‘The Vampire Diaries’ Leslie-Anne Huff Talks Resemblance to Nina Dobrev, Hunting Vampires and White-Washing Controversy
With the loss of series veteran Nina Dobrev (Elena Gilbert), The Vampire Diaries returned bigger (and bloodier) than ever — this time with a new face shaking things up in Mystic Falls. Enter Rayna Cruz, the terrifying-turned-endearing 100-plus-year-old vampire huntress that’s slashing vampires left and right on The CW supernatural series’ smash seventh season.
Leslie-Anne Huff (Sonny with a Chance, The Middle), the bubbly and exuberant actress behind the feisty fan-favorite newcomer, took a break from plunging stakes into vampire (and audience) hearts to speak exclusively with GALO. With buzz circling the 31-year-old L.A. native as one of this year’s breakout performers, Huff dished on that striking resemblance to Dobrev, the devastating loss of the Phoenix Sword, humanizing Rayna, what it means to portray a part-Filipina character on primetime TV, and which TVD character she would kill to step into the shoes of — not to mention that jaw-dropping cliffhanger last Friday.
GALO: The Vampire Diaries has been on air for seven seasons now, but despite its audience growing up and the network sort of moving away from the supernatural genre, it’s still been able to thrive in the CW universe. What made you want to get involved with the series so late in the game?
Leslie-Anne Huff: Rayna is such an amazing role. There have been so many great characters on this show and so many great villains. I’m just honored to join the ranks — especially [with] this character. Rayna is such a strong woman, and the more of that you see on TV, the better.
GALO: This season is an interesting one to join because it’s the first one where we don’t have the show’s leading lady Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev). Could you feel the loss of that character affecting the dynamic this season, especially coming in as a newcomer?
LAH: I think as sad as everyone was to see her go, it opened up perhaps some new storylines — and there were things that the writers got to try in her absence. Elena is still such a presence in the story, especially for Damon [Salvatore, played by Ian Somerhalder]. I don’t know if I especially felt the loss because she still has such a presence in the story.
GALO: Speaking of Elena, when you were first cast in your role as Rayna, the Internet went crazy for how much you looked like Nina Dobrev, with fans still predicting that Rayna is related to Elena in some way. What did you make of all that noise?
LAH: I felt completely honored. What a comparison to have! She’s so beautiful and so talented and super lovely. Her performance as Elena all these years is one of the many things that made this show great. So to be compared to her, I mean, [I’ll] take it!
GALO: Can you set the record straight? Is Rayna related to Elena or Katherine Pierce or any of the doppelgangers in any way?
LAH: My lips are sealed.
GALO: Fair enough. Let’s talk about last week’s episode. Last episode, we saw Rayna show a different side to herself. She talked about wanting to watch the ocean and eat a cheeseburger free of chasing after vampires, which really bought her some empathy — from me at least. The Vampire Diaries does a great job at humanizing its villains and creating these complex characters where one minute you hate them and the next minute you root for them. Do you think Rayna falls into this?
LAH: Oh, I definitely do. I hope that she does. As an actress, I always try to humanize characters for myself. I always try to approach my characters in a way where I can see where they’re coming from. I think the show attempted to introduce her as a complex and somewhat intricate character because we got to see her flashbacks and backstory right away. She was a vampire huntress because she was compelled by Julian (Todd Lasance) to kill her own father and then carry on his legacy. I’ve always carried that in my mind and in my heart when I’m playing her.
GALO: It’s crazy because despite all these amazing powers these characters have as supernatural beings, a recurring theme for them is that they just want to be human. Why do you think that is — particularly for Rayna?
LAH: She’s lived hundreds of years doing this job. It’s all she’s ever had. She’s literally — or was — compelled by the Phoenix Sword. Even if she wanted to take a day off, she couldn’t because this sword was compelling her to do this life’s work, and that’s hundreds and hundreds of years without a day off, which is what she said in the last episode. I think there is this longing to be human and to be normal.
GALO: Are you surprised by the fans’ reaction to Rayna at all — because, despite her wanting to hunt down these beloved characters, the fans have really rallied around her, and I see countless memes on social media praising her as this badass female character.
LAH: I love it. I definitely was warned going into it that there might be some haters, especially if you come into a show and if there’s any indication that you’ll get in the way of any of the ships that the fans are very protective of. I didn’t experience any of that. Everyone has been kind and excited. Again, I really think a lot of it has to do with her being such a badass. There’s something so cool about seeing a lady kicking ass.
