NINA DOBREV AT 1OAK IN LOS ANGELES, JULY 2015. PHOTOS: BRIAN HIGBEE. STYLING: DANI + EMMA. MAKEUP: MATTHEW VANLEEUWEN FOR THE WALL GROUP. HAIR: GIOVANNI GIULIANO FOR ART DEPARTMENT USING KEVIN MURPHY HAIR CARE.
For six years, Nina Dobrev starred as Elena Gilbert on The Vampire Diaries, one the CW’s most successful shows. She won four People’s Choice Awards, six Teen Choice Awards, and even dated her co-star Ian Somerhaulder. But Dobrev, who was born in Bulgaria and still speaks the language fluently, never quite fit into the network’s usual teen queen mold, and when her contract expired at the end of the show’s sixth season, she was ready to move on. Today, The Vampire Diaries will begin its seventh season without its protagonist.
Now 26, Dobrev is being judicious about what she does next. She’s returning to her roots in the indie film industry, first with The Final Girls, a playful spin on cheesy ’80s slasher flicks that won the Audience Award at SXSW and recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and next with Arrivals. Co-starring Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Alia Shawkat, and Alexander Ludwig, The Final Girls will open tomorrow. Arrivals, which features Asa Butterfield and Game of Thrones‘s Maisie Williams, will begin filming early next year.
Here, Dobrev talks to her friend and fellow actor (you may have heard of a little movie he’s in called The Martian) Michael Peña. The interview took place just prior to the announcement of Dobrev’s role in Arrivals.
MICHAEL PEÑA: Where are you in the world?
NINA DOBREV: I just got back to L.A. from the Toronto Film Festival. I was there yesterday, but now I’m back in Lala Land.
PEÑA: Oh nice. I haven’t seen your new house. I’ve got to check it out.
DOBREV: Yes, please. You’re welcome any time. It’s a little bit more done than it was—it was a storage unit for a while there.
PEÑA: That’s right because you were living in Atlanta.
DOBREV: Yes, sir.
PEÑA: Right by Jessica Szohr.
DOBREV: Jessica Szohr lived right by me. I bought my place. She was just renting in the building because I lived there. She wanted to be close to me. She’s my pseudo-boyfriend.
PEÑA: [laughs] They gave me some questions here, but I’m like, “Meh.” I’m just going to free-style it a little bit. How did we meet, by the way? Did Jessica Szohr introduce us?
DOBREV: Yes, she did. You were in Atlanta filming Ant Man.
PEÑA: Wow, so I’ve known you for a year. It feels like I’ve known you for 10.
DOBREV: I know, exactly. I remember she invited us both out to that karaoke dive bar called The Local on Ponce De Leon. It’s super dingy and not fancy at all. I don’t remember if we did karaoke that night or not.
PEÑA: It was with Paul Rudd.
DOBREV: That was later. We did that too. We did a lot of karaoke in Atlanta.
PEÑA: Paul Rudd was the leader of that. That dude is a beast on the karaoke machine.
DOBREV: He killed all of us. I didn’t want to go after he went up. He was so good.
PEÑA: Paul Rudd does embarrass people with his karaoke performances.
DOBREV: Well, really with everything, he’s talented at everything. He’s the most talented person ever…next to you of course; you’re way more talented than Paul Rudd obviously. [laughs]
PEÑA: Okay, okay, now this is getting weird. So you grew up in Canada, you were born in Bulgaria, what’s your first language?
DOBREV: My first language was Bulgarian.
PEÑA: Can you still speak it?
DOBREV: Of course I can. I was just in Bulgaria.
PEÑA: Wow. For this interview I had to do a lot of research—it basically consisted of Wikipedia and Google, but still there’s a lot, when you do this kind of thing, that you’re like, “Woah, I didn’t know that.”
DOBREV: I know. You don’t really talk about everything; you talk about certain things. It’s the little details where you get to go, “Oh, I never thought about this.”
PEÑA: I remember we mainly talked about acting, which was kind of cool because I don’t really get to do that.
DOBREV: Yeah and I got to show you guys a lot of Atlanta because I had been there for so long. Now you’ve been filming there more than I have. You keep on doing jobs there, don’t you?
PEÑA: I actually was there three weeks ago because I became friends with some of the golf professionals there. I love it. I think it’s a great town. So I read up on you and you were a gymnast?
DOBREV: Yes, I definitely have not told you about that. For a while, I was a rhythmic gymnast and then an aesthetic gymnast.
PEÑA: What does that mean? When we’re watching the Olympics, what performance are we looking for for rhythm gymnastics?
DOBREV: I’m so glad that you specifically asked about the Olympics, because you don’t see it really. America doesn’t have a very strong rhythmic or aesthetic gymnastic team, so of course whenever the networks are deciding what to air on television, they are biased to their own country; if the American team doesn’t make it to the finals, they don’t really air it in that country. A lot of people don’t even know what rhythmic gymnastics is, but it is in the Olympics. Other countries like Russia, Japan, and Canada sometimes, do make it to the final round but it doesn’t get televised. It’s basically like gymnastic dancing. It’s not the kind of gymnastics where you do flips on a beam or across the floor. You do more dance and then you have apparatus like ribbons and hoops and clubs.
PEÑA: That sounds difficult.
DOBREV: It is pretty difficult, but it’s also really fun. I really enjoyed it. I loved it. I got a lot of injuries doing it, though. It got to the point where I had to decide what I wanted to do: continue training for this and maybe go to the Olympics one day and make that my life until I’m 20 and then retire, or try to figure out acting, which is also very scary and unreliable and a lot of people don’t find success in it, but I love it, and if it works out, hopefully I’ll have a fruitful long career past 20 until I’m old and on a crutch. I think I made the right decision.
PEÑA: When did you make the transition?
DOBREV: I was 16 when I quit gymnastics and decided to start acting. I started booking immediately after. I was very lucky and fortunate, but I also did the hard work. Half of it’s hard work and half of it’s luck. It’s been working out so far. Fingers crossed for the future.
PEÑA: I’m glad that you say that. I became instant friends with you because obviously you’re successful and you’re beautiful and everything, but you’re also a humble person. I think being a successful actor has a lot to do with luck and some people just don’t acknowledge that. I’m always stoked when people come to that realization.
DOBREV: Yeah, it’s very true. There are so many variables in it and there is that part of the industry that’s not in our hands, there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m at a stage right now where yes, I’ve been on a show that was very successful and it was such a great experience, but now coming off of it, the things and the projects that I want to be a part of are not the ones that I get offered. I get offered a lot, but it’s not what I’m interested in. So I still have to fight very hard for the things that I want to do and to work with the filmmakers that I want to work with.
PEÑA: What do you want to do?
DOBREV: I want to do film. I want to do things where the talent range is difficult and that scare me. I thrive on that; if it’s not scaring me then I’m not growing.
PEÑA: I get that. Do you have a hero? My favorite actor is Dustin Hoffman—I fall way short of that, but that’s my hero. Who’s your hero?
DOBREV: I’m really impressed and in awe of a lot of women right now. I’ve really enjoyed watching, because she’s kind of my same age, Jennifer Lawrence. She has tackled both indies and big budget studio films. She has a humility and a presence and a charisma and a humor and intelligence that I really admire that about her. Audrey Hepburn is a big inspiration of mine. Cate Blanchett, she can do no wrong in any area of her life.
PEÑA: Yeah, she’s a beast. Jennifer Lawrence is really cool, too. I did American Hustle with her and she was just nice to everyone. I remember her dad was on set and everyone was her buddy.
DOBREV: That’s really cool. She’s also so funny, so real, and normal. I admire that more than anything. I respect that more than anything else.
PEÑA: What was your first part?
DOBREV: I booked my first three things in the same week and they were all very different. The very, very first thing I did was a tiny little cameo. I was playing a young version of an actress in a movie of the week. I was so nervous because it was my first time on set ever. I’m pretty sure I did the worst job that any one could ever have done. I didn’t know what a mark was, I didn’t know where the camera was. I didn’t know, technically, anything about [being on] set. I bombed it. They cut me out; I wasn’t even in it. I didn’t make the movie. [laughs]
PEÑA: [laughs] Sorry.
DOBREV: I can laugh at it now. It’s totally normal and that’s what happens. It’s a learning experience and it’s a process. With every role we get better, but that first one might not go so smoothly and it didn’t. Then later in that week I booked Degrassi, which was as a series regular on a TV show in Canada.
PEÑA: That’s the one Drake was on, right?
DOBREV: Yes, that’s right. Luckily four months had passed between that first thing I did and when we actually started filming Degrassi, so I got to shoot a movie in that time that warmed me up before I got to the Degrassi set. They didn’t cut me out of that one, luckily.
PEÑA: What one was that?
DOBREV: It was called Away from Her. It was a Sarah Polley movie, her directorial debut.
PEÑA: Oh wow, so that was your learning curve. Do you remember anything from doing that job?
DOBREV: Yes, vividly. It was only two days, but Sarah taught me a lot. I can only imagine now in retrospect that she was very patient with me. She would have given me a lot of pointers and talked to me if I had any questions. She would have made me feel comfortable. I think that’s one of the main things: you have to be comfortable. You need to know everything and feel 100 percent safe so that you can live and breathe in a role and so that you feel comfortable taking risks and trying new things and being bold. If you don’t feel comfortable, if you’re in a scenario that’s not conducive for that kind of environment, then that’s when you don’t do well. I think that first day when I bombed it, I was scared and uncomfortable and I didn’t know what was going on. That’s why the experience with Sarah was very eye-opening for me. With every job you get more comfortable, you do better, you’re more confident.
PEÑA: That means you were fairly comfortable going into Degrassi?
DOBREV: More so. Obviously, not as comfortable as I was years later on Vampire Diaries, where I would step onto the set and this is my world and I knew this character and I’d worked for a couple years. That’s probably the most comfortable I’ve been in a role. But definitely even with Degrassi, I felt like I had my bearings a little bit more.
