Nadja’s Doll Comes a Long Way in ‘What We Do in the Shadows’

Any comedy that reaches Season 5 has some leeway to get weird, but the definition of “weird” on FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” is as wonderfully wild as the series itself. The third episode, “Pride Parade,” barely even pretends to be about the vamps helping Sean (Anthony Atamnuik) put on a pride event that will boost his election profile. A not insignificant portion of its runtime is devoted to Nadja’s (Natasha Demetriou) doll’s quest for sex. 

No, really. 

See, Nadja’s physical body is pure vampire — as opposed to Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), who still seems to be stuck in the transition from put-upon familiar to creature of the night  — but Nadja’s human spirit has been trapped inside her beloved doll, creepily animating it and contributing confessionals since Season 2. Doll Nadja hasn’t just been existing inside a plastic shell, either, but also with the fact that she died a virgin. She would very much like to switch places with her vampire counterpart to remedy that. The body swap itself turns out to be surprisingly easy to accomplish with an assist from The Guide (Kristen Schaal). But it was somewhat trickier for “What We Do In The Shadows” prosthetics makeup and animatronic effects designer Paul Jones to adjust the Nadja puppet for its latest test: speed dating. 

OPPENHEIMER, Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer (center), 2023. ph: Melinda Sue Gordon /© Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

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“The doll has been pretty much my baby since Season 2,” Jones told IndieWire. “So [initially] her movements were that of a human inside a doll. After a while, she kind of got used to it, so our puppeteering changed.” But for “Pride Parade,” Jones and head puppeteer Gord Robertson needed to adjust the doll puppet’s performance to telegraph the trial of vampire Nadja having to walk a mile in her doll’s tiny cloth shoes. “The doll had to take on a whole different movement [style],” Jones said. 

The doll’s initial movements were simple, as the puppet was only meant to be used for one episode, but it made such an impression that doll Nadja graduated to recurring character status; Jones has tinkered with the design ever since. “She’s been in dozens of episodes now and we keep adding to her. One season she gets much more arm movement. Another season she gets to walk. Another season she gets to bend at the waist. She never did that in Season 2. So it’s almost like a kind of a bionic woman situation, where each episode she gets a new limb replaced,” Jones said. 

Animatronics designer Paul Jones sits at a table with the Nadja doll sitting on top of the table. Jones is looking at the doll as he adjusts a remote controller to move its head and eyes.
Puppet designer Paul Jones with the Nadja Doll from “What We Do in the Shadows” Courtesy of Paul Jones and FX

Even with increasing sophistication, the initially simple design of the doll has helped Jones perform the doll’s movements in line with the kind of comedy at which “What We Do in the Shadows” excels. Robertson uses a remote control system armed with a potentiometer to bring the doll to life. “So [the potentiometer is] a transmitter that sends a wire signal to a motor, and that motor works in tandem with the movement so there’s no delay. It’s an exact movement,” Jones said. In other words, the joysticks that Jones adjusts will mimic the exact ways that he wants the doll’s head to move or arms to flail — both of which are important when performing as an exasperated vampire Nadja who cannot for the unlife of her get her human ghost laid. 

“What we do is [Robertson] reads the scripted dialogue and we perform the intonation and the eye movements and the body movements to the dialogue. Natasha is there — she gets to hear that, then she gets to record the lines over the movements of the doll and put in her own inflections and reflections. So it’s a team effort,” Jones said.  “A couple of times she’s come to us and said, ‘In this scene, it’d be great if it could move like this,’ and we would move the doll accordingly, so she could jump on a certain line.” 

While Jones is responsible for puppeteering the doll’s body, eyes, and head, the mouth movements are added through VFX. “We only had, I think, about 12 days to build the original doll. We didn’t have the time to do animatronics,” Jones said. “The great thing about having a simpler system [is] it’s still a technical system but it’s not like bits of wood and elastic bands. It’s still a very sophisticated system, but it allows us to ad-lib the movements as well. When they’re doing a scene, we can jump around and change stuff on the fly.” 

“WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS” -- “The Escape” --  Season 3, Episode 6 (Airs September 30) — Pictured: Creepy Nadja Doll.  CR: Russ Martin: FX
“What We Do in the Shadows” Russ Martin/FX

Episode 3 has a key, instantly recognizable moment when Jones called an audible for how the Nadja doll should move, in a way that definitely adds spice to an already spicy moment. Spoiler alert: It’s a ménage à trois. Possibly a ménage à quatre, depending on how one classifies the doll. “There is a moment at the end of the episode where the doll was just supposed to sit in a certain position, and I suggested she’d be holding something else and her whole body would be rocking. [And that movement] we came up with pretty much on the day,” Jones said. “The great thing about [showrunner] Paul Simms is that he’s very receptive to ideas. Paul’s gotten to the point now where, no matter how over-the-top, it seems he’s just gone, ‘Yeah, great. Let’s do it.’” 

A lot of shared trust has developed among the “What We Do in the Shadows” team over the course of five seasons, along with the shared joy the show’s team has in getting to make recurring jokes more complicated. “It’s not just pulling the same doll out of the box, doing some wiggling, and then putting it back in the box,” Jones said. “She has her own little wardrobe unit in the costume department. I made little head blocks for the wigs we make for her and that’s with the hair department, and she has a little foam-lined coffin that she lies in when she’s not performing. So we do treat her like a member of the cast now. It’s really rather sweet.”

“What We Do in the Shadows” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX and Fridays on Hulu.

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