Interview: Eliza Dushku and Nate Dushku

Eliza and Nate Dushku are like a lot of siblings-their words overlap, and they’re obviously close-except both happen to be very good-looking (seriously, what is with their family’s genes?) and have spent a lifetime acting and now producing in film and television. Their latest collaboration, Mapplethorpe, directed by Ondi Timoner and starring Dr. Who‘s Matt Smith as the eponymous enfant terrible,  is now open in limited release after a run at Tribeca Film Festival last spring.

The Dushkus endear themselves to me early on. Nate is wearing a high school jacket recently unearthed by their mom. Like Eliza’s famous Buffy the Vampire Slayer character Faith, the two grew up in the Boston area, where I was attending college when I first discovered her. Eliza apologizes unnecessarily for grabbing food before joining us at Tribeca’s posh Roxy Hotel. As I watch her start in on some chicken wings, I think, “Slayers… They’re just like us!” I’ve just seen Mapplethorpe and am eager to discuss the film. It turns out I was a freshman at Emerson when the Dushkus first started development.

“This one was just something that really spoke to me when Nate sent the script to me in 2002,” Eliza professes. “It’s been a long time. Just with Mapplethorpe being such a boundary pusher and such a fascinating artist, and … the art that he made and the person that he was sort of being in contradiction. You know the controversy about him but then there was such humanity in him, too, and I feel like it was just exciting for us to tell that story.”

“It’s not easy getting an independent film financed and shot in New York City anyway,” Nate states, “and an artist that’s this controversial, whose work was censored … trying to put this out into the mainstream, we knew there were going to be challenges. But Robert was an icon not just to artists but… he’s not Lady Gaga, he’s not Ru Paul, he’s his own [thing]-but he came before, in many ways, those people were influenced by him and-“

“He forged a path, you know?” Eliza chimes in.

“He forged a path,” Nate agrees, “and it’s really cool to be holding his legacy.”

It’s a responsibility the pair took seriously through every aspect of production, which recreates three decades convincingly through music, wardrobe, and a vast number of locations. The cast, led by Smith, was more than up to the job.

“[Matt] was so prepared, every day, even towards the end, he got really sick, he got some kind of bug-and he just plowed through it,” Eliza gushes. “He really just embodied the character, the way he improvised, the way he would interact with the other characters, it was extraordinary to watch, you know. Lucky to have him.”

Nate agrees, explaining that the screenplay’s time span presented some unique challenges: “In maybe one day, you’d be doing a scene from the 60s and also a scene from the 80s.”

“In one location,” Eliza adds.

“It’s like, ‘you’re dying! You’re 18 years old, you moved out to New York City. It’s the mid-70s…'” Nate recalls. These drastic shifts also extended to the actor’s hairstyle: “We had Wigmageddon,” Eliza jokes, “there were a lot of wigs on the actors.”

Photo by Andrew Toth

Smith’s costars also impressed the duo. “Marianne [Rendon], she read for the role and it was like, there’s real life young Patti [Smith], in the flesh,” Nate declares. He also has kind words for newcomer Brandon Sklenar (Edward Mapplethorpe) and veteran actor John Benjamin Hickey (Robert’s lover Sam Wagstaff). “[Brandon’s] playing opposite Matt, and we just needed somebody who could go pound for pound with him,” Nate explains. “John Benjamin Hickey is another story, he’s a pro, he’s been doing this for a long time, but that was great to see [him and Smith] come together. Every single actor just humanized the role and just gave it levels.”

This being the Robert Mapplethorpe story, there’s considerable nudity and sexual content in the film. This wasn’t a problem in the acting realm, at least. The actors “responded really well,” Eliza states. “We sent them the script, we sent them the material-it’s a choice, even for me as an actor, and everyone who came and knew what the movie was and knew what the artist was, and we were really impressed with the performances. And in terms of the extras in the sex dungeon [sequence], yeah there are a lot of rules in SAG, and protections and things. Some of them came in their own wardrobe.” Eliza says many of the background performers came from the leather and kink community, and credits Central Casting with finding them all. “Central Casting, they have been around forever and they put their own people on it,” Nate elaborates. “They were so excited about the project and whenever we needed something, we’d say ‘this is what we need’ and they’d send pictures for us to choose from. They interviewed them, because they have to stand by the people they’re sending over to be on set. It’s just like any other actor, really.”

