The kids of DeGrassi grow up so fast these days.
This time last year, Nina Dobrev was still a day player on the Canadian teen drama DeGrassi: The Next Generation, which conveniently filmed in her hometown of Toronto. Today, she's 1,200 kilometres away in Atlanta and starring in The Vampire Diaries (CTV, Thursdays, 8 p.m.), already tagged as the first hit series of the fall season. Dobrev, who also has a role in Atom Egoyan's new film Chloe, does not play a vampire in the TV show, but she has, by necessity, become a creature of the night.
"With a vampire show come the night shoots and the long hours," says a weary Dobrev, speaking from Atlanta where the series is filmed. " DeGrassi had a large ensemble cast, so we wouldn't shoot every day and, because it was a high-school show, most of the scenes were shot during the day. On this show, we start late on Monday and every day we push later and later. By Friday night, sometimes we end up shooting until 4 or 5 a.m. on Saturday morning."
Not that she's complaining. Vampire Diaries is a career-maker for the 20-year-old Dobrev, who was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, and relocated with her family to Toronto at the tender age of 2. As with DeGrassi alumnus Shenae Grimes - now in her sophomore year on The CW's remake of 90210 - Dobrev was plucked directly from the no-pressure world of Canadian TV drama and dropped into the heady realm of American network television. And as a star of the series, she's the first to admit there's an adjustment to make.
"Everything is different now," she admits. "Aside from having a personal publicist for the first time, the show has a great buzz and everyone is talking about it. There are more press interviews. I was in New York two weeks ago for the first time, and there were billboards for the show everywhere. It was a little intimidating, but cool."
Unlike 90210, Vampire Diaries was strong out of the gate. The premiere episode two weeks ago registered close to five million U.S. viewers for The CW - most-watched show launch in the network's history. The show performed commensurately well for CTV here, earning nearly 1.5 million viewers.
No doubt fuelling the fast liftoff is the fact that vampires are a hot entertainment property of late, courtesy of the Twilight film series and HBO's True Blood. "Of course, there's vampires in all the shows coming out," says Dobrev, "but if I had to compare our show to anything, I would say it's like Dawson's Creek meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. More than anything it's about life in this small town - with vampires."
Based on the young-adult novels of L.J. Smith, Vampire Diaries stars the willowy Dobrev as Elena, your typical teenage girl newly returned to Mystic Falls high school following the tragic death of both parents.
Elena's first day back to school improves greatly once she meets Stefan (Paul Wesley), the new kid at school, who happens to be a vampire. Soon after, she meets Stefan's hunky and slightly more sinister brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder of Lost ), also a vampire. Instead of bitten, Elena is smitten.
"Some people might think Twilight," concedes Dobrev, "because they see boy meets girl in high school, and one's a vampire and the other isn't. But the story takes a complete 360 by the second episode. Suddenly people are dying, people are going missing and nobody realizes vampires are at the base of all this drama. We try to keep the audience on their toes."
Even with her DeGrassi diploma - she spent three seasons playing the cheerleader turned teen mother Mia - the professional acting field remains relatively new territory for Dobrev, who devoted her teen years to competitive gymnastics while attending Toronto's highly regarded Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts.
Building up to her role in Diaries, Dobrev had some fleeting experience in the horror vein: Her breakout film role came in the 2006 low-budget zombie musical Repo! The Genetic Opera (starring Paris Hilton!), and two years later, she portrayed a lycanthrope-hunting teen in the cable movie Never Cry Werewolf. But when it came to vampires, she could only claim to being a fan.
"My first real vampire obsession and awareness probably came from watching Interview with the Vampire," she admits. "Aside from Brad Pitt looking dreamy with those fangs, the vampire aspect was just so intriguing. To get ready for this show, I've watched that movie at least four times in the last few weeks."
Unlike Grimes, who was savaged by vicious Internet gossip during her 90210 rookie season, Dobrev at least has the advantage of Vampire Diaries filming far away from the Hollywood spotlight.
"We're definitely removed from the big TV business, which I like a lot," says Dobrev. "Down here, I can feel a sense of normalcy. I'm not swamped like the people on 90210 or Melrose Place. I can go to work in the morning, I can go to a restaurant. I can have a life."
Then again, she's already sat for her first celebrity mug shot. Dobrev and three of her Diaries co-stars, Sara Canning, Kayla Ewell and Candice Accola, were charged last month with disorderly conduct in the town of Forsyth, Ga., roughly 100 kilometres south of Atlanta. Police said the women were striking suggestive poses and dangling off the side of a highway bridge for a photo shoot; the photographer was also charged. (Conveniently, news of the incident broke the day after the show's premiere.)
Such is the cost of fame. Dobrev is currently poring over scripts for films she might consider when Vampire Diaries wraps filming for its first season. "I really want something I can sink my teeth into," she says, with no trace of irony.