Nina Dobrev is just off a long-haul flight from Rio. She seems a bit jetlagged and more than a little hoarse after a whirlwind tour of Brazil to promote xXx: Return of Xander Cage, the blockbuster film that opened worldwide last month. She has a brief respite in LA before resuming the globetrotting publicity tour in Latin America, Europe and Asia.
It wasn’t all hard work in Brazil. There was time for paragliding, a helicopter tour and a brief frolic on the beach (wearing the national soccer team jersey of Neymar, who also stars in the film). But for the most part, it’s all work and very little play for Dobrev these days. Since departing from her hit television series The Vampire Diaries in 2015, life has been dominated by on-location movie shoots, appearances at charity galas and awards shows, magazine features and seemingly non-stop marketing to promote her upcoming films. She may not be the hardest-working person in Hollywood these days, but Dobrev has to be somewhere near the top of the chart.
It’s been a long and winding road to fame for the 28-year old actress. Dobrev was born in Bulgaria during the time when glasnost was sweeping the Communist bloc. Escaping that uncertainty, her parents emigrated to Canada when she was just two years old. Growing up in Toronto, Dobrev found herself attracted to various artistic pursuits – dance, acting and even rhythmic gymnastics. By the end of her high-school years, she was well on her way to an acting career. Her big break came in 2006 when she was tabbed for the lead in Degrassi: The Next Generation, the latest iteration of a long-running Canadian adolescent soap.
Dobrev went straight from teen angst to the supernatural when she joined the cast of The Vampire Diaries in 2009. And what a leap it was, both in a personal and a professional sense. Filmed in Georgia, the production mandated a household move from Toronto to Atlanta. And her role as Elena Gilbert – entangled in a love triangle with vampire brothers – required that she play both a contemporary human and a bygone vampire who reappears as her doppelganger.
Vampire Diaries became a worldwide smash and Dobrev an international star with fans as far afield as Australia, China, Britain and Brazil. But after six seasons as Elena – and no sign the series was slowing down – she decided to walk away from the supernatural. Dobrev had always made time for movies in between the TV seasons, including five films in 2007 alone. But bigger, better roles required her full-time attention.
It’s always a huge gamble when actors leave a hit series in favour of the silver screen; many have failed to make the segue. But Dobrev was willing to take that gamble. Her first few tries (such as The Final Girls, a 2015 horror comedy) were well received by critics but drew limited box-office revenue. But then she hit the jackpot: a high-profile role alongside American superstars Vin Diesel and Samuel L Jackson and Asia’s Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa and Deepika Padukone in xXx: Return of Xander. Another coup came right after: a co-starring role in Flatliners, a remake of the 1990 cult hit about medical students dabbling in after-death experiences. Scheduled for release this September, the cast includes Ellen Page, Kiefer Sutherland – resurrecting his role from the original – and Mexico’s Diego Luna.
We caught up with Dobrev in Los Angeles shortly after her return from Brazil.
How was your xXx tour of Brazil?
It was crazy, it was fun and exciting and full of passion and love. The fans there are so vocal and passionate. It was a great trip and experience. But the one thing I didn’t get a chance to try was samba. Which I’m very upset about and means I have to go back, I guess.
You play Becky in the film right? Yup. Becky the techy.
The witty and sarcastic techy. Is that a good description? Yeah, but the one thing that I think has been left out of that description is “clumsy”, and she has no focus and doesn’t know when to stop talking and has word vomit. So she speaks and speaks and speaks until she has no breath left.
“Brazil was fun … But the one thing I didn’t get to try was samba … I have to go back, I guess”
How does Becky fit into the overall plot?
Becky becomes Xander’s right-hand woman with all things technical and practical. She has all the gadgets, she knows how to fix them, she knows how to crack and code any kind of computer and any technological device … basically the opposite of the real me. It’s a miracle that I was able to answer this phone call.
It’s been 12 years since the second movie in the xXx series. Where does this one follow on from State of the Union?
The story picks up with a tragedy that happens within the CIA and NSA. Because of that, they need to go and find Xander [Vin Diesel] and bring him back into the xXx programme. He has to fight the bad guys and save the world. But, of course, it wouldn’t be a movie if there weren’t a few obstacles and things going wrong, so he faces some challenges and in the end comes out on top.