While the cast was game for the racy scenes, some of the potential locations and soundtrack contributors were another matter. When I tell the pair that I loved the vintage soundtrack, Eliza reveals that a number of performers “had deep Christian values and didn’t want to have their songs in this kind of film, and we’d have to say, ‘OK.'”

“I mean, that happened during production, too,” Nate says. “We had a really hard time finding the church to shoot in, and then we had a really hard time, [this] church I guess, owned this [building]-“

“Don’t tell him the name!” Eliza scolds. I assure them the name will be redacted and suggest referring to it only as “Church X.”

“Church X,” Nate continues, “this other location that I guess was owned by them, they pulled out at the last minute.” Despite these challenges, the producers strove to reinforce the narrative with deliberate choices. One of the songs that was secured is “I’m a Man” by Jobriath, which Eliza handpicked for the end credits. “He was the first ever gay musician to have a major recording deal,” Nate tells me. “He was a gay glam rocker … he basically got torn down by the media, and then he moved into the top floor of the Chelsea [Hotel, where Robert and Patti lived] and then he died of AIDS at 38 years old. And that was another angle to it, that we wanted to try to have the narrative of the music, fit Robert’s narrative.”

So after all the trials and tribulations of Mapplethorpe, would Eliza consider producing again? In fact, she and Nate are developing projects, including the “big, epic TV series” The Black Company, though the actress/producer has other things happening. “I live back in Boston these days,” Eliza says. “Marrying a Boston boy this August, and going to school in Cambridge, working on my bachelor’s degree in holistic psychology.” I tell her that I always dreamed of going to school in Cambridge. “Me, too!” she exclaims. “So I just friggin’ went for it.”

Eliza adds that she might be starting a family soon, “but I think I’ll always have a tie in to the business. My brother and I have always been so close and share a lot of excitement around different stories and storytelling.”

Eliza also shares the excitement of her Buffy fans. I ask her for her take on being an icon to the LGBT community. “Awww!” she says. I mention the panel at Flame Con in 2017, in which panelist JE Reich responded to the question “Buffy and Angel or Buffy and Spike?” with “Buffy and Faith!” Eliza smiles knowingly and answers only, “Yeah.”

“I’m always honored and tickled when I hear that,” she continues. “I feel the love, you know, from guys telling me that I’m the only female on their ‘list,” and their boyfriend’s totally cool with it, to like, I’m the only one that would turn her!” Eliza laughs. “It’s cool that we’re living in a world today where we can just be out with like, what does it for us. [Buffy] was such a-I mean, we throw the word ‘groundbreaking’ around a lot, but it was a groundbreaking show!” Eliza adds with amazement that the series “really spoke to people and changed a lot of people’s lives! Because I meet them frequently, and they profess exactly just how it did, and it’s awesome. A lot of actors never have that opportunity to be part of something that just has such a beating heart. And such an effect on so many people, and I’ll always just be blown away and grateful for that.”

Eliza explains how this passion has benefited her personally, through “that feeling that I’ve helped people get through really hard shit. And then a few months ago, I had to go through some really hard shit (in January, she shared her experience with sexual abuse at the age of 12 at the hands of True Lies stunt coordinator Joel Kramer) but my fans kind of inspired me in the same way they told me that I inspired them so it was really kind of a beautiful circle thing.””

I Came to Buffy 20 Years Late (and That’s OK)

It wasn’t until 2016 that I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It had been one of my biggest pop cultural blind spots for years, but I was as defensive about never having seen it as I was ashamed. I was aware of the very positive criticism it had received from now-Pulitzer-prize-winner Emily Nussbaum who once described the show as “emphasizing luminous genre myths.”

