Dawn Olivieri is an actor who intrigues and surprises with every turn. She first started demolishing expectations in high school, back in Seminole, Florida, a close-knit town where a reputation or nickname was likely to stick with you from elementary school through graduation. Because of Dawn’s boyishly short haircut and lack of curves in middle school, her classmates took to calling her “Dan.” Fast-forward to October 2009, and that “Girl Named Dan” has a two-page spread in Maxim, clad in nothing but tattoos and a string bikini, promoting her role in the fourth season of “Heroes” as Lydia, the clairvoyant painted lady.
Changing the way men (and women) see her had nothing to do with compromising her own character. Dawn’s always been liberated and free-spirited – it just took awhile for the rest of the world to catch on. She began taking acting seriously with her first recurring role as a dog in preschool. Over at Girl2Watch, she explained, “I was invested booooy… Even pretended to have a food and water bowl. I like to call it character development at a very young age.”
She kept it going, acting in school plays, putting on dance shows with kids next door and wielding the bassoon in the school band. She bucked conventional fashion by donning peculiar outfits forged in her imagination and manifested by her mother (a seamstress) and later rebelled against authority by becoming “the daughter every parent is terrified to have.” She had her windows nailed shut and her phones tapped but to no avail. At one point, she ran away from home, holding herself as ransom as she negotiated the terms of her return. In the end, she got to keep her car, stay out late and date that older boy.
To this day, she still prefers guys as confident and unhindered as she is. She often laments the scarcity of true “alpha males” – the guys who are easygoing, self-assured and genuine, but most of all, not afraid to make the first move when they see something they want. She’s fed up with the timid guys at L.A. bars, where she “gets a lot of looks and whispers but no one does anything,” leaving her to wonder: “Where are the guys with balls?”
The Player – In Search of a True Alpha Male
Her first credited TV role was actually skewed towards answering that exact question. After getting noticed for her modeling career, she wound up as the star of the first (and only) season of The Player, a reality show in which 13 self-proclaimed “players” competed to impress Dawn and her two girlfriends. But rather than basing her decision on who could drum up the most mushy, soul-mate seeking melodrama (a la “The Bachelorette”), the winner in this show was to be the guy who could, well, “play the game” the best. In the final episode, Dawn gave the “ultimate player” the choice between settling down and going steady or continuing on with the player lifestyle and speeding off with his prize, a brand new Cadillac Escalade. The guy, true to form, chose the latter. Dawn wasn’t bummed by this in the least and even hopped in with him after he extended an offer to hit the clubs with him – “no strings attached” obviously.
The series and premise was admittedly a bit shaky, yet light and self-aware enough to work as a one-off, as astutely pointed out in an analysis by This Afternoon in Drama. Even in the context of a “reality” show, it’s clear that Dawn was somewhat playing a role, and she did it well. Being game while playing and being played was a good fit for Dawn’s impromptu, no bullshit attitude. Still, she didn’t let herself be typecast as a directionless, ghetto-speaking clubber – she continued moving on to bigger and better roles.
Sci-Fi Starlet with a Bit of an Edge
After a brief stopover holding the number 14 briefcase in the first season of “Deal or No Deal,” Dawn began moving on to roles that let her run wild with her bad girl side while embracing her geek-friendly roots. She was Maggie in “Veronica Mars,” Neeva in an episode of “Stargate: Atlantis,” Constance Savage in two episodes of “Knight Rider” and had movie roles in Hydra, a SyFy original and Devil’s Den, a horror/action/thriller in the vein of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. Her track record in dramatic, sometimes supernatural roles eventually led her to her most prominent part as Lydia, a major character in the fourth season of “Heroes,” as we mentioned earlier. Here, too, her character doesn’t hesitate to use her feminine wiles to get her way. For example, here’s a direct quote between Hiro and Lydia in episode 11: “Naked lady! I think you are trying to seduce me!”
Roles like this are quickly making Dawn’s name synonymous with strong, female characters, which isn’t a particular stretch. After reading a bit about her track record for breaking the rules and getting what she wants, we asked her how much acting goes into playing the bad girl and how much is just plain Dawn being Dawn. She answered, “It’s so true! It’s easy for me to play the bad girl because it has always been inside of me. I tone it down in real life because of stupid things like consequences, but once in a while I will slip up!”
When she says, “slip up,” she may be referring to incidents such as an altercation she had in a Miami club, wherein some woman evidently insulted and tossed her drink all over the wrong rising star. Dawn retaliated by leaping up on the couch and gave her a swift kick to the chest. In the end, the club lights came on and security had to get involved. “Playing a bad girl is playing me…” Dawn says, and we believe it.
With that being said, Dawn also proves she can be funny. She showed up twice in “How I Met Your Mother” as Anna, the wild kickboxer with a “spankable ass” who’s impressed at the bar by Ted Mosby: Architect (Season 2 Episode 4 and again in “The Bracket” in Season 3 Episode 14) and “My Boys” as Connie, who flirts with Brendan in “Spring Training” to make her baseball slugging boyfriend jealous. She pulls off comedic roles with equal ease as her action/adventure parts – and of course, she looks smokin’ while doing it.
True Blood and Beyond
When Primer spoke with Dawn earlier this year, she wasn’t allowed to reveal her next big project – but she certainly dropped some good hints. When asked about her real life superpower, she said, mysteriously, that it was “behavior” – human… and animal. She also mentioned that she had put a temporary hold on her recent obsession with beat literature (she’s been reading Dharma Bums and The Ginger Man) to delve into a certain series of vampire novels. This February, TV Guide confirmed our hunch – Dawn has been cast as Janice Hervaeux, the “tough as nails biker chick” and big sister of Alcide, a werewolf, (played by Joe Manganiello, check out our interview with him here).
She makes her first appearance in episode four of season three, entitled “9 Crimes,” which we see as a logical progression in her career. Touted as a shot in the arm for a slowing “Heroes,” it seems that Dawn has become somewhat of a ringer for long running series that need a strong, defiant female character who can shake things up and also happens to be refreshingly easy on the eyes.
Calling this a classic ugly duckling story would be a little bit too easy and it wouldn’t quite capture the full arc of Dawn’s career, which is still steadily rising. It’s undeniable that she has indeed blossomed into quite a head-turning swan, but what’s more interesting about her journey is not what she’s shed through her transformation, but what she’s retained. She’s the girl next door, with a superhuman attractiveness. She’s a geek at heart, but she’s not afraid to kick a little ass, if the situation calls for it. She genuinely loves adventure (she just returned from backpacking through Peru and Bolivia) and science fiction (“I’m a sci-fi nerd on the inside. I just happen to be symmetrically put together on the outside.”) and she never hesitates to let her true colors shine through – whether she’s out on the town or on the screen.
All of these qualities combined make Dawn Olivieri into a uniquely compelling actress with a distinctively edgy and mysterious presence and no one word that can truly define her. Her experiences and varied roles are much like the temporary tattoos she wore while shooting her scenes for Heroes. As she explained to Primer, she is a “blank canvas” which makes it “easier to paint on.” Dawn says, “I believe that everything is a phase – it’s the beauty of life. I just choose to move on through each phase with no permanent reminders.”
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t dream of one day memorializing her storied career in some permanent way – it just means that she chooses not to tie herself down to one role. She takes the experiences and allows it to build upon her character, but like Lydia’s ornate tattoos, detailed and authentic and pitch perfect for the moment, they are easily washed away to make room for the next big step.