Vin Diesel is a great guy. You must have had fun making this movie.
We had a blast. Every day was a new adventure and we became pretty close. We were filming in Toronto in the middle of winter and it was freezing and we hung out a bunch. Ruby [Rose] and I became close. Deepika [Padukone] is a sweetheart. Everybody was amazing. Wonderful, positive, loving, sweet, talented people.
You grew up in Toronto.
I did. So I got to go home, to visit, when I was filming the movie.
What was it like going back? Did it feel like you were no longer a hometown girl?
I was more of a hometown girl compared to the rest of the cast. But I definitely feel that in the 10 years that I’ve lived abroad the city has changed immensely, and going to the city as an adult and being able to drink and go out and stuff is a different experience. When I was younger and just getting into college I really wasn’t in that world. Now there are so many restaurants that are amazing and so many lounges and rooftops and places you can explore. The city has gentrified and grown in such a beautiful way. I can safely say that I got to discover the city in a new way almost as though it was the first time. But I did know a few places that the others didn’t that I got to take them to. So I did play tour guide a little bit.
Do you feel like you appreciate Toronto more now than you did when you were growing up?
One hundred percent. Whatever city you grow up in … when you’re a kid you’re in a rebellious stage and you just wanna get out and discover the world and travel. Going back really made me appreciate and miss the city. It holds a special place in my heart. A month after xXx wrapped, I went back and shot Flatliners in Toronto for the whole summer. It was really cool because I got to spend a significant time – about nine months – back home.
And speaking of Flatliners, the original one is kind of iconic. Is there any resemblance to that one in the remake?
The plot is similar but it deviates for sure. You have three women instead of one in this new film, which I think is great.
Julia Roberts was the only female in the original, right?
Yeah, she was the only one representing all the ladies. But the industry has changed and there’s woman empowerment and we’ve got more ladies. I really enjoyed it because I got to play a professional – a resident that will soon become a doctor – and be an overachiever and sort of know-it-all and have a hand in everything. And I got to die the most times. In true form I guess [for me], because I had the most experience when it comes to dying thanks to my previous job [Vampire Diaries].
You must be pretty good at dying.
I got my dying down. I can die in different ways, different languages, different territories. I’m ready – give me a death that I can’t conquer.
Did you and the rest of the cast sit around between takes and talk about what it would be like to flatline in real life?
Yeah, there were discussions about that, for sure. I go back and forth about whether I would want to try it or not. I’m curious about what the experience would be like. What I would see and how it would affect me and how it would change me. But at the same time, I have a pretty awesome life and I’m pretty grateful for everything that I have and I don’t know if I would want to risk it. It’s a risk and a gamble and to be honest I’m not a big gambler. I don’t know why I would gamble with my life when I won’t even do it with money.
Medicine and moviemaking have changed a lot in the 26 years since the original Flatliners came out. How does the remake update the science and technology?
The original had a wonderful concept. But the execution in terms of what doctors could do then was more of a fantasy, whereas now it’s more of a reality. Doctors have the technology to do this. I don’t know if they would actually put people’s lives at risk, but we definitely have the ability to do that, to flatline someone and probably bring them back to life and document the brain and hook them up to monitors and see what happens. Is there a chemical that gets released? What exactly happens when you flatline? That’s the big mystery. So the technology that we use in the film, the sets built, it’s all pretty state of the art. They wanted everything to replicate reality and be as true as it possibly could, so the attention to detail was very, very intricate.
What kind of research did you do to prepare yourself for Flatliners?
We did three or four weeks of medical training in Toronto. We all flew in early and got fixed up with an amazing medical consultant by the name of Lindsay Somers. She taught us how the heart works, how to defib someone, what the intricacies are, what could go wrong, what is the protocol to get someone out of the flatline, every detail. I don’t want to sound cocky and say I could save someone’s life, but I could definitely keep them alive long enough until a paramedic came. It was pretty in-depth work. And my character was also a cellist, so I had to learn how to play the cello. She was a swimmer, so I did swim training. And we got a personal trainer because I have a bunch of scenes where I’m in my bathing suit. I had a crazy food diet. It was definitely full on. It’s fun to dive deep and really get into the meat of a role on a project and commit yourself like that. I enjoyed every minute of it.