PEÑA: I get it. Leading into the Vampire Diaries, how long did it go for—six years?
DOBREV: It’s six years and counting. They’re filming the seventh season currently.
PEÑA: Without you?
DOBREV: Without me. I made the difficult decision last season to leave. I had decided years before that I’d go the run of my contract and I wouldn’t extend, but it was a surprise for everyone else that didn’t know that. I always knew that I’d signed up for a certain amount of time and I fulfilled it. I had a great experience, but everything has to come to an end and this was my time. It’s like high school, you do four years and then you move onto the college.
PEÑA: You just happen to be in high school for six years.
DOBREV: Yeah, and everybody else got left back.
PEÑA: Yeah, exactly. I know how it is a little bit. You just got out of a successful TV show, a successful endeavor. Right when you got out of it, how were you picking your next projects?
DOBREV: Very, very carefully. Like I said earlier, there’s been a lot of offers, but I don’t need to work right away. I’d rather wait for something really good—to be excited about a role, or a director, or a project. I’m not just going to accept something because it’s a lot of money. I’m an artist; content is incredibly important to me. I only want to keep moving up and up in terms of quality and be careful with perception. I don’t just want to do things that are the pretty girl with lots of makeup, I want to get into the gritty stuff and get down and dirty and dark and really feed my soul and not my vanity.
PEÑA: You should do a movie with David Ayer.
DOBREV: I would love to. Put in a good word.
PEÑA: [laughs] You know how you said you say you feel comfortable? You’re never comfortable; it’s always nerve-wracking and quite an amazing experience. You should talk to that guy. I saw your movie [The Final Girls]. It reminds me of Wet Hot American Summer, but horror movie style. How was it working on that? You’re funny in that one.
DOBREV: Thank you. It was kind of what we talked about; it was different and that’s what drew me to it. I’m bored with the same genre, the same remakes of things. I like original ideas and high-concept things like this where it’s off the page and kind of fantastical. It was a character that I’ve never played before. We’ve all seen the mean girl, but I’ve never been the mean girl, and we’ve also never seen the mean girl with a heart that you end up rooting for and not hating. I liked the rest of the cast. I had watched the director Todd [Strauss-Schulson]’s previous short. He’s very stylistic. I was excited to work with him on this project. I liked the script and although it was a horror, it doesn’t feel like a horror film to me. When we worked on it, we felt it was more of a comedy. The horror genre is just a tool to tell the story.
PEÑA: It jumps genres, which I thought was interesting.
DOBREV: It breaks down the genres and it makes fun of the stereotypes. Were able to be self-aware and challenge those terrible ’80s horror flicks that have bad writing and are very one-dimensional. It’s a reflection of right now. Women are multi-faceted, complex, and strong, and in this movie women are supporting each other and fighting for each other and we’re friends. It’s really refreshing to see comradery amongst women instead of ill-wishing. That’s how it really is.
PEÑA: When you were dancing and you had to apply yourself and you had to work hard, do you use that? In acting class sometimes they study movement—do you feel like that influenced you at all?
DOBREV: Absolutely. I not only did the gymnastics, I went to a performing arts and musical theater high school. I did full courses in just dance, just drama, literature, and all that kind of stuff. The dancing aspect and being aware of your body and how it moves is one side of it and the other side is discipline from the gymnastics. I worked three or four hours a day, six days a week. You have to put that time and effort and discipline into your gymnastics to succeed. If you didn’t want to do that, you wouldn’t get the same results. It made me very tenacious; I think that work ethic translated into my current profession. That’s just who I am as a person. That and I’m a Capricorn—it’s part of our being, we’re driven and we don’t take no for an answer. We’re bossy and pushy and we do whatever we have to to get our way. [laughs]
PEÑA: I’m a Capricorn as well, so you’re forgiven.
DOBREV: You can relate.
PEÑA: [laughs] Did you study ballet?
DOBREV: I did. I studied every kind of dance—ballet not as long as everything else, but in my formative years I did. If you looked at my feet, you would know for sure that I used to do ballet. They’re completely destroyed and ripped up.
PEÑA: Maybe we won’t say that part…What’s next? Do you have a new job?
DOBREV: This is the worst thing, because I actually do, but I’m not allowed to talk about it yet. It’s so frustrating, but basically I do have something coming up that I’m excited about in January.
PEÑA: Is it a genre movie?
DOBREV: No, it’s very different from anything I’ve done, which is exciting.
PEÑA: Oh wow. When I was in Atlanta, I was doing a Marvel movie and I couldn’t say anything about it, so I totally understand.
DOBREV: Yeah, you know. But I’m just in the grind, working hard, reading a lot. Working on my house—renovating, decorating and gardening.
PEÑA: [laughs] That’s awesome. I can’t wait to see your garden.
MICHAEL PEÑA IS AN ACTOR WHOSE RECENT FILMS INCLUDE THE MARTIAN, ANT MAN, CESAR CHAVEZ, AND FURY. THE FINAL GIRLS COMES OUT TOMORROW, OCTOBER 9.