It’s Emmy weekend and the patio of Chateau Marmont is humming as Nina Dobrev lingers over her espresso, flanked by tables occupied by A-listers like Jeff Goldblum and Kate Bosworth. They go unbothered, but within our first five minutes together, Nina Dobrev has already been “secretly” photographed by onlookers thinking their conspicuous phone cam tactics were invisible to us. During the interim of our interview, Dobrev is approached multiple times by fans whom she greets with charming courtesy despite the disruption. As a rule of thumb at Chateau, celebrities can have a modicum of privacy, but not, as it seems, if you’re Nina Dobrev.
While I understand she’s accustomed to that kind of thing, my instinct to shield her from onlookers leads us to a clandestine place in the back of Chateau, behind the patio curtains, tucked away from the outside world. Innocuously dressed in a black leather jacket, black skirt and tights with a classic white tee, her tousled shoulder length hair frames her gently made up face--the kind of face that doesn’t need makeup to look striking--Dobrev’s look is a polished casual, matching her composed yet relaxed demeanor. A demeanor that deftly flexes from jovial extroversion to thoughtful introspection depending on circumstance.
Although the first time I met Dobrev was the prior week at her cover shoot, it feels like we met years ago--we know a lot of the same people--her stylist and I go back over a decade, I’ve interviewed many of her cohorts and I’ve been hearing about her for years. Upon actually meeting her, it strikes me that she’s essentially how I’d imagine she’d be--easy going, driven, eager to laugh and gifted at letting you feel like you’re as interesting as she is. It’s an authenticity that sticks with you even after you’ve parted ways.
Having entered cult consciousness at the age of 20, with her dual lead roles as Elena Gilbert/Katherine Pierce on The CW’s supernatural hit show The Vampire Diaries, Dobrev was steamrolled into TV stardom during the ensuing six years she spent on the series. It’s the role that garnered her ten television awards, amassed her 13+ million Instagram fans and catapulted her onto the cover of almost every major magazine. But Dobrev chose to depart from the show while it was at the height of its success, two seasons before the end of its eight season run. A departure which upset a lot of fans and instigated a flurry of erroneous rumors claiming she left because of tensions between her co-star/former boyfriend Ian Somerhalder, when the less salacious reality was: her six year contract was up and she was ready for something different. Few young starlets would embrace tearing away from a prosperous role so early in their careers, but Dobrev isn’t cut from the same spangled cloth as most actresses, and after inhabiting TVD’s world for over half a decade, she’d grown allergic to being pigeonholed and had the courage to make a change.
“I’ve always wanted to take big risks,” she explains about the gamble of prematurely exiting the show. “I started Vampire Diaries when I was 20, and I was playing a young teenage girl. I also played Katherine, this ancient vixen who was manipulative and crazy. Then I grew into myself as a woman--I found that part of myself while playing that role--I grew with the show and I wanted to continue to grow outside of it. Mentally, it was a crazy time. I was 27 when I left the show, I was ready to do something different. I wanted to prove everyone wrong who said I would play this one role my whole life or be stuck playing younger roles.”
Since going full-tilt teen tearaway, she’s steered herself toward roles that veer away from trite teen tropes the industry has attempted to typecast her in. This daring gamble led her to various indie roles like Final Girls and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, with a few popcorn movies mixed in like XXX: Return of Xander Cage. Her latest role deviates from her prior catalog, while remaining somewhat within the supernatural boilerplate.
Dobrev plays death-tampering medical student Marlo in the upcoming sequel to the 1990 Julia Roberts flick, Flatliners. Like the original, the sequel is produced by Michael Douglas and sees Kiefer Sutherland reprising his role as Nelson Wright.
Also starring Ellen Page, Diego Luna, James Norton, and Kiersey Clemons, the film is about five medical students whose curiosity for the after life leads them to conducting surreptitious experiments that produce near-death experiences. Their dangerous attempts open Pandora’s Box when the side effects of the past come to haunt them. But at its core, it’s also a film that contemplates the parity of guilt and morality.
“Flatliners is all about finding moral compass, doing the right thing and forgiving yourself while being able to ask for forgiveness if something goes wrong. That was the main theme of the film,” she says. “It’s not that [my character] killed somebody or did anything bad that I was repenting for, but it definitely made me question the next stage of my life. I’m soon leaving my 20’s and the next chapter of my life as an adult is upon me. I’m just sort of shifting my goals and my wants, my needs, my priorities. It’s my first adult role in a way.”
