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'Dollhouse': Tahmoh Penikett on stress, technology and being done with 'growing pains'

October 7, 2009 |  1:00 pm

Tahmoh Penikett was married to the enemy in "Battlestar Galactica," and now, reluctantly, he's had to join his nemesis once again. The second season of "Dollhouse" kicks off with Paul Ballard working with the organization he so wants to topple -- to help the damsel in distress he so wants to save.  Penikett talked with us a bit about Ballard's ongoing struggle, the dollhouse technology itself and his love of Hollywood north, Vancouver.

So, how did the renewal talk affect you, and how did you take it when you heard?
I was speculating when we were in the off-season, saying, "I wouldn't be surprised if we did get picked up, I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't." A lot of people felt that way. ... I, fortunately, have been in this business long enough to where I wasn't sitting around pining and stressing about it, which I did in the first couple of seasons of "Battlestar." It can be incredibly stressful to do that and consuming -- it's not healthy for an actor to do. I try to be more appreciative now that I have an opportunity to work and just go day by day.  But I had a good feeling about it.

If I was to speculate on how the network thinks, you look at Joss Whedon, you look at all his products, Dollhouse-300 you look at the cult-fan following and look at the fact that a show he had on for seven years is still selling in high numbers with DVDs and what have you -- from a business standpoint, it just makes sense.

So, Paul Ballard went through a bit of a character shift the first season, wouldn't you say?
Well, yeah.  When we meet Paul, we realize that he doesn't have anyone.  He doesn't have a family that's close to him, he's recently been divorced, it's not clear if he has any close friends. ... I think it's kind of clear that he's one of those guys that when he puts his mind to something he's got to see it through.  When we meet him early on, he's specifically focused on the dollhouse, or the urban legend of it. And by the end of the season, it comes full circle.  He ends up getting in a relationship with a woman -- falling in love with her -- then finds out that it's not even real the whole time.  And he loses his job.  He really doesn't have much, and I think by the end of the season he's really just trying to hold on to his sanity.

What kind of evolution are we going to see him go through this coming season?
When we leave him in one of the last episodes last season, he kind of signs his life way to the devil cause he realizes that he can ensure the freedom of Mellie or November. When we see him this season, we see that Paul is actually using the dollhouse and its technology, specifically Echo, to try and close some unresolved cases. ... He's kind of in a position that he has to work with them, but they know and he knows that he doesn't agree with their practices and this technology and everything that the dollhouse represents. So how long will he stay there? How long will he work with them, or is he quietly working against them? When is he going to try to get Echo out of there?

Do you know these things already?
I don't. Joss has only shared so much with me, and that's OK, I'm kind of used to that. It may be simple for other actors, but even on "Battlestar," I wasn't really privy to an overall arc and where we wanted to end up at the end of the season. I'm curious.  I think more than anything we're going to explore the backstory of many of the characters.  There's potential with me but also for some of the characters in the dollhouse.  Why are they there? ... We'll see when Paul's conscience finally gets in the way and he can no longer work for them. ... He knows that he can easily disappear.

So far, from what you've shot, have there been any big plot points that sidestepped what you thought was going to happen?
Somewhat.  What's interesting to me is that when you watch the original pilot, that tone, I think the show has really found its way. ...  When Joss Whedon called me and told me about Paul Ballard, he originally said that Paul wasn't [going to be] the stereotypical investigator, the reporter, that's constantly just missing the information or the real person. ... He didn't want that to be the case with Paul.  He wanted him to use the technlogy early on.

Paul Ballard's reactions to what's going on -- how close are they to what you would do?
I think very close.  Paul fears and hates this technology but is very curious about it.  I know I would be.  The implications and consequences of this technology being in the wrong hands, which incidentally it is -- and you'll see that it's leading that way -- of it just getting out there is really kind of scary.

It's incredible how powerful it is and the possibilities of it, and you can't help think that those in control of it are playing God in a sense. I think there'd be a natural curiosity with this technology.

So you got to go after friend and buddy Jamie Bamber in the season opener.
Mmm-hmm.

DOLL_250 How was that? And did you have any input ... going up to Joss and saying, 'Hey, I think Paul had this crazy British bad guy in his past. Let's go after Jamie'?
I wish i could take credit for that, but it was really Joss.  Everybody knows Joss is a huge fan of "Battlestar."  Jamie was great for the role and it was cool seeing him play someone so different from Lee Adama. ... And you know, getting Michael Hogan on there -- I didn't get to share any big scenes with Michael, but I'm a huge fan of his work, and I was just so happy to have him on the show.

I got to speak to you last year at Comic-Con and you said that "Dollhouse" had the potential to reach the kind of iconic status that "Battlestar Galactica" has. Has that changed?
I don't think it has.  There's always the potential.  If anything, I'm probably feeling that more now than last year. It was a bumpy ride, man.  There was a lot of insecurity involved. There was a lot of speculation that we were going to be canceled all the time.  It took the show a while to find its way. ... There's just a sense on set that we're done with the growing pains and we're just about the work right now.  People are bonding, I think the writers are writing for the actors, and there's a lot of potential.  I mean, we are talking Joss Whedon here. ... [After reading] the fifth episode, I thought, 'Wow, they're dropping so many bombs here!  If we get picked up for a full season, where can they go?'

Can you detonate any of those bombs, just a tiny bit?
Well, we're gonna start seeing this tech be taken to a whole new and different way.  It's scary. Topher and those in control of the dollhouse are using a godlike manipulation of people and there's really no consequences for them because they can correct them.  But it's far from perfect and there's problems arising the whole time.  But the season is really dark.

So we'll see some of those consequences really soon?
Oh yeah.  I think this is one of the darkest things Joss Whedon has ever done. Just the technology and what it represents.  I can't wait to read the next episode.

You've had some pretty intense physical fight scenes with Eliza as Echo ... 
Well, to be honest with you, I read the first episode of this season and was like, 'Oh really? I have to hit her again?'  But I totally realize why, and what Joss was trying to do. ... Eliza's great, though.  You can see even more of an investment and commitment from her. Everyone is much more invested in the show cause we know there's so much opportunity for longevity here.

Jamie Bamber said that you were the guide and host for many of the actors in Vancouver.  What's so great about Vancouver?
What's so great?!? It's just one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Have you been?

Sadly, I haven't.
Well, there you go. I mean you're on the beautiful West Coast, but [in Vancouver] you're surrounded by the mountains and ocean right there.  The city's nestled between some of the most gorgeous mountains you've ever seen.  Ocean, sea, sky, massive forests ... it's one of the most beautiful places in the world.  Even if you're not an outdoorsman, you can't help but appreciate the view and the energy there. ... It's magical.

-- Jevon Phillips

Photos: At top, Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) attempts to break into the dollhouse. Credit: David Strick / David Strick's Hollywood Backlot. At bottom, Paul tries to defuse a dangerous situation in the "Dollhouse" season-premiere episode, "Vows." Credit: Fox

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