Nina has been at NeueHouse, a members-only coworking space in Hollywood, for all of two seconds, but it’s clear she gets what she wants—and gets it in the nicest way possible. There’s no artifice on display: She’s in minimal makeup, shiny black workout leggings, and a gray sweatshirt with a teddy bear on it. She’s dressed casually, she explains, because she came from the CBS studio lot in Los Angeles, where she has been shooting the new multi-cam sitcom Fam.
That last bit might come as a surprise, seeing as how Nina, who turns 30 on January 9, is best known for playing Elena Gilbert on the hit supernatural show The Vampire Diaries. Fam is the first time in three years that she will be back in a lead role on television, and it’s a far cry from bloodsucking demons.
After leaving Vampire Diaries in 2015, Nina had something of an existential crisis. “I was like, ‘Why am I here? What am I doing? Is it making me happy? What can I do to make me happier?’” Worried that she might end up pigeonholed (she doesn’t say the name of the show out loud, as if to dissociate from it), Nina pivoted toward comedy. That is, she got as far away as she could from weepy high school heroines.
At first, Nina didn’t get the reception she wanted from prospective bosses. “They were just like, ‘Oh, she was on a [teen] drama. She’s not funny.’” But with her trademark determination, Nina pushed forward, approaching the problem “like a math equation,” she says. She took Improv 101 classes: “I probably sucked. But I got better.” She pitched a sketch to Funny or Die. She even wrote a feature-length comedy.
Then, in early 2018, after having thought for a while about moving to New York City, she got serious about it and made an offer on an apartment. The next day, she landed the Fam job. “I was extremely thrilled about the show, obviously, but part of my heart and my soul really wanted to experience the city because I’ve never done that,” she says. “[It] was the universe telling me that it wasn’t my time to [live in New York].”
Her reason for taking the Fam role fits squarely in with one of her core philosophies: If it seems terrifying, head straight for it. “The live-audience aspect scared me, so naturally, I had to do it,” Nina says. While the sitcom may have kept Nina from New York, it did give her a schedule that she calls “the most consistent that I’ve had so far in my career.” Because of that, she’s been able to stick to a regular workout regimen. This is a significant benefit for Nina, a former competitive gymnast and natural athlete who actually sounds as if she means it when she says, “I just love working out.” (Her zest for keeping active led to a recent partnership with Reebok and Les Mills.)
Nina’s current fitness obsession involves what she likes to call a “workout cocktail”—a mix of yoga, running, weight training, boxing, and group classes, depending on the day. For the first time in her life, she has visible abs. “I’m getting older and more conscious of what I eat and how I eat it and what I do,” she says. “Doing something different [each day] has been the most fun, and I’ve seen the most benefit because you shock your system.” She’s strong and lean now, as opposed to “skinny fat,” which is how she felt when she was doing only hot yoga years ago.
On a typical morning, Nina gets up several hours before her call time so she can walk her dog, Maverick, work out, relax in the steam room, and shower. “I need to sweat every single day somehow, even if it’s just in the steam room,” she says. “Some days are better than others, I’ll be honest with you. Some days, Maverick gets a shorter walk than she probably deserves, if I’m running late or don’t have it together or press the snooze button 18 times too many.”
Her partnership with Reebok has led to multiple perks, like the shiny black leggings she’s wearing now, and an introduction to trainer Lissa Bankston, who also gave Nina an education in nutrition. These days, Nina takes in more calories than she used to; she tries to eat every two hours to keep her metabolism stable. “I feel healthier,” she says. “You’re happier when your body is full, your brain functions better, and you’re a nicer person. I would get hangry, I think, because I was so busy running around that I wasn’t the best version of myself.”
It’s easy to see how Nina could get too preoccupied to eat. A few days after our NeueHouse meeting, she is on a soundstage in Studio City, learning new dialogue in front of a live audience while waiting for the cameras to start rolling. Nina bites her lip, seemingly worried about nailing her lines. She mouths her part from memory, then reaches to double-check her script, which is hidden behind a pillow on the sofa she’s sitting on.
As Clem, a former party girl who is trying to impress her fiancé and his parents, Nina is in front of the cameras for pretty much the entire episode. There’s hardly any time to snack, let alone get a full meal in, during the four-hour evening shoot.
After the episode wraps, Nina enthusiastically greets several friends, including former Vampire Diaries castmate Kayla Ewell. She leads them back to her dressing room for drinks, a ritual on live taping days.
The door to her dressing room has a sign on it that reads “Warning: Viciously Cute Dog Inside.” As soon as Nina opens the door, Maverick, her collie-Aussie mix rescue, who is truly the most beautiful dog you’ve ever seen, starts hopping up—as if her hind legs might be on tiny springs—to say hello.
After a quick change out of her costume into jeans and a T-shirt, Nina offers drinks to the group: “I have tequila…and tequila.” Her assistant, doubling as bartender, mixes Nina’s preferred spirit with pamplemousse La Croix and Honeydrop lemonade (the charcoal and unicorn flavors are her faves) and hands out cups. Maverick lands on what seems like every lap in the room to offer kisses, but Nina holds everyone’s attention, dishing gossip from the set and telling a story about how she once very awkwardly introduced herself to Samuel L. Jackson. She is the obvious alpha, the ringleader, the life of the party.
Other people start to trickle in, and the room quickly reaches capacity. Nina runs out to peek into her costars’ dressing rooms. “Guys, we’re winning the party competition!” she says. With so many people around, Maverick starts to get more vocal. “Go home!” Nina sternly says to her, pointing to the dog’s pretty white puppy-size teepee. Maverick obeys, going inside the tent and quieting herself. Again, it’s clear that Nina gets what she wants.
Having a dog is almost like having a child, Nina says, or another full-time job (Maverick has her own Instagram account with nearly 400,000 followers), and that’s been another kind of training ground for Nina. Eventually, she wants to get married and have a family—and she’d like to act, write, produce, and direct at the same time. And why shouldn’t she?
“I can and will definitely have both [career and family],” she says.
“I’m still working on me. When I do have a family, I can focus my full energy on that, but I’m not ready for it yet. In 10 years, hopefully, I will be—for my mum’s sake. My mum wanted me to have a baby 10 years ago. She gets me baby clothes for Christmas every year. She’s like, ‘Hint, hint, nudge, nudge!’”
The focus right now is on sticking this landing. Once Nina conquers comedy—something she looks poised to do—she’d like to go on to star in a period piece, a biopic, and an action film. “I sort of want to do everything,” she says. “I know for sure I am capable of it. Because people know me a certain way, it’s been a process to change minds and show everybody else that I’m capable of it too.” So far, mission accomplished.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.