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There are two kinds of TV viewers: Those who love Buffy the Vampire Slayer and those who haven’t seen it yet.
For those who have fallen in love with Joss Whedon’s cult vampire hit, the memory of meeting Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy (and Mr. Pointy) are as vivid today as they were when it first premiered 20 years ago this week.
“The most formidable years of my life — transition from teenager to adult — were spent filming Buffy. I learned every day from the experience and from her,” Gellar recently told The Hollywood Reporter.
To celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary, THR set up a Sunnydale High reunion with 13 Buffy grads: stars James Marsters (Spike), Nicholas Brendon (Xander), Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia), Michelle Trachtenberg (Dawn), Anthony Head (Giles), Emma Caulfield (Anya), Danny Strong (Jonathan), Amber Benson (Tara), Kristine Sutherland (Joyce) and Eliza Dushku (Faith) as well as exec producer Gail Berman and writer-directors David Greenwalt and David Fury.
Below, the stars and writers open up about the lessons they learned from the series, why it is still so beloved, how it altered the television landscape and crazy fan interactions and why there shouldn’t be a reboot.
Looking back at the show, did you think people would hold it in such high regard 20 years later?
Brendon: No one expected the show to do anything. We kind of felt like the red-headed stepchild. Nobody thought much of us.
Berman: I don’t think anybody knew what this would turn into. Our studios were in Santa Monica. They weren’t really even studios! They were really old, rat-infested warehouses. Nobody really thought anything of this thing so putting us into warehouses in Santa Monica didn’t seem like that big of a stretch. Because everyone thought, “Well, how long would we be here?”
Greenwalt: We didn’t have enough money. Twenty years ago, computer-generated images aren’t what they are now, and time and money did not go nearly as far as they do now. Sometimes you just had to put two horns on a guy’s head and say, “He’s the monster!”
Fury: We very much felt like we were kids making our show.
Head: I remember the first time when we were doing the first half-hour presentation — because they wouldn’t give us enough money to do a full pilot! (Laughs.) It was a midseason pickup and nobody thought it was anything.
Strong: I had one line in the unaired presentation!
Marsters: I knew that the show had a chance to last for decades. I suspected it to be true because I was a Star Trek fan and I knew what the elements a show had to have to have a shot at that. And Buffy had that.
Carpenter: It was just us. We watched the show together, we would come in on our days off to just be with each other because we were all going through this same thing at the same time and experiencing the success of the show at a very young age. We had an open-door trailer policy. Nicki had a rocking chair and would always have his door open.
Trachtenberg: I was a huge fan of the show before I was on it. I would always tell my agents and managers, “I’ll do whatever! I’ll be an extra, I’ll do a walk-on role.” Then I got an audition with Joss and [executive producer] Marti [Noxon] and I went in and bought this really cool T-shirt that I thought Willow would like because I was legitimately such a fan. It was this dark burgundy red T-shirt that had witchy looking Aztec symbols on it with sparkles. It was by this company called Fang and I was like, “It’s Fang for, like, vampires!” It was an hour or so later by the time I could get back to my landline at home and Joss made the decision to make me Dawn. Whoever the other girl was, sorry not sorry! Joss and Marti wrote me college recommendation letters. And Joss told me in great secrecy at the time his SAT score was practically perfect, and I was so upset when I was just shy of perfect. I had to go tell him that I didn’t match his score. And he whispered, “It’s OK.”
What made the show so ahead of its time?
Strong: It was a complete mix of genres. Joss’ voice was a big part to the success of the show.
Greenwalt: It was simply deceptive. Within three weeks of the show there was a Jeopardy question about Buffy. That shows how quickly it went into the zeitgeist.
Marsters: It’s like Prince music. When you listen to Prince you have no idea what decade it’s from. It’s beyond time.
Head: The writing was on the money. It covered so many facets of difficulty growing up. People have said there have been derivatives of Buffy, but there’s nothing as pertinent and soulful.
Carpenter: We balanced special effects, fighting, drama, comedy all in one show. That was revolutionary. That really hasn’t been done, memorably, since.
