As she admits to PEOPLE, her last days on set in Atlanta were “bittersweet,” but the cast and crew sent her off in the best way they knew how – by ganging up on her with a massive prank six years in the making that she won’t soon forget.
The actress, 26, also opens up to PEOPLE about what it’s like interacting with one of the biggest and most enthusiastic fandoms on the Internet as well as her favorite part about playing Elena ( /Katherine/Amara/Tatia).
How did the cast and crew send you off?
I’m a prankster, and in the six years I’ve been on the show, I have tried – and for the most part, succeeded – in pranking, scaring or putting a pie in the face of anyone who’s ever had a birthday or last day. Nobody’s ever gotten me in the whole six years, so I guess they’ve been planning this for a long time! It was 2 o’clock in the morning on my last shot of my last scene – with Ian [Somerhalder] – and they asked for one more take. The camera operator came up to me and said, “Hey, you have something in your hair, let me get this out.” And then he grabbed me, held down my arms so I couldn’t move and the entire crew came up and dumped a kiddie pool of whipped cream and cake onto my head! They had decorations and Nerf guns and water guns, and I just got demolished.
I couldn’t have wished or planned or hoped for a better way to leave the show than with my family caking me, head to toe. I would have disappointed if they hadn’t planned something of that manner! It was so cool. That’s how you know that you are close with a bunch of people – when they cake you. It was the whole crew versus Nina Dobrev, and the crew won. The crew. Won. [Laughs] They finally got Elena, Katherine, Amara and Tatia all at once.
Editor’s Note: On the day of the TVD finale, Dobrev shared #TBT photos from her time on the set – as well as the video of her caking. Check it out:
Other than the caking, what was it like shooting your last day?
It was very sad. Bittersweet. There wasn’t a moment that went by that I wasn’t incredibly nostalgic and very self-aware and very in the moment. I knew that every time I did something, it was the last time I was going to do that thing. The last time I was going to shoot with Matt Davis, Paul [Wesley], Candice [Accola], Ian, Kat [Graham] – everyone. Every time I had a last scene, I knew that it was the last time, which is a beautiful thing to be able to appreciate in the moment. I was very aware of how lucky I am – and how lucky I’ve been over the past six years – to have this incredible family and very aware of how much I’m going to miss them.
I was very torn. I’m excited for the next step but also very sad to leave this chapter. But I’ll get to see them – they’re friends of mine that are very near and dear to my heart, and hopefully they’re going to be friends I’ll have for the rest of my life.
RELATED VIDEO: What Does Paul Wesley Really Think of Ian Somerhalder?
Can you tell me about your decision to leave? Was anybody surprised?
No, nobody was really surprised because we’ve known about this for a long time. Everyone knew in our family, in the Vampire world, knew that this was my last season for a couple of years now. It was just the fans [who were surprised], but the fans are very much our family, as well. That’s why we wanted to include them and why we told them in advance – we didn’t want to make anyone angry, we wanted to include them in the last little journey, this awesome ride that we’re going on together.
Speaking of your fans, Vampire Diaries has one of the strongest fandoms on the Internet. What’s it like interacting with such a huge fanbase?
Any encounter with a fan is a little strange for me just because I forget, you know? I forget that I’m on a TV show that people watch in their living room every Thursday. So, when someone recognizes me, immediately my instinct is to say, “Oh my God, where did we meet? How do I know you? What was your name? I’m so sorry!” And they’re like, “No, you’re Elena.” [Laughs] And so I go from feeling horrible because I’m a horrible human being who forgot someone’s name to, “Oh my God! You love the show! Thank you!”
So, it is a little strange. But at the same time, it’s a great feeling because it means that somebody appreciates and loves what you do and that’s why we do what we do – because we want people to enjoy it. Otherwise, why would we do it?
Did your run as Elena end like you were hoping it would? Did you have any input with Julie [Plec, creator of TVD] on your final days on the show?
We definitely talked about it at length. Ultimately, though, it’s always been Julie’s vision. The show’s going to keep going and I don’t know what her ultimate vision will be. I’m just a puppet in her play, and I’ve been the luckiest puppet on the planet. [Laughs] I’ve had the greatest story ever, so, I’m excited to see how the finale turns out and to see the journey that the other puppets will go on in the future.
What was your favorite part about playing Elena/Katherine/Amara/Tatia?
The fact that I was leaving leaked a bit sooner than we would have liked, but now I think it was a blessing in disguise. Because I announced a bit early – and fans were upset, of course – but a lot of fans made videos of their favorite moments and highlights from the past six years, and I saw a lot of them. I got to be nostalgic and look back and appreciate how awesome everything has been. I’ve grown up on this show and there isn’t a moment that goes by – especially as of late – that I don’t appreciate that.
So, that said, I saw a clip from way back in the day – and by “way back in the day” I mean three or four years ago, but still, I was a baby! – and I was playing Katherine. Those are my favorite moments, when I shot period pieces and Katherine was in the picture and I got to play with that wardrobe. I got to look back at a time when I was so young and had so much ahead of me.
It’s rare for people to have the opportunity to see that and watch themselves grow up in that kind of way. It’s a cool thing, and it makes me very, very nostalgic and very, very happy to look back because I had such a great run. This has been so fun and so great, and I’m going to miss everyone so much.
RELATED VIDEO: The Scariest Bites and Kills from The Vampire Diaries
The finale of The Vampire Diaries airs Thursday (8 p.m. ET) on The CW.
For more on Dobrev’s last day, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday