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SUMMER Glau is known for playing extraordinary characters: brainy, deadly, not much like anyone you'd meet in the real world.

In Joss Whedon's beloved space adventure series Firefly, she was the damaged, precocious River Tam, forced by the evil Alliance to serve as an invincible assassin. In Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, she was Cameron, a cyborg sent from the future to protect the young hero. Then there was her eerie turn on Dollhouse, the most divisive but fascinating of Whedon's shows, where for a change she played a programmer rather than one of the programmed: the vengeful scientist Bennett Halverson, responsible for implanting personalities in ''dolls'' who agree to have their minds temporarily wiped.

Glau, 30, has become a cult figure among science fiction fans - and a regular at conventions such as the Supanova Pop Culture Expo, to be held this weekend in Melbourne and next weekend on the Gold Coast.

''It's a real honour,'' she says by phone from the US. ''I feel grateful to have these conventions to go to for a million different reasons, but one of the main reasons is that I'm getting to say thank you to people who have supported my career.''

This is how Glau sounds throughout our interview: upbeat, earnest, and eager to please, though quite aware of her faintly other-worldly quality.

How does she find an imaginative connection with terminators and misfit geniuses? ''For some reason those characters are more comfortable for me than playing the girl next door,'' she says.

''Part of it has to do with the way I was raised. I was a very serious ballerina when I was growing up, and I never went to regular school, and I pretty much just was working full-time when I wasn't at school and I didn't have a lot of friends my own age.''

Glau's dance training has stayed with her. ''I always approach each character from a physical place,'' she says, citing River's trapped-animal body language and Cameron's inhuman calm.

Still, she's reluctant to elaborate on her technique. ''I read the material and then I just imagine myself as that character,'' she says. ''I don't really go into researching too much, or pre-planning how I'm going to do a scene.''

Does she worry whether the audience will like her? ''Oh, I do,'' she says quickly. With Cameron the Terminator, it was a particular problem. ''When I went into the series I had a lot of concerns about how I was going to make her relatable and likeable.''

As it turned out, she says, ''It ended up being really rewarding for me as an actress, because I thought people really did embrace Cameron, even though she was a robot. I really tried to find the vulnerability in that character and try and get people to care about her, and I did feel that character was loved.''

What about the sociopathic Bennett in Dollhouse? ''The only thing I knew to begin with was that Joss wanted me to come and be on the show. I would go to the end of the earth for him. I think he's the most brilliant writer, and I always find that when I work for Joss, and I'm playing one of these characters the way that he likes, immediately it strikes a chord.''

Once she starts talking about Whedon, Glau's enthusiasm knows no bounds. She describes him as a genius and a crucial mentor: ''I compare every other experience to him, and I'd say that he was able to inspire the best out of me.''

More than anything, she admires the way his shows portray women. ''River was incredibly sensitive and incredibly vulnerable, but she was also really, really strong. And I think that Joss writes that contrast really well.''

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