For a character who doesn’t have parents or seem to attend school on a regular basis, The Vampire Diaries‘ Elena has one of the richest, most exciting lives of anyone on television. Over the course of three days she’ll thwart ancient curses, witness close friends getting murdered, and attend at least four town-wide parties without taking so much as a nap. Add to that an even more intense (and awesome) evil doppelgänger, and actress Nina Dobrev’s a pretty busy lady on set. As much as I may or may not make fun of Elena in my recaps, it’s never lost on me just how great Dobrev’s work is, so I was thrilled when she set aside a few minutes this week to talk about how she does what she does on such a regular basis.

A lot of horrible stuff has happened to Elena in a very short amount of time. How do you keep track of what her emotional state is supposed to be on any given day? Like do you have a flowchart or something?

Kind of, yeah. I keep a separate script for each of my characters. So Elena has her own script and Katherine has her own script. And I go through every script— A lot of preparation and time goes into breaking it down and charting the emotional range and what’s going on with each character, and then not only what’s going on with them in this episode but over the last season. You know, one person could die in one episode and then another person could die in another episode and then you have to incorporate that and put it into effect.

The timeline is so confusing to me— It’s never really clear how much time has gone by.

Well, we establish in—I think—the next episode that it’s been about a year since the show started.

Incredible.

So, the last two seasons have been one year. So each season then is about six months.

Julie Plec said that having you play dual roles is kind of hard on the production department because it takes a lot out of you, plus there’s a lot of planning that has to happen. But do you find it actually kind of refreshing to play someone different for change, especially someone as awesome as Katherine?

The thing is, it’s definitely hard on production and hard on me in many ways. It makes the show very interesting to have the dual roles and see the different kinds of relationships between Katherine and Stefan and Damon versus Elena and Stefan and Damon. So having doppelgängers makes for a good story, but it is hard to schedule around it. And because there’s such a physical change—not to mention an emotional and mental change—I have to really shift gears and become another person each scene we shoot, and so it is a lot of work.

I’m a little harsh on Elena in my recaps. For the most part she’s pretty self-assured, but then she goes and makes some pretty questionable decisions sometimes. Do you ever read the script and go, like, “Seriously, Elena?”

Yeah, I do. I’m very much an audience member as well as a cast member. I watch and read the show very critically and sometimes Elena does—I mean she’s a strong woman and she’s very courageous—but sometimes she makes some very impulsive decisions. Ultimately she’s making those decisions for a reason. And I know and trust that the writers have an ultimate path that they want her to go through, a journey that they want her to experience. So there’s a reason behind every little line and detail.

We know that Elena doesn’t want to become a vampire, but does she have ANY goals in life? It’s not clear.

That’s a very good question. She doesn’t want to be a vampire but she does want to have a family. Honestly, she just wants to be normal. She’s realized after everything she’s been through that she just wants to be normal and she just wants to be treated normally and have a regular existence. But planning or making any long-term life goals has been very difficult because people are dying around her all the time. She’s going through so much on any given day that she just doesn’t have the capacity to think about three months from now when everything around her is blowing up in her face at all times.

I think you’re one of the best criers on television, especially in this last episode, “The Birthday,” where you had that astonishing close-up. Is that sort of thing harder to do than, like, fight choreography or something more physical?

Thank you, question mark? [Laughs.] I don’t know if it’s harder. Let me put it this way. I remember one of the first times I ever read a script—I don’t know if it was for this show or if it was for something else—but reading on the page that the character starts crying, when it’s the first time you have to do it, it’s always terrifying. Because there’s, like, a pressure on you to deliver. But if you really understand what’s happening in the scene and you really feel it and you’re in the moment, it just happens and you can’t put pressure on it, you have to just really be there and experience what’s going on. And I can get really emotional if I really am sad about something and if I really am invested in something. So it’s not that it’s hard, it’s just being committed more than anything. I think you just have to be committed and really go for it and really be open to feel and care and hurt.

After days like that—and that’s part of why this job is very difficult, because forget about the 16-hour days that we do every day. Forget about the night work. Emotionally it’s draining. You work these hours, but you’re crying or you’re hurting or you’re running and people are dying and I have to emotionally go through all this every day, tenfold. I haven’t personally in my real life had many people close to me die, but my characters have, and I’ve had to live that as though it’s real. And it can take a really big emotional toll on someone. That’s why when I get home at night all I want to do is sleep and rest and kind of curl up in my cocoon, the safe haven of my bed, and just shut out the world because I’m traumatized. Living Elena’s life can traumatize you. [Laughing]

What’s the more dangerous environment for a teenager, Mystic Falls High School or Degrassi High?

Oh dear. I think Mystic Falls is more dangerous for your life. Your chance of dying is much larger in Mystic Falls. But Degrassi is an equally dangerous school because you’re in danger of being corrupted and having bad things happen to you—there’s a lot of drugs, people getting shot. A lot happens at Degrassi. You know, to be honest, if I was a parent and I saw the track record of either of those schools, I would move.

What are you doing with all those Teen Choice Awards surfboards? Are you like building a new wing on your house?

No, and you know what, it’s false advertising. They don’t actually give you all the surfboards that you win.

Bummer!

They give you one surfboard and they write down on the surfboard all the other awards that you won.

Wait, the awards from all the different years on just one surfboard? Like they ask for it back and write the new ones on there?

No—so for last year I think we won like eight or nine awards and I got one surfboard that listed all of the awards on the one surfboard and this year we won six? So I’m going to get another one that says the six awards that we won on it. So I’ll only have two. But still! It’s really cool, not to discount how cool it is. It’s really, really, really awesome and what I’m going to do is—I have an office in my house—and I’m going to mount the surfboards on the ceiling of my office.

Well, that’s fine, I guess. I was picturing like thirty surfboards somewhere in your home that you have to store.

That’s what I thought! And I bought my house with that in mind. I was like looking for a house and for the requirements, the realtors were like, What do you want? Do you want a pool? How much square footage do you want? I just said I need enough room for the thirty surfboards that I’m hoping to win someday. And then I got two and I was really disappointed because I’d gotten the square footage for thirty. And now I’m going to have to try and win more awards just so I can fill that space.

Only twenty-eight more seasons of Vampire Diaries to go!

Exactly.

The Vampire Diaries airs Thursdays at 8pm on The CW.

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