It was a role she delved deep into hardcore preparation for. Months of medical training, cello training, horseback riding lessons, and even swim training because her overachieving character was also a competitive swimmer. Dobrev attributes her interest in the project to its winning trifecta of good storyline, great cast and talented crew.
“It’s such a unique concept, the idea of dying and coming back to life--everybody at some point wonders what happens after we pass away--where do we go? Are we just here for a short amount of time and then nothing? Is that it? There are so many questions. I’ve always wondered about it, so the fact that this film explores that concept was very intriguing to me,” she says. “I was also a fan of Niels Arden Oplev Mills’ [Girl With the Dragon Tattoo] work as a director and I always say to myself, when deciding whether or not to do a movie, it’s Script 1st, Director 2nd, Role 3rd. Because if you have a great role and great script, but the director isn’t great, then the movie is going to bomb. If you have a great script and a good director, but a shitty role, you’re not going to grow as a result. It has to be all 3 things. I felt with this movie, my role in the film checked all the boxes. It felt like a perfect storm. All the elements. It’s also something I feel like my fan base would want to see me in. It’s very much in that same [supernatural] vein but also a departure from what they know from me.”
Now broken out of the teen queen mold, the 28-years old actress cares less about the court of public opinion and even less about things that once held too much significance. “Not giving a fuck,” she exclaims. “...that’s what approaching my Thirties is all about. The things I thought mattered, really don’t. I’m already starting to feel it. I used to micro-manage, but now I’m trusting everyone in my world to do their job instead of trying to do everyone’s job for them. Now I’m just focusing on my growth as an artist.”
Everything becomes more meaningful as you grow up When you’re young, you have that slight laissez-faire approach to everything. “I realized as I got older, time is so finite and I want to make sure with the time I do have, that I am making the most of it by being productive and creating great things,” Dobrev tells me. “Or at least try to make every moment count, because I feel like I flew through so many years already.”
If she’s no longer worrying about things which at present seem trivial, what are the things that matter most now? “Being present, being in the moment,” she answers. “Nurturing the relationships that I have and continuing to make them grow. The people that I love the most or the people who love me the most, like family or my closest friends, we all tend to take them for granted because we know they’ll always be there. Sometimes we don’t give them what they deserve and I think investing in and nurturing those current relationships in my life, and making sure they know they are cared about, is a big priority. Especially since every single member of my family is in a different country. My mom is in Canada, my brother is in France, and my dad is in Bulgaria. So it’s hard. As much as I love traveling, everybody is so spread out.”
Next in her judicious pipeline are the films Crash Pad, Dog Days and the soon-to-release Departures, which stars Asa Butterfield and Game of Throne’s Maisie Williams. The story centers around a hypochondriac [played by Butterfield] who is told by his doctor that he is dying. This revelation leads to a bucket list that involves both Williams and Dobrev, who plays a flight attendant named Izzy.
“The story is tragically beautiful. I wanted to be a part of this story. I wanted to be a part of telling it. That’s why I signed on; I loved it. It’s really well written and as much as it’s dramatic, it’s comedic as well. When I pitch it, I call it ‘The Fault in Our Stars but comedy’ which is very confusing for a lot of people, but once they see it I think they will understand.”
Two days after our interview takes place, Dobrev will fly to her hometown of Toronto and begin filming her next project, Roger Avary’s Lucky Day. She was born in Bulgaria and moved to Toronto at the age of two, where she remained until landing in Hollywood at seventeen for her role in Degrassi: The Next Generation. She speaks Bulgarian fluently and also knows her way around the french language (her stepfather is French), which she gets to exercise in this next role -- she’ll be playing a French speaking artist named “Chloe.” Not a lot can be said of her role yet, but she admits her excitement for it.
“Of all the roles I’ve done so far it’s the biggest departure I’ve had to tackle, because I have to speak French and have an accent. By the time this comes out I think my hair will be cut shorter. I’m excited about that. That’s been one of the more frustrating parts of all this as an artist so far in my career -- people around us in this creative industry don’t have as much imagination as we do. We are actors, we are supposed to be playing other people all the time. That is the definition of an actor. It’s basically split personality disorder,” she explains. “But that’s just not always in your control. There are other people deciding what you’re allowed and not allowed to do. I’ve always wanted to take risks. I wanted to chop my hair off for Flatliners but they wouldn’t let me. So now I’m really excited to be able to transform and be crazy, to change the way I walk and talk.”
