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Felicia Day: Queen of the Geeks

October 11, 2011  |  12:22am
Felicia Day: Queen of the Geeks

Felicia Day knows she only has herself to blame for her schedule. When videogame company BioWare approached her with the idea to make a couple of webisodes to supplement its launch of some new downloadable content for Dragon Age II, she wrote, produced and starred in an ambitious six-episode adventure—nearly an hour’s worth of television. But she learned quickly that creating a fantasy action-adventure series was very different than her low-budget, highly successful comedy show, The Guild.

“I said, ‘Let’s make a huge, epic web series on almost no money,’ and I underestimated not only the work of managing the production on two huge properties,” she recalls over breakfast in West Hollywood, “but also as a person—being able to act and produce and write and have everything on my shoulders and being the face of it, and then also being full-time on a TV series, SyFy’s Eureka. It was a very tough year.”

But the 32-year-old actress knew that she wasn’t going to get cast as an action hero in a blockbuster film, and this was her chance to create that role for herself. She took more than three months of fight training, transforming from “gamer shape” into someone who showed off her muscles on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. “That will never exist again, that gun,” she jokes. “It’s like being naked on film; you want to preserve that for eternity. That’s my version of naked. Like, ‘You have biceps.’”

When Day speaks of 18-hour days, it wasn’t just learning how portray a deadly elf assassin. She was determined to make sure her story fit well inside an existing universe with devoted players. Movies adapted from videogames have suffered greatly by having to please a much broader audience to justify the huge budgets. But here was an opportunity to make something for the existing fans. She’d already been a fan of Dragon Age: Origins, played the game over and over for months, reading every forum post and internal document, including the plot of the then-unreleased game.

“I used a lot of subtle videogame tropes in the piece,” she says, “because I wanted Dragon Age fans to know that I didn’t just take this and ignore what they love about the game. In fact I researched so much that the creators of the game were like, ‘Oh, we hadn’t thought of that’ and ‘You know this more than people that work here.’ I’m not being arrogant about it, but you can’t take a videogame world and try to just whitewash it so that everybody will love it. The point of a videogame world is that you spend 40 hours in it, so people who love that world know it better than they’ll ever know a movie. To betray basic facts about a videogame is to betray its fan base even more than a redoing of a movie or a TV show.”

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Day doesn’t do anything half-assed. When she took up violin, she practiced enough to earn a full scholarship to The University of Texas—at age 16. She majored in math, with no intentions of doing anything with the degree other than showing her dad, but she loved the coursework, graduating as valedictorian. “I was doing calculus at [age] 12, and it wasn’t like I was some kind of savant; I was interested in the subject and I had people to teach me as far as I could go.”

Day speaks quickly, as if her mind is racing, and her mouth is just doing the best to keep up. But while she excelled at math and violin, she didn’t love the predictability that came with either career path. So at age 20, she headed west to pursue acting. “I always had this blind idea that I was going to go to L.A. and be an actor, and it was unfounded in a lot of ways. But I think there are a lot of people who arrive in this town just thinking that’s what they want to do and that it’s their destiny—or righteousness or arrogance, of course. And then when you get here, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s not going to be easy.’ But you know from Austin, Texas, a girl who did like two or three student films, I thought I was perfectly qualified.”

For two years, she worked without an agent, experiencing constant rejection and acting in “horrible student films.” The turning point came when she took an improv class. “I didn’t know I was funny,” she says. “I didn’t know about humor. I was actually very inhibited and very straight-laced. And I think it was that first improv class where I got out of my head, and I started acting without my brain getting involved, and I realized there was stuff you didn’t have to control about yourself that is unique and can make people laugh. And then when I started doing that, I became a lot more comfortable acting and auditioning, and I got a little more work. But it wasn’t until I started making myself look like more of a character that I started getting more and more roles, like put the glasses on and the short quirky hair and sort of fit what Hollywood saw in me, which is great but it ultimately felt unfulfilling. And that’s why I kind of delved into World of Warcraft,” she adds, laughing. “Full time job.”

Videogames had always been a big part of Day’s life growing up. A military brat, she moved around a lot, and she would escape with her brother into the games on their Amiga system or hand-me down computers from their nuclear-physicist grandfather. She became particularly enamored with King’s Quest and the Ultima series and every role-playing game that followed. In fact, she only bristles when her videogame bona fides are called into question. “That’s the biggest insult when I read Internet comments, which I really need to avoid. But when they say, ‘Oh, she’s just a poser gamer taking advantage of gamers,’—you can say whatever you want about me, about my talent and my writing, but if you challenge the fact that I love games, I will come punch you.” She’s laughing as she says this, but all you Internet trolls out there, remember those biceps.

Despite landing a recurring role on the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2003, work was sporadic and the process frustrating. Acting, it turned out, was a far cry from the hard work/reward cycle of the violin or her math studies—or World of Warcraft.

“[I was] so tied to achievement-based things,” she says, “especially things where the more work you put into them, the more you were rewarded. So, violin, the more you practice, the better you are. The more you do math, the better you are. The more you study, the better you are. And then I got into a world in L.A. that for whatever rhyme or reason, you’re talking about something you can’t measure. In fact, the more you work at it, as an actor especially, has absolutely no reflection on your achievement level. It’s not merit based. [With] World of Warcraft, when I get in there, the harder you work, the better you are.”

Her gaming obsession became unhealthy, but even her in-game efforts eventually paid off in a very different way. After quitting cold turkey, she gave herself a deadline to finish writing a script for a TV pilot, based on a girl obsessed with gaming. “I was filled with fear,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. But as soon as I allowed myself to sort of write and fail—you know just write it for myself—that was where I finally finished the script at midnight on January 1st, because literally, that was my deadline.”

She pitched the show as a half-hour sitcom to a few networks and producers, but no one understood the size of the gaming audience. “They were like, ‘Oh yeah, there’s some really great stuff in there, there’s some really great characters, but I don’t know what the hell is going on,’” she told me back in 2009, just after releasing the second season of The Guild. “Even then, people didn’t understand. [They] thought, ‘Oh you know, maybe she gamed before and now she has boyfriend and she works at a coffee shop.’”

Undeterred, she followed the lead of her friend Kim Evey, who had a viral video hit with Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show, and took her script where most of her audience was anyway—online. Breaking the half-hour pilot into short segments for the web, Day and Evey produced the series themselves under the Knights of Good Productions banner, getting actors and crew to volunteer their time and paying for things like set design out of their own pockets. When they began releasing the short webisodes, Day discovered that there was indeed a part of her new career which followed that familiar work/reward cycle. She poured herself into promotion.

She began emailing gaming bloggers, personally, repeatedly, fanatically, 12 hours a day. She says they got 200,000 hits on the first episode, double that on the second, and the third was featured on YouTube. One of the show’s early fans was Buffy creator Joss Whedon. During the writer strike in 2007, he told her he was planning on doing something on the web himself. “We were walking around in a circle with our signs at the strike,” she remembers, “and he was like, ‘I want to make a superhero musical.’ So I was like, ‘That sounds amazing; please go do it.’ And then, around the corner of the year, he just randomly sent me this email saying ‘Can you sing?-J.’”

That superhero musical turned out to be Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Whedon cast Day in a love triangle with Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion. If The Guild was an unprecedented success, Dr. Horrible was a phenomenon, with more than two million viewers out of the gate. (To be fair, The Guild has since surpassed 50 million episode views over its five seasons).

Whedon managed to get sponsorship for his series, but Day and Evey simply put up a donation button and were shocked when money started trickling in. Between gifts from fans, DVD sales and a partnership with Microsoft’s Xbox, they were able to start paying cast and crewmembers while retaining full ownership and creative control. Day had the freedom to shoot a funny music video for her character Codex, called “Do You Want To Date My Avatar?” and even developed a series of comics with origin stories for each of the guild members through publisher Dark Horse.

For each season of The Guild, Day and Evey increased production values as the show got more ambitious. They do forum posts and little Easter egg videos at WatchTheGuild.com. Season 5 takes place at a sci-fi convention, and the cameos read like a marquee day at Comic Con—Erin Gray (Buck Rogers), Zachary Levi (Chuck), Eliza Dushku (Dollhouse), Kevin Sorbo (Hercules) and comic-book legend Stan Lee are but a few. While Day and Evey still work out of their homes, Knights of Good is currently developing a dozen projects right now, taking what they’ve learned and scaling it.

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Day’s most ambitious project to date, though, is Dragon Age: Redemption. She’s brought her laptop to breakfast, to play me the first episode, and it’s a long way from the bedroom web-cam opening of The Guild. Where Cyd Sherman lacked an ounce of self-esteem, the assassin Tallis is more like Cyd’s avatar, Codex. She’s cocky and capable, a bad-ass in leather and steel. She’s also funny in the context of a serious adventure, where Cyd was straight-laced within the confines of a sitcom.

“If you’re familiar with BioWare games,” Day says, “you know that part of the charm of them is the characters are in tense situations, but they still have a sense of humor, like any human would. They have witty one-liners and amusing character interactions, and then they fight people and kill people. So I tried to, again, not only to be faithful to the world and the logic of the world, but be faithful to the tonality of Dragon Age … It’s almost Buffy-ish in a way—that’s what Joss Whedon does amazingly. He feels the dramatic stakes but humanizes the characters through their point of view and their humor.”

Tallis will also be making an appearance in the game itself. “I created a character,” she says, her face lighting up, “and the cool thing is the character goes into a piece of videogame content, which is kind of the first time that’s ever been done. When I do something that nobody has ever done before, that’s my personal victory. I don’t really go do Hollywood parties; I don’t get a lot of free things, except for video games, which is awesome. I do it for the self-challenge of it. Can I pull this off? And has it been done before? That’s the thing that I’m the most proud of, that I can open a door to something new and innovative. For some reason that’s what tickled my brain and makes it satisfied.”

Day hasn’t fully given up on old media. The Eureka creators wrote a character specifically for her in a recent eight-episode run, and she was contemplating writing another TV pilot when the folks at BioWare came calling. But she’s content with the smaller scope of web video if it comes with the opportunity to keep trying new things. Knights of Good is looking at bringing on more people, and with those dozen projects ranging from tiny budgets to ideas grander than her Dragon Age series, Day’s level of involvement will vary.

“I really believe in the space,” she says. “I pay my bills, and that’s all I need. I’m not really an extravagant person, so my life is fulfilled by creating things, and whether I’m working with a mainstream studio, or a Microsoft, or I’m just doing it in my house on my own, I believe in the web. [But] obviously, in order to scale and be a human who plays a little bit of video games at night, I can’t do everything anymore.”

Looking back, my first question to Day upon hitting “record” on my iPhone app turns out to have been a really silly one: “Did you know this was what you wanted to do when you were growing up?” I meant, “act, write and tell stories.” But this, the thing that Felicia Day does, didn’t exist when she was growing up, didn’t really exist until she started doing it. She went to L.A. because she wanted a career that was unpredictable, that didn’t have boundaries on where the next five years would take her. She’s certainly found it.

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