Sutherland: Just like the portrayals of mothers’ lives, in all their complexities, hadn’t traditionally been fleshed out, neither had those of teenagers. Buffy explored the “hellmouth” that high school can be. It was at its core a coming-of-age story. Over the years, Buffy’s world went from one of good and evil where everything was black and white, to one that became much more about the grays in between. Buffy was ahead of its time in celebrating the right to be different and to be loved and valued for who you are, even if it’s outside of the mainstream.
How did the show change the portrayal of women on television?
Trachtenberg: It showed that women can kick some f—ing ass! It showed that women can star in a show and be the title character. With the ensemble of Friends, it was amazing, but it was still an ensemble. Buffy proved that a woman could steer the ship. I was horrifically bullied from the day I entered school to the day I graduated. The show helped a lot of teenagers around that age because a lot of the characters weren’t the perfect 90210 type. They were so quirky and weird. The whole show made it cool to be weird. It was the first time that a show didn’t patronize the teenage process.
Greenwalt: Buffy was brash, funny, a little shallow and very heroic and determined. She lived with a single mother and was pressed with saving the world, but also trying to have a life. It was a powerful combination and the right idea at the right time.
Strong: It was a woman who was a leader. She wasn’t a damsel in distress. She was the one that was saving everyone, but at the same she was still dealing with issues that teenage girls deal with in a very personal way.
Carpenter: It was a character that was an adolescent young woman assuming her destiny, and that’s a powerful message.
Benson: Buffy was an everywoman. She made you think that if she could do all this then so could you.
Brendon: It changed the whole tapestry of TV. There was Alias afterward, then Charmed. Even Jessica Jones today can thank Joss Whedon and his brain for that.
Fury: Joss saw that there was a need for this feminist heroine at the time. It was a young girl who could still be real and flawed and everything that makes us human, but she’s going to be the one that saves the world. Young girls and young women did not have anything like that. Everything was very male-oriented at the time. The characters weren’t defined by their relationships with men. Often the men were defined by their relationship with the leading woman. Even at the end of the series, Buffy stands there with her friends, but she’s also standing there alone. She lost all of the men in her life at different times. She stands alone.
Marsters: It was a show that was subverting the lie that women can’t defend themselves, and it made certain people uncomfortable. I remember talking to one of the original Star Wars actors and he said Buffy was a stupid show because no woman that size could hit that hard and defend herself that well. (Laughs.) I said, “I am so glad I am talking to you, buddy! By the way, I do a lot of my own stunts, and I’m doing the stunts with the stunt doubles for Buffy. There’s three of them, they’re multiple black belts and believe me they could kill us right here, right now, without breaking a sweat.” And then he kept going on and on and I said, “How tall is Bruce Lee?” And that was the end of the conversation.
The show also explored a lot of important subjects that weren’t being addressed on television targeting younger viewers at the time.
Sutherland: It was very moving for me to play a single mom. My own mother was a single mother, and I watched her struggle with that role at a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable to be divorced. So to have had the opportunity to play a single mother struggling with raising her own daughter was something personally very close to my heart. My mother had to accept that I wasn’t going to have the life that she had envisioned for me, just as Joyce had to accept Buffy’s destiny and come to admire her strengths and her gifts.
Berman: Willow was one of the very few Jewish characters on television at that time! I got a lot of questions about that. A young girl being a Jewish character on television was not very common. I don’t think there’s anything about the nature of the show that was not groundbreaking. It always seemed so natural. It’s not like the intent was to shine the light on anything, and yet the light was shined on just about everything.
Trachtenberg: I remember the first time Joss insisted that Alyson Hannigan (Willow) and Amber Benson (Tara) actually kiss. There was something to the effect of if they kiss more than once, that’s not OK. And Joss said, “This is how I wrote it. And this how it’s going to happen.” And that’s how it did. Experiencing someone standing up for what he believed in made an impression on me.
