Locked and Loaded: Chatting with actress Eliza Dushku
by Scott Kearnan
| September 17, 2010
“I’m really into STUFF,” says Eliza Dushku. Out in Los Angeles, the actress can’t exactly grab a copy off the street; but that didn’t stop her from scoping our Fall Fashion feature. “I was checking out your website earlier, and there was a black and white photo of this hot chick in a sequined-looking jacket.”
“STUFF magazine, doing it up!” she laughs over the phone line. We like to think that’s quite a compliment coming from Dushku, an actress who knows what it takes to be a fierce, fabulous female. Hell, one of her earliest roles was as the daughter of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis in the action flick True Lies; she put a stake in the hearts of vampires (and uh, a lot of teenage boys) as the beautiful badass of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and most recently, she kicked ass as an identity-shifting action hero in the show Dollhouse, which she co-produced.
But Dushku has never forgotten where she came from - as the name of her self-launched production company, Boston Diva Productions, makes damn clear. She grew up in Watertown, Mass.; her father was a first-generation Albanian immigrant who was raised in the South End; and her mother is a well-regarded professor of government at Suffolk University, which Eliza herself nearly attended. (Oh, and she’s currently dating Dancing with the Stars contestant, basketball player and former Celtic Rick Fox). So it makes perfect sense that her new film, the psychological thriller Locked In, would premiere tonight at 9:30 p.m. as one of the first selections in the Boston Film Festival, a series of 50-plus screenings, parties, and special events running through September 23. (For $8 tickets to Locked In, or to view the full lineup, click here.) The film, shot around the Hub, seems to be a Memento-style mind-f*ck about a young father and husband (Ben Barnes) distressed by his daughter’s paralysis after a car crash in a downtown tunnel; Dushku plays a sexy siren, a tryst from the married man’s past.
STUFF talked to Eliza about her haunting new movie, the equally terrifying prospect of turning 30 (!), and the ways in which she lives, breathes, and bleeds for Boston.
STUFF: So I’m bummed to hear you can’t make it to the premiere tonight!
I know! I wish I could be there - it would have been a joy. I was actually just home for a week last week, but I had some important work set up this week in LA.
I saw. Didn’t you tweet a photo of your alma mater, Watertown High?
[Laughs] Yes! It’s still so fun, coming home. I don’t know – I’m going to be 30 this year and the older I get, the weepier and more emotional I get when I come home. I guess that’s what happens at this age.
I’m right behind you – my next birthday will be 29. All of a sudden, you start looking back a lot more!
Right? I start looking at all the businesses that have closed, and how everything looks different on the street I grew up on. I mean, now that I’ve bought my own house I look at things I never noticed before. I remembered all the mailboxes I walked by as a kid; now I’m looking at house structures, what houses are selling for in the local market, things like that. … So wait, if you’re this age, have you heard of that thing – Everyone I tell, they say, “Oh it’s because of your Saturn,” or something…
Yes! As you approach turning 30, it’s called your “Saturn Return.” [Writer's note: Super duper, one hundred percent true explanation here]
Yes! Saturn Return, that’s it. I’m not really a starry, astrological person but – I guess there’s something to it.
Now, Locked In deals with a scary situation any Bostonian could appreciate: an accident in one of our tunnels. I mean, you’re lucky enough to get out of them alive, on a good day. Tell me a little more about the plot, and how your character fits in.
That scene is in a tunnel that I’ve been through thousands of times in my life, and you know, I remember my mother was driving through the new Ted Williams tunnel literally 15 minutes before that big piece fell and hit that woman in the car – so sad. So it’s very personal to me for all those reasons. But it’s about this gruesome accident where you lose a child, an insane tragedy, and you have to grasp on to some sense of reality. Ben’s character transposes something upon the reality of what happens in his head – and my character is sort of a siren from his past that keeps him tethered to the earth. But at the same time, she’s not the most likable character. Of course, that’s going to happen when you have a woman sitting on a man who’s wearing a wedding ring! [Laughs] It’s a different kind of role for me in a lot of ways. It’s a psychological drama with a supernatural vibe, based on what’s taking place in people’s minds.
