Bathtubs & boardrooms for actress Dawn Olivieri

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It must be difficult to be the envy of thousands of “The Vampire Diaries” fans, but Dawn Olivieri seems to be handling it beautifully.

“Ian [Somerhalder] is a nice person and really cares about how you feel and makes sure that you’re comfortable,” Olivieri said. “And he’s not such a bad looker, so it’s not the worst situation that I’ve ever had to be in.”

Olivieri is talking about the episode “Daddy Issues,” in which Somerhalder’s rakish vampire Damon Salvatore gets Olivieri’s reporter Andie Star out of her clothes and into a bubble bath—without compelling her.

He does use the vampire hypnosis to keep her there, after confessing how much he likes to kill people, and then taking a healthy bite of her neck. The scene had fans squealing, but for Olivieri, who has been friends with Somerhalder for a long time, it was just in a day’s work.

“If you have to be in a bath for six hours with anyone, you’re pretty much ready to get out,” she said, laughing. “We were so pruned. And he would try to touch me with his toes on the leg! You get that weird, creepy feeling when his ‘pruney’ hands are touching you. So we were having a prune battle in the tub.

“We had a good time; it was a lot of fun.”

Olivieri is having a lot of fun with the men in her screen life lately.

The actress recently finished work on “House of Lies,” a darkly comic pilot for Showtime. (UPDATE APRIL 7: Showtime has ordered a 12-episode Season 1 of the series to begin production this summer.) Olivieri plays Monica, the ex-wife of Don Cheadle’s character, Marty. Monica runs the top management consultant firm in their city, while Marty works for the No. 2 agency.

Unlike Andie, Monica holds most of the power in the relationship with Marty. But despite her professional success, Monica pops pills, feels guilty that her son lives with her ex, and, according to Olivieri, does a lot of crazy things.

“She’s funny. She’s definitely going to be extremely watchable,” Olivieri said, adding that the character is a lot like other anti-heroes on Showtime series such as “Nurse Jackie” who do incorrigible things. “But you still love her. You still care about her.”

It’s a plum part for Olivieri, a former model from Florida who has been acting for only about five years. She’s done guest roles on “How I Met Your Mother,” “Entourage,” “Stargate Atlantis” and “Cold Case,” among many others, before landing the part of the tattooed carnie Lydia on “Heroes.” Since then, she’s appeared on one episode of “True Blood” as werewolf Alcide’s sister, and as a recurring guest on “The Vampire Diaries.”

“House of Lies,” if Showtime decides to pursue it as a series, would be her first leading role on TV. She credits Cheadle, with whom she screen tested for the role, with helping her land it. “That and the fact that I’m perfect for it,” she joked.

“Don is a really great person, and it was really fun to have that test with him,” she said. “I feel so blessed to be able to be a part of it at such an early time in my career. It’s like a dream come true for an actress like me.”

And as for “Vampire Diaries,” Andie Star will be back in the last part of the season (it returns April 7), but Olivieri isn’t sure what lies in store for the bevamped beauty. At the time of our interview, she was headed back to Atlanta to film, but hadn’t seen any script.

Damon’s former lover, the vindictive vamp Katherine, is back on the scene. I suggested the women might spar over Damon.

“I don’t imagine a clash between those two,” Olivieri said. “Oh, wouldn’t that be a good episode? Maybe my time is coming. Or her time, I don’t know.”

Olivieri talked more about vampires, her excitement about "House of Lies," and the joy of guest-starring as the sister of your ex-boyfriend's character.

Dawn Olivieri is hopeful her Showtime pilot, "House of Lies," will get picked up. (Chad Blockley photo)

I have to ask you if you kept any tattoos from “Heroes?”
Only on my memory. No, I did not keep any. Although, I definitely seriously considered it, but ... after sitting in a chair and watching Milo [Ventimiglia] every morning come in and cover his tattoo that he was having removed—he has a star on the inside of his left arm that he was having removed—and him telling me, “It’s not worth it.” Gosh, [Milo] coming in early every single day to have this thing covered; it’s the worst. So that’s what sticks in your mind when you consider getting tattoos.

I’ll tell you what, my favorite one is one of the sparrows, the birds that I had on my forearm. Those would’ve been the ones I would’ve considered, but alas.

