When Dobrev scored the lead role in the book series adaptation, she had just one significant role on her resume with the Canadian hit Degrassi: The Next Generation. Over the course of the next six years, viewers would watch the actress show incredible range as she transitioned from orphaned teen to newbie vampire, all while experiencing love for the first time and, yet, much more loss. She would also play a badass 500-year-old vampire, Katherine, and a vampire with her humanity shut off after the death of her brother. She'd later become a college freshman and, finally, she'd become human again. With just one final episode left, Dobrev, like her character, prepares to leave one significant chapter behind, and in her own words looks back on the journey that got her here.
In 2009, Dobrev flew to Vancouver to film the CW pilot.
I remember the first day on set like it was yesterday, which freaks me out! We shot in Vancouver, and I was with Kat Graham. We basically spent the whole day shooting in the car. Kat was driving and she had straight hair that was so weird looking and so did I. We kept having to crash because of the crow and we didn't really know each other that well, but we were getting to know each other, and Kat's a terrible driver, I just want to throw that out there. When we almost fake-crashed we almost real-crashed. It was a good day and we were all really excited. That pilot turned into six years of great memories that I will have with me for the rest of my life.
Early on, the cast began doing press and appearing at Comic-Con. Still, it took awhile for enormity of the show's reach to set in.
It was a gradual feeling. Look, we shoot in Atlanta so for years we didn't really understand the magnitude. It wasn't until we started doing press tours and began traveling across the globe to promote the show that we realized how popular it was and how big the fandom was. Also, I don't feel any different and I surround myself with people who don't treat me any different. So I know the show is very popular, but I don't have people who give me special treatment by any means. But I think one of the first few times I realized was when a friend of a friend's kid in high school said our poster from the show was on their locker and all over their rooms. I was like "Really?" And they were like, "Yeah, unless you watchThe Vampire Diaries on Thursday nights you have nothing to talk about on Fridays." When somebody told me that I was like, "We're a pop culture reference now; that's so cool!"
In the sixth episode of Season 1, Dobrev first portrayed Elena's doppelganger Katherine in flashback. She'd go on to play her in present-day and later she'd also play the original of the Petrova doppelgangers, Amara, as well as the first in her bloodline, Tatia, who appeared on The Originals. In one scene, Dobrev played all three at once.
It was definitely a challenge, but one that was exciting. I loved playing all the roles and it kept things fresh for me over the six years. It never felt stale and I never felt bored because I had so many different challenges and things I got to do. That was the good side of it. But it was very exhausting and at a certain point unmanageable and kind of unhealthy to work 16 hours a day for nine months straight — at night. As humans we're not made to exist in that capacity. But [executive producer] Julie [Plec] understood that so they wrote less Katherine and spaced it out and eventually we said goodbye to her altogether.
In Season 3, Elena and Damon had their first real kiss and the fandom ignited. But Dobrev admits she didn't know that they'd become the couple at the center of the show.
I never knew what was going to happen more than an episode in advance, let alone during the course of the series! And I liked it that way. After a few years Julie trusted us a little more and would tell people more, but I never wanted to know more than what was happening in that episode because it helped me go through what the character was going through. I wanted to be just as shocked when I read it for the first time when she felt that heartache or pain or whatever it was. So I couldn't have anticipated six years ago the course [Damon and Elena] would've gone. But now in retrospect, I could see it about halfway through.
At the end of Season 3, Elena died with vampire blood in her allowing her to transition to becoming a vampire moving forward. Dobrev, for one, was happy to put the human behind her.
I liked Elena the human in the beginning the best. Look, I love the journey she went on, and you saw her grow up on camera and become a woman and learn from her mistakes and go through heartache and death and she became a multi-dimensional, very layered human being. But I also felt like she experienced so many bad things that she eventually got a little whiny and really sad because people kept dying around her and that's understandable. When she became a vampire she really came into her own and felt stronger and she used to run from her villains, but now she would fight them.
Dobrev, who hasn't gotten to see her final episode since she's currently road-tripping cross-country, says filming was incredibly emotional, but full of closure for both her and the character.
I'm biased because it's my goodbye episode, but it's beautiful and sad and it's definitely a roller coaster ride — or maybe it's just that I went through a roller coaster ride of emotions. It's an exciting new chapter that I'm looking forward to, but I'm very sad I'll be away from my family and friends. What I have to keep reminding myself is that I'll still have them in my life. It's a very bittersweet, nostalgic episode that I think pays tribute to the character very well, and there's a moment with every single character. Everyone will get what they're looking for from it. I felt like there was closure for me and there will be closure for the character. And now the adventure begins for both me and the show, and it'll have a different vibe and energy, but I'm looking forward to how Julie does it because she does it so well.
Thanks to the endless fan videos, Dobrev says she'll continue to relive her favorite moments which, by the way, she has trouble narrowing down.
I've always loved doing the period episodes so "Lost Girls" when Katherine was introduced was one of my favorites. But it's hard to narrow it down. Online, a lot of different fans have been making videos of the best moments, which is cool for me to look back and remember certain things on set and certain moments and certain times of my life. I should've talked to you a week ago when I was watching all of these videos and crying!
Looking to the future, Dobrev couldn't be more excited about the uncertain road ahead, but is forever grateful for the show - and of course the fans - that got her here.
Looking back on the last six years, which I've been doing a lot of through my pictures and the fans, it's almost like a relationship. The fans are as much a part of our family as we are on set and so I'm really happy I got to go on this journey and we got to experience this together. It's been great and I'm so grateful to have been a part of it and now it's time for me, Nina, to get to go off and live my human life.
The Vampire Diaries finale airs on Thursday at 8/7c on The CW.
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Check out our last on-the-set interview with Dobrev: