Even if you don’t immediately recognize the name Julie Benz, you’ve probably seen her: In her recurring roles as the villainous vampire Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and as Kathleen Topoloski, the Dana Scully of Roswell; in a filmography that includes almost twenty movies made for television and the big screen; or in her many guest appearances on shows as varied as She Spies, The King of Queens, and Diagnosis Murder, just to name a few. Despite a chock-full schedule, Julie graciously was able to put aside some time to talk with us about herself, what she’s learned from Jack Nicholson, and why you won’t see her dancing on top of a car any time in the near future.
Let’s start with some getting to know you questions. Which of these stereotypes from early-80s teen films best describes you: Spoiled Princess, Tomboy, Advice-Giving Best Friend, or Snarky Bitch?
Best describes me? None of them! (laughing) No, I mean, I think I’m like the Advice-Giving Best Friend.
Which of these is your favorite: Big Band, Jazz Band, Rock Band, or Boy Band?
Let’s say that you, like Angel, have been cursed by gypsies. For the rest of your life, any television in your presence will only tune to one channel. Luckily, the gypsies have relented enough to allow you to choose the channel. And cable is included. Which channel do you pick?
HBO. Yes. Definitely.
You certainly do get more of a variety there.
You do, and they just do amazing programming.
Do you remember the first popular song you knew all the words to?
The first popular song… No, because I still don’t know all the words to any song. I’m one of those people that changes the words all the time. [Although] I’d have to say I remember “The Tide is High,” from Blondie.
You’ve worn an array of wigs in your career. Did you keep any? Or did you have a particular favorite?
I didn’t get to keep any of them, but I really loved, on Angel, when we would do the flashbacks, and I’d have the big, wild, messy long hair that was thick and full and -that’s how God meant for me to look.
Your professional career started at a young age, as an ice skating competitor. How hard is it to cultivate that kind of a work ethic as a child, when your friends are playing in the park or going to roller skating parties?
That’s a hard question, because I started skating when I was three, so I don’t really remember life before it, and I don’t know what it is like not to work hard at something. My parents were very supportive and really tried to give us some semblance of a normal life, even though it wasn’t normal. But I had a sister who also was a skater, and we grew up as best friends, so it was like having that sibling-friend – so I wasn’t going through it by myself. It was very helpful. And my brother [helped], too, but mostly my sister and I were very close. But I stayed in school: Most kids, when they’re training for ice skating, they do home schooling, or [go to a] special school. My parents insisted on keeping us in school.
So you were having that kind of contact.
Yeah. I mean, it was limited. I only went to school four hours a day. But, I went to the prom every year, and to Homecoming. I was able to have a normal – somewhat of a normal – childhood.
Obviously you’ve been able to bring that dedication to acting. Is it hard to find people who understand the unusual hours that you work?
Oh, well, in Los Angeles everybody is an actor, or a producer, or a writer, or a director, or an agent, or… So everybody understands the hours. But [for] a lot of jobs people work long hours, so it’s no different than that.
You were on two WB shows in their first season (Buffy and Roswell). Were there any differences between the way the Buffy cast was treated versus the Roswell cast? Were there more amenities? Was it easier to be working at that point, when it was a new network, rather than one that’s been more established?
When Buffy started, The WB was just a little fledgling network, it didn’t have nearly the programming, or the prestige, or the clout, and was not even [carried] nationwide. We shot Buffy on its own separate set, so we weren’t on a Paramount lot, [which is] where we shot Roswell. In a way it felt like we were doing a film, where you’re kind of removed from everybody, just working on this project. When you would tell people, “Yeah, I’m working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for The WB,” they’d be like, “For the what?” But then, on Roswell, it was like, oh, this is the hottest project, it’s one of their highly touted shows for the year. So there was a respect that was built. But it was only because Buffy was the cornerstone for the network; Buffy laid the groundwork for the network to go on and do Roswell. So, as far as the differences go, it was, when you would talk to other people, they would be like, “Wha-? The WB wha-?” Whereas once Roswell came about, it was like, “Oh yeah, The WB! I love The WB!”
