Is the anticipation killing you yet? The newest Joss Whedon series, Dollhouse, is just days away from premiering. The show follows Echo (played by Whedon alum Eliza Dushku), who is a Doll, or an Active. These Actives are blank slates, and clients pay to have them imprinted with any personality or skill set they desire. An Active could be a client's best friend, or their enemy's worst nightmare. It's an exciting and unique premise, especially for television. And if you've already spent some time in the Whedonverse than you can be excused for freaking our just a little, since you know you're probably in for a thrilling ride. But maybe, just maybe, this interview with lead Doll Dushku will hold you over until the show airs this Friday night...
In the first few episodes this season, Echo has gotten an asthma attack, gotten hunted by a client and gotten wiped in the middle of a mission. What else can go wrong?
Anything and everything at any given time. That is sort of the point, I think. We're dealing in real situations and that's why we have our handlers there, to hopefully protect us from the bad, but yes: each show that sort of thing is going to go down because it's obviously not a perfect system and it's not a perfect world.
Can you give us a hint of any more of those conflicts?
Well, I can tell you I enter a cult. They send me in with cameras implanted into my eyes and some things go down there. I can tell you that there's upcoming contact with Agent Paul Ballard, [played by Tahmoh Penikett], and there is going to be some charged stuff in those episodes.
How will the relationship with Sierra [played by Dichen Lachman] develop?
I don't know. How much can I tell you? I don't know how much I'm allowed to give up. Well, again, we pick up in the Dollhouse, and the Dolls are starting to have these memories and develop these little flickers of self awareness and 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 kind of where the show expands and that's where it gets interesting to me.
You are essentially a new character in every episode. Is that a large part of what excited you about this show?
Well, 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 in my life. Basically, Joss and I have had a ten-plus-year friendship and he knows me very well. 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 sort of based on my own life and on keeping things moving and keeping me active and having the chance to jump between these characters every week and sometimes multiple times every show. That was planned from the get-go.
So you're just wound so tight that you couldn't be a character that's slow and methodical?
You're putting words in my mouth! [Laughs.] I've never said I'm wound tight. I just have a lot of energy and I have an appetite for telling different stories and being in a different place and traveling and experiencing different emotions. One thing that Joss gave me in this project is the ability to show some other colors of mine that other creators and other writers, directors and executive producers haven't given me in the past. He has seen them in me and wanted to give me the stage to act them out.
How has the show developed from that first meeting with Joss to what it actually became?
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. 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 help me put together the ideas that were in my head and help figure out what kind of woman I wanted to play. So when we sat down we started talking about life and talking about our careers and different projects, we were really like-minded and 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. 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 talking about sexuality, and what's taboo, and objectification, and things that are relevant to us. Four hours later, Joss sprang forward with the idea. He said, "It will be called Dollhouse. 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, 13 episodes later, and we think we've done that. I mean the first show on Friday we're super excited about. I love the first three, four, five episodes, but the cool thing is the show gets even better from there. 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 with ideas of my own. The show just goes so deep and it's so exciting and so thought-provoking and relevant.
Can you talk about the infamous rewriting of the pilot episode?
We changed the pilot for more logistical reasons. FOX had 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. 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.
Has being an executive producer of the series and developing it with Joss given you a new perspective on making a TV series that you might not have had before?
I have been in this business now for over 15 years. I sort of grew up in this business, but it is validating to have a friend and a partner like Joss in this, and to have him acknowledge that this was something that he believed, an undertaking that I could make with him. He obviously has ten million things to do in a day, most importantly, being up in the writers' room and breaking stories and knowing that this is our baby and this is something that we, at that meal, decided to do together with passion and with enthusiasm. I have learned a lot about how the machine operates. It made me that much more invested in the fine details of the show, the political aspects, even morale on the set. There are just so many elements, but I absolutely loved it because, again, this is something that I asked for. I asked for every single bit of it, and I can truly say I've loved every bit of it: the responsibilities, the effort, the enthusiasm, the whole crew, the whole cast, everyone involved in the show has wanted it as badly as Joss and I have. Those are the people that we wanted to surround ourselves with. It has certainly been challenging, but it's been the best kind of challenging. I've gotten the opportunity to be more hands-on than any other project I've ever worked on.
Is there a reason that Echo is the one that is becoming aware of herself, or is it happening to all the Dolls, and we are just following your character?
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 come into the story with Echo, but there have certainly been Dolls before her and there will 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 at the head of the herd.
Dollhouse is being described as game-changing and mind-blowing. What about it makes it game-changing and mind-blowing?
It's provocative. It's disturbing in some ways. It's controversial. We're dealing with altering and programming people, and I think that's a very sensitive topic, but I think that it's relevant and I think that it's exciting because I've always wanted to do work that has to do with us evolving and questioning, making people uncomfortable. That's sort of what interesting storytelling is to me: asking different questions and taking a closer look at desires and fantasies and taboos and sexuality, and these are all things that Joss and I initially discussed in our infamous first lunch. They were things that I knew he, as a creative genius, 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 is what makes this such an extraordinary show.
Are we going to see any episodes from a client's perspective where they learn that what they want in their fantasy girl is more of a curse than a blessing?
Absolutely. I mean I think that's sort of the point. One of the main themes in this whole story that we're telling is that objectification hurts. When 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 the Frankenstein you get. You're absolutely going to see clients wishing that they had not decided to add that extra element to their Active or to their Doll.
Was there a particular Echo-persona you enjoyed playing the most?
On the one hand it's awesome and exhilarating to be the sexy assassin, but at the same time I've been surprised at how much I also really enjoy playing all the different "characters." Like I play this blind cultess and it was just so different than anything I had ever done and I really, really enjoyed it. It was challenging and yet it was liberating to have the opportunity and to be in the world in these different skins. That was a particularly special episode. Another was having the personality of a 50-something-year-old woman in my own body. I don't know if I have a favorite, but they've all had their own special nuances for me.
I have heard that you felt most out of your comfort zone playing a woman with a 1940's up-do.
I grew up a total tomboy, with three big brothers. 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, the composure and the sophistication. It's thrilling and it's fun for me to play and now that I've done it once I am kind of am excited to try it on again, 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, so I welcome it. I'm up for any challenge and any uncomfortable scenario he wants to throw... because that's what this is about.
What would you say is the main theme or message that Dollhouse is going to explore?
Without oversimplifying it too much, I'd say it's about identifying what makes us who we are and what happens when you allow other people or a big corporation or a mass of people to influence that. I think objectification is a huge theme of the show and how and why we are authentic individuals. I guess I'm getting philosophical now - it's just getting so big in my head. It's about what it means to be an individual and to have that toyed with or to have that taken from you, how strong our sense of self is at the end of the day, no matter what we are up against.
In the long run – four or five seasons down the line – do you still think you will have places to take Echo?
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 five-year plan for the show and we've talked about what some of those plans are. I think that's one of the things that's so exciting about this show, is that it's open for endless possibilities.
What are the best and worst parts about getting to play such a variety of people, yet playing a single character at the base?
Well, the base character, Echo, is simple. She's blank. She's had her personality and memories erased. 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 early on that one of the challenges was that each character, when they're introduced, needs a good scene full of story. You need to 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 easing into it when locations and shooting schedules permit. It's nice to 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. Somehow, I, Eliza, am a really adaptable person. I was just sort of raised that way. It's 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 and so we figured that out early on – do the easier scenes first.
I also have a coach that I've worked with since I was ten-years-old, who lives in New York. 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 other colors to these characters to portray the reality that I'm a different person every week, as much as possible. It's been humbling. It's been exciting and I'm ready for more, more, more.