But you weren’t going to do it. Nothing’s permanent on you?
No. I think it’s better to be a blank canvas when this is your job.

That’s probably a good idea. On Twitter, I said I was going to talk to you and the first three responses were, “How is it to take a bath with Ian?”
Wow, everyone loves that question.

Which is probably the most asked question you’ve had, huh?
Yeah, well, I’m sure there are a lot of girls that would’ve loved to have been on my side of the tub, right? Is that the consensus? Well, you know what? We had a great time. It was a six-hour long bath. I don’t know how, it’s only a matter of how much you like someone, if you have to be in a bath for six hours with anyone, you’re pretty much ready to get out. But we had a really fun time. We’d joke a lot. He has a really great sense of humor, so we were having a really good time.

Is it difficult, not necessarily being in the bathtub, but coming on a show where you’re guest-staring and having to fit in fast and getting to know everybody?
Yeah, it’s always my running theory that as a guest star, and especially when you’re only doing one episode, that’s the hardest. When you’re doing only one episode, the people who work on the show just really don’t have time to get to know you and they’re just like, “We don’t have time to understand your sense of humor,” and, “We don’t have time to really care how you feel.” So you’re almost a ghost on a set with a family. These are people who know everything about each other and they’ve spent years working with each other now.

But being in this particular job, when you’re the recurring guest, it’s a little different, because people know that you’re coming back, so they give you a little bit more credit. The way that “Vampire” works, they’re very, very tightlipped about the script, so we don’t—even the actors even if we’re in the next episode—get to know the script until maybe a few days or a week at the most before the episode. And even then, we don’t know what we’re doing, how many days we’re working, what our story is. Nothing.

So when I did the first episode here on “Vampire” and they didn’t know I was coming back for another episode after that, I still got that one-week guest star treatment where everybody was like, “Hey, hi, we don’t know you; we don’t care.” But then I came back the next week and they said, “Oh, oh, you didn’t die! Wow.” Yeah, because I think it’s also pretty infamous that if you’re a character and not a vampire, especially a girl that’s making out with Ian, that you’re meeting your demise sooner or later.

I don’t even think the regular cast members feel too confident they’re coming back.
Yeah, right.

Several have told me, “Well, I could be dead in a couple weeks. Who knows?”
You don’t know. That’s the thing, they don’t tell you anything, so you really could be dead. You could be reading the script that you’re working on next week starting Monday and at the end you read you get stabbed the eye. You know, and you’re like, “Oh, God, why? That sucks, but OK.”

“I was just starting to have a good time.”
“Hey, nice getting to know everybody!” Yeah, well, that is the nature of our business, I guess.

It is cool that Andie was just kind of thrown in almost to the center of the action in just a couple episodes.
Yeah, I know, she’s all of a sudden friends with everybody and it’s like, where did she come from?

Katherine’s back and trying to spend more time with Damon. What do you think is in store for Andie?
You know what? I don’t imagine a clash between those two. But it just depends what they write, really. Right up to this point, I’ve been playing Andie as the hypnotized … bystander to this group, to this clan, to these friends. And I imagine that once the writers give Andie a chance to get out of the fishbowl and see what’s actually happening, so many things can happen. And that’s what’s exciting, I think, for me [and] for her.

That’s when we’ll be able to implement the wit and the instincts of the news reporter that she is. But who knows [if that will happen]? I don’t know when the writers will allow that to come through. I’m flying back to work again, but of course, I have no idea what’s going on.
But that’s where the goal is, [to see] that struggle from her trying to come to the realization of what’s been happening to her and how. I don’t imagine it’s going to be a good, a happy or cordial response finding out that someone’s been hypnotizing you and kind of making you to act a certain way that’s against your will.

Right. So you think she’s been compelled by Damon pretty much since they met?
Oh, I know that she has, yeah. The only time you really saw Andie act the way that Andie acts is in the beginning half of the bubble bath scene; she was coherent then. And the second he tells her, “I like to kill people,” and you see how she wanted to instinctively react, that’s when he began the compulsion. And from that point on, she’s just been high off of his compulsion.