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I had watched some of the spin-off series Angel, because it seemed more mature and relatable, though that may have been my way of dismissing Buffy as immature. Also, an acolyte of Evangelical Christian and Republican political operative Chuck Colson wrote a not-negative review of Angel, describing it as a “flower in the wasteland,” which intrigued me. (Because I was a very different person back then.)


There was no magical argument that finally convinced me to start watching Buffy. It had become easier to resist watching the show with time, especially when I had heard that it only “really got going” in seasons 3 and 4. Being a completist when it comes to TV shows, I feel a need to begin with season 1, episode 1 and watch everything until the finale. I saw no reason to sit through two or three seasons of dreck to get to the stuff worth watching. This was an excuse more than anything else, because there’s plenty to like in seasons 1 and 2, but I didn’t know that at the time. So in 2016, almost 20 years after the season 1 episode 1 was first broadcast, I tried to attend a live performance of the musical episode at a local gay bar here in Chicago, and a friend offered to help initiate me into the first season. I became hooked almost immediately, and we began marathons of episodes anytime we could hang out. I would stay up late with my Netflix queue to see how cliffhangers played out or to re-watch favorite moments from episodes I had just seen. I even live-tweeted an episode and gained Juliet Landau as a follower!


There were many reasons why I didn’t watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer while it was being broadcast between 1997 and 2003. For one, my strict religious upbringing prohibited anything “occult” in nature. Vampires, witches, and demons, even if portrayed negatively, were corrupting influences allowing Satan to lead us astray. I have vivid memories of my grandmother frowning at a Tales from the Crypt comic I bought and dismissing it as “sinful.” Favorite aunts of mine had trouble with The Mighty Thor due to “paganism.”


Another reason I didn’t watch was that so much of it looked and sounded ridiculous to me. I know I shouldn’’t hold a show’s budgetary restraints against it, but I couldn’t help myself. I would get bored whenever friends tried to convince me of Buffy’s greatness by quoting millennia-old mythology about the Buffy-verse. (This was and still is a terrible idea, by the way; the best thing about this show is the characters, not the arcane world-building about classes of demons.)


Finally, I had something of a contrarian streak that made me kick against anyone telling me I had to watch something. In my defense, if this simple assertion was all I had heard, and my friends had left it at that, then maybe I would have started watching around season 3 or 4. I’ve admitted that I was not receptive and was shamefully judgmental, but it didn’t help when a former college roommate, red in the face, with veins bulging, screamed at me about what an essential show it was. When someone grabbed me by the shoulders and hassled me over not having started the show, this engendered in me nothing but a desire to get away from that person.


I’m glad I’m watching it now, and that’s what matters. But I would caution fans against being too insistent. Geek culture and fandom can be intimidating. I understand the urgency, but it can scare people off or make them feel “less than” because they haven’t gotten around to something. Our enjoyment and admiration of something doesn’t need to become gatekeeping, condescension, or hostility. Leave the gates open, and people will find their way inside. Even if it takes a couple of decades.


I recognize the show now for how important it is, not only to the television medium or genre storytelling but to individual people who learned about themselves and others because of it. I have no doubt it will be enjoyed by generations to come.


Do I regret not watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer sooner? Yes and no. If I had watched it back then, I probably would have nitpicked the special effects instead of enjoying their charms. I would have grumbled about plot holes instead of becoming enamored with the characters. I am not the person I was back then, and I can enjoy this show better now as the classic it always has been. I can laugh with my friends over poorly rendered CGI giant wasps and acknowledge the horror of nightmares coming true.

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This was scary.

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This was not.

I still disagree that I have to watch every episode, but I’m going to anyway. I’m not entirely convinced that it was essential to see the one with the papier-mâché praying mantis demon, and I can already tell that I’m going to be disappointed with certain plot developments in season 7. I was hoping to finish the series in time to write this article, but it’s kind of fitting that I haven’t. I have so much to look forward to. I’ll get to articulate my opinion on Dawn Summers, and I’m excited by the prospect of “Once More with Feeling.” There’s a joy of anticipation and discovery that has made the wait worthwhile.