For six seasons, Elena Gilbert has been the beating heart of The Vampire Diaries. From her epic love story with Stefan Salvatore to her death—and subsequent epic love story with Damon Salvatore—she’s been at the center of it all. And actress Nina Dobrev has been even more central to the show, taking on multiple roles thanks to Elena’s doppelganger history. There was Katherine Pierce, there was Amara, and on The Originals, there was even Tatia.
But now, all that has come to an end as Dobrev prepares to leave TVD to explore new adventures. And although the show will continue on without her—as we all know, you don’t need a beating heart to live on in Mystic Falls—she will surely be missed … and not just by the Salvatores.
EW spoke with Dobrev and TVD executive producer Julie Plec about the journey that took Elena Gilbert from innocent human to badass vampire, and then back to a (less innocent) human.
Plec: There were two [audition] scenes. It was meeting Stefan in the cemetery and then dragging Jeremy into the bathroom and telling him, “Don’t be this person” when she catches him with eye drops. The funniest story about the first impression of Nina is that she didn’t make an impression. None of us remembered seeing her for the first time. And then she, through her agents and the casting directors, said, “Hey, listen—I was sick that day, I didn’t do my best work, I really really want this part.” [She] put herself on tape, which then got sent to us and it was so magical and so perfect that she basically had the job from that minute forward.
Dobrev: This was my first pilot season ever, actually. I had just finished Degrassi, and I decided to move to LA and give it a shot. I went in and ultimately got a film that shot in Canada, so I got shipped back to Canada. I did an audition tape because I didn’t feel good about my first audition, and then thank God I did. As a Canadian, living north of the border, that’s the only way you do get a job in the States. I’d say I booked 80 percent of the jobs I’ve ever gotten from tapes. You’ll do the tape, you’ll do an audition, they’ll send it. Sometimes they’ll fly you out to do a chemistry read or fly you out to meet you after that point, but for the most part, everything’s audition tapes.
Plec: We looked high and low to cast Stefan and Damon. So she did chemistry read after chemistry read with multiple actors. Paul [Wesley] and Ian [Somerhalder] kind of came in late in the process. Paul auditioned like 15 times, and Ian kind of appeared out of the blue.
Dobrev: Oh my God. I can’t remember how many guys there were, but there had to have been at least 11. There might’ve been more than that, and I’m just trying to forget some of them. [Laughs] It was the longest day ever and they were all so different. I had already booked the part, and so they all had to have chemistry with me. And they were all trying real hard to have chemistry with me. The only one who wasn’t trying too hard, that didn’t speak to me at any point unless we were filming, was Paul Wesley—so it’s funny to think that he did the right thing. Kid got the part.
FILMING THE PILOT
Dobrev: I moved to LA, got a pilot, shot the pilot, and then there’s a three-month period where you sit and wait. I came back to LA with the rest of the cast. Candice [Accola] and I had become good friends at that point and she had an extra room, so I crashed with Candice for a few months. Every morning was so stressful. We’d both wake up and both be like, “Did you get an email? Nothing? Your manager hasn’t called has he? Have you heard anything? No? Have I been recast? Maybe they didn’t like [me]. They probably didn’t like me. They’re going to recast me.” We were both saying the most ridiculous things, and being so paranoid and so insecure that we were going to get recast, and the show wasn’t going to get picked up, or something. And then it ultimately did, and it was really good feeling.
Plec: My biggest Nina memory on the pilot? I have two: One is this moment when she is sitting at the window at the very end of the show and Stefan appears outside, and she runs and opens the door and she looks at him. And the whole moment is so fraught with connection and romance. When she did it the first time, her look was just so pure and beautiful and so epic and I said to her, “You’re 20 years old, how did you know what to give in that moment?” And she said, “Well, you said you saw their relationship like the characters in The Notebook, so I was giving you The Notebook.” [Laughs] I was like, “Well good girl, way to go!”
Dobrev: I love The Notebook, and I know an epic love story when I see one, and I felt like Elena and Stefan had an epic love. You know [how] your first love in high school, or whatever it may be for each person, feels like it? It’s almost an infectious look that you see in people’s eyes. I’ve felt it and I’d been in love before, so I wanted to make sure it was epic … just like it was in The Notebook. [Laughs]
Plec: And then the other [thing I remember] is, of course, there was a rule that none of the actors were supposed to do anything that could put their lives in any jeopardy—that’s kind of like a standard clause in any contract. And Nina found the loophole in her contract, and proceeded to then show me pictures from Easter weekend up in Whistler where she was standing on the edge of a massive cliff with her snowboard and her goggles. And I said, “You are one bold chick, I will tell you that. Only you would find the loophole that allows you to do what you want.” [Laughs]
INTRODUCING KATHERINE PIERCE
Plec: Kevin [Williamson] and I had not decided that Katherine and Elena would be played by the same actress until we really started breaking that story. We had to decide in the pilot what the picture was going to look like that Stefan pulled out. Because in the books, all they ever said was, “She bears a striking resemblance to Elena.” And so it wasn’t really very clear just how striking that resemblance was. So we thought, “Let’s just go for it.” And then from that, the whole doppelganger idea was born and the story just took off.
