This interview contains spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Amber Benson has been up to a lot lately – writing books, acting, and directing – but when we sat down with her, we couldn’t help but ask about the first thing that endeared her to us: her part in the sweetest and most tragic relationship on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The Tara-Willow relationship, especially the way that the two characters eventually got together was one of the greatest pieces of television, especially LGBTQ television. Part of the reason was that it was so natural. Unlike other TV shows, Willow’s coming out was not publicised. Quite the opposite: you guys had us believing that Tara was loving in vain and that Willow had no idea what was going on. But she knew the whole time.
Amber Benson: Gives you goosebumps. (laughs)
It does. The lovely thing was the way that they eventually became lovers. What struck me about that moment was that it was really filmed for people who loved the story. It was not filmed for male consumption; it wasn’t two hot chicks making out. But that became one of the criticisms of that relationship: well, it’s not sexual enough and that came both from the general population but also from the lesbian community who wanted to see…
Benson: A real relationship…
Women and women having sex because that’s what real women have, but you guys shied away from that except on a metaphorical level.
Well, it really wasn’t us; it was the network. They really were anti-showing anything. Just to get the kiss in The Body was like pulling teeth. Literally, I remember Alyson and I being like, “Spike and Buffy are shtupping on a gravestone, seeing everything…
Tearing up houses…
Benson: How come we can’t? We were all up in arms about it. We can’t kiss, all this stuff we’re not allowed to do. And it was interesting… one of the guys on the crew was gay and he said, “