Welcome to the Dollhouse

By Harrison Pierce

Originally published on Advocate.com March 06 2009 12:00 AM ET

Actress Eliza Dushku
began her career working opposite acting heavyweight Robert De
Niro in
This Boy's Life

and heavyweight action star Arnold Schwarzenegger in
True Lies.

Since then she's built an impressive (and seriously fit) body
of work playing some badass chicks with an irresistible
combination of Schwarzenegger-ian physicality and De Niro-ian
thoughtfulness. Among her better-known tough-girl turns are
reluctant cheerleader Missy in gay favorite
Bring It On

and vampire slayer Faith in Joss Whedon's beloved series
Angel

and
Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Dushku recently
reteamed with Whedon for the entertaining and provocative new
action/sci-fi series
Dollhouse,

in which she plays Echo, a young woman working as an operative
for a mysterious outfit known as the Dollhouse. In each episode
Echo is imprinted with a different personality and skill set to
match the requirements of the agency's high-paying clients.
It's a clever scenario with obvious parallels to the acting
world Dushku's inhabited since the age of 10, and it's
a kick watching her strut her stuff each week as anyone from a
human hunting target to a backup singer for a
Beyoncé-like pop star. In addition, the actress has
assumed a new kind of persona behind the scenes: She's
coproducing the show with Whedon.

Advocate.com recently
had the chance to chat with this self-proclaimed "worker
bee" about her dual role as actress and producer on
Dollhouse,

the politics of her former costar turned Governator Arnold
Schwarzenegger, and her take on whether
Bring It On

's Missy did, perhaps, speak a little "dykeadelic."

Advocate.com:So, Eliza, what's been your favorite Echo imprint to play
thus far?
Eliza Dushku:

Oh, my gosh, I think we've done 38 of them in these first 13
episodes. There have been so many! Episode 6 is a particularly
exciting one, in which I get to make contact with [actor]
Tahmoh Penikett's character, Agent Paul Ballard. The imprint
they send me to meet him in is this fierce, hyperintelligent
assassin. There's also an episode on the complete opposite side
of the spectrum where I play this blind cultist that's sent
into a Waco-style compound -- they imprint cameras into my
eyeballs and send me in as a blind woman. The character is such
a pure, true believer in this cult, and the role is so far from
anything I've ever played.

What's harder to play: Echo imprinted or Echo as a blank
slate?

Obviously, when you play an imprint, it already has all these
feelings and choices and memories, so you know what you're
doing -- even if some can be more challenging than others. But
it's absolutely been difficult creating Echo, who starts out as
this sort of 6-year-old -- this young woman in a childlike,
optimistic blank state. But the coolest part is, from episode 2
on, Echo's self-awareness is, like, slowly and in little
pieces, coming out. She's actually pretty complicated and
pretty fascinating and pretty badass.

Think she'll ever inhabit a gay persona?

Absolutely. We had one script that didn't quite make it this
round -- it wasn't quite what Fox wanted for the first six
episodes. It wasn't the issue itself that was the problem --
the script just didn't quite fit. But if you know Josh and my
own feelings on this issue -- it's part of our society, our
culture, our lives, and it's so relevant, so we hope to tell
that story in the next thirteen.

DOLL House Eliza Dushku GROUP X390 (FOX) | ADVOCATE.COM

In Greek mythology Echo is a nymph cursed to repeat what
others say, which makes her a little bit like an actress stuck
with a script she didn't write. How has producing the show
given you more of a voice in terms of shaping your
character?

First and foremost, Joss and I came up with this idea together
-- but I have to be realistic and say he is absolutely the
genius behind many of the finer details of the project as a
whole. But the show's a little biographical and makes strong
parallels with my life. As producer, I'm involved in the sense
that Joss and I talk almost every day -- ever since we had our
four-hour lunch [to develop the concept] and the following week
when he sent me the pitch before taking it to Fox. I sort of
live my life and articulate my struggles and my fears and my
thoughts with Joss and he listens to me and we have this
friendship. We also have a very like-minded view of what those
stories translate into and what they're saying about who we are
and where our culture is leading us with the addition of
technology and identity. Sexuality was also an important theme
I told Joss I hoped we could explore with my character -- you
know, face some of the taboos and beliefs that we support or
don't support.

