By Kelley L. Carter, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — It's rare that Eliza Dushku gets to be, well, Eliza Dushku.
But on this particular Thursday afternoon, dressed in a pair of yoga pants, eating Trader Joe's chili out of the can and hanging out at home with her two dogs, she's at her most comfortable.
"Look," she says, holding her cellphone in an outstretched hand, "my nephew was born today! So cute? They usually don't look that cute when they're a few hours old, right?"
The actress perches in front of her laptop to finish buying a plane ticket to Boston so she can visit the newest member of her clan. She was able to dip into her hometown the next week to coo with the new baby after making talk-show rounds to chat up her latest project, Dollhouse (Friday, 9 ET/PT), a new series on Fox.
The Boston-born actress, 28, who has been in the Hollywood game since she was 10 years old, is calling the shots and doing everything on her terms. Her first priority? Putting more deeply complex stories about women on television.
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"My mom is like this hard-core, liberal feminist. She's a professor in Boston, and she's been teaching women's studies for 30 years and international politics," Dushku says. "So I've traveled, and I've heard so many women's stories, and I've heard stories of really, really hard lives. And I just feel like there are so many stories to be told, and it's hard to find someone who can sort of intertwine them with the right kind of action and suspense and use genius metaphors ... while striking a chord with the universal theme of the search for one's true identity."
That very notion led her to help create, produce and star in Dollhouse. In the dramatic series, which she crafted with writer/director Joss Whedon, she plays a young woman called Echo, a member of a group of people who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Women such as Echo are hired out for particular jobs, crimes, fantasies and the occasional good deed.
"I asked Joss to create it with me and for me, and it was really special to me," she says. She worked with Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer from 1998 to 2003. "I wanted the chance to get back together with someone who writes for me in a way that shows the most colors that I have."
It's a series filled with interesting twists and turns, she says, but it mirrors what she has been doing for almost two decades as an actress.
"I wake up and play a different person every day. Playing all these different characters and trying to figure out who your true authentic self is at the core of that as you're playing all these different roles, and man, that self-awareness starts to come into effect," she says. "And you start to see who you really are. That was an important parallel of art imitating life for me."
And in real life, Dushku is becoming self-aware, too.
The single actress recently kicked a longtime smoking habit, stopped drinking and says she hasn't had a sip of coffee this year. For fun, she signs up for online trips to explore Third World countries.
One of these days, she says, she'll head back to Boston and perhaps follow in her mother's footsteps.
"I wanted to be a political science professor and go to school in Boston. I never wanted to be a big, famous movie star and TV star. It kind of found me. I was at a point where I could have packed it all up and gone back to Boston, and I would have been fine and happy. And a little richer, both financially and having had the experiences that I've had since I was 10 working with people like De Niro and Schwarzenegger.
"But I thought if I was going to get out of this business, I wanted to end on a strong note. I wanted to do something that I put my heart and my hard work into full force. And this is that."