Joss Whedon is known for planning show arcs years ahead, whereas Jason Katims basically said it’s impossible to plan a season in advance. What was it like working on two shows with creators who had such drastically different attitudes toward their work?
I found them actually very similar, because, even though Joss might have had the season planned ahead, he never told us. We wouldn’t know about a storyline until the night we got the scripts, which was usually the night before the episode started filming. And sometimes we’d be filming episodes without a script. Because both shows were very top-secret – the stories were shrouded in such secrecy – we, as actors, never knew what was happening. When they brought me back to life at the end of Season One [of Angel], [for] the first couple episodes of Season Two, I was still assuming that Darla was a vampire. And then, four episodes into it, they’re like, “No, she’s human. We decided to make her human. You’re human.” Both shows were like that – the storylines were always shrouded in such secrecy that, even as actors, we didn’t know what was going on.
Between all your appearances as Darla on Buffy and Angel, you’ve spent a lot of time in vamp face. Is the disguise, or the makeup, in any way freeing to you as a performer, versus working in a more standard show in which you don’t have that kind of makeup involved?
Well, the makeup does 90% of the job. They really do an amazing job with the vampire makeup. And for me, when I first started playing Darla, I had never played the villain before. I was scared, I was apprehensive. I didn’t know if I could do it. And then when they did the test makeup on me for Darla, and I looked in the mirror and I smiled, I [said], “That’s it. That’s her.”
In a way, I guess, it’s freeing, [however] it’s a very uncomfortable process. I like playing her without the makeup.
You’ve become quite the favorite in the science fiction genre. Was that a genre that you were familiar with, or that you enjoyed beforehand? Have you come to appreciate it, after having worked in it for so long?
I’ve always enjoyed the sci-fi world on a certain movie-going level. I’ve always enjoyed Spielberg movies, and I remember seeing Close Encounters [of the Third Kind] when I was a little kid and really thinking there were aliens out there. So I’ve enjoyed it just as a viewer. I never thought that that’s where my career would lead.
When I first started I was always known as The Girl on the Sitcom with the Funny Voice. Everybody was always like, “Oh, you’re a sitcom girl, you’re a comedy girl.” And because of my meeting Joss and him seeing a whole different side to me, it really changed people’s opinion of what I was capable of. And that’s how I got into the sci-fi world, which I love being a part of. You can really sink your teeth into so [many] different levels of the character, when you have to play such huge givens – unbelievable givens. Being a vampire: Making that real. It’s a challenge as an actor, and it makes going to work every day a challenge, and a joy. You’re never bored. Even on Roswell, playing the skeptical FBI agent – trying to make it real, trying to make it believable that these kids are aliens. And on Taken as well.
Did any of Jack Nicholson rub off on you, during the filming of As Good As It Gets? Did you walk away with any of his mannerisms?
(laughing) No. But when the movie came out I was subject to everybody stopping me and doing their Jack impersonation. They’d be like, “Give me your line, give your line!” Salespeople…everyone who recognized me from the movie. So I was subjected to really bad Jack Nicholson impersonations.
He did teach me how to do a comedic trip. They ended up editing it out, but in the scene after he disses me in the elevator, the doors close, and I’m left there by myself, they wanted me to walk back to the desk. [The director, James L.] Brooks was like, “It’d be really funny if you tripped over the rug.” And I said, “Oooh, I don’t know how to do that.” And Jack [said], “C’mere honey, I’ll show you.” And he showed me how to do it. So I now know how to trip…
…courtesy of Jack Nicholson.
You made a guest appearance on Fame: L.A, a series that never met a parked car it couldn’t get one of its cast members to dance on top of. Did you get to dance on a parked car? What would it take to get you to dance on a car in real life?
