In Good Faith
Right after graduating from high school, Eliza Dushku landed the role of Faith on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and had to go back to acting like a student. But that didn't bother her; she'd already done it once.
"I had done a bunch of films, and then wanted to get good grades to get into college, so I took time off to finish high school my junior and senior years," the young actress says on one of her first days off since the show went on its seasonal hiatus. "When I got the role on Buffy, I was only supposed to come on for five to ten episodes. This project came up a month after I graduated, and we were thinking it would be a great stepping-stone back in."
Since her arrival in Sunnydale, bitter, brittle Faith has shaken up every aspect of Buffy's world - bringing a new young Watcher, a host of demons, and a vendetta into the first Slayer's life. While Faith is perhaps the most unpopular girl in high school history (except with the boys, who have trouble saying no to her), Dushku has been so popular with viewers that after a few episodes, the producers invited her to stay for the entire season.
"I think they mainly just wanted to bring in this complete contrast opposite of Buffy, just to shake things up a little bit for the beginning of the season, and as we started doing it, the crew just started seeing some potential to make her a more involved character and keep her on. About halfway through, they told me we're going to plan on making her into the villain...so I happily agreed, because it's pretty fun playing the bad guy!" laughs the Boston-born star.
With the exception of her distinct, throaty voice and her advanced intelligence, Dushku sounds nothing like lost soul Faith. With the support of a warm family including three older brothers and a mother she describes as her role model, she stumbled into acting when her older brother's agent saw her in an elementary school play. At her first open-call audition, Dushku earned a role in the Warner Bros. film That Night. Despite minimal experience, she was soon working with the likes of Robert De Niro and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Playing a bad girl does not come naturally to Dushku, whose Mormon relatives were appalled to see her character having premarital sex with Xander and coming on to Angel. "My grandmother wouldn't return my phone calls for two weeks after the Xander romp scene in the hotel room," she groans. "I remember my little cousins were all excited because I was on the show, and in the middle of the scene their father turned off the television, so they went to school the next day being the only kids who had not seen the outcome - all their friends went, 'Your cousin had sex!' and they were humiliated!"
But when it comes to her career choice, "they're totally supportive," she adds. "They understand it's a character, it's make-believe; everyone knows what the evil guy does, it's just basically no shame. My character is basically this adrenaline junkie, and we all have it in us, but can never really play it because it's not the right way to live."
Faith has a lonely, miserable background, which is not something with which Dushku can personally identify. "She is a screwed-up little chick," she notes. "Lucky for me, none of it is really related to my life. I had a great, great family growing up, I had a ton of support and discipline. With Faith, she never had anyone telling her what was right and what was wrong, she never had unconditional love."
With this Mayor, Faith has found the acceptance and appreciation she craved: "Too bad he's such a screwed-up guy!" When she got the part, however, Dushku was told only that Faith was "this bad seed and no one really knew what was going to happen with her. We all kind of worked together in creating her weaknesses, how far she goes, and the consequences. It was really gradual, it happened day by day. Mainly we made her turn into this girl in denial; she has more depth than just being the bad guy because she sheds light onto her background and why she is how she is. It's not just one-sided, one single facet."
Much of the process of creating Faith's character involved Dushku working with the directors on the scripts. "They'd write the words on paper, but when you go in for the rehearsals, you learn her facial expressions and her body language. We would talk about, 'This line could either redeem her, make it appear that she wants to be going in a good way, or totally the opposite, make it look that she's really screwing up,' and we did a lot of both, a lot of either-or."
It was a little bit difficult for Dushku to join a cast which had already been together for two seasons, although she and Sarah Michelle Gellar share a manager, so they were acquainted. "On films, you're all feeling the waters at the same time and you're learning together," she relates. "But joining a show, it's almost like transferring, being the new kid in school, you know?"
Moreover, the actress had never seen a single episode of Buffy before her first day on the lot. "I showed up at the set for a wardrobe fitting, they were like, 'This is Nick, he plays Xander,' and I'm going, 'What's a Xander? Is he a demon?' They had to give me like 30 tapes to fill up on! I got sucked in in those first 30 shows, and it's for the better because I knew what was going on."
