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Eliza Dushku interview

The new show from Joss Whedon, Dollhouse, had its series premier last Friday, February 13 February at 9pm. In it we see Eliza Dushku - also a producer on the show - as Echo, one of the "dolls" whose minds are wiped to become whatever their clients' missions require.

The daughter of an Albanian-American father and Danish-American mother, Eliza Dushku is most famous to SFX readers as the rogue slayer Faith in Angel and Buffy, and Tru in Tru Calling. She gave a press conference call last week to discuss the first broadcast of Dollhouse, and here is a summary:

The fact that you essentially play a different character every episode, is that what got you excited about Dollhouse?
"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 at this point and 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 and on keeping things moving and on keeping me active and having the chance to play and jump around in between these characters every week and sometimes multiple times every show. That was planned from the get-go."

"I just have a lot of energy and I just have an appetite for people and stories and telling different stories and being in a different place and travelling and experiencing just different emotions. One thing that Joss gave me in this project is the ability to show some other colours of mine that other creators and other writers, directors, executive producers haven't given me in the past, but he has seen them in me and wanted to give me the stage to act them out. So it's a gift and it's a lot of fun."

Can you tell us a little more about how you and Joss developed the show?
"Well, when we first sat down I had just negotiated a deal with Fox to 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 guide me and help put together the ideas that were in my head, and figure out what kind of woman I wanted to play."

"We're really like-minded people. We just started talking about life and talking about our careers and what it's like 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 they think 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. Four hours later Joss absolutely 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 interesting to us'..."

"We think we've done that. The first show 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. The show just goes so deep and it's so exciting and so thought provoking and relevant."

Can you tell us a little more about the plot and your character Echo's relationship to the other dolls?
"I don't know how much I'm allowed to tell you! 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."

"I can tell you that you're going to find out 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."

How much really changed following the pilot? It's well known there were reshoots.
"We changed the pilot for 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 following these others as they go through these first 13 trials of engagements and of self realisation and identity."

The show's been described as mind-blowing and controversial. In what way?
"Well, it's provocative. It's disturbing in some ways. 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. That's what interesting storytelling is to me is 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. 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. Anyone who's known his work in Buffy and then anyone who knows him as a person knows that he's just all of those instruments."

"One of the main themes in this whole story that we're telling here is that objectification hurts. Whichever side you're on - 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 they may be surprised at the Frankenstein story. You're absolutely going to see clients wishing perhaps that they had not decided to add that extra element to their doll I guess you could say!"

"I mean without over simplifying it too much I'd say it's about not the search for one's true identity, but it's about 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 to objectify you - a huge theme of the show is just how and why we are authentic individuals and what helps make us. 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!"

Was there a certain type of personality that you enjoyed playing more than others?
"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 - for instance, 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 like liberating to have the opportunity and to see the world, not see the world, but to 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 grew up a total tomboy with three big brothers and I was this little girl running around with this tangled mop of 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 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!"

Can you keep this idea up for multiple seasons - will there always be places to go?
"Absolutely. I mean I think look at how much we as human beings have evolved. There's constant evolution - think about how many desires and how many scenarios; 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 wishes and desires; they're by the millions, by the trillions!"

Apparently you have a large lesbian following. Where do you think that comes from and is there anything for them in Dollhouse?
"I know during Buffy there was a lot of people really dissected that show. I remember a lot of people leading in to Faith and Buffy having this deep down love for one another. I don't know. 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 fans out there and a lot of gay men. I appreciate every individual that appreciates watching me at work."

"To be honest, there was one story that was pitched and somehow it didn't make it into the first 13 episodes, but we've only told 13 stories here and we're all so excited. I'm already thinking up ideas for the next 13 episodes! 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 know that given the opportunity we'll explore every form of sexuality. Or that's allowed by Fox at 9pm!"

Can you give us some more details about what it's like going from Echo into other characters every week?
"The base character, Echo, is in a word: simple. She's blank. She's had her personality and memories erased and she's a child with no inhibition, no fear. She's a blank slate and 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."

"We found early on that one of the challenges was each character, when they're introduced, needs a good scene full of story. You basically 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 whenever possible and when locations permit and shooting schedules. 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."

"I, Eliza, am a really adaptable person. I was just 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 shock to the system and so 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-years-old, 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 Elizaisms out when they're not necessary and add other elements and add other colours 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!"

Thanks Eliza!

Thanks to everybody who took part and asked questions, and also thanks to Fox for supplying us with the information. Early US feeling about the show after Friday's broadcast was not universally good ( here and here ) and it also received only 4.7 million viewers, although it was in the Friday night quiet slot, and as Dushku says, it'll be worth giving Whedon's stories time to evolve.

Eliza Dushku was most recently seen co-starring with Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman in Bottle Shock (a drama about the birth of the Napa Valley wine country). We wrote about Dollhouse - including an interview with Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku - in issue 178 of SFX. There is no UK broadcaster announced yet for Dollhouse.

Are you a Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku fan looking forward to Dollhouse? Let us know in the comments below...