Exclusive: Joss Whedon Tackles Darwin

Click to viewJoss Whedon's new TV show, Dollhouse, is all about people whose minds are erased, allowing them to "become" anybody and have any skills. So does this mean Whedon is coming down on the "nurture" side of the nature/nurture debate? Are people purely shaped by their conditioning? Is your brain just a piece of hardware that you can run any software on? We caught up with Whedon and asked him. His answer may surprise you.

Here's a handy transcript:

Are you coming down on the side of nurture in the whole nature/nurture debate? Are we just shaped by our conditioning? Are our bodies just hardware that you can run any software on?

First of all, thank you. No-one's ever asked that question. I mean it. And second of all, nature versus nurture is something I've spent a lot of my life thinking about. And I've always been a nurture guy. I've always felt, "You're shaped by your environment, and the terrible, terrible things that your perfectly reasonable parents do to you." And then I had children, and they came out very much themselves. There are definitely things I can do to mess them up, and I'm doing my best, but they are who they are.

And I think Dollhouse... I will never answer your question, by the way. Dollhouse is the question. I've said before: Movies are an answer, TV shows are a question. Because if you give a definite answer, what the hell is your next episode about? My feeling is, there's a lot of both. Nuture is the key, but nature is interesting. And there is something innate within us, that can overcome what we've been saddled with. My wife is an amazing example of somebody who should not be as cool as she is, but could not help herself. So I've definitely learned that there are two sides to it, and that's what I want to explore with Dollhouse.


It's about something who — there is no nature. They've wiped out her personality. So she has to create her own. But she has the will to do that. They have not gotten rid of that. That's the key to the whole show. It explains what I'm about, it explains Eliza [Dushku], it is Echo defining herself with no parameters. With no nurture, and no real nature, to fall back on. Who am I? So I'll be answering your question, with any luck, for the next seven years.

You've almost answered my followup question. Your show is about somebody who's programmed to be whoever they need her to be this week. She doesn't have any agency. How are we supposed to identify with her or root for her, as an audience?

The throughline of the show is that gradually she is becoming self-aware in between these engagements. And her self-awareness starts to affect the engagements, and the engagements start to affect her self-awareness. And she begins to realize, "I think that I'm somebody. I think I exist. And I think the fact that I know that might be dangerous for me." So that throughline, and the way the Dollhouse runs, that's progressing throughout.

I will never do a show that's just a reset show. These people are going to grow and learn and become stranger and more twisted every week. But every week she will have an engagement that does resolve, so you can just sit down and watch it. It's not one of those shows, like I always use Murder She Wrote as an example, where there is no accumulated knowledge. And it's not just one of those shows where it's just, "Twist-twist-twist-twist, please come back next week." We'll definitely resolve her engagements.


At the same time, if you watch consistently, you will get to see her struggle to become, and the struggle everybody around her has dealing with that. Because some are against it, some are for it, but everybody has to deal with it. She is the stone in the pond that creates ripples in everybody's lives.

In a recent Buffy comic, Faith goes undercover as an upper class British woman, I was like, "This could be an episode of Dollhouse."


Yeah. It was actually written before Dollhouse was conceived. It was something Brian [K. Vaughan] had pitched a long while ago. But she will definitely be bringing that as well.

That's the great thing, it's like, who can she be this week? Eliza, she's not wearing wigs, she's not Meryl Streep with accents, she's always Eliza to an extent, but that's not a problem. Because her character is just the essence of what she's doing, and she really is versatile. We had her being not British, but very upper class swing dance kind of forties, and we had her being a Latina gangster, speaking Spanish for an entire scene. She did both of those scenes in one day. And all she did was change her costume. It's not like I explained how she should do that. She brings so much in terms of understanding of body language. And of dialect and and the way she presents... she can't turn off the Eliza. Nobody can turn off the Eliza. You could power the grid with the Eliza. But she can present it in many different ways, and it's beautiful to see.


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Charlie Jane Anders

@SomnambulantHobbit: Duh, I mean, yes, no smoking involved... girl here. With a very sore throat after interviewing 100 celebrities in one day.