GALO: The fans’ reaction to Rayna is really positive now, but I’m sure at the beginning of the season — when the only thing audiences knew about her was that she was on a mission to kill fan-favorite characters like Stefan and Damon Salvatore — the reaction wasn’t as well-received. Can you talk about what that was like?
LAH: I definitely got a lot of tweets and comments telling me to be easy on Stefan and Damon because all the fans are so protective of them — and rightfully so. I got a lot of “Delena is the endgame,” which I am very aware of. I think earlier there might have been a lot of worry that that might be at risk with my character coming in. They are such beloved characters and people are so protective of them. I think it’s great. I guess I had in my mind that Rayna would become a little bit of a more sympathetic character. I’m kind of glad it took that trajectory.
GALO: And what was it like to physically hunt down vampires? We see you get to do a lot of cool stunts. You wield a sword. How did you prepare for that?
LAH: It was super, super fun. I really worked to get into the best shape I could to make sure that I had the stamina to do all these scenes. They trained me a lot when I first got there, and really showed me the ropes on the stunt side and taught me how to use the Phoenix Sword. I spent a lot of time with the sword. I brought it home and back to my hotel room. When I was on set, I always held onto it just out of habit so I could really create this sense that this was just part of Rayna and almost part of her body. I hope that came across. It was — before it got destroyed — such an essential part of who she was.
GALO: Speaking of the Phoenix Sword, I was devastated when it was destroyed. I can only imagine what it was like for you. Did you feel like you lost a part of yourself just like Rayna did?
LAH: Yes! When I read it, I was so sad because it had become a part of me. I always had it in my hand. I brought it back and forth to set with me. I had practiced so hard to make it look good. They made a special version for me. They made several versions based on what kind of stunt we had to do. I had my own that was just the right weight and just the right size. I was sad to see it go. But I also thought it was a really exciting and interesting turn for the character — to see what she’s going to do now that such an essential part of her is gone. It’s already affecting her. As we’ve seen in the latest episode, she can barely handle herself because all of the vampires she’s killed in the past are out there in the world. She can hear them, she can see them, and she almost can’t function. I think that is interesting because that’s broken her down to a place where she has had to cooperate with Damon and all these characters, where in another world, she never would’ve cooperated with [them]. I think that it is interesting to see her have to deal with that loss.
GALO: Rayna is characterized as a Shamanic Vampire Huntress who’s in her eighth life. She’s on the show with vampires and witches. There’s this thing called the Phoenix Stone. Portraying a character in such a complex world, was it difficult to process all these supernatural rules?
LAH: I really wanted to be able to honor all of it. There’s such a long mythology and canon to the show that I wanted to be able to step into it and honor it and ideally become seamlessly a part of [it]. I will say that Rayna’s character is unlike any character I’ve become familiar with. I made sure to be very cautious and very in tune to everything going on in the show, and I made sure that I was playing it to the utmost of my ability.
GALO: Has your time on the show affected your belief in the supernatural in any way?
LAH: I’ve always wanted to believe in it. I love the witches. I love Bonnie’s character. To be able to put a spell on somebody would be amazing. I don’t know if I’d necessarily believe in it because I’ve never witnessed it before. But I’d kind of love to be able to put a spell on somebody. I promise I wouldn’t use it for evil.
GALO: Last week’s episode ended with a bit of a cliffhanger. Rayna was supposed to give her life to Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham) after the Salvatore brothers finished off her list. At the end, we find out she added a few more names to that list. Do you think Rayna ever intended to keep her end of the promise?
LAH: I think we’re going to have to wait and find out. The way I see it, at the end of the episode, she can barely function. She’s spent by trying to get all of these names on paper and just having to visit all these voices in her head. I think that’s what’s going to be really exciting about this next episode — to find out how she’s going to come back from that. I think she didn’t do it on purpose [or] to betray anyone. I think even before this negotiation began with Enzo and Damon, the idea behind writing all these names [and] creating this list was to hopefully get these voices and visions of these vampires out of her head so that maybe she stood a chance at functioning again. Then Damon and Enzo come along with this proposal. I think that having broken down, there’s a little bit of wiggle room for Rayna to want, as she says, a day off. So there’s definitely a part of this whole negotiation that seems like it could be a nice break for her.
GALO: Are there any hints to who the last-minute names to the list are?
LAH: Ooh, you’ll have to find out.
GALO: Guess there’s no getting around it then, we’ll just have to wait and see. Do you think Rayna will ever get that day away from being a vampire huntress? Do you think she’ll ever become human again?
LAH: I hope so. I really hope so, for her sake. I personally would love to see Rayna in a romance and eating a cheeseburger by the beach.