It was funny when they killed Elijah right in front of her at the dinner party. She seemed awfully cheerful.
Yeah, well, the compulsion removes the fear. So even when she was in the bathtub scene and he was biting her neck, the way we discussed how that moment was going to happen is that it doesn’t feel right to her, but when you’re compelled by a vampire, you lose your sense of fear, your right and wrong differentiation … I think that even when they stabbed Elijah, it’s just more of a shock, “Whoa, someone just came out of nowhere and now he’s dead.” It’s not like Andie’s sad or afraid.

She has a great name, “Andie Star.”
Isn’t it? It’s a fantastic name. I agree with you; I love it. I love, love, love it. I’m a big fan of guy names for girls. It wasn’t originally Andie Star, it was originally Andie Campbell or Andie [something] with a C. It was very boring. They definitely spiced it up with Andie Star.

There’s a comic strip character who’s a reporter, Brenda Starr.
Oh, nice. Maybe that’s where’s that’s from. Good job!

Maybe so. She has two Rs.
Oh, with two Rs? They had that spelled that way originally; so it could possibly be that.

You were saying how you don’t really see scripts, so when they approached you to do the character, did they just sort of outline the part and where they saw the character headed? Or did they have a script?
Oh, nobody tells you anything! You have to make it all up yourself. I mean, you get a basic outline of what they want the character to be like. But really you have to then make it up as you go.

It’s difficult. Even with “Heroes” I found it really difficult that you don’t have an ending point, so you don’t really know where they’re going to go with the character. I think that’s why sometimes TV can suffer a little bit, more so than films, because you’re not able to create as strong of an arc for your character. Whereas in a film, you see already where this person is going to end up, so you know that if you start as far away as possible, it’s going to be this amazing journey that the audience can take with you. But it’s tough when it’s TV, because you don’t get that jewel of information.

You do the best with what you have, which is close to nothing, so you just do whatever you can come up with in the moment.

What made you agree to do “The Vampire Diaries”?
I have an uncanny ability to play newscasters. I don’t know what it is, the last episode that I did, the director came up to me and he goes, “Wow, you’re really good at the newscaster part, did you used to do that for a living?” I go, “No.” But I think that was a big selling point in the room when I was going through the audition was my ability to get into that newscaster cadence.

It’s a great show. Ian’s a friend of mine, so I knew working with him would be very fun and effortless and easy and collaborative. So that was probably enough for me. I’m not really an actress at a point where I can pick and choose everything that I want to do, so when something comes along that has a huge fan base and people just really enjoy watching, it’s fun to just say, “You know what? I’m going to do that! I’m just going to see what happens and I see what I can come up with.” And you always learn something every time you work. Turning things down is not something I really love to do at this point in my career.

It’s kind of cool you went from one popular vampire show—“True Blood”—to another one.
Yeah, I know. They don’t seem to like to make me the vampire, which is really what I want to do.

Maybe they’ll ask in this one.
Yeah. Maybe they’ll be a new show years down the line where I will be the main vampire and then I’ll get what I want.

You were just in one episode of “True Blood,” but it seemed like you were in more.
They referred to my character a lot in the episodes following. And in the book she comes back. So in the next season, I would possibly even come back for a few episodes. But now that I have this Showtime season looming, I don’t know if that’s going to be possible, which is a great thing for me, Dawn, as an actress. I won’t be available because I’m doing something even better and bigger, and that works for me.

Right. I read that you and Joe Manganiello used to date.
Um-hm.

Was that strange? Was that weird playing his sister?
What’s funny about it is that you have mental pictures of having intimate moments with a human being, right? And then now you have to create this reality of being this person’s sister. That’s where it gets strange and weird and warped.

You try to get those images out of your head. I personally wish that we had more scenes together, or if I had been available for the next season, had scenes together. Because I think the undercurrent of that failed relationship, even though there were great parts of it, we’re still exes.

Right.
You know? And not the most cordial; we don’t call each other and talk together on the phone and say, “Hey, how is your day going?” So having scenes with someone that you have history with, you have all this untapped emotional recall possible. I think it lends itself to a really interesting, watchable relationship. Whether you’re playing brother and sister, whether you’re playing lovers—having that extra emotion that you don’t count on and having to deal with that in a scene and play with it is, for me as an actress, really exciting. I don’t know if he would agree with me on that topic. But, you know, I’m into it.

Right. I see you did the voice of Pepper Potts for “The Avengers.” And you were in Stargate Atlantis. Do you like the genre stuff?
I do. I do.

