In a world of for-rent starlets, Eliza Dushku is the queen of her castle.

This feature originally appeared in Complex's October/November 2009 issue. 

Eliza Dushku should be out of a job. After all, her futuristic TV show Dollhouse (about people who are brainwashed and given new personas) was a hit with critics but a miss with the ratings—so much so that the network declined to air the season finale. Dushku even prepared to be slapped with the C-word (“cancellation,” morons). But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Internet forums: viewers, galvanized by the news, rallied around the show and fox picked up Dollhouse for a second season. And right now you’re looking at why.

See, the 28-year-old Dushku is an O.G.—Original Geek—and the fans love her for it. She stole scenes in the cult fave TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer (and later in the film Bring It On and Tru Calling) and has been kicking ass ever since. While Hollywood is busy trying to win over fanboys, Eliza has had them in her leather pants pocket for ages. of course, It doesn’t hurt that her mentor, TV impresario Joss Whedon (the guy behind Dollhouse and Buffy), is the only other person with more geek cred than her. Now Dushku gets a second season and another round of playing a killer/mom/thief/hostage negotiator/girlfriend/blind cult follower/whatever else Joss can think of. But in a show where she can be anyone, Eliza Dushku just wants to be herself. And we couldn’t appreciate it more.

You just started shooting the new season of Dollhouse. How’s it going so far?
I got married, consummated my marriage, and had my honeymoon—all yesterday! Today me and the hubby are beating each other down and breaking things. A lot going on, a lot of brawling. Jets and exploding Tahoes and me against a hangar full of giant stunt guys.

 

I was mom and dad’s sweet little girl...with a rough side.

 

That’s a big week.
Only when I come into my trailer do I, in secret, peek at my bruises and bangs. [Laughs.] ’Cause while I’m out there I’m like, “I’m good, let’s do another one!”

What’s the biggest difference between last season and this one for you?
We’re back because of the love of fans and people who found and stuck with the show. Critics and viewers saw something really special, and the fact that we’re back just confirms that it’s all real. Now we have a chance to go deeper and really look closer in the beast.

Where were you when the show got renewed?
I was in Uganda with my mother—who is an African politics professor—and some of her students. We were learning about some of the child soldiers from the war in Uganda and looking at building a trauma center for the rehabilitation and integration of these poor child soldiers. I’ve always had a plan B in terms of my life and my career. I love acting and producing, and I love this business, but at the same time my world is live-or-die based on if I’m on the hottest show. So I live my life, travel, and see what else is out there for me to be a strong part of, you know?

So you’re saying Dollhouse fans really fucked it up for Ugandan child soldiers?
[Laughs.] C’mon, man, I’m a multitasker. If I can be four personalities in a day I have the capacity to be a few places, emotionally, at once.

Speaking of multiple personalities, it seems as though you’re able to handle different types of roles with—wait for it—aplomb. Yeah, I said “aplomb.”
Well, I grew up with three big brothers, and I had a different personality for each one. I was a precocious kid and figured out early on how to be chameleon-like. I had one brother who was the wild child—kind of street, a rapper, a Beastie Boys kind of bro—and with him I would have to get into that tough-guy routine. I had another brother who was very nerdy and super-creative and I could put on my Dungeons & Dragons cap with him. Then I was also mom and dad’s sweet little girl—with a rough side. [Laughs.] I think I thought I was a boy until I was like 10 years old. My mother used to try to put me in flowery dresses and couldn’t. And now Joss, incidentally, can.

 

Is it true that a lot of Dollhouse is somewhat autobiographical for you?
Yeah, just in the sense that I had a crazy mother who would travel with my brothers and me all over the world. From when we were young, she used to chaperone groups of students and bring us along. She raised us to listen to people’s stories and to go to places and talk to people who could really only be found in their native environment, so we went there. Again, you learn an adaptability that comes from those experiences. So I think that’s something I’ve always done, and when I met Joss he would sort of pick my brain and watch that.

 

I've always had this hard-as-nails body armor.

 

Where does the sexy dominatrix stuff from the show fall in there?
When I was in Amsterdam, at 15, walking through the Red Light District, sort of curious and out of place.