Whether she’s playing a naive 16 year-old high-schooler, a 500 year-old vampire with a chip on her shoulder, or an ambitious med student, Dobrev transforms herself with remarkable believability in any role she embodies, pulling from her own psyche to bring her characters to life.
“Everyone has a process and I don’t have just one thing that works for me. I have a very active imagination so I can get myself to a point of horrible distress if I imagine something enough. If I can think it, I can believe it,” Dobrev admits. “Which is one of the reasons why things in my life have happened how they have. They’ve manifested from my thoughts and emotions.”
And as it turns out, Dobrev says, it’s not easy to shut off those emotions once they’re triggered. “When I’m in a scene where, let’s say my mom dies, it hits me like a ton of bricks--it terrifies me. It takes me instantly to that place, but sometimes it’s not that easy to inhabit for a while--you have to remember that you may shoot a scene anywhere from 6 hours to 2 days on that one scene. I’m not one of those people who can screw around between takes and jump back in. I can’t go from gut-wrenching emotion to ‘alright, what’s for lunch?’ I have to stay in that space and it can be taxing.”
It’s not always an easy task for an actor to shrug it off at the end of a scene, sometimes it follows you home. “Yeah, shutting off can be a challenge. Somehow it always works out though,” she admits. “I don’t want to speak for Ellen [Page], but she was going through some stuff during filming and whatever was going on in her personal life, it always seemed to happen the day before a big crazy day on set. Maybe it's your subconscious knowing that you have to be in a certain place so our body just does it. I’ll usually get some terrible news on a day where I have a big intense scene and it helps keep me in that headspace. I won't be able to let go of it. So yeah, it definitely follows you a little bit. Which is probably why I travel and go on so many vacations after I finish filming because I need to work hard and then play hard.”
In a generation more concerned with selfie sticks than politics, Dobrev would rather focus on her career than pose for paps. She shies away from the aspects of fame that many actors claw toward. She opts to use her massive social media following for more than just selfies and it pays off. The Hollywood Reporter’s ‘Top Actors Chart’ just named Dobrev as No. 2 in the world [at the time of this article], which ranks the most popular actors based on data from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. “I do have a huge platform and I am very aware of that. I try to be responsible with it. Like when the hurricane hit, you send out a tweet, that’s a no brainer. Somebody is hurt or suffering, it’s the easiest thing to do, but it’s just a start. There is always more I can do. That’s one thing--it’s finding what you're most passionate about.”
Animal and shark preservation, she admits, is one of the things she is extremely passionate about. “On a trip to Hawaii recently, I went shark diving to get over my fear. I’m a risk taker and a daredevil and love to do stupid shit that could kill me all the time. I get a rush from it, I guess,” she confesses. “By diving with sharks, I not only got over my fear, but I also respected them so much more. Realizing how docile and uninterested in humans they are, I then felt bad for them because of all these movies that change public perception of them for no reason. Sharks get so much bad press, but they don’t have Twitter or IG to fight back, they can’t run a campaign to clear their names. In Japan it’s tradition to have shark fin soup at every wedding. Imagine how many sharks are being killed as a delicacy--they are killing all these sharks just to be fancier! Finding out all of these things made me want to help in a very personal way and made me want to be a voice for these sharks.”
Following her dive and her realization about the need for shark conservation, she spurred into action, producing a documentary on the subject. “That’s what made me want to do the documentary, Our Planet 360, that we just shot. We want to change the perspective on sharks and give people the experiences that I’ve had. At least have them watch it and maybe it’ll ignite a curiosity in them and create some domino effect. We self funded, we just did it, got the cameras and had a lot of people just give us stuff. The big goal is to be the voice of those little guys that can’t speak up for themselves. All of this comes down to education and raising awareness.”
