When Eliza Dushku took the role of Echo for the new FOX series Dollhouse, Joss Whedon told her that he planned on taking her out of her comfort zone.
“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 welcome it. I’m up for any challenge and any uncomfortable scenario he wants to throw... because that’s what this is about,” said Dushku, 28, during a conference call with media earlier this week.
However, what took her out of her comfort zone wasn’t driving a motorcycle without a helmet, but being dolled up with a 1940s hairdo.
“You have to understand…I grew up a total tomboy with three big brothers. I was sort of like 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. I don’t know; (it’s) the composure and the sophistication,” she explained. “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.”
The Watertown, MS native has starred as the daughter of Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1994’s True Lies. However, she is best known as Faith Lehane, the evil Slayer who later reforms on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, both of which were the brainchildren of Whedon.
In Dollhouse, Dushku plays Echo, an operative – aka a “Doll” or “Active” – for the Dollhouse, which is a clandestine operation run by the enigmatic Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams, The Sixth Sense) where Dolls are imprinted with a different number of new personas, and they can be anything or anyone – such as the perfect assassin or the perfect date, for instance – as long as they’re not submissive in their roles and as long as the client has the money to pay for these unique services.
Once the mission is fulfilled, they’re mind-wiped into a docile, child-like state and live in the Dollhouse until they’re is reactivated for another mission, complete with a new persona.
In the case of Echo, she is becoming self-aware, despite all the mind-wipes. She’s retaining some aspects of the various personalities that are downloaded into her brain. Thus, this is the basis for the series.
“Anything and everything at any given time (can go wrong),” said Dushku. “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.”
In an upcoming episode, Dushku plays a blind woman who infiltrates a cult with cameras implanted in her eyes. It hits the fan, but she wouldn’t explain how. Echo is developing a peculiar relationship with a fellow Doll named Sierra (Dichen Lachman, Aquamarine). Sierra is not as self-aware as Echo, but is inexplicably drawn to her. As to the extent of their relationship, Dushku was hesitant to speak.
“I don’t know. How much can I tell you? I don’t know how much I’m allowed to give up,” said Dusku. “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.”
Another interesting thing is that Echo crosses paths with Agent Paul Ballard of the FBI (Battlestar Galactica alumnus Tahmoh Penikett). Despite orders from his superiors, Ballard is still investigating the Dollhouse, which many consider an urban legend.
“I can tell you that there’s upcoming contact with Agent Paul Ballard, and there is going to be some charged stuff in those episodes,” she hinted.
Dushku is grateful for Dollhouse because it gives her the chance to show off more of her acting range, allowing her to play different characters besides Faith, for whom she’s best known. Whedon, who had also been fascinated with the themes of identity, had what he calls a “famous lunch” with Dushku, where they discussed the concept of the 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 10-plus-year friendship at this point 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 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.”
She continued, “I just have a lot of energy and I just have sort of an appetite for people and stories and telling different stories and being in a different place and traveling and experiencing just different emotions. One thing that Joss gave me in this project is the ability to sort of show some other colors 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.”
As filming got underway, Whedon decided to make another pilot episode. This was Whedon’s doing, not FOX executives, according to his website. Dushku has staunchly defended Whedon’s decision to redo the pilot.
“We changed the pilot for sort of more logistical reasons. 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,” she said. “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. He and the other writers just – 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.”
So far, FOX has granted Dollhouse 13 episodes. In addition to Williams, Penikett and Lachman, other cast members include Angel alumna Amy Acker as Dr. Claire Saunders, who looks over the physical well-being of the Dolls; Echo’s handler, an ex-cop named Boyd (Harry Lennix, Barbershop 2: Back in Business), who has misgivings about the operation; and amoral nerdling scientist Topher Brink (Fran Kranz, The TV Set).
Furthermore, Dushku also serves as an executive producer, which she’s excited about.
“It was… 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 or take with him. He obviously has 10 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. And that I would be the constant and on the set every day. (I’ve) picked up and learned a lot about how the machine operates. It was just more exciting than anything and it also… made me that much more invested in just the fine details of the show…
She continued, “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, like the responsibilities, the effort, 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 and by and so it has certainly been challenging, but it’s been the best kind of challenging, because I mean I’ve learned so much, but I’ve also just gotten the opportunity to be more hands-on than project I’ve ever worked on.”
Dollhouse premieres tonight on FOX at 9pm, immediately following Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.