Or do you just like the characters?
I also have another theory that when you have an exotic look to you, you’re almost shuffled into that genre because it’s a little more believable that you are some extraterrestrial being from another planet or you’re a vampire or you have some type of power. Because people just wouldn’t be able to relate to me living across the street from them. …

I think that me having an affinity to that genre also doesn’t hurt; I probably will it to myself. But I always tell them I grew up reading these fantasy/science-fiction books because of my mom. She’s a huge fantasy/science-fiction geek, if you will, so I follow in those footsteps. I just grew up reading about wizards and warlocks and gnomes; that was what I liked to escape to. So that is absolutely the films that I would love to be in.

But there’s a side of me that loves romantic comedies, too. So, they’re all fun and I think that I’ll be happy and excited to do any of them. But, mostly, yeah, I do really like the fantasy/science-fiction and action involved. It is my thing.

I remember when “Heroes” came to Comic-Con a few years ago, and you had not been introduced on the show yet, but you were really great on stage and not shy at all. It was sort of your character’s intro party.
I’m not really a shy person. … I was really excited that day to even have been asked to be on that panel because that was my first time on a panel. I really had no idea what the heck I was doing. I felt like I was a stowaway on a ship the entire time. … I think this is why it’s worked for me so well at such a quick pace as an actress is that something turns on for me when I have an audience, when I’m being watched, or when I know it’s time to be on and it just works. I don’t know what that is, but I think when you’re a showman or there’s some element of that inside of you, you have two ways you can go: You can get shy and introverted and pull away or you can just go for it. And I think that’s what happens to me.

In my real life, I’m a bit more introverted. I don’t have a big circle of friends; I’m not out going to parties all the time. I really like to be at home reading books and just sticking to myself, playing in the garden, or what have you. But when I work, I perform for everybody.
I think that was another performance that you got to see that day.

What books are you reading?
I’m reading a book on the Sudan. On the Sudanese people and the crises, it’s not very science fiction, but yeah, Don Cheadle, who is in the new pilot that I’m on, he is a big time advocate for Darfur and for the Sudanese struggle. I wanted to do a little research on it. With all of the unrest that’s been going on around the world, I just feel like I’m not as informed as I could be. So I’m just trying to pick different places to read about and understand it a little bit better, and that’s what book I’m reading right now.

You grew up in Florida where, I read, you were into entertaining quite young.
I don’t know if you’re so much into it as you just do it for fun. My mom gave us a big chest of dress-up clothes and we always had a pretty wild imagination. I think probably most kids do. They just exhibit it in different ways and mine was dressing up and playing with my sister as princesses and princes and making up our own dialogue and having fun with that. And making up dance routines with my neighbors to perform for our parents to Ace of Base songs. I remember, “All That You Want is Another Baby.” That was one of the songs that we did a dance to. [Laughs.]

I also had a He Man set with a big castle with Skeletor and I used to play that. I’m not a boy, but I used to love playing that. I think as little kids, we all play out our own little fantasies.

Let’s talk about “House of Lies.” I don’t know how much you can talk about it since it’s just a pilot for now.
It is a pilot now, but it’s great. And it is funny and, knock on wood—grain because I’m in the car—but it’s got a really great chance of going. It’s something that you just let it run no matter what, just because of the stellar cast that’s attached and just the level of talent involved in every aspect—the writing, the acting, the cinematography. It looks like a movie. It’s really fantastic. And I’m so beyond the moon excited and lucky.

Is it almost like playing two people, a little bit?
Yeah. You know what I did? I likened it to that. I believe that originally I had said it’s like being able to play twins, like you have a good twin and an evil twin. But after thinking about it longer and really creating more of a back story for her, I thought that that was the easy way out of putting her against the two parts of herself.

I want to make her more human. It’s a struggle that I think a lot of women have—not necessarily to the extreme of giving up your child or having the husband raise a child—but I think in a family where you have two professionals with the same career, and especially where the woman holds the seat of being No. 1 to the husband’s No. 2, it creates a really interesting dichotomy between the two characters. And she can’t necessarily be an evil mother. People don’t want to watch that. They would lose interest right away and say, “Well, I don’t really like her. I don’t care what happens to her.” You know, “screw it.”

You have to make her human. It’s a struggle for her to not have contact with her child. But also keep in mind the fact that she chooses work over this relationship and her position as mother in this situation. That’s my task, to make you watch Monica and love her for being crazy and out of control and addicted to pills, but also feel for her for not being able to be there for her son and for that family. And not because she’s just busy, but because she actually, she just can’t. She just really can’t, because she doesn’t know how.

But everything she does kind of appalls you almost.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. There are so many characters like that, especially in Showtime shows. Dexter, for instance, he’s murdering people but you still feel for him and you still care for him and you almost don’t want him to get hurt, you know?

Right. Do you get nervous still meeting people like Don Cheadle?
No. If I’m prepared and I know what to do, then I just go in there and I do my thing. You have a network test before you get hired onto a pilot and we have what’s called a chemistry read where you meet the person and you work out your scenes together and you just see how you two kind of converse and how it goes. I don’t get star struck a lot. I don’t usually try to look up people’s background and what they’ve done and get this feeling of awe from their career because we’re both doing the same thing. I’m here and you’re here and in this situation, in this scene, you’re not someone famous, you’re my ex-husband.

So for me to have that awe, it doesn’t lend itself to the scene or to the relationship between the two characters. So if you let that interfere, then you have a real lack of control over your emotion, especially when you’re at that point of almost getting that job because you just can’t have that.

But I think going in there, I was just really zeroed in on what she was and who he was to me, So Don became Marty to me and therefore, he wasn’t some big star who was in amazing movies and has all these awards. It just wasn’t that. We were two people and we were talking together.

I think that can translate to any situation. If you just think of someone as another person, another human being, we’re all on the same level, you’re not any better than I am. You might know some things and I know some different things, too, and if we can come together and make those things sparkle, then we’re going to have a great situation on our hands.

My character, Monica, in these two scenes, it was written for her to have the power in both scenes. So when I went in there to read with him for the first time, he didn’t give me the power and I was like, “Oh, [bleep], how do I—wait a second.” I was constantly trying to figure out how to pull it from him. This is not something as an actor, especially an actor that hasn’t been doing it for too long, [does]. You’re pretty used to an actor reading what’s there, right? That’s the easy way to do it. But then there’s the way that Don takes it where, “OK, this is what’s supposed to happen, but…”

In order to make that real and believable, you have to start with what’s going on underneath, which is that struggle of pulling the power from each other. Because in real life, as Marty, my ex-husband, [Don] is not just going to give me the power. And if I really deserve the power as Monica, I will take it from you.

So he blocked that taking of the power from me in the first round and when I came back in to do it for the network, I had revised things in my head, ways to pull the rug out from under him in the room so that he couldn’t keep that power from me. I think doing that, he helped me to get this job.

I had to then go in and do what I did and figure out what would help it. I left that room with this huge alligator smile and I was thinking, “Why am I smiling so much?” And I realize that it was because he had kept the power from me. And he was making me take it from him. It was just fascinating. It was a lot of fun; I loved it.

And the pilot is really great?
Yeah, awesome … I’m not actually able to watch dailies for this, but I also don’t really want to. It’s like filming yourself having sex. You know, in theory, it’s kind like—

Some people like that.
I know, some people do … But I just think once you’re looking at yourself doing things that you don’t really want to be conscious of how you look while you’re doing that, i.e.: maybe having sex, then I think it just ruins it because then you worry about how you look. And I’m trying to get away from that. Coming from a modeling background, I really worked hard to get away from that and I think watching myself is not beneficial over time.

You get in your head probably, right?
Yeah, yeah.

This is a dark comedy and we can expect it to kind of follow that Showtime tradition of really funny, appalling stuff, right?
Definitely. And I think they’ll have a lot of fun with Monica. She’s got a lot of morally compromising situations. But at the same time, she gets to be No. 1, so it validates her decision making. It’s just a great character, it’s so much fun. And I know it’s a blast to watch, because even though I didn’t watch the dailies, I’ve heard from other people that watched the dailies that it’s just out of this world.

Who else is in it?
Kristen Bell plays Marty’s coworker, who may possibly lead to a love interest there now that we’re separated. There are some great actors, some really great comedians who come in, even for the guest stars. I am so excited to get to see it, too.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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