A different role, but there does seem to be something that unifies the characters you play – they’re strong women, tough, with real sense of their sexuality. Is there something about those roles you gravitate toward?
It’s a part of me that I’m able to tap into. I think what often surprises people about me is that it’s so far from who I really am! I don’t necessary get down that way – anymore. [Laughs] I remember a lot of people identify with my role from Buffy – at that time, I had just graduated high school and moved out to LA. And, you know, high school’s hard: I remember wearing my leather pants and having that super tough girl vibe, and using my sexuality. And as I moved out to LA, entering into this grown-up world, I remember using my toughness and street smarts and, yeah, a lot of that sexuality to get by. Maybe it was true to who I was at that time. But you know, over ten years go by. Still, you can always tap into that.
Is it challenging to find roles for strong women in film and television?
There are more and more opportunities for women to play those strong roles. Look at Nikita, or Jennifer Garner. There’s a lot of attention around these strong women. And people like it – but they only like it to a certain point. That’s one thing we struggled with on Dollhouse. We were thrilled to have had two seasons [Note: The show ended in January 2010], but there were times when it was a battle to push the envelope, and really push it past flirting with certain ideas about the empowerment of women by talking about subjugation and other real themes that people really did want to see. But at the same time, they get a little nervous. That’s what happened in Dollhouse. We were going to take this show and go all balls-out, then at the last minute the studio panics and it makes everyone go, “Are we ready for this? Are audiences ready for this?” But you keep pushing. And the indie film world is where people really get a chance to tell stories where they don’t have to answer to anyone and go balls out. But in terms of films and characters I’m looking for in my acting, I’d love a role that contains some comedy! Yeah, I did Bring it On a while ago [Laughs], but comedy to me is not what people are used to seeing me do. I’d love to find a role that’s challenging and new in comedy. But what I want to do doesn’t necessarily mean much to other people in this town. It’s like musicians: you’d love to get this certain gig, but you don’t always get them.
Boston’s been getting a lot more attention from the movie industry lately. Is that heartening to you?
Boston has such a lovely, charged, and colorful community and it’s so multidimensional and diverse. At least from my perspective, the way I grew up. My mom taught at Suffolk University, right in the center of the city – I remember her office on Beacon Hill. I feel like with New York, LA – there are certain cities that get a lot of play in the movies, and this is kind of Boston’s time.
Any traditions you have when you come home to visit? Spots you always eat or things you make sure to do?
God yeah, there’s a few! And yet it becomes more and more difficult to choose each time I come back. A lot of my family remains in Boston – my oldest brother and his kids just moved back to Watertown. The last time I came home it felt so old school. We were all at the house having a barbecue on the deck; the leaves were so green; the air smelled amazing. We did a lot of home cooked meals, but there’s usually a night when we go out and do something. We like to go see which diners are open. [Laughs] We famously eat at Town Diner [in Watertown] quite a bit, and I love the breakfast at Tresca’s, the grilled bagel egg sandwich. And there are unbelievable restaurants popping up all over the place. I’m close to the Lyons brothers, John and Patrick, and John’s out here right now having ridiculous success. But you know, my favorite thing is Boston Common. I grew up walking through the Common, you know, with Make Way for Ducklings and the swan boats! [While making Locked In] We stayed in this hotel right off Tremont Street where I almost had my dorm room. I had picked out my dorm room, I was all set to enroll at Suffolk and then I had to leave and go do Buffy. So then I see all these students moving in from the view, I’m like, “Aww!”
What’s next for you?
One phase of my career I transitioned into with Dollhouse is that of a producer. After 20-plus films I’ve had such tremendous teachers and learned so much. So I’m developing some projects… and I’ve thought about directing. … But I’m also getting the first break now that I’ve had for a few years. Plus I have to support my honey on Dancing with the Stars. He starts Monday night! [Laughs] And he was a Celtic, don’t forget!
All roads lead back to the Bean.