Nobel Son’s Eliza Dushku on Dollhouse, Playing Crazy, and Pasties

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Ves Pitt's La John Joseph (2008). Photo: Courtesy of Freestyle Releasing

Eliza Dushku has a piercing laugh that explodes in unadulterated burst. It's in no small part that sense of ineffable genuineness that helped make her character, Faith Lehane, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, a fan favorite. Dushku will be back on the small screen in short order; she's paired up with her Buffy boss Joss Whedon for the lead role in the sci-fi series Dollhouse, set to bow as a mid-season replacement on Fox in February. In the meantime, in Randall Miller's genre knuckleball Nobel Son, Dushku plays the fetchingly named City Hall, an artistically inclined gal who spells trouble for Bryan Greenberg's Ph.D. student after he becomes involved in a thorny kidnapping plot in the wake of his father's receiving the Nobel Prize. Just in advance of the ensemble film's release, Dushku spoke with Vulture about working with Joss Whedon and what she's willing to do to land a part.

Your character in Nobel Son is obviously troubled, but for a long time, we can't put our finger on why. What did you draw upon to capture that angsty energy?
Well, maybe somewhere deep down I'm troubled because it didn't feel like I was stretching that much. [Laughs] I gave it all up to the direction from Randy. I wanted this part so badly, and I auditioned my heart out for it. I brought props to the audition. I showed up and said, “I'll do anything you want me to in this room right now.”

What kind of props?
In the movie we have those crazy masks, so I brought two masks — one was an African mask from Cameroon that my mother had given me, and the other was this weird, tin, abstract one from Venice Beach. I had them in a paper bag with a couple other things — rope, a knife, all sorts of things.

A knife?
Hey, I was like, “I'll do whatever you want me to do.”

There's a line in the movie: "Crazy is a choice." Is something like that a key to your character?
Absolutely. I always loved hearing Anthony Hopkins talk about playing his character so well in The Silence of the Lambs. He said, "I acted like what I thought someone crazy would act." So you can come up with these profound descriptions or processes, but sometimes you also just read it and try to put yourself in that situation and just kind of become it.

There are some intimate moments in the film. Was shooting them a giggle-fest?
Absolutely. Bryan Greenberg and I have known each other since I was 14; he and my brother Nate went to NYU together, and I used to hang out in their dorm room. We shot on a rooftop in downtown L.A. Bryan was in a sock, I was in pasties, and we were rolling around in fiberglass for six hours. But Bryan's hot, so it was fun. It wasn't all that tough work.

Bryan's character seems plagued by occupational ambivalence and uncertainty. Did you ever question sticking with acting?
I did have to think long and hard about if because I never wanted to be an actress. My mother is a college professor and said, "Thank you very much, but a screen test in L.A. isn't really the kind of life I want for my daughter." She never pushed it. But then I hit a point when I was 17, when I graduated high school, I was enrolled at university, I had my dorm room and was all ready to begin my life normally after seven years of playing De Niro's and Schwarzenegger's daughters, all these random roles. And I got called out to do Buffy and wanted to make some money for tuition and a choice was there: "Okay, am I going to go try to figure out what I want to do when I really grow up or do this thing that landed in my lap?" Now I'm 27, and I just started a production company, so I guess I've made some choices that I didn't originally expect.

What about Dollhouse, which starts in February?
It's really exciting, I love it. Joss Whedon is my friend and my hero, and we came up with this show together. I'm an executive producer on it, and it's really a he-and-I team love project. We're on episode seven out of thirteen, and I've already played twentysomething different characters, because I play different characters every week since we're imprinted with these disparate personalities. And I ride motorcycles and bow-hunt and river-raft and do all these crazy things every week — it's just awesome.

How much do you get to train for those crazy things?
Maybe an hour. [Laughs] It's like the day before, Joss will say, "I'm going to throw you off a roof," and I say, "Cool, let's do it!"