Whuh? How did you wind up in Amsterdam’s Red Light District at 15?
The family had gone to Ireland for the holidays and we were flying back and two of my three brothers and I wanted to go to Amsterdam for the New Year and my birthday. My mom always raised us to feel like if we could afford a plane ticket, we can pretty much land in any city and just go exploring.

I feel like a lot of the characters you play have this bad-girl persona. Do you feel like you get typecast a lot?
Sure, but at the same time I obviously know how to play that and that’s an easy default place to go for me. A lot of that came from growing up and adolescence and finding myself. As an actress in public school in Boston, I was ostracized by kids in school. So immediately, on top of the tomboy thing, I developed this sort of hard-as-nails body armor, you know? When I went out to do Buffy, that was just out of high school, and it was such a safe place for me, living in leather pants and beating anyone’s ass that tried to give me lip. [Laughs.]

When you’re out on the town and you see obnoxious starlets, do you ever think, “I could really beat the shit out of her?"
I try not to judge—I’ll admit I’m guilty at times of watching and being fascinated, though. I’m watching a train wreck! [Laughs.] If anything, especially in the past couple of years, I try to be a more compassionate person. This business can hit you at a million miles an hour, and people don’t know their ass from their elbow or what to do with themselves. People make mistakes and get crazy. I know I did.

Looking at some of the projects you have down the line, what’s going on with the film Valediction?
Valediction is wrapped and gonna be coming out—it’s a really great little movie. It comes in the 2010 slate of projects. I have stuff that I’m developing and negotiating, and I’m focusing on the new Dollhouse season. We have some exciting announcements coming up. The producer element is definitely something that’s driving me a little bit harder. It has me inside the machine. This business is a crapshoot, and now with this added role, I’m getting my hands in it more.

You have the Robert Mapplethorpe biopic that you’re producing too, right?
Yes, yes. It’s awesome.

And is that just because you want to see a lot of naked guys?
[Laughs.] Where does your head go? No, it really is deeper than that. It’s about self-discovery and self-reflection and breaking the mold of what society and media tells us we’re supposed to be interested in and what we’re supposed to be attracted to...versus what we’re not. That’s interesting to me.

And you’ve got a video game in stores, which I have a feeling might mean more to our readers than a Mapplethorpe biopic.
I do! It’s called WET, as in “wetworks” [a euphemism for assassination]. I play a gun for hire, like a working-class Lara Croft. She’s all padded up, a Jack Daniel’s-drinking badass. That just proves again that it’s sort of a fun and kamikaze place for me to play.

 

The gameplay looks crazy.
Yeah, it’s pretty rad. It has that ’70s Tarantino vibe to it.

Does it weird you out that people are gonna be googling “Eliza Dushku Wet”?
Why? What’s weird about that? [Laughs.] It is what it is. That’s what my grandma used to say, great words to live by.

It has a lot of swearing in it—the game, not your grandma’s saying.
My character has a bit of a truck driver/sailor/killer mouth, no doubt.

What is your favorite swear word?
I’m pretty loyal to the F-bomb.

Yeah? It’s a classic.
It is, and yet so modern!

 

Joss Whedon has to be one of the best dancers in the world. We danced for like six hours at a Kanye party one night in New York. We call him Crazy Legs.

 

I keep hearing you say that you’re a tomboy, but you certainly don’t look the part.
Hmmm, you don’t see me on weekends. Do you want to? [Laughs.]

A thousand times yes. So do you consider yourself an outdoorsy person?
I am, I am. We’ve [Ed.—meaning Eliza and her man Rick Fox. Seriously.] been in Malibu on the weekends this summer and I love the ocean and being outdoorsy. Football on the beach and tackle football in the grass. I love sports. Playing and watching them.

It seems like you’re in an interesting place in your career; film actors are appearing so much on TV now, and that’s already your world. Not that you haven’t done film stuff, but you’re such a dominant force on TV. Do you think the reemergence of the medium is putting more weight on what you’re doing?
I mean, I wasn’t going to come back on a show that wasn’t meaningful. That was absolutely the reason why I had to come back, if I was coming back, with Joss. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage, and that man truly makes the TV that I wanna watch. And that is actually sociologically important, thought-provoking, and legit.

Joss is like a demigod in that world. What’s a good embarrassing anecdote about him?
We danced for like six hours at a Kanye party one night in New York, and the man just brings it home. We call him Crazy Legs. He goes for it, man, he is not scared.

