CCI: Joss Whedon's Guys and Dolls

More than four years since the untimely cancellation of "Firefly," Joss Whedon is returning to TV and to Fox with the new drama "Dollhouse." This Saturday at the "Dollhouse" panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego, "Dollhouse" creator Joss Whedon was joined onstage by stars Eliza Dushku and Tamoh Penikett, and CBR News was there.

The panel launched right into the audience Q&A. The first question was directed at Joss: "Where did you get the idea for 'Dollhouse'?"

"From staring into the eyes of this woman," Joss said, turning to Dushku. Whedon and Dushku had been discussing the actress' career over dinner, all the things that were expected of her and all the different things that she could be. This spawned the idea for "Dollhouse," in which Dushku plays an active named Echo. Actives are brainwashed agents of the underground organization called the Dollhouse, and are dispatched on missions ranging from assassinations to pro-bono acts of philanthropy. But whatever the mission, the actives' memories are erased after completing their task. "Battlestar Galactica," alum Penikett plays Paul Ballard, an FBI Agent who is obsessed with discovering the secrets of the Dollhouse.

One fan commented on Whedon's tendency to re-use actors he's worked with in the past, and asked what new faces we could expect to see on "Dollhouse." "Him," Whedon said, pointing at Penikett. "The first thing I did was say 'Get me Tamoh, nobody else,'" Whedon said. "I've had a man crush on him since the first season of 'Battlestar Galactica. Actually, I've been informed that's not the term anymore, it's known as a 'bromance.'"

"I needed him to be this guy, Paul Ballard," Whedon continued. "He gets closer and closer to Echo, but every time he does, she's somebody else."

One fan noted that there are already several websites dedicated to saving "Dollhouse," months before the pilot has even aired, and asked if Whedon thought that showed pessimism on the part of the fans. "The weariness that has led to it was earned," Whedon said.

When asked what it was about "Dollhouse" that attracted her to the project, Dushku said, "We came up with it talking about life over lunch." And she knew immediately that Whedon was the man to write it. "He f-ing rocks. He makes the words party on the page. He puts me at ease and challenges me at the same time."

"And there are different challenges every day," Whedon added. Dushku then referred to the show as a "personality playground."

Whedon and Penikett commented that Echo was largely inspired by Dushku, who gallivants around the world on a regular basis. She was recently in Peru, and before that, Iran. "I go on these little adventures and I bring them back to Joss," Dushku said.

"I didn't make anything up," Whedon said. "This is a documentary."

"In this business and in our culture, it's a constant struggle, an identity crisis," Duskhu said. "Everyone wants you to be something. Joss is so supportive, he makes me feel smart and sexy. He's just a great fit. He's like a career brazier."

"That's a t-shirt I don't want to see," Whedon joked.

One fan asked how Penikett's role on "Dollhouse" would affect his "Battlestar Galactica" commitments. "I'm done 'Battlestar' now, finished two Fridays ago at 4 a.m.," the actor said. "If you include the two hours of champion drinking we did afterwards, it was 6 a.m." As excited as he is about "Dollhouse," Penikett mourns the ending of the chapter in his career, and said he'd rather not talk about it too much for fear he'd burst into tears on stage.

One fan said the trailer for "Dollhouse" made it look more "mundane" than Whedon's usual fare, and asked why she should be excited about the series. "This is a little bit different," Whedon said. "It is a fantastic premise, but there are no vampires, no spaceships, no superheroes, just people. But, really, everything I do is just people."

"Echo has this removable personality," Whedon continued. "Every relationship in this show is going to be absurdly twisted. It's going to be really exciting."

"Take that, girl, how do you like him now?" a feisty Duskhu said to the skeptical audience member who'd posed the question.

Fox has not always done right by Whedon's television projects, most notably "Firefly," but Whedon said that the trick to dealing with a network is to know what they want, and know that they know what they want. "I've worked with execs who don't know what they want, and they put the show up against baseball and aired it out of order," Whedon said. That said, Whedon insisted that the Fox execs who had done those very things to "Firefly" were no longer in the picture.