Benson: Being a part of the first long-term lesbian relationship on network television is the greatest thing I have ever been a part of as an actor. Buffy was a game-changer. It helped to open the door to LGBTQ characters being a part of the conversation. Tara and Willow’s relationship wasn’t crafted to be gratuitous or to garner ratings. These were two well-drawn women who just happened to fall in love with each other. It was natural and beautiful and real. Buffy definitely changed how LGBTQ characters were represented onscreen, though I still feel like there is a ways to go to bring fully equal representation to television.
Head: There was a friend of mine who was a policeman and his teenage daughter was watching the show. He said to me, “We don’t know what to say about the Willow and Tara relationship.” And I said, “What are you talking about? Talk about it! This gives your daughter an opportunity. Maybe she actually has feelings toward women. Don’t be shy. This show gives you an opportunity as a parent to discuss it!”
What kind of impact did the show have on you and your career?
Fury: I was able to bring a lot of what I learned to Lost. If people watch it you may see a little Mutant Enemy [the name of Whedon’s production company] in that. When I got to 24 I could not use any of that! (Laughs.) 24 was so dead serious whereas Buffy is self-aware and can comment on itself, 24 had to be so earnest and straight-forward that it was impossible to bring any of the Mutant Enemy lessons. I didn’t pick up anything as valuable as what I picked up doing Buffy and Angel.
Trachtenberg: I had starred in movies and there was no fancy cache to TV at the time. When we were done I was offered a bunch of movies and did some of them, but I really just learned to love being on set because Buffy was my high school experience.
Strong: I actually felt intimated about writing from Buffy and Joss.
Caulfield: It marked me as a “funny gal.” I’d get sent out for comedies, but then I was told I wasn’t funny! (Laughs.) I read for Miss Congeniality and I was told that I can’t read for comedy. I was branded as a type of comedy. Nowadays that kind of humor is common. That was hard. I didn’t fit in anywhere. [People said], “Let’s give her the bitchy roles.” And I thought, “But I don’t want to play a bitch. Can’t I just play a normal person?” It wasn’t easy for me.
Sutherland: I have played many mothers. I know a lot of actresses might feel typecast by that, but I actually celebrate it. So many mothers are unsung heroes, who for years in Hollywood just got lumped together as a universal prototype. Buffy helped break that mold.
Dushku: The show changed my life. It solidified this part of me that will forever represent a complex, imperfect, nonetheless badass woman.
Outside of your role, who were your other favorite characters?
Dushku: Loved Giles. Bless him. Faith tried to maul him a couple of times. Her bad!
Strong: I would never say Jonathan was one of my favorite characters. I have a healthy ego, but the narcissism isn’t as bad as it used to be. Anya was hilarious.
Trachtenberg: As a teenage girl of course I had a crush on Angel and Marc Blucas (Riley). And I was really enamored with watching Drusilla (Juliet Landau) onscreen. She seemed otherworldly to me.
At the time, were you Team Buffy and Angel or Buffy and Spike?
Marsters: In Joss’ world, evil is not cool. He does not want to put out the message that you should fall in love with the school bully and you’ll have a great time because that’s a lie. If a man is mean to people he’s going to be mean to his girlfriend. They had to grapple with that a lot. Joss got talked into one romantic vampire and that was Angel. It wasn’t his idea, it was David Greenwalt’s. And Angel took off and Joss said, “That’s it. We do one of these only.” And then Spike came along, and the audience wasn’t supposed to respond to him that way. Joss felt like the show was teetering off its theme after that. If I had been him and that had happened with a second vampire I would have killed him off immediately. But then Joss had to find a way to work that in there. I always thought it would be great for Spike to fall in love with Buffy and her not reciprocate it. And they went a whole different way. First they put a chip in my head to keep me from killing anybody and then they had both of them fall in love with each other which just blew my mind. But ultimately it served the journey for Buffy and Spike. Love hurts in real life, and that’s what it was.
Fury: I was not a Buffy and Spike ‘shipper in the beginning. In the beginning, I had a hard time because he’s a vampire and he’s soulless — they really can’t get together. When everyone rooted for them to get together I thought, “You are crazy. You are rooting for Buffy to get together with a serial killer.” I was team Buffy and Angel and I still cling to it because we’re the underdogs now. The majority of fans were ‘shippers for Buffy and Spike and moved on from Angel. I was a purist.
