Eliza Dushku tells us Dollhouse began with a lunch. If that sounds stereotypical for Hollywood, you would be correct.
Two Hollywood players meet up for a Gouda pizza at the Ivy and end up with a hot new show. It sounds like the set up for a joke, or worse yet, a cliche, but what can you do? This is LA and that is exactly how a Dollhouse, Eliza Dushku’s newest Fox vehicle that premieres February 13 at 9 p.m., was born.
What was Dushku to do?
It all started because Dushku couldn’t decide where to go next. She’d never intended to become an actress to begin with, having literally stumbled into the career at nine when she tripped at her brother’s audition and landed in her first role.
When she hit 17, she still had her eye on college, but was cast as Faith on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and made the big move to Hollywood, instead.
Ten years later, thanks to the cult of Buffy and Angel, Dushku has a host of devoted fans and an active resume, though not all of her projects have met with similar success. Perhaps for this reason, and in spite of having fallen in love with acting, she was facing a career crisis.
“I’ve had this pressure and identity crisis everyday where it is like, ‘Who do people want me to be?'” Dushku shares with SheKnows during a tour of the top secret Dollhouse set. “Everyone thinks they know how to sum up my career or that I’m typecast.
“I’m never ashamed, threatened or made uncomfortable when people ask how I feel about being typecast as a strong, smart, young woman. I can think of worse things to be typecast as! But I’d hit this point of, ‘Okay, what now?'”
Whedon what Dushku needed
With that in mind, Dushku called her old boss from Buffy and Angel, Sci-Fi guru Joss Whedon, and invited him to that above mentioned power lunch at the Ivy. As she opened up to him about her concerns about breaking out of type and finding the freedom to explore new roles, she was hoping for some direction or advice. Instead, the duo came up with a new TV show, which Whedon immediately sold to Fox.
In this joint brainchild, Eliza plays Echo, a memory-free “active” in a futuristic lab where “handlers” send her and others out on assignments ranging from the violent to romantic or even sexual. Once each mission is completed, those memories are erased, leaving the actives free to enjoy the gym, the meditation center and the coed showers of the spa-like Dollhouse.
Welcome to the Dollhouse
Distracted by mention of the coed showers? That’s reasonable! The Dollhouse’s glass-ringed, communal showers will offer viewers a tease of skin and sexy silhouettes, but don’t expect the actives to notice.
The group shower actually stands as a symbol of the purity of this science-induced Eden. With the apple of knowledge having been destroyed through deprogramming, modesty is a non-issue for the actives.
“We call them ‘childlike’,” Dushku explains. “There’s an innocence to them. They see what’s in front of their eyes, but don’t make the connections you can when you have a past and a life. That life was wiped out, so they’re these optimistic, pleasant, lovely shells of people.”
When these blank slates leave the confines of the Dollhouse, however, they take on the roles that coincide with their respective assignments, much like actors.
“It’s perfect for me, because I’ve always been pretty ADHD and I’m always a different person,” Dushku laughs. “It’s a personality playground. I get to put on a different skin and play around.”
She means that figuratively, but also literally.
“Putting on the same costume every day? No matter how much you love it when you pick it out, you’re hating that outfit half way through,” she cringes. “I can’t imagine being on 24. They have to live with that for the whole season!”
Dollhouse’s rude awakening
While Dushku gets to try on all those fun characters and outfits, her character will get a taste of the proverbial apple and start to re-lose her science-induced innocence.
“Echo starts to remember her past,” Dushku previews. “That’s where the show picks up. Something went wrong and this one active is starting to remember, which is very dangerous.”
Dangerous because the Dollhouse is a much more sinister place than it at first appears. Constructed to feel like a spa, it’s a serene space of wood and stone where an abundance of light flows in…but that light is not from the sun. The Dollhouse is hidden underground and the actives are under someone’s control. “That’s part of what’s cool about the mystery: It’s about who knows Echo is remembering and who doesn’t; and if someone starts to catch on, is he going to share that with others? Will she be destroyed? That’s where the drama kicks in,” Dushku says.
Eliza’s second coming
If we’re to be honest, the drama kicked in almost immediately – behind the scene that is. The initial pilot episode was so dark as to scare network execs, but writer/director Whedon is by now a vet in the biz.
Instead of arguing, he created a new episode one, to introduce viewers to the world of the Dollhouse, and reworked the intended pilot as episode two.
While some actresses might not pay attention to that kind of action, Dushku is at the heart of it. She’s credited as an exec producer, along with Whedon.
“Joss has been very serious about that,” Dushku intones. “He said, ‘We’re not just sticking you with a producer title because it looks cute. I want you to be involved.’ I said, ‘Hands down: I’ll do it.’
“I have been in the business for 17 years! I know what that role of the producer is and was more than thrilled to not just be the actress who comes out of her trailer to wait for them to say, ‘Action.’ I love the camaraderie, the team and the crew and working on those different levels.”
The wild child also enjoys bringing a bit of herself to Echo’s adventures.
“I don’t want to say I’m Joss’ ‘muse,’ but I have a crazy life, myself,” Dushku admits. “This summer, I spent two and half weeks traveling around Iran. It was incredible and eye opening. I was elk hunting in October last year. Then I was car racing. I do all these things and call Joss to tell him about it. Then my mother, who’s an African politics professor, is telling him about different political things and I share that with him, too. We incorporate everything into the story. The more creative flexibility we have, the more we get to play.”