A lot can change in 15 years — but Eliza Dushku’s desire to release Mapplethorpe, a biopic about the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, didn’t.
“The original writer of Mapplethorpe had approached my brother with the original script over 15 years ago,” Mapplethorpe producer Dushku, 38, tells PEOPLE. “I certainly didn’t choose for it to be that long of a process, but I’ve got to say, it’s sort of incredible how everything aligned.”
The movie premiered on March 9 in Boston, the city where Mapplethorpe died 30 years ago following his battle with AIDS, and an exhibit of his work opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City earlier this year.
Known for taking photos of everything from flowers to male genitalia, Mapplethorpe, played by The Crown’s Matt Smith in the movie, struggled to get his work shown in the ’70s.
“Depending on what pictures you see first, it’s shocking,” Dushku says. “But there’s also something undeniable when you look at one of Mapplethorpe’s photos, it’s not just that the image is shocking or controversial, but they’re so beautiful. I remember even Matt Smith, looking through so many pictures and as a straight man thinking, ‘I didn’t know penises could be so beautiful!’ ”
While Mapplethorpe’s story has remained relevant from the film’s inception to its release, Dushku’s life has evolved in many ways. After starring in pop culture mainstays Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bring It On, Dushku gave a nuanced performance in the series Dollhouse.
Then she moved back to her native Boston from Los Angeles, returned to school to study holistic psychology at Lesley University and wed real estate CEO Peter Palandjian in August. Now the newlyweds are expecting their first child together, a baby boy, this summer.
“He’s gonna be a hippie baby!” Dushku jokes.
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“In many ways we’ve taken so many steps forward,” she says. “In so many ways, we we’ve also taken many steps backward. And I try to stay in a forward-thinking, positive place, but sometimes that’s been challenged. I also appreciate that there are so many like-minded, brave souls who want to stand up and demand that we don’t forget who we are; that we are not dispensable.”
Along with learning about healing through her studies, the actress hopes to better society with her former tennis player husband, 55, through their charity work in Massachusetts.
“We’ve been involved with supporting different programs in Boston related to addiction and the opioid crisis,” Dushku says. “My focus right now is geared towards some of the things I wasn’t really able to focus on when I was full time on a TV show in L.A.”
But that doesn’t mean she’s done with television and movies. “I haven’t quit acting,” Dushku assures. “I haven’t quit Hollywood, but this is just another aspect of my life that is really, really important and exciting to me.”
Mapplethorpe is in select theaters now.