Trachtenberg: As a fan, I was all about Buffy and Angel. As an actress on set and working with James, Buffy and Spike.
Berman: I am always team Buffy and Angel! Let me be 100 percent clear. I am not team Spike!
Head: (Laughs.) I’d say neither. They’re both facets of what a lot of girls end up with. They were both relatively hateful. I wouldn’t say to either of my daughters, “Go and get with one of them!”
Carpenter: Cordelia and Angel belong together! (Laughs.) Buffy can have Spike.
Strong: I was a huge Spike fan. David as Angel is as classic Buffy as you can get, but Spike was one of the more unique characters on television. James deserved to be more lauded for that performance. I always thought he deserved an Emmy nomination, but the show was just not an Emmy bait show.
Brendon: I was team Buffy and Xander! Xander always wanted that to happen. it was season seven and Joss sat Sarah and I down and he thought about having Buffy and Xander end up together at the end of the series. He said, “What do you guys think about that?” And we both said to go ahead and do it. In the end it didn’t work out.
What were some of your other favorite relationships on the show?
Brendon: Having sex with Faith. The most substantial relationship would be with Anya. I did ask her to marry me, and I left her at the altar, but if we’re talking true, unadulterated fun it was the Xander and Faith sex. It was in “The Zeppo” episode and I loved it. (Laughs.)
Carpenter: Opposites attract sometimes. And with Xander and Cordelia there was such angst where she was a bit shallow, and to go out with the nerdy, geeky guy, being bonded by the traumas of the Hellmouth was an unlikely pairing. They had a lot of passion.
Greenwalt: People kind of thought I was Cordelia!
Fury: I guess [Greenwalt] and I would be dating because Xander felt like me. He was always on the outside. He was not the boyfriend. He was the friend of the girls who had boyfriends. His sense of humor and self-deprecation was great to write.
Do you stay in touch with the cast and crew?
Sutherland: I see James and Nick a few times a year and occasionally Charisma. I have exchanged messages with Sarah, and I look forward to seeing her and the rest of the cast this week.
Benson: Emma Caulfield and I have been working on a dark horror-comedy called Monster Woman. And I still see the guys from the trio.
Marsters: Everybody. Tony, Nicholas, and I was just emailing pictures of our kids to Sarah the other day.
What are some of your favorite episodes to look back on?
Marsters: Joss doesn’t know this, but I never read the scripts for Buffy. I only read my scenes because I was actually a fan of the show and wanted to have that fan experience. People were telling Joss that the dialogue was what made the show great and he said, “That’s the only thing really great about the show? Fine I’ll do an episode with no dialogue.” So we did “Hush.” People would say that the show was so great because it’s so funny. And then Joss turned around and did “The Body” which was not funny at all and was about the death of Buffy’s mother.
Sutherland: I lost my own father when I was 28 and know firsthand the pain and confusion of losing a parent early. I stood in front of my closet just like Willow and didn’t know what to wear to his funeral. I thought that Joss amazingly captured that surreal aspect of what it is like to lose a parent when you are young. “The Body” is of huge importance to so many Buffy fans. As painful as it was to shoot that episode, it is amazing to encounter fans all over the world who emotionally express how profoundly it helped them process a death of their own parent.
Trachtenberg: When Buffy tells Dawn that Joyce is dead it was the first time that I turned around and would see crew men crying. It was the biggest compliment when the big buff dude holding your light is bawling.
Brendon: [Musical episode] “Once More, With Feeling” was my favorite. My girlfriend hasn’t seen the show so we’ll watch episodes.
Benson: I think making the musical episode was by far and away my favorite experience working on Buffy. That I got to sing a duet with Tony … that was a singular honor! Although, if I never have to put another corset on, I will die a happy camper.