One fan asked what other "Buffy" alums they could expect to see on "Dollhouse." 'You'll certainly be seeing Amy Acker," Whedon said (the "Angel" alum plays "Dollhouse's" Dr. Claire Saunders). Whedon said that he expects more old faces to filter in over time, but that at the outset he decided to keep it to Dushku and Acker, and surround them with "great actors with new energy."

"Bring that Nathan Fillion on the show," Dushku said, suggestively. "A Nathan/Tamoh sandwich..."

"I said no spoilers," Whedon reprimanded her.

One fan asked Whedon which "Dollhouse" character would be the first to die. "You," Whedon quipped. But in al seriousness, the writer admitted that he has no deaths planned at the moment. "They're just coming to life. Give me a break, I don't kill everyone."

And how has Penikett's transition been from "Battlestar" to "Dollhouse"?

Penikett said Whedon and Dushku and the rest of the cast and crew made him feel welcome on the "Dollhouse" set. After much chiding, Penikett admitted that he was so taken by Eliza the first day he worked with her, that every time Whedon yelled action, he forgot all of his lines. His first line to her was supposed to be, "How did you hear about the Dollhouse," but Penikett blurted out, "How did you hear about the Wallhouse?" Penikett could only imagine what Joss thought when the actor messed up the title of the show in his first line.

One fan said they'd seen Dushku doing an excellent karaoke rendition of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" on YouTube, and with Whedon's penchant for musicals, they wondered if Dushku would do any singing on "Dollhouse." Whedon said he absolutely plans to have Eliza sing, but he thinks they have to ease into it.

One fan lamented the untimely cancellation of Dushku's more recent series, "Tru Calling." "While 'Tru Calling' was definitely an experience, I think everything happens for a reason," Dushku said. "'Buffy' was my first TV experience, and it was a tough act to follow."

Why does Joss write so many projects featuring strong females? "I was raised by one, I married one, I surround myself with them," Whedon said. "Those are the people that I love, I can't help it."

Whedon said he probably wouldn't do any more live-action "Buffy," because of the ability of the cast and because he gets his Buffy fix with Dark Horse's "Buffy: Season 8."

"You said there aren't any vampires in 'Dollhouse,' yet the actives all sleep in coffins," one fan commented.

"Well, my vampires didn't do that, this is new territory for me," Whedon joked.

"They're cozy," Dushku said. "They're like cozy little pods."

Whedon said there was a common thread, though: the search for the soul. "Vampires are un-people, and so are actives."

One fan asked Penikett if Dushku's spine glowed, ala Cyclons in "Battlestar Galactica." "She's not going to understand that one," Penikett said of his baffled co-star. "And I don't know. Yet." Penikett proceeded to whisper an explanation into Dushku's ear.

Will we be seeing any "Dollhouse" comics? Whedon said the exciting part of the show was watching Dushku embody these different characters, and he didn't necessarily think that would be very interesting as a drawing on a page. "I think it belongs where it is, on TV, specifically on Fox." But fans can expect to see supplementary "Dollhouse" webisodes.

One fan asked what Whedon thought about the many and varied academic discourses on his work. "I make English writing from words good," Whedon said. "Why wouldn't people study me?" He said it was a huge honor for people to be discussing his work in his lifetime, but he was quick to add that it was far from just him. "I have one real talent, it's for finding other people's talents." He said that each show he's worked on owes as much to his writing staff as it did to the showrunner. "If every person in the process doesn't feel a part of it, it's not worth doing. Without them, I'm nothing."

Whedon said that "Dollhouse" is contracted for 13 episodes, but all involved certainly hope they get to do more. With the advertising push, the timeslots, the network and fan support, "we could probably make it to 15," Whedon said.

Look for the premier of "Dollhouse" early in 2009.

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