In The Vampire Diaries‘ season 4 finale, Elena Gilbert finally came face-to-face with Katherine, a.k.a. her doppelganger, a.k.a. the woman she’s been waiting to throw down with since, like, forever. And thanks to the fact that Katherine killed Elena’s brother in the middle of season 4, Elena’s desire to get rid of Katherine was at an all-time high. Needless to say, by finale time, Elena wanted revenge.
However, it was the older vamp who started the fight, claiming that Elena was to blame for stealing her happiness. From there, things only escalated, even to the point where Katherine literally had Elena’s heart in her hand. Luckily, Elena had the cure for vampirism in her pocket and was able to shove it down Katherine’s throat before her heart was removed from her chest. The score might have ended Elena: 1, Katherine: 0, but the real winner was actress Nina Dobrev, who had somehow perfected the art of fighting herself.
So how did Dobrev do it? We spoke with stunt coordinator John Copeman and Dobrev separately to find out.
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As told by: John Copeman and Nina Dobrev
JOHN COPEMAN: The first thing I did was read the script and really block the fight, try to make some character beats. You don’t want to make it all big punches, big throws. At least if there’s a good line, accent that with a throw or a punch so it feels more character driven than just, “Hey let’s do a neat stunt.” And then I thought about what Nina can do, because Nina is stupidly flexible. So knowing that she could kick really high, we thought we would have Katherine, who’s wearing like spike boots, throw a side kick into her throat after she throws Elena against the lockers, pin her there, and then she’s delivering a line. And then Elena delivers a line back and kind of trips her, runs over and rips the locker off. So we were thinking about, “What can Nina do?”
NINA DOBREV: I like to push the envelope. They don’t like to let me do much at all. If it was up to them, they wouldn’t let me do any of it. If I was a stunt performer on our show, I would probably be a little frustrated because their whole job is to come to set and get to do the big cool crazy fun stuff, and I’ll usually ask John if I can do something. If they say no, I’ll kind of do it anyway, and then apologize later and be like, “Oops I forgot that I wasn’t supposed to do that!” [Laughs] It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. They didn’t let me hit the glass, I know that for sure. But I definitely hit the locker. I try to do as much as I can if they let me.
JC: I was pretty sure Nina would not get any rehearsal time just based on the schedule. We tried to block the fight not simple but just as something that was shootable in a day and something that Nina could pick up really fast. She was a rhythmic gymnast, so she’s got pretty good muscle memory. And then we just did a pre-vid, the rehearsal that we put on video tape. I did a rough cut with some sound effects to hopefully make it a little better presentation, and we sent that to [exec producers] Julie Plec and Caroline Dries, and Chris Grismer, the director, and got their feedback. And then I showed it to Nina and got her feedback about what she liked, what she responded to, what she didn’t like, and then we just took notes. On the day of the rehearsal, I had two really good doubles. Crystal Hooks was doubling Katherine and Jessica Meredith was doubling Elena, and we knew at any point, Nina would be fighting either one of them.
ND: They show me the video, they say this is what it’s going to look like, and eventually they walk you through it and give you little tips. And then you kind of hope for the best in a way. Because I do have such a great working relationship with John and the stunt coordinators, it’s actually pretty easy. I take it pretty seriously, and I get really into it. Definitely may or may not have injured a few people over the years, because I forget that it’s not supposed to be real. But it was especially challenging, as you can imagine, because I was doing a fight scene with myself. And there was dialogue in between, and at one point, I run into glass, so there’s glass everywhere, there’s blood, there’s all these things happening, But what’s great about it is you do it in pieces. It seems really intense when they cut it together at the very end, but you do each shot separately and bit by bit, which is harder for performance, because it’s not flowing, but it makes it easier for stunts and rehearsal.
If it was a movie or if it was a less intense schedule, that should’ve been shot in like two to three days, just that one scene. But we didn’t have that time. That’s the blessing and the curse of television: You move fast, and the schedules are very ambitious. There’s a lot to shoot in a very short amount of time. And I think, if I’m not mistaken, because it was the finale, we had to shoot on a Saturday to finish that day and do it in eight hours. Or maybe it was scheduled for eight but we ended up going for 12…I can’t remember if I started as Elena first or as Katherine, but you go to set and shoot all the stunts and all the dialogue as that one character. And then people go to lunch, and while everyone is at lunch, I’m turning into Katherine or Elena — whichever one I was going to next. And then after lunch, you basically repeat every single thing you did but from the other perspective. You have to shoot everything twice whenever there’s a doppelganger scene where the doppelgangers are talking.