Head: Joss was directing the presentation and he, Sarah and I were waiting to shoot the library scene and we started talking about musicals. He was a huge musical fan; Sarah said, “Me too!” And he had the idea right then and said, “We must do a musical one year.” Year after year went by and I’d keep saying, “Are we going to do the musical?” And he’d say, “No, no. That’s not a good idea.” And then we did it [in season six]. That was one of my favorites because I was in my element.
Carpenter: My favorite episode was probably “Graduation Day” because I got to stake my first vampire! A couple of years ago I started watching Buffy at the beginning for my son’s sake. This was when he was around 10. It was the early episodes. I would never let him watch season four or after. (Laughs.) It’s too adult.
What has been the craziest fan interaction you’ve had over the years?
Marsters: I was having a cocktail party in London and these two women in their mid- to late 70s came up to me and one woman, who was in a wheelchair asked me to turn around and bend over! I should have ran, but I didn’t! I bent over and she just grabbed my butt, deep and tight baby! Then I heard this little voice say, “Now, clench.” (Laughs.)
Trachtenberg: The reason I haven’t partaken in some of the fan conventions is because I did one 15 years ago and a guy handed me his eye lashes in an envelope.
Carpenter: The weirdest thing that’s happened was at Comic-Con. Somebody peed themselves. That was awkward.
Caulfield: I am not afraid of bunnies! I mean at this point I kind of hate them because I’ve been asked so many times. Do I skin men alive when they’re bad, too?! No. It’s fiction!
Brendon: I actually don’t have a lot of crazy fan interactions. It’s just a bunch of dudes who say, “Man, you got me laid a lot in high school. You made it cool to be a nerd and awkward and funny.” I wonder how many babies are out there because Xander got people laid.
Should there ever be a revival or reboot of any sort?
Benson: A revival only works if Sarah and Joss are involved.
Brendon: If it’s a reboot or revival without Joss writing it, it wouldn’t be great.
Sutherland: I’ll stick with the original myself.
Head: If Joss did something it would be radical. It wouldn’t be the Gilmore Girls.
Berman: I would be really happy to get the call from Joss. I have my own thoughts of what it would look like, but my own thoughts are not important. It would be what he thought.
Fury: I can’t see Joss wanting to do it. He’s not looking for cash grabs. He’s proud of his legacy from that show and he has no reason to exploit it any further.
Dushku: Let’s leave it alone. This show still plays and works for people. In the finale the power was turned over to every girl in the world, to become slayers. That’s the revival we need and we’re already seeing today.
Caulfield: It wouldn’t even matter for me, I died! (Laughs.) If it was a whole new cast my curiosity would get the best of me and I’d want to see what they came up with.
Carpenter: It would just make the fans so freaking happy. There’s a part of me that wants to satisfy that itch, but I don’t know if there are stories that could be told. We’re not in high school anymore. Most of us are in our 40s. It would have to be something like a Desperate Housewives meets vampires. And to do anything without Joss would ruin everything. I would absolutely do it if Joss was involved and it was an original idea.
Trachtenberg: A great idea would be an animated version of Buffy where it’s just our voices. It’s hard because everything is a remake these days. They’re rebooting Charmed. I was able to tell Joss recently that I’m in the Writers Guild now and I’ve sold screenplays and pilots, but the thing I struggle with in my writing is that Buffy lived in a world where social media and cellphones weren’t a part of the story. You couldn’t Google “blah blah blah demon.” You had to go physically to the magic shop and find a book. You cannot re-create that today. Even if you tried to date it to back then it wouldn’t have the same impact as when it was fresh. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. From a writer’s perspective that’s what I view the show as. It would ruin the legacy to have it be in modern times, and we already did it right back then.
Marsters: If Joss is not part of it then it will be terrible. It would be just as good as the movie. (Laughs.) Joss asked me at the end of Angel, “Do you want to do a Spike movie or something?” And I said, “Joss for you wherever I am in the world I will come and do it. If you want to film Spike I give you seven years because I’m getting older.” Vampires don’t age, but I didn’t count on the fact that I’m now aging pretty well! If we use all of this digital movie magic and made Spike still look young, that would be funny. “Hey, Buffy you’re looking a little bit tired.”
Greenwalt: You don’t reboot something when it was done right.
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