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Countdown to 'Dollhouse': Harry Lennix gets intellectual

February 10, 2009 |  1:21 pm

Harry_lennixTV has not been kind to Harry Lennix lately. In his last recurring role, he played the ill-fated boyfriend of the president's sister on the messy sixth season of "24." (I forget how his character, Walid, even figured into the plot after he gets beat up in prison, but it's safe to say he probably just disappeared into the "24" ether.) Before that, he was the chief of staff to Geena Davis on the short-lived ABC drama "Commander in Chief."

But for "Dollhouse," Lennix, who next stars in the star-studded political thriller "State of Play," opposite Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe, is betting once again on a TV show. He explains why:

How did you get involved with the show?
I had not been familiar with Joss’ [Whedon]work, but last year I had just finished doing "August Wilson's 20th Century" at the Kennedy Center and had about a week down time. During that week my agent sent a number of scripts, and of those scripts the most exciting one was ‘Dollhouse.’ I immediately read and felt an affinity for the character I’m playing, Boyd Langdon. That very week I got an audition to go in and met Joss and the cast of people, who were very nice. Three days later I went to a call-back, and that very day I heard they decided to go with me. It was very nice, the turnaround on that. It doesn’t always happen that way, let me tell you.

By now, we all know what the premise of "Dollhouse" is. What did you find most appealing about the project?
The possibilities for it are endless. It deals with subject matter that is eternal: What is it to be able to engineer a human being just like you want? We get into questions of eugenics, we get into questions of what is free will. Why is there a need for such a place [like the Dollhouse]? Why is something like, for example, prostitution, considered the world’s oldest profession? What is it about people that orthodoxy does not do a good job in satisfying? When you have something as unorthodox and as high-end as the Dollhouse, that is people who can afford to pay the price to do what they like and go outside of the law, there must be a reason for it. ... If someone voluntarily decided to give up a portion of their lives for a reason, for money in this case, or whatever, to escape the past, then what benefit is derived and is that benefit reciprocal?

That’s a lot of questions.
But those questions will never become old. And of course there are many variations on that theme, so the potential for ‘Dollhouse,’ as we learn where this world is, as we learn more about it, I think the potential is limitless.

Tell us more about your character.
My character is mysterious. There are a lot of things we don’t know. We know he was an ex-police officer. We know he was probably good at it, and we know something must have happened and the function of executing his duties that has required him to go outside of the law. Whatever that was, and I have my own ideas, you have to. I don’t think actors can play generalities or ambiguity. Even if the answers will be changed eventually by the creator, the actor himself has to play the event or series of events that lead up to this moment. In my own mind, the character must have been in a situation where he was forced to decide between right and wrong. And in some cases you can do the right thing but it is considered wrong, it is outside of the rules that are established for him. I think that’s the type of guy that he was. In the Dollhouse, he has to reexamine who he is. I don’t think he’s perfect. He may have a penchant for violence. I think he sees violence as the perfectly legitimate means for resolving conflict.

The pilot sorts of sets up you and Topher as moral opposites.
His thing is science, he’s into manipulating in other ways. So I do think we’re polar opposites. I ask the questions. He provides many answers, but he doesn’t have all the answers. Somewhere in that gray area, between what he knows with certainty and what I know with certainty, is where the drama is. I think Boyd is the voice of experience who has had to come face to face with these questions several times a day in his past life. Before the TCA, I had not thought that it was going to be as resonant. But people certainly seemed very intrigued by that relationship between these two men.

What are the key differences between the original pilot and what will air this week?

I liked the retooled pilot as well because it has more action. But what separated the two for me, what stood out most in my mind, was that in the original pilot there were a lot of questions dangling. They simply went unresolved, and I looked forward to answering those very questions. It was kind of a big riddle. Einstein once said that computers were useless because they could only provide answers, and I think that the questions are far more important and interesting to me than answers. If you have to provide the answers in a given episode you might as well substitute in action for it, and I think they did that very well. I should say to replace philosophy with action is an allowable solution.

The show has finished shooting. How’s everyone feeling?
There was a sense of accomplishment and optimism. To some extent it was a little bittersweet. You’ve put all of this time into, really, one project for several months, and you develop a kind of esprit de corps and it’s a little bit uneasy to go into the unknown again. But we’re waiting optimistically and, at the same time, somewhat realistically. Anything can happen. Kind of a mixed bag, really.

How would you convince someone uninterested in "Dollhouse" to watch the show?
It’s an entertaining premise. The nagging question is: If someone could make you able to do whatever you want, but you had no ability to know you could do those things, what’s the benefit? It is suggested in this that there is some residual piece of your soul that remains. That suggestion alone is really compelling.

— Denise Martin

Related:
Complete coverage of "Dollhouse."

Photo credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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