JC: Our previous rehearsal day, after Katherine throws Elena head first into a fire extinguisher cabinet and the glass breaks, we had Elena crawling away and Katherine walk up and grab her by the foot and grab the broom handle that she breaks and starts sticking her with. We thought that was kind of cool. I think when Julie and Caroline looked at it, they thought it just was too much and didn’t really need to be there. And ultimately, I don’t think the fight scene suffered from not doing that. And on the day of, I think Nina might have had a couple of suggestions that she’d rather kick with this leg or rather kick a particular way. She did a couple of twirls with the mop handle that were pretty cool, just little accent things that I don’t know if she thought about doing [beforehand].
ND: No actually, that wasn’t planned. A lot of the time, because you don’t have that rehearsal process on the actual set in advance, you plan your performance, and you plan how you’re going to say the lines. But it wasn’t until I got on the set and I saw the broom and physically had it in my hand that I just had that idea. It came naturally, and I just felt like it was something she would do. That combined with the fact that I’ve watched way too many action movies and way too many thrillers. When I say I’m a big fan of that genre, I’m not kidding. I’m being dead serious.
That’s kind of the fun part about doing what we do — for me at least — when you find a role or a movie or a genre that you really enjoy, you do the preparation for hours and days before, but then once you get on set, you kind of let go of it, and you just exist and make things up. Things come to you naturally, and you get ideas. A lot of things are scripted on the show, but then a lot of things that you see, you wouldn’t know, but they’re not scripted. We take a lot of liberties and have ideas and it’s a very creative process. Luckily, between John and I and the directors, we trust each other and we have an open dialogue, and it really gives us the freedom to bring our character to life. Sometimes we give our input and they take our ideas and it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s really fun.
JC: It was funny, we were blocking part of the scene with Nina and the acting double, and they had to just do a move, nothing hugely physical, just a step and a walk, and the double kind of tripped. Her foot, with those boots on, raked down Nina’s shin, and it went white and then started bleeding. Nina looked at it, went “ouch,” asked the medic to bring some liquid bandage over — which burns like hell — put that on and kept going. I’m thinking hopefully that will be the worst that happens today. Nobody will get hit. Nobody will get punched. That’s when she was dressed as Elena and she had that dress on.
Later in the day, the Katherine stunt double kicks her in the face. We’d done it three or four times, everything was fine. Fifth take, she kicks her in the face. Everything’s fine [again], but then when the stunt double kicked and went to put her foot down, she put it in the same spot that Nina happened to be putting her hand and stepped on her hand. So now Nina’s got a bloody shin, a swollen knuckle, and she just went “ouch” and kept going, didn’t let it ruin the mood of the day. I like Nina a lot. She’s a trooper, and she’s very physical, and we got it. We did that scene in a day.
ND: Whenever you’re doing something dangerous, it’s not surprising when someone gets hurt. We take the necessary precautions, and John is incredibly diligent. He’s really almost too much so. I’m always like, “John, you know me, you don’t have to tell me that, and you don’t have to do this. It’s common sense.” And he’s like, “Nope, I have to. Gotta tell ya.” So yeah, things happen. You get hurt every once in a while. But that’s kind of part of the territory. I feel like you get hurt more so in day-to-day life.
JC: Hats off to Nina for the workload she had that day: Two characters, remembering fight choreography, staying in character, throwing kicks in boots that really aren’t ideal to throw kicks in. And she’s so flexible, she had really good control. She’s throwing a sidekick at a stunt double’s throat, and she’s pulling it and just basically placing it there, but still acting still performing. So stating the obvious, but she really made this fight.
ND: The fact that I was in heels was also a challenge. Katherine doing that in those — I think they were hooker boots — they definitely added to the badass factor. On my end, I felt really cool. [Laughs] But those are also added factors — the wardrobe and the heels and the dress. Keeping your composure and making sure your goods don’t get exposed. [Laughs] There were a few times when the camera operator was like, “Oh, Nina.” He’d look away and point, and I’m like, “Oh yep, thanks. Thanks for that.” [Laughs] We’re all family. We’re so comfortable with each other; we’re all really close.