You've made a career playing some tough chicks -- was Eliza
Dushku the kind of girl who ever actually played with a
dollhouse?

I played with G.I. Joes, Transformers, and
Star Wars

figures with my three big brothers [laughs]. I remember having
a neighbor that had a big dollhouse and there was this sort of
intrigue and fascination with it. When my brothers weren't
looking, I'd go down to my neighbor's house and play with it.
That is the sort of dichotomy Joss recognizes in me -- you
know, "OK, Eliza, you've been typecast as this strong,
kick-ass woman, but if you see through the cracks, there's this
femininity, vulnerability, and innocence." In the past couple
years I've been ready to let that come through more.

Early in your career you worked opposite acting legend
Robert De Niro in
This Boy's Life.

Did you realize the significance of it at the time, or was he
just some old man coworker?

I had no idea. We were the family that, like, didn't have TV.
Literally, we saw two movies growing up --
Amadeus

and
The Gods Must Be Crazy.

My mother didn't know who De Niro was, I didn't know who De
Niro was. I was this precocious little kid and this guy was
playing my dad and I had no idea he was one of the greatest
actors of our time. When I worked with him again, at 19 [in
2002's
City by the Sea

], we laughed about it. I remember seeing him on the first day
and going, "Hey, Bob, I'm back, I'm bigger, I'm louder, but I
also know who you are now, so I'm gonna, like, get into it" [
laughs

]. He just couldn't stop rolling his eyes.

What about working with Arnold Schwarzenegger in
True Lies

-- did he give you any advice on being an action heroine?

Well, I spent four weeks on that shoot hanging from a harrier
jet on top of a Miami Savings Bank with Arnold, a stunt team,
and Jim Cameron. In terms of learning what it takes to make a
true action movie, that was pretty good training. And Arnold
was fantastic -- the guy is so fun to work with -- he brings
the energy and the humor and the enthusiasm every day. He truly
is a man who worked hard to get where he is. And he is
grateful. I remember him saying little things, like, "Eliza,
I truly try to learn something new and be better every day."
Another little thing that he gave me early on is -- well, you
know, I sort of tripped and fell into this business and my
mother is the antithesis of a stage mother, so we were sort of
learning as we went along and people would always tell her,
"Your kid has a funny name, Judy -- you should think about
changing it." And Arnold said to me and my mom [in the famed
Austrian accent] "Eliza, Judy, trust me, keep her name,
people will learn it, take it from me" [
laughs

].

On that same note, do you have any advice for our Governator
in terms of current California politics?

I hope that he truly stays connected and makes the necessary
strides to [repeal] Prop. 8 in California. That's the
one thing I'd really rally for him to advocate for --
legalizing gay marriage. It's a big deal, a big fucking
deal.

DOLL House Eliza Dushku on MANNEQUIN X390 (FOX) | ADVOCATE.COM

Well, I think you pretty much sealed your gay fan base with
your role as the tough and sassy Missy in
Bring it On

-- was that movie as fun to make as it is to watch?

You have to understand, when that script first came down the
pike, it was called
Cheer Fever

and it was so over-the-top and so campy and so ... it was just
hilarious. When we set out to make it, we had Peyton Reed, our
director, who just was the perfect man and I give him such
credit, and the cast that he sort of made -- but we didn't have
the studio breathing down our neck, because no one really had
any idea that the movie had the potential to be what it became.
We just had the freedom to go spend three months in San Diego
and blow it out. We were like kids in a candy store -- cheer
camp, beautiful weather, this insane and hilarious script and
-- yes, it was so much fun.

For the record, do you think Missy secretly spoke a little
"dykeadelic"?

I don't know. I didn't really see that -- she was just sort of
the anti-cheerleader. As much as I know I'm gonna break a lot
of hearts, I didn't really see any of the sort of homoerotic
love between she and Kirsten Dunst's character that a lot of
our fans did. Likewise, with Faith and Buffy -- I know people
have sort of created this, like, subtext of deep love between
Faith and Buffy or Missy and Torrance [
laughs

], but it's just the fans ...

I recently screened the first three episodes of
Dollhouse,

and in the second one you spend the majority of the time being
chased through the woods by a serial killer. Did shooting that
episode give you any flashbacks to
Wrong Turn

?

It did, I have to say. Only I was relieved and grateful to be
shooting that here in Los Angeles, where there's no poison ivy.
Because we spent three months in Toronto running through the
woods shooting
Wrong Turn,

and we were covered in poison ivy from head to toe. I remember
doing David Letterman for
City by the Sea

in the middle of production and he said, "How are you
doing?" and I said to him, "To be quite honest, I've had
two cortisone shots and I have had doctors coming into the
hotel." So the flashbacks were there, minus the absolutely
excruciating poison ivy.

How do you feel about all these direct-to-video sequels to
your films? Have you seen
Bring It On Again

or
Wrong Turn 2

? Are you even aware of them?

I'm aware of them. I sort of tried to watch parts and pieces of
them. It's exciting that people want them - it obviously means
that there was a fierce response to the originals. And I
understand the business and marketing behind making follow-ups
and sequels. The truth is, in both cases the scripts for the
sequels were never sent to us [the original actors]. I guess
they were sort of always planned as straight to DVD. From what
I've heard, I don't think they quite captured the same essence
as the originals.

So, sexy lady, you're
Maxim

's March 2009 cover girl. Is that something you enjoy doing
or just an accepted part of the job?

Both. For one, I worked
really hard to get in the shape that I'm in for
Dollhouse.

And you also have to keep in mind what you're promoting --
obviously
Maxim

has a huge male readership, and a show called
Dollhouse

may not have resonated with them based on the title alone, so
we wanted to give them a little bit of eye candy and entice
them in that way. Also, I'm pretty comfortable in my birthday
suit and in my body. I've never been the most modest child [
laughs

].

DOLL House Eliza Dushku CLOSEUP X390 (FOX) | ADVOCATE.COM

Speaking of birthday suits, it was recently announced in the
trades you're producing a biopic about iconic gay photographer
Robert Mapplethorpe -- tell us a little bit about what drew you
to that project.

Well, the screenplay was actually brought to my brother Nate
(also an actor), based on his relationship with the
screenwriter. We've had this project for a number of years and
we've been waiting for the right time and opportunity to get it
off the ground. I've always been interested in people who were
pioneers of controversial but relevant creative expression. Our
story is about the controversy of his work and his life and his
formative years -- how he got started, his relationship with
Patti Smith, how he came into the art scene and what led up to
the censorship trial in Cincinnati, where his exhibit was shut
down. We want to take his two-dimensional photographs and tell
the story of his life, you know, what he represented. He
noticed and photographed the differences in us before a lot of
other people recognized them. and today, we think of ourselves
as so advanced and liberal and open, but he was one of the
first people who paved the way for us to accept the variety of
different ways people live.

That sounds really cool. Quickly, back to
Dollhouse

-- any hints as to what the remaining episodes of season 1 hold
in store for Echo?

Joss and I have been very vocal about the fact that the show
really takes off for us in episodes six through 13. That's
where we really start to achieve what we set out to do -- which
is get deeper into this world, get deeper into this mystery of
who Echo really is and how she starts to form her own identity.
I've been getting e-mails and texts from Joss and the writers
-- they're editing the latter episodes right now and they're
pretty excited. We, of course, wanted everyone to come to the
party when we first debuted, but we want to reinforce that the
party gets better and better as it goes. We have the commitment
from Fox to let the show grow, and we hope people will join us
-- we're doing something different, something pretty
extraordinary, I'd say, in the humblest way possible [
laughs

].