Dobrev: Of course it would be great to play both characters, but I didn’t know for sure. When I first got the pilot, I was Elena. That was it. There was no Katherine. And then they started talking about this Katherine character, and I would go to Julie and be like, “Who’s going to play Katherine? You going to get Emmanuelle Chriqui to play Katherine? Because people say that we look alike, I think you should get her.” I was actually pitching Emmanuelle Chriqui. [Laughs] I don’t know when Julie decided or whether she knew the whole time that it would be me, but I definitely didn’t [know] for a while.
Plec: Nina had a lot of fun trying to figure out what differentiated the two characters: Hair—obviously—makeup, the size of her push-up bra—literally—the gait with which she walked, the level of huskiness with which she talked. And on a fundamental emotional level, I said, “If you were to boil the difference between the two characters down: Everything that comes out of Elena’s mouth is the truth, and everything that comes out of Katherine’s mouth is a lie”—even if Katherine spoke an occasional truth. [It was] earnest versus selfish. Compassionate human versus narcissist. And she was able to draw those distinctions really well.
Dobrev: It was the greatest challenge and the most welcome challenge I could’ve had as an actor, to be on a TV show where, over 6 years, things can get stale and can feel redundant—but they never did for me. I never got bored. I was always excited and alway challenged, and that’s a really great thing to have as an actor on a TV show, which doesn’t happen that often.
TURNING ELENA INTO A VAMPIRE
Plec: When we read the books, I think it happened at like, literally the end of the first book. So we were like, “Well, we can’t do that.” [Laughs] And then we were so convinced that we would never go there until the very end. But then somehow, randomly and inexplicably, we found ourselves talking about season 2 ending with her becoming a vampire. And we couldn’t believe it ourselves. But because we had talked about it in season 2 and it felt right, even though it felt soon, then we realized that the end of season 3 wasn’t a bad time to do it. Because we had played a beautiful arc of her relationship with Stefan. The heat between Elena and Damon was really starting to sizzle, and we never wanted Elena to choose Damon while she was still human. So it was feeling like it was about that time to put her through the most life-altering thing that she’d ever go through, and see what that changed in her heart and in her soul and in her character. And that would launch the beginning of the Damon-Elena side of the series.
Dobrev: [Elena] changed a lot, and then she didn’t change at all. I feel like at her core she was still the same person, but now she just had a different diet. When somebody is a meat eater and then they become a vegan, they’re still the same person, they just go to different restaurants. At the same time, I liked how it made her stronger. In the beginning, she was a strong woman, but she kept getting hunted and she sort of felt helpless because people were stronger than her and her family members were dying and there was nothing she could do. Whereas now, as a vampire, she had power. She was able to do something. She was able to defend her loved ones. So that was, especially as a woman, a great feeling, to have a character who was empowered like that. I really liked that about her.
Plec: We had the pitch on how to exit her ready at the beginning of the season. We’d all come up with the idea, and felt really good about it and thought it would be a great story generator if we were stuck with that as our only option. There were a lot of conversations, and a lot of time spent trying to decide whether that would happen at the second-to-last episode of the season, the last episode of the season, the first episode of next season, or the tenth or eleventh episode of next season. So we had the story in our pocket, and we had versions of how to do it all quickly, or to do it over a long period of time and create more story out of it. So we just kind of had to keep juggling that in our minds until we knew for sure that her exit would be at the end of season 6.
[Nina] was actually willing to come back and do the culmination of the storyline in the first episode of season 7. But we then realized like, that’s such a horrible wink. [To] cliffhang Elena over the finale and then say goodbye at episode 1 would just be so, so mean. So we made the decision to be very appreciative of her willingness to do that for us, but we thought that would probably get us killed—so we decided to say goodbye in the finale.
Dobrev: It’s not something we decided last minute. It’s been a couple years, I’d say. Not that I knew for sure. I knew that the character would go on a journey—and yes, this is a show about vampires, but ultimately, I’m a human and I have to go live my human life now. Six years is a very long, great, great time. We did more than 100 episodes, which is in my eyes considered a huge success.
Once I did announce that I was going to start my next journey and the next chapter in my life, it was really cool to see people posting videos and hear their favorite moments. It made me kind of relive the last six years and realize how lucky and how incredibly grateful I am, and appreciative of this experience that I’ve had. But this is one of hopefully many that I will have in the future, and although I’m very very sad to leave my family and to not be around them every day, I’m really looking forward to the next step and seeing what’s going to happen. Because it’s currently unknown, and that’s what’s exciting to me—not knowing, because anything can happen at that point.
Plec: I’ve been getting a lot of heat about [why we’re not just ending the show], but it never occurred to us. [Laughs] Not because we don’t think the character is vital to the show, but because we think that losing the character from the show actually creates a tremendous amount of emotional opportunity and story for all these other characters that we love just as much.
Dobrev: [The Vampire Diaries] was actor bootcamp. I got to do drama, and comedy at times with Katherine, and stunts, and action. There’s so many different things I got to experience and do—green screens and split screens and multiple characters. It was like a college experience in many ways. So I learned a lot, and I quite literally grew up on camera, and got to travel the world. This experience has been a rollercoaster ride. It’s been pretty epic.
SOUVENIRS FROM SET
Dobrev: I have Elena’s daylight ring. And on my last day, one of my good friends who works in the props department gave me the Elena diary as a goodbye gift—but it wasn’t empty. It was filled with pictures of the last six years and every person in the cast had a page in the book, almost like a yearbook. For me, the memories are what count, and that was the greatest gift that I could’ve gotten—my diary from the show that has made me who I am today, filled with all the people that are most important to me.