Joss Whedon’s Latest Creation Has Him Playing With Dolls

It’s not often that a show can attract an instant, rabid audience based simply on its creator. But that’s what happens whenever Joss Whedon attaches himself to a project.

The mastermind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and the recent web sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog inspires devoted followers who pore over every moment of his quirky stories, which manage to remain character-driven despite being set in the world of vampires or outer space.

The latest addition to the “Jossverse” is Dollhouse. Eliza Dushku, who played the enigmatic Faith on Buffy, stars as Echo, a young woman whose mind has been wiped. She is the property of a secret agency that reprograms a group of people known as Actives (or “dolls”) with whatever personality traits its clients request. They can be lovers, friends, soldiers or in the case of the pilot episode, hostage negotiators. But the system may not be perfect, as Echo slowly begins remembering her former life. All the while, a dogged FBI agent (Battlestar Galactica‘s Tahmoh Penikett) is tracking the elusive Dollhouse facility where the actives are kept.

Whedon took some time to tell us about Dollhouse, and why — even after his much-publicized squabbles over Firefly — he was excited about returning to TV.

Dollhouse airs Fridays beginning Feb. 13 on FOX.

There are a lot of philosophical implications about the premise of Dollhouse — namely what really constitutes life, memories and the soul. Were these things you were trying to explore going in, or did they just evolve out of this really cool idea for a sci-fi show?

Joss Whedon: They’re absolutely part of what I’m interested in. The idea for the show came from discussion not of those things precisely, but a discussion about Eliza, with Eliza, about what kind of show she wanted to do, what people expected of her. So when the show sort of came out of that, why it worked for me was a) it had a cool premise, and b) the meaning was stocked right in there. Her response was, “You just talked about my life. Everybody knows what they want me to be while I try to figure out who I am.” I’ve known her for ten years and watched her grow up doing exactly that and identify herself and take control. If it doesn’t have [a cool premise and bigger themes], the idea ends up not being that good, or it’s an idea for a movie, where after ninety minutes you can walk away from it. But with a series, if you don’t have a really thick soup behind whatever that idea is, you’re going to die out there.

I was going to ask you later, but you seem to have just answered, whether this was written with Eliza Dushku in mind.

Literally, I thought it up by accident during lunch with Eliza. She had a deal at FOX, [and] she wanted some advice about how she could make a good show and protect herself. And in the course of the lunch, I accidentally — and I do not use that word any way but literally — came up with the idea, and said, “Oh, God, I have the idea for your show, and I know the title.” And when you know the title, then, you know, that’s it. It’s over. It’s going to happen. So, yeah, it was not only with Eliza in mind, it was with Eliza sitting across from me.

Sounds like a productive lunch.

Yeah, one she sometimes remembers very fondly, and sometimes with great pain.

Eliza Dushku seems like someone who’s always been on the brink of hitting it really big. Do you think this will finally push her over?

I always thought Eliza was a star, and the reason we were having the lunch we were having was because many years ago I actually took her out for a cup of tea to tell her “stop making bad movies.” Because I just thought she was much better than the work she was doing. And it sort of became a tradition with us that at a certain period we would get together and talk about her career and how she could take control over it and how she could realize her potential, because I’ve always felt she’s a much more fascinating and versatile actress than she’s been given credit for. And that was really where the show came from — the idea that she has so much to offer, but everybody wants her to do the same thing every week and if she’s in a TV show, how do you avoid that? “Oh, I know.” That was sort of how we came about.

From an actor’s perspective, this has to be a treat to just inhabit an entirely new character every week. Have you spoken with Eliza and the other actors about that process?

You know, there’s a healthy mixture of fear and delight. We try to find their comfort zones, and know when to put them in their comfort zones and when to yank them out. The fun thing is that everybody, not just the Actives, but the other characters as well, are going to get to show sides of themselves that you wouldn’t expect to see. It’s not going to be doing the same thing week after week. That’s important, because keeping your actors happy and challenged and fresh helps keep your show fresh. The audience responds to that; they can feel it. Yes, there are many great shows where actors have just been going through their paces, but I like the other kind.

Given the nature of the Actives, how they’re never the same people week to week, and they’re mixed with other characters who are following their own narratives, how has it been creating a camaraderie among the cast — as opposed to a show like Buffy where the characters are very familiar with each other?

It’s weirdly different, in that some people have relationships with these dolls, these Actives, that the Actives may not have back. It’s sort of the whole nature of the thing to examine the idea of human relationships. Not just identity, but also what we project onto other people, and how we imprint on people our need to protect them or beat them down or whatever it is. You have characters like Harry Lennix’s character, Boyd, or Tahmoh [Penikett]’s character, Paul, who have relationships with Echo that are kind of made up of themselves, because Echo’s not entirely home. Although she’s more increasingly so, it’s sort of fascinating and daunting to try and to figure out what the next step in any of these relationships will be when the next step is always the first.

From the first episode, you seem to know the answers to a lot of the mysteries you set forth. Do you have an endgame for the show in mind, or is it still in flux?