It would take a lot of alcohol to get me to dance on top of a car. I don’t have much rhythm.
Really? As an iceskater…?
Yeah, you’d be surprised. And I’m not very coordinated, either. Only on ice skates, not in real life. So it would take a lot of alcohol to get me to dance on a car.
Your husband, [John Kassir], does a lot of voice work. You have a pretty distinctive voice yourself. Have you ever thought about moving into his world?
I actually started, this year, doing some voiceovers. I did some radio spots, and some games.
And is it something that feels significantly different to you from regular acting work, or does it feel like an offshoot of that?
It’s funny, I get really nervous when I audition for voiceovers. I don’t get nervous when I audition for acting jobs – but that’s only because [voiceover work is] new for me. It’s really helping me discover and create characters, and actually, in a way, be more comfortable with my voice. For many years… People have very strong opinions about my voice: They either like it or they don’t like it. And for me to now be in the voiceover world, where they love an interesting, quirky voice… It’s been in a way freeing for me, and it’s also been forcing me to find different levels to my voice. Especially when you audition for animated characters – you can have more fun. I’ve been told I do really great little girls’ [voices], which I think is cool! And now I’m more playful with my voice, and more trying things out all the time. (laughing) And trying to find the little boy [voice]. So it’s been freeing, and the voiceover world is an amazing world of talented actors [who] are really warm and loving and supportive of each other, and so to be a part of that world is just an honor. It’s a different world than the rest of Hollywood.
Let’s talk a little bit about this newest project. It’s a movie, on the Hallmark Channel, an original called “The Long Shot.” What is your overview of the show?
It’s a story about courage and love and overcoming tremendous obstacles – physical and emotional. It’s based on a true story, on the life of a woman named Amy Gaston, and the script was written by her father. It’s set in the world of dressage horseback riding. She’s been abandoned by her husband – with her little daughter and her horse. Through her journey and her struggle of trying to make ends meet she goes to work at a farm, which is run by [a character played by] Marsha Mason, and they develop this kind of surrogate mother-daughter/mentor relationship. Through the movie, Annie – my character – is faced with huge obstacles she has to overcome: There are financial difficulties, there are emotional [difficulties], with having her husband abandoning her. And then there’s her horse, who is her closest friend in the entire world, and he ends up going blind. The majority of the time when a horse goes blind they put it down, or they turn it out to pasture, and that’s it. She was able to retrain him, and go on to win a big dressage competition on him, which is pretty much unheard of. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. You know, Amy [the person on whom the character of Annie is based], in real life, is a horse whisperer. She’s an animal whisperer. It’s amazing how she communicates with all animals. Watching her work with horses…
So you were able to meet her, then, in the process of filming?
Yes, I got to spend two weeks of rehearsal with her, and then she served as Technical Supervisor on the movie.
And had you ridden before this? How familiar were you with horses? What kind of training did you have to go through?
I only knew basic western trail riding. Nothing fancy. And during the two week rehearsal process I basically had to learn everything about horses: From mucking stalls to braiding manes to grooming to saddle upkeep to…everything, and then basic riding as well. Western riding and dressage riding are very, very different. The saddles are very different, you sit differently, the commands are given in a different way, the dressage horses are more sensitive.
During the rehearsal process we had talked about me being on the real dressage horse. Dressage horses are really big, and they’re bred to be very sensitive, and (laughing) I wasn’t on the horse five minutes and he jumped four feet in the air and bucked me right off. And then I got back on him. (laughing) The next day. He tried to do it again, and I stopped him. And at that point we decided that (more laughter) an old Western movie horse was the right horse for me. That’s what we ended up using. They’re smaller, and Quentin, the horse we ended up using, he’s been on more movie sets than Marsha Mason and I put together. And he was used to everything. He wasn’t nervous, or skittish. (laughing) He wasn’t sensitive. He took care of me.
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