Is it good dancing? Or is it just crazy dancing?
He has to be one of the best dancers in the world. I’ve never seen anything like it. If he wasn’t so busy, I’d drag him to one of those America’s Got Talent-type shows, because he would shock and stun the world. The guy’s got moves.

How has being in show business since you were 17 affected who you are as a person right now?
There’s so much I’m grateful for, and in other ways it’s probably driven me a little bit loca. I mean, it’s a strange sort of phenomenon, especially in the past 10 years, the way the media and celebrity have changed. But it’s my life, and I wouldn’t try to mess with it. I mean, it’s certainly something that I can sit and think about—but now, at this point in my life, not for more than for a couple of minutes. And then I just dive back in, head first. It’s all I know.

What do you hate most about Hollywood?
What do I hate most? Driving. Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive. Actually, it would probably be the way the media neglects to put important issues in the foreground because they put too much importance on the entertainment world. I regret sometimes that so many world headlines are generated from the celebrity world, because there are all these other things that are...

 

So you’re saying you hate me.
No! I think it’s all relevant. There’s a place for everything. But when what’s happening with Jon & Kate Plus 8 is more important than women and children being slaughtered in the Congo...I mean, I know actors say that and I’m just another actor talking about it. But think about the perspective that shows.

Does it bother you when actors just say that while you’re actually there? Other people say those things as platitudes, so does that kind of weaken your argument, even though what you’re saying has weight behind it?
Well, anyone can go there. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. No, anyone cannot go to the Congo; people could get slaughtered. [Laughs.] But there are means and ways to contribute to your own education and the education of others. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I wish there was more will.

 

Adrenaline is my drug of choice these days.

 

Well put! That’s a pull quote if I ever heard one.
Thanks!

You seem like an adventurous person—when’s the last time you got really nervous?
I get nervous a lot—pretty much on a daily basis. But I think the more you lean into that nervous feeling, the faster you can get your head out of it, actually. The nerves will dissipate after that. Like yesterday, they had me running across the roof of this Tahoe onto another truck. And yeah, the truck had pads on it, and it was just to get a shot of me flying through the air, so from the ground, I was like, “All right, this doesn’t look so bad.” Once I got up there, though, it was a big gap. The stomach definitely drops a little bit—plus there were like 60 people watching and Access Hollywood or someone was there. No time for fear. I think back to True Lies in those situations—fear was just not an option. I’m super-competitive, plus adrenaline is my drug of choice these days. So I just tightened my boots and jumped.

What’s the worst you’ve ever been injured?
I cracked a couple of ribs on True Lies when we were doing that scene with the Harrier jet. I landed, I shot out through the glass of the deck, and I cracked my ribs.

Damn, pretty impressive.
I think those were the only bones I broke working—I mean, I cracked my toe, I broke my nose, I chipped some teeth, and I burned my hair. But that’s not broken bones.

I had a hangnail once.
[Laughs.] How’d you handle that?

It was touch and go for a while, but I had some good people. I went to the ER and handled it.
I think most recently I, uh, ate a hard nut and it chipped my tooth.

Ayo! Have you ever had a $5 footlong?
I have not, but there’s always tomorrow! One day at a time.

You’re adventurous, but not that adventurous.
If someone came up to me and offered, I would give it a try.

Well, you can get on craft services about that.

WATCH ELIZA'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:

 

ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Jenny Ricker for the Wall Group. (HAIR) Bertrand W for Opal at Tracey Mattingly. (MAKEUP) Hiromi for Exclusive Artists/M.A.C. (PROP STYLIST) Kendall Faeth. COVER AND EIGHT IMAGES: Bra by Topshop / leather pants by Rag & Bone / ring by Lia Sophia / bracelet by Katherine Sturgis. FIRST IMAGE: Bra by Only Hearts. SECOND IMAGE: Dress by Sass & Bide / hipsters by Calvin Klein. THIRD IMAGE: Bikini by Vitamin A. FOURTH AND SEVENTH IMAGES: Bycorpus bottoms by Seafolly. FIFTH IMAGE: Shorts by Diesel / t-shirt by Fluxus / bracelets by Lia Sophia. SIXTH IMAGE: Necklace by Jennifer Meyer / tank by Rory Beca / shorts by Diesel / shoes by Pour La Victoire / bracelet by Lia Sophia.