When I first reach Joss Whedon — the director, writer, and producer who is perhaps best known as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — at his office at Fox Studios in Los Angeles, it's about 9 am his time, and it sounds as if I'd caught him before his coffee had kicked in. But as soon as we start discussing his new psychodrama series Dollhouse, the specifics of how the Firefly cancellation broke his heart, and the "dance on hot coals" that comes with writing for a character with a fluid identity, the morning's woes seem to disappear.
Whedon (left) on the set of Dollhouse with Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz, and Eliza Dushku.
InDollhouse, your heroine, Echo, regularly takes on new personas and then has all of her character traits wiped. Do you feel that the premise of the show is something that's been brewing in the zeitgeist?
If it hasn't, I'm probably in horrible shape. That's sort of the point. The things that interest me are an amalgam of the things happening around me, and the things I've been enjoying. Everyone had a different theory of what the show was, and everyone is always right, because you're taking from the things you care about. Everything is about identity. Identity is very interesting to me, because I think it's a lot more amorphous than people give it credit for. Tolstoy was saying this in Resurrection: "Human beings are like rivers: the water is one and the same in all of them, but every river is narrow in some places, flows swifter in others." And I believe that's the case, that we're all completely changeable. We're all made up of influences we could not control but that are innate within us. Who we are and what we are is a thread that's always going to be popular, but it will always find different voices.
Did you worry that it might be a bit difficult for your audience to root for a character who, by virtue of the show's conceit, has a constantly shifting personality?
It makes it harder for us to write for Echo, so I do think it's harder to root for Echo. It's a very tricky thing. It makes it easy because you're interested in what she's doing next. Every week we come in going, "Where is the part where they understand it's truly her, and how much will they care about the part that's been manufactured?" That's part of the dance on hot coals.
Strong, smart, female characters who are trying to find themselves are obviously important to you. But Echo seems nothing like Buffy — except for the ass-kicking abilities.
If you're going to study strength, you have to study weakness. Here's a person who is at the mercy of the people around her, but she developed the concept of identity and emancipation with a brain that's not supposed to do these things. It's about finding a voice in the most deafening silence. Sometimes she's enormously strong, and we can see that. At the same time, the person inside the Dollhouse is so insouciant. Some people said, "This isn't what you do!" But I wanted to be able to look at it from that angle.
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