While not particularly a science fiction fan, Dushku says she has "gained a huge new respect for all the sci-fi on the show," particularly the makeup and effects. "It's so real yet so fake, you know? It's funny just how nonchalant I get. I remember day one, the first vampire I came into contact with, that Kokistos guy, he's like this seven-foot tall monster, and I'm walking in one of my first mornings on the show, I'm all groggy, just having woken up, and I come face to face with this terrifying-looking guy walking out of the makeup trailer! It's not something you see every day! I freaked! I totally jumped back."
Though she lacked the martial arts training for which Gellar is renowned, Dushku says growing up fending off three older brothers made her "as tough as I got, I was sort of a tomboy growing up, tackle football and that kind of stuff. I do a little bit of Tae-Bo - it's like a mix between kick-boxing and tai kwon do without any physical contact - and I think it's great training for the show, it's basically the kind of fighting we do on the shows. We do roundhouse kicks and uppercuts and punches. You can enhance your speed through doing them, and the height of your kicks. I've gotten really into it, I like that fighting feel."
During Faith's early days on the series, the stunt double did nearly all her action sequences. "But near the end of the season, you can tell that they trust me a lot more," says Dushku. "When I watch with my friends, I used to hate it when they would go, 'OK, that's not you, that's not your leg kicking through the air.' The 'Enemies' episode with Angel, where I turn bad, was one of the first where we did the majority of the stunts - as did David. I wanted to do as much as I could so it would be really me. It was really cool where we both got to do the majority of the fighting; it's satisfying."
Will Faith turn around? "Not this season!" laughs Dushku, adding, "I don't really think there's room for her to. In the 'Consequences' episode, all the regulars were trying to figure it out: Can we help her? Is she helpable? Does she want to be helped? And in a sense it was too much work for them. There are not many things that Buffy Summers can't change - she's pretty good at saving the world - but this girl's just kind of out of her control. She's now her nemesis. And Buffy resents her, she's hurt the people that she loves. She's in cahoots with this Mayor, helping him plan his Ascension, she's been denied by all the regulars which makes her completely defensive; she resents them now and just wants to harm them."
As for what might happen after this season's finale, Dushku says she can't predict. Though she recently acquired an apartment in Los Angeles which she shares with the youngest of her brothers, who is also an actor, college is on her agenda - she has been accepted at Boston and George Washington Universities. First, though, she would like to get back into feature films after several years away, during which she made the transition from child star to adult performer. "I don't think I'm going to be coming back," she says of Buffy with some regret. "I definitely wouldn't sign on as a regular, because it's a lot of time, and I'm 18. Maybe at the end of the year, I'll go home and go to school."
Dushku may have higher expectations than most teenage performers because of the stellar parts she's had thus far, in such films as This Boy's Life and True Lies. "I played a lot of people's daughters - I played De Niro's daughter, Schwarzenegger's daughter, Paul Reiser's daughter, Leonardo Di Caprio's sister. I don't think as a kid you really make depth in a character, you know? You kind of play off the writing, you read your lines." The adolescent performer never had any formal training. "I had a coach. We'd work out of Boston and I'd go to him with a script, I would make a couple of scenes on tape, that's how I got cast in a lot of stuff, but I never took acting classes; we just worked on projects one by one as opposed to the theory of acting or doing exercises."
Though her first film was not huge at the box office, it was a huge job for the ten-year-old actress, who got the part in This Boy's Life "almost instantly" afterwards. While that film brought Dushku excellent reviews, it was also a difficult shoot.
"It was a depressing movie about abuse, but it was a really great movie - it was so realistic. My mother worried about how it would affect me. I was eleven years old, sitting at a table with De Niro, and he could have a three-page scene where he's talking about beating the crap out of this guy in high school, he's freaking out and breaking things and lighting cigarettes, they would roll film and he would do the scene over and over and improv...it was kind of terrifying. He's swearing and jumping up on the table and getting in your face, and he's Robert De Niro and he's so intense - you can't really shield a lot in that kind of situation! But my mom was always there with me, and it was clear, she made it clear, that it was make-believe, it was real-life situations but I was not in them. It was just acting."