Dobrev carries the awareness that she’s meant to do more in the world than just be a successful actress. The acting grind seems to be part of a means to an end for her, a way to be creative predicated on building a platform for change. She shares a story that has stuck with her since childhood and shaped that awareness. “My mom had a crazy experience when I was younger. We were in a train station somewhere in Europe when I was around 2 years-old, and we were walking when suddenly a man wearing a Sari--my mom describes him as a Buddhist of some sort, a spiritual looking man-- stopped her, kneeled down to me, held me, and told my mom ‘protect this girl, she's been here before and she’s here for a reason--she is going to change the world’. No pressure,” she laughs.
So how is Nina Dobrev going to change the world? “I don’t know yet. I do ask myself that a lot. I think the older I get the more I wonder and want to make an impact. I don’t think I’ve figured out my true calling yet,” she replies. “I know I’m an incredibly compassionate and empathetic person. Whenever one of my friends is devastated I’m equally as devastated. Whenever something’s happening it hits me hard, I don’t skim. I absorb the energy around me more than most people do. But I’m still figuring it out.”
I inquire if she believes that she has been here ‘before’ and she admits she does believe in reincarnation. As to whether she’s witnessed any near-death or life-after-death experiences, she opens up about recently losing her cat and the inexplicable and strange occurrence that followed her death.
“My cat passed away a couple months ago. I’ve had her since I was nine, and it wasn’t until she passed that I ever lived truly alone--I realized how important her companionship was to me. The day that she died, I cried myself to sleep. Here’s the odd thing,” she continues. “There were these string lights that line the entire side of my house, and over the past few months, one by one, the bulbs would start going out. I remember thinking the night before she passed away, ‘Dangit, now I have to get my handyman to come and fix the lights cause now they look stupid’. Then she passed away during the day and after crying myself to sleep, I woke up at night around 9pm--I walked outside and I looked over at the lights and every single light was back on. I mean, there were dozens of string lights that had burnt out, it’s not like they just stopped working, and suddenly every little light was working. It wasn’t until two days after that the lights went back to the way they were. I couldn’t explain it. I was in tears--happy tears--because it felt like her energy was still around, like it was her way of telling me she was still with me. It was a beautiful thing, but it was really, really hard for me to figure out. That’s my only personal experience with the ‘after life’.”
She has enough going on in her present life to worry about past lives, future lives, or the after life. Among her six upcoming projects, she’s also taking on the role of producer and writer, having penned a comedy script with her friend that was recently optioned. As she talks about producing, her eyes widen, “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do I just never had time. I sold my first… I can’t talk about it yet because it hasn’t been announced but I came up with and sold an original idea. I’m also trying to option a book into a limited series. I always knew I wanted to produce, but I never knew I had it in me. It’s great to discover your potential. I guess I didn’t believe in myself before and now I’m getting to work with some high profile people as a producer and I just wish I’d known this earlier, because I would have started doing this years ago. It’s a whole different side of me that I never even knew about and it’s like I’m a kid again. It’s like going to school and I’m learning a lot.”
Growth, learning and awareness of self, are sentiments frequently echoed in our limited time together. For Dobrev, getting outside herself is what she attributes her creativity to and how she’s remained level-headed. “I feel like complacency and routine is the death of all art,” she tells me emphatically. “It’s a catch 22 wanting to nurture my current relationships while wanting to travel, meet new people and be inspired. New people, new experiences, and new environments are what open up your mind and your eyes to the world in a way that you can’t experience here. Especially in a city like Los Angeles which is very industry driven. Almost everyone here has an agenda and there’s so many eyeballs on you. I have to get away from it all whenever I can. I have to go to third world countries and disconnect from my phone and get away from everybody and be around people who don’t know or care who you are and have real conversations about things outside of our world.”
It’s easy to relate to Dobrev. Easier still when she says, not in a cliche way, how the journey really is more important than her destination. If her journey thus far is any indication of where she’s going next, it’s sure to be far from ordinary. “You think you have a destination until you get there and then you want to go somewhere else. I never have a final destination. I guess that’s the take-away… that your whole life will be a journey that doesn’t have a destination, and that the destination isn’t what’s worth worrying about. Maybe that’s why I believe in reincarnation. I want to be constantly learning and going on journeys.”
FOR MORE OF NINA DOBREV, CHECK OUT HER COVER STORY IN ROGUE'S FALL ISSUE N°7
Photography by Jonny Marlow
Written by Heather Seidler
Creative Direction by Katie McGahee
Styling by Jordan Grossman
Hair by Adam Campbell @ The Wall Group
Makeup by Allan Avendano @ Starworks