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UT alum Felicia Day talks SXSW, acting, gaming career

Dale Roe

As an actress, Felicia Day has made appearances on network and cable television shows including "House," "Lie to Me" and "Monk." But she'll be most familiar to attendees of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival as Codex from "The Guild," an extremely popular Web series that features Day in an ensemble of Internet role-playing gamers.

She also had a key role in a little thing called "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," a wildly successful online project Joss Whedon knocked out during the 2007-08 Writers Guild strike.

As a trailblazer in the form, the smart, polite and funny redhead is uniquely qualified as a keynote speaker to address how techies (Day is a voracious gamer) are challenging traditional paradigms of entertainment creation and distribution. And, as SXSW promotional material points out, her use of social media makes her a natural fit for the theme of "community" that will permeate this year's gathering.

Day, who graduated from the University of Texas, discussed her upcoming appearance and other topics in advance of SXSW. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

Austin American-Statesman: I'm very impressed with how open you are to interacting with your fans. It's unusual.

Felicia Day: It is a little bit unusual. But, you know, I started doing this when people didn't really use the words "social media," so I built my show from the ground up. And in the early days there were dozens of fans, so I was able to know them on a name-by-name basis. And then that just sort of spread.

How do you feel about going from SXSW panelist to keynote speaker? Is that just a ton of pressure?

I'm trying not to think about it that way. Ironically, when I was going to UT, I volunteered for SXSW for a couple of years in a row, and I did a lot of bag-stuffing and helping with badges and checking badges as people came in. I guess it's a SXSW Cinderella story. (Laughs) It was the film side that I was sort of discovering and wanting to get into as a career. I certainly would never have thought that my computer games that I played during that time and during college would lead me to keynoting for Interactive.

You certainly found an inventive and successful way to straddle those two disciplines.

Thank you. That's the cool thing about the Internet. There is a way to be everything you want to be, in a sense; you can define yourself in a brand-new way that didn't necessarily exist a decade ago or whatever. It's very liberating. It's like democracy for creativity, the Internet, and I'm very, very privileged to be one of the people who represent that.

What will you be discussing in your keynote address?

I think that we're going to touch upon my journey a little bit ... I'm sure that we'll be talking about social media a lot ... "The Guild," in the past 31/2 years, has experienced an amazing revolution in how we use the Internet and connect with other people, and I'm sure that's something that would be of interest to the people who are coming to my panel.

After you were here in 2009, you wrote that you would summarize South by Southwest attendance as ‘paying for parties from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. with the option of going to panels on off hours.'

(Laughs)

Are you sorry you said that, and do you hope people are still going to attend your panel?

I didn't mean for it to be like, "Nobody ever goes to panels." But I think that a lot of the motivation is connecting with other people, whether it's on the floor of the Convention Center during the panel hours or after hours to go to the parties and the gatherings and meet-ups. Interactive is probably even more unique than the music and film side in that people know each other on the Internet — sometimes as very good friends — but they've never met face-to-face. It's kind of ironic and a testament to how the world has changed that I know some of these people whom I have never met in person better than I do some of my relatives whom I don't keep up with. And it's about building community and making that community more solid by forging face-to-face connections. There are a lot of parties, though. I'm kind of an early riser, early bed person, so I'll be going to more of the cocktail hours.

You also said after your previous visit that the film community used to have an attitude toward Web stuff, but that they were warming up to the Internet. How do you think that's progressing?

I definitely think that there's been a shift in attitudes toward Web content. There still is sort of a snotty stigma toward Web video that lingers, but I do believe that in the last even six months there's been a huge shift, because distribution has become Web-based. If you look down the line at the next year, the Web will be distribution, period. Whether it's streaming onto your TV or onto your desktop or your phone, people are experiencing the content where they want to experience it, the way they want to experience it. If you're going to put your heart and your soul and your creativity into creating something, why would you ignore a tool that will make your product more valuable and more seen?

It sounds as if we're headed toward the pursuit of content and not so much concern about where it originates.

Yeah. The playing field is even. NBC.com is on the same level as any other website if you can get traffic there. And then if you have a video and it's featured on YouTube or Yahoo! or AOL, that is as highly trafficked a site as the networks. So, as people move more and more toward getting their content in a browser, the playing field is completely even between the networks and more tech outlets. It's a huge shift, and hopefully it means people who have independent voices will break through a little more and will broaden the kinds of entertainment that we get.

You've worked in traditional media, including television. Is that something that you're still interested in pursuing, or even have time to pursue?

I started doing this to expand my acting career, and now I actually have to turn down a lot of opportunities just because of being busy producing and writing and acting in my own stuff.

I am going to be on (the Syfy Network show) "Eureka" this summer. The show runners saw what I did on the Internet and wrote a part for me. And that was just an amazing experience and gratifying, not only because they thought of me for a part, but that I went out and defined myself as an artist and then they saw that and were inspired by it to create a role that was very complementary to what I can do. That's kind of a Cinderella story in itself.

Definitely, my end goal has shifted: I don't want to move completely into the mainstream and abandon what I've created here, because it's so much more gratifying to do things that people have never done before versus just being another actress, which is very, very fun intermittently between what I do. I guess I have the privilege of being able to do everything I love right now, and we'll see what the long term holds.

What are you working on now?

We're in the middle of "The Guild" Season 5, which is very exciting. We've got four seasons now with Sprint and Microsoft. I have to say that it's been an amazing experience with them because they let us do creatively what we want with the show and just keep having faith in us and confidence.

And then I have another Web series that's coming out later this summer, called "Dragon Age: Redemption," and we really aim to make this something that the Web hasn't seen before as far as production value and content. I've paired up with EA/Bioware to use an existing property, a video game — clearly, video games are my passion, so to be able to work in an existing world that I loved before they even approached me is quite a privilege. And, again, they really let me do creatively what I wanted with the show and, again, I'm really excited to make them proud of what I did. The distribution of that is to be determined, but it will be, of course, on the Web and hopefully as many people as possible will see it.

Did your time in Austin influence your career at all?

Oh, absolutely. "Keep Austin Weird" is an awesome tagline for the city. And, also, being in a college town is very inspiring. You're definitely exposed to all sorts of different creativity and just a love of learning. That's what's beautiful about Austin — the love of learning underlies all of that. And that's something that's very primary in my life. Just the curiosity of doing things in a different way and not being confined to following the drummer and taking the path that everyone else has taken. I think that's so important to learn, especially in this time when the Internet is what you make of it.

droe@statesman.com; 912-5923