True Lies, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Jamie Lee Curtis action-adventure movie, followed almost immediately. "It was so much fun but it was also terrifying - my mother having to see her 12-year-old hanging 25 stories off a savings bank with Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the most famous men in the world!" laughs Dushku. "Jamie Lee Curtis was like a mom, she used to invite me to her house in California. I slept over there and she had all these animals, she gave me my bed and she was like, this is where the animals sleep too, and she tucked me in bed at night with her whole house full of animals. I think I'm still a little starstruck."
She "would love to work with De Niro again, he's just my all-time favorite," and some comic actors like Robin Williams or Steve Martin. Nonetheless, she is not certain that she wants acting to be her primary professional goal, and wants to study something else for her major in college. "I remember Jamie Lee Curtis used to say acting is her passion, but between movies, you never know. People's time in the limelight comes on and off, and when you have three years where you're not the hottest thing, it can be really lonely and you get bored. So I need to find some other passions in my life."
Dushku realized early in high school that she was missing out on a lot by concentrating so early on an acting career, and chose to take time off. "I realized I was missing out on a lot of stuff growing up in an adult world. Senior year, I really wanted to walk the line with friends my own age and graduate like a normal kid, go to my senior prom. I think it was a really good choice for myself and my family. It only happens once - making friends and learning real lessons, getting grounded and stuff! Messing up and having to deal with it, as opposed to living in an adult world where you're forced to be on top of things."
L.A., she says, is "a company town, any place you go to brunch, it's all anyone is talking about, and it gets really frustrating. Since Buffy's been three-quarters of my life, I get out of work and I'm wanting to talk about anything but acting, and there's no room for it!" She occasionally gets recognized, "but generally I'm not really going out leather-clad with my bust popping out and with black eye makeup and heavy lips; generally when I'm shopping or walking around, I think I blend."
The daughter of "a big feminist," Dushku said that her mother always stressed that women in the industry didn't often get strong roles; "she's always rooted for me and all women in the business to make a difference. That was one reason she loved This Boy's Life, Ellen Barkin stands up to De Niro and leaves, she really loved the message of that. And also Buffy - my mom loves strong women who hold their own! That's a totally good message, you know?"
Describing her mother - a college professor in Boston - as the biggest influence on her life, Dushku notes with admiration that "She believes in herself, she's the coolest lady," explaining that her mother has been in Romania for the past several months writing a book on the conditions there. "I feel so lucky to be in my family, we love each other so much. It's the best thing you can have, you know?" Her oldest brother is in the Peace Corps in Central America, "he saves lives, he's 26 years old and he delivers babies in the jungle."
Growing up, Dushku signed for the deaf in theaters and did reading for the blind, and would like to do more such volunteer work. One issue which hits close to home for her is the plight of the Albanian refugees, being of Albanian and Danish descent herself. "It's hard with all this war stuff. They're helping the Albanians, but you can never say you're happy about bombing. I don't know how I feel on the issue. I watch the news, I'm watching Albanian refugees piling onto trains, and they look like me and my brothers. I feel like I'm watching my family, and it's so disturbing."
She loves to travel, "that will always been a huge part of my life," and would like to continue to act no matter what other work she might become involved in "because it's so much fun and you meet the most amazing people, and get to do the most amazing things. Where else do you get to have these fight scenes where you're jumping out windows? It's such a thrill." The fan following both amazes and unnerves her: "It's intense. It's great at times, but it can also be really frightening, being a girl; I obviously am not of super-human strength like Faith!"
While she is quick to note that she would not promote Faith's values, "I promote the absolute opposite in my real life," the young actress is not comfortable being labeled a role model. "I'm only 18 years old myself!" she exclaims. "I think, how do you say it and not sound stupid, I'm proud that I'm a good person and that I'm not ignorant. My biggest pet peeve is ignorant people and I know I'm not, from having a mother who's into social relations and people. I've had an unbelievable family that's raised me, I'm proud of that."
Faith, and Buffy, could use a friend like Eliza Dushku.