GALO: If you could choose a character on the show for Rayna to be romantically involved with, who would it be?
LAH: I don’t know. There are so many good choices, but everyone is taken. Right now, as Leslie-Anne, I’m really shipping Benzo [Bonnie and Enzo]. That last episode, their New Year’s celebration scene and everything, I’m really like, “Oh, that’s so romantic.”
GALO: What can you tell us about how Rayna is going to play into the rest of the season? Will we at least get to see her in the finale, if not next season?
LAH: Well, as Leslie-Anne, I can’t quite speak to that. We’ll just say that I’m excited to see and get to play this other side of her, this more vulnerable side. There’s nothing better for an actress than to get to play all sides of a character.
GALO: With a series veteran like Kat Graham — who’s been on the show since the first season — not coming back next season and rumors circulating that Ian Somerhalder is also leaving the show, how do you think that’s going to affect the Mystic Falls universe next season?
LAH: Bonnie’s such a wonderful character. She’s so interesting and she’s been through a lot. I don’t know, because I can’t really speak to any of that. I can say that the writers have been so great and so creative with this season. I can only imagine that whatever gets thrown at them that they’ll be able to create something super compelling for us to watch.
GALO: Do you think the loss of Bonnie will affect Enzo in any way? The romance is so new; it seems kind of cruel to introduce it just to break it apart.
LAH: I know! I can’t speak to any definite answers about that because who knows what will happen? But it’ll be pretty heartbreaking for [those of] us who are rooting for them.
GALO: Switching gears for a bit, one of the reasons why I was really excited to see you cast in this role in particular was because of your background. Though Rayna’s race is slightly ambiguous, it was so great to see a half-Filipina actress on a long-running series like The Vampire Diaries. It just goes to show that if people could believe that vampires and werewolves exist, why couldn’t they believe in an Asian vampire huntress in the 1800s? Have you heard any reactions from the Filipino community?
LAH: I’ve gotten a lot of fan reaction to that, especially from fans in the Philippines and Filipino-American fans. I completely agree with you. I think it’s so great that the writers actually wrote into Rayna’s backstory that she has Filipino lineage. I think that’s so cool because you don’t see that very much. Once they cast me, they did it. But I don’t think they already planned that — and then they found me. They wrote it in and I think that speaks so highly to The Vampire Diaries as a show and the writers as a team for acknowledging that. I think people do like to see themselves on screen. There’s a bunch of Filipinos who watch the show. I think it also adds a little bit of something different to the show, and especially that that’s such a topic of conversation; I think it was really great of them to add that. They go back into Rayna’s history when Stefan and Valerie try to find out more about her, they go to the Philippines. It’s really subtle and it’s also a great example that a person’s cultural heritage isn’t a big defining factor of who they are. Rayna is a vampire huntress. She just happens to have Filipino heritage — what a great thing to see on a network show.
GALO: I’ve also noticed on social media that you’ve been outspoken about whitewashed castings recently, particularly with Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. How do you think Rayna falls into this hot-button topic right now?
LAH: I think it’s a really complicated issue. Truthfully, I think there are many sides to it. I can actually see the side where producers will say, “Hey, it is really hard to find an actor or actress of Scarlett Johansson’s notoriety who’s also Asian to play this role.” But while I can still see that point, I still think it’s so important to represent things accurately and to also represent diversity onscreen. It’s 2016. That’s kind of the thought that I keep having. It’s such a diverse world now that I personally believe if you’re a person in power to make change and to bring different stories to light onscreen, I think it’s to everyone’s benefit to do so. I think that the argument that the box office numbers will suffer based on casting somebody of color or somebody less-known, I don’t agree with that point of view because there are so many films that have done well with newcomers, and there are so many films that have done poorly with not newcomers. I understand that this business is such a gamble for everybody, but I still stand by seeing more diversity out there. I just feel grateful and lucky that I can do my little part in representing.
GALO: Well said. Before we leave — I know you can’t spoil anything — but what hints can you give us for what lies ahead for Rayna in this Friday’s episode?
LAH: I can’t really speak to Friday’s episode. I kind of just want to let people see it and be surprised.
Catch the all-new episode of “The Vampire Diaries” starring Leslie-Anne Huff tonight at 8/7c on The CW. And be sure to check out the teasers for tonight’s episode below! Want to learn more about Huff? Follow her on Twitter @leslieannehuff. || Featured image: Photo Credit: Isaac Sterling. Hair Styling Credit: J. Michael. Make Up Credit: Beth Follert.
Video courtesy of The CW Television Network.
Video courtesy of The CW Television Network.