Do you miss hanging out with vampires?
[Laughs.] I miss my family 100 percent. You spend six years with a group of people – the crew, the cast, everybody involved. They really, really did become my family and I miss a lot of those people.
It must have been really hard to walk away from Vampire Diaries.
I don’t know if I would have the opportunities that I have now if I hadn’t done the show. I’m eternally grateful. It was such a great stepping stone and hopefully it will lead to even more amazing
things. I’ve been very lucky so far. I’ve been very fortunate with the show and the movies and I can’t wait to see what will happen next.
From an actor’s point of view, what’s the difference between making a big-time TV show like that and making these two blockbuster movies?
Mainly timing. TV is very fast paced and films are very, very slow. There’s a lot of down time between takes. There’s a lot more time to dillydally and read and play pranks on a movie shoot, whereas on a TV show it’s always a go-go -go mentality running around. But TV and film have really become one. There’s so much great television, very cinematic. And the quality is so amazing. They’re almost the same nowadays.
I hear you’re a big Westworld fan. Yes! I love Westworld so much. Would you jump at a chance to play a cyborg host on that show?
Immediately. I mean yesterday I would have done that. I want to do that so badly. It would be huge to be on that show. I just think it would be so amazing. It’s just so cool – both a period piece and a futuristic concept. An actor playing the host gets to be a machine and they get to be sort of human. It would be a dream. I would love it.
Do you consider yourself a travel addict?
Yeah, that’s a good description. I just love discovering new cities and cultures and learning about traditions. The world is so big and there are so many of us and we all live in such a unique way I guess I’m a student. I’ll be a student until the day that I die and I just want to learn as much as possible until then.
What are some of the places that have changed your life?
Bali would probably be the number one. The spiritual energy that surrounds it is palpable. It’s also very rough and raw. Parts of it are built up and parts are very deconstructed and it just feels like you’ve gone back in time. There’s serenity about the water and air and the culture. I just really, really loved Bali. After that I love Tokyo. The energy in Tokyo is very different than in Bali. It’s very high-energy, a lot of people, a lot of clutter, but there’s so much visual stimulus everywhere. Then of course China. I’ve been to Beijing and Shanghai a few times for work and everybody there is so passionate too. And talking about culture, it’s very different as well.
Have you spent much time in Bulgaria?
I have, yeah. I’ve gone back almost every year, since I was little, to visit my grandparents and my family there. It’s changed so much over the years, just like Toronto has, but more so because after the wall fell the country had to rebuild itself – I’ve seen it morph and change in such a beautiful way.
Do you get recognised on the street when you go there?
I get recognised quite a bit in Bulgaria. There have been a lot of amazing people from Bulgaria that are very talented. But I’m one of the few in the entertainment industry of Bulgarian descent and so there’s a lot of national pride and love and support. I definitely feel it when I go to visit.
But LA is home these days.
Yes it is. I’m a new baby to LA. I’m such a hermit. I love to be actually in my home when I’m in Los Angeles. I’ve built myself a little movie room that I spend most of my time in and also I redid my kitchen so that I can cook a lot. I’ve learned how to cook since I’ve been back. I love to have dinner parties and host people and watch movies and sleep in my bed and chill. Between meetings and movies and all kinds of things I like to stay active as much as I can. It’s always the most fun when I get a role that requires me to be physical, like xXx and Flatliners. But if I’m not working I like to play volleyball and play soccer at the beach, go to the gym and run. I try to do something active every day, as it makes my heart happy and healthy and it also clears my mind.
PHOTOGRAPHY LIONEL DELUY AT LOVEARTISTSAGENCY
STYLING RAFAEL LINARES AT ART DEPT AGENCY
HAIR RIAWNA CAPRI
MAKE-UP AMY ORESMAN AT STARWORKSARTISTS.COM
FASHION ASSISTANT KIMMIE ELSTROM