Countdown to ‘Dollhouse’: The madam speaks


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Olivia Williams admits it. Her character, Adelle Dewitt, is something of a “Dollhouse” madam. But the British stage and screen actress -– you know her as the widowed wife in “The Sixth Sense” –- doesn’t mind.

As Williams says, it’s all about the subtext. Williams reveals how Joss Whedon lured her in, more about Adelle’s background, and tells us why viewers should care about the show:


You were in London doing theater when Whedon called you about ‘Dollhouse.’ Where you familiar with his work?
I have to be completely honest: No. And I had no interest in sci-fi whatsoever. What convinced me was literally his charm on the phone. We hit it off immediately. He’s got a very similar sense of humor and just the way he constructed his sentences in conversation was entertaining. I thought if this man writes anything like the way he talks, then I’m in. I’ve learned subsequently what a great, skillful, powerful producer and writer he is, but at the time I was just going off of this bizarre midnight phone conversation.

Do tell.
I was in England so it was mid-afternoon for him but very late for me. I had actually just been out on the town. I had done a play and had had the statutory large drink afterward. So I spoke to him on the phone and suddenly, at the end of it, I had signed my family and I up for eight years in California. It was like: “Um, honey? I’ve got something to tell you.”

What did he say that appealed to you?
When he described the character of Adelle I first thought: “Yeah, yeah, I’ve done that before.” She was supposed to be cold, tough, British. At the time I was quite keen to play American and not be labeled as a Brit. Then he told me about the twist that happens later for her and I was like: “Oh, that’s cool. No that’s really cool.” And the more he explained what pans out with Adelle, the more I was intrigued.

What can you tell us about her.
She runs the Dollhouse. There are the dolls and there are their handlers. The handlers report to her mad scientist, Topher (Fran Kranz), and then he reports to me. I am sort of the face of the business. When someone has decided they want [to rent out someone] who, I don’t know, can play a piano concerto and likes to have rough sex, they have to come and talk to me about it. I tell them how much they have to pay and tell them that they have to behave themselves. So in that sense I am a madam.

Do we find out where she comes from? What her background is?
Oh, yeah! I had to ask Joss myself how Adelle became the head of this extraordinary organization that rents out these fantasies. Did she run a brothel? And he said “No! No, your character was head of a huge multinational medical company that researched neural diseases.” That made for quite a change in my character preparation. I thought maybe I should bring the eye shadow down a little. It’s kept me on my toes as an actor.

What’s the challenge in playing Adele?
It’s the combination of playing someone who’s trying to grasp on to moral explanations for her behavior while dealing with abject loneliness. She’s lonely and has great empathy with people who are prepared to pay a vast amount of money for a date. Which means she’s completely morally corrupt ultimately. It’s just such a great double-edged part and you know we actors love the subtext, darling. Joss got me with the subtext.

Adele is always justifying herself. It’s a slight case of methinks-the-lady-doth-protest-too-much. She says [the Dollhouse] is for the good of mankind, it’s a charitable service, giving people what they need is a public service. And then there’s the terrible sort of pro bono work she tries to pick up. I have a friend who works in the ecological arm of Shell Oil, and it’s kind of like that. So while destroying the personalities of the human race, she’s trying to rebuild, you know, a couple.


When did you know that you were working on something special?
There’s an episode where the writing really began to fly. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. The more surreal and bizarre it got the more fun it was to act. You’ve got me in a vulnerable moment because it’s been a very happy set and we just wrapped. The camera guys and the ADs and hair and makeup, everyone just really pulled together to make a great atmosphere where the drama can fly. There’s been very good chemistry between everybody.

So you’re finished shooting the last of this season’s 13 episodes. Without giving anything away, how do you feel about how it all ends?
There is no way to describe how this season ends. There isn’t even a collection of words. It’s so surreal. Even if I wanted to tell you a spoiler, I don’t even think I could explain it to you.

What would you say to potential “Dollhouse” viewers to persuade them to watch?
It will pay off. It will pay off if you stick with it. The first episodes have got the action and the glamour and set up the premise: What if you could buy whatever you wanted? But then you find yourself in a moral haze. “OK, is getting what I want good for me? Is it going to make me happy? Where does it lead morally and what are the implications of creating a fake personality? Do we have souls? If our brains were being wiped, is there anything in the soul that could survive?”

I think the people who are there to see [Eliza Dushku] in a bikini –- which is a great thing –- are going to find themselves with a moral dilemma that they might not expect.

-- Denise Martin

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