a bit about that, please.
ED - Epitaph was so well done and it brought me to tears. Truly, when Joss told me about it, I wondered how the hell he was going to do it, but I was just so impressed and proud of him and everyone involved. It was such a beautiful episode and I think it’s a shame that it didn’t air here [in the States]. But also the fact that it didn’t air was sort of the reason we came back, because they didn’t end the story. Getting picked up for a second season, the network probably wanted to pick up where we left off.
I know that in the first episode of this season, Joss originally planned on weaving some of that [Epitaph] into it, but there was already so much to cover. We had Amy Acker [Dr. Claire Saunders], who we’re not going to be able to have with us for the entire season, so we had her character’s storyline and we had to have a big, fierce engagement. So we took anything to do with it [Epitaph] out, but I do know Joss wants to slice in some stuff into future episodes. I loved the way the future looked, so dark and terrifying, and I hope we see more of it.
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