When I pitched it, I rolled out a six-year plan. That will change — some things we brought up to the forefront a little faster than we expected to and some things we actually held off on. It always does change, and you need to have room for that. Where we are heading, and what we want to put Echo through, and where we want her to end up has always remained pretty constant.

Is her backstory the ultimate mystery, or will it go beyond that?

There’s more there. We’re bringing it up sooner than we had originally intended, but it was never the ultimate endgame. It was always one of the games. The ultimate endgame is what’s ahead not what’s behind.

You had a bad experience with Firefly — a show you really believed in that didn’t get much of a run before it was pulled. Were you worried about having another bad time when you went back to network TV?

Not nearly worried enough. The fact is, I knew organically this was the next story I wanted to tell and I hadn’t planned to be working in television, but I’m pretty agnostic about mediums. I mean, they all have something to offer that nothing else has. I had no problem getting back together with FOX, because on the network side, it’s all new faces and on the studio side, it’s all people that I had a perfectly good relationship with, and have worked with and trusted for years. So that wasn’t an issue. It was really just [that] I underestimated how hard this job is, how many hours it takes to do it. It was just, it’s always about the story. I came home and I literally said to my wife, “Honey, I accidentally created a FOX show at lunch.” And she said, “That’s OK. I get it.” Because she could just tell. And I knew the moment I thought of it. And Eliza knew it the moment she heard it. So the rest is just the process.

The “Actives” are all young and attractive, but will there be other types, perhaps to conform to other desires?

In the original shelved pilot, we tried to stress that there were different ages and different body types for different needs. It’s something you don’t really see much of, because we were pretty much scrambling to get the show back on track with our stars and sort of let go of some of those things. The variance in human need, human desire — because these people are hired out to be young and beautiful sometimes, but they’re also hired out to be the person you need for any particular thing in your life, and if you’re telling me people could hire someone to perhaps say the thing they always wanted to hear or be the person they needed to see the most and nobody was going to ask for their mommy, you’d be wrong. Stuff like that is stuff we hope to [have] come out later on, just because we did frontload some of it and we had to sort of shunt it in favor of keeping our “A” story fresh and exciting and big, and then we’ll get to the smaller moments once we have everybody’s trust.

Sci fi is used a lot for metaphors for what’s going on with the world. How do you see that playing out in Dollhouse?

It’s rapidly not even becoming metaphor — our ability to deconstruct who we are, to live a sort of virtual existence, to try and shape our identities through our avatars. My favorite science fiction — well, my favorite science fiction is about rocket ships — but my other [favorite] science fiction is five minutes in the future. It’s just exactly who we are with one tiny twist. A bunch of the research that we drummed up [was] on what they’re doing with the brain and what chemicals they’re learning how to suppress and memory and all those things. It’s right there in front of us, and it represents kind of a nightmare, the idea of us losing control, but it also represents kind of a fantasy, the idea of starting again in a really beautiful spa-like environment. So it’s absolutely meant to reflect not just fantastical twists on the world, but the world [as it is].

Then of course there’s the human-trafficking angle.

That’s the ugliest side of it. Our intent is to highlight that just at the moment when you’re starting to feel like, “Oh, this is wonderful. It’s so great how they help people.” It’s the trick that we always want to play — just when you feel comfortable with something, throw it in a different light and say, “Wait a minute. Maybe this is the worst thing you can do to a human being.” Or maybe this is the best. The trick is not to fall into a message that is so mixed that you end up making human trafficking sexy, because that’s one of the most appalling crimes imaginable, and the idea of getting people to do exactly what you want whether it’s a story about robots or Frankenstein, it’s always out there. Rather than just shy away from it, we want to engage in that discussion and say for some people this is all the Dollhouse is and for others it means something very different.

Your shows tend to attract rabid followings. In fact, there’s already a Dollverse website out there. Other than your obvious genius, of course, are you able to pinpoint what the Browncoats (Firefly diehards) and Buffy fans find so darn appealing?

Unfortunately, I’m not bright enough to see past that part. (Laughs) I just feel like we tell very personal stories in an epic fashion, and we tend to honor the people who are in them and treat them with enormous respect, and if you’re doing that, then when people relate to them, they’re not just relating to the concept, they’re putting themselves in that person’s life. If any of the shows I make aren’t in some way about the viewer, then I shouldn’t even be making that episode. And I’d say I’ve made a few that weren’t, but we’re always trying to find something that is completely relatable and turn it into the odyssey. I think that connection between those two is the thing that [works]. But tomorrow I may have a new theory.

With the shutdowns, and reshooting the pilot, has this been a particularly troublesome production?

It has been particularly troublesome, and it’s taken a lot of perspective to remember that every show I’ve done has been more or less particularly troublesome. Angel was shut down, Firefly let’s not even start, Buffy wasn’t picked up until midseason. … This has been harder for me because you come down the line [and] after a while you think this isn’t going to happen to me anymore. You think, “I’m old now. They will see my white beard and …” But at the end of the day, they want what they want. There’s no such thing as a track record; they want what they want. So it gets harder to go through what ultimately you realize is the same thing you went through last time. The same thing a lot of shows go through, if not most. Painful for me, but hopefully not for the audience.