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For Tahmoh Penikett, it’s all too human

For the last five years, Tahmoh Penikett has been fighting off Cylons, a robotic race threatening human existence, on Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica.”

Starring in Joss Whedon’s upcoming and already-beleaguered drama “Dollhouse,” however, could be a more daunting task.

The show, which premieres Feb. 13 on Fox, revolves around an underground team of programmable people -- or dolls -- with various skills and abilities rented out for assignments by high-paying clients. Early on, one doll, Echo (played by Eliza Dushku), begins to become self-aware. Penikett plays Paul Ballard, a renegade FBI agent bent on taking down the morally suspect operation.

With “Battlestar” concluding its run this spring, the 33-year-old is girding for the wave of eager fan-demonium that’s about to hit him from all sides -- but, sorry, kids, he’s not giving up the goods. “I’ve never given up a spoiler, and I won’t start now,” Penikett said, his chiseled jawline set, lips imperviously sealed. (But rest assured, he said, the finale will “blow your mind.” “There’ll be some conclusions and a lot of questions, which is perfect and the way it should be.”)

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The actor will also have to dodge Whedon fans’ anxiety over “Dollhouse.” Rife with rewrites and reshoots, the series’ troubled production has been documented online by those who remember all too well the doomed trajectory of Whedon’s last show, “Firefly,” but Penikett is too excited to care.

“I don’t like panicking,” he said while relaxing over an Americano in Century City’s Clementine cafe. “I’m also old enough now where I try not to stress over things too much.”

Like Karl “Helo” Agathon, the loyal lieutenant he plays on the Sci Fi’s space opera, Penikett lived day to day aboard “Battlestar,” a show that’s won Peabody Awards and the adoration of critics but never reached an audience big enough to guarantee long-term survival. His risk on “Dollhouse” is even bigger: Not only will the show need to find a much larger audience than did “Battlestar,” but Penikett will also have to transition from supporting player to leading man.

His “Battlestar” costar Katee Sachoff doesn’t think his transition will be much of a problem, recalling her first impression of Penikett: “I thought, ‘I’m in a relationship. He’s hot,’ ” she said. But seriously, she added, the actor has always been ripe for a meatier role. “He’s really introspective and smart, that was always clear.”

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Whedon, a very vocal “Battlestar” fan, echoed the sentiment. “I don’t know where it comes from, but Tahmoh has this wonderful sadness amidst being tall and handsome and strong. He was the first name I came up with to play Paul.

“He brought up this book I’d read, Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go,’ that I’d completely forgotten about as a precursor to ‘Dollhouse,’ ” Whedon said. “At that point we just absolutely clicked.” (Penikett said Whedon’s reaction was more like: “Oh, my God, I think I jacked the idea from there!”)

In the first episode of “Dollhouse,” Paul is revealed to be a lethal combination of loner and relentless cop. Penikett couldn’t resist.

“I’ve been wanting to play someone darker. Helo’s got his demons, but ultimately he’s the most moral, ethical, family-man hero there is,” Penikett said. “Paul, you question right off the bat. He’s divorced, doesn’t have a lot of friends, messed up career-wise a few times and very self-righteous. I immediately wanted to play around with this guy.”

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If you take the ratings out of the equation, Penikett has had a rather charmed career so far. After growing up the oldest of three kids in Canada’s Yukon region, he studied drama in Vancouver and went to work on the city’s various productions, including “Dark Angel,” “The L Word,” “Smallville” and the Canadian police procedural “Cold Squad.” His initial stint on the “Battlestar” miniseries turned permanent once the project was ordered to series.

“I knew ‘Battlestar’ would go on for a while. You could feel it,” Penikett said.

He added that the feeling was the same on “Dollhouse” -- even while he was having a tough time keeping track of his character’s now-jumbled story. “One of the writers told me they had to make a chart for Paul’s arc to keep it all straight,” he said. “We just shot Episode 9, and I’m only now beginning to figure things out.”

They’re all good things, he added quickly with a laugh. But patience will be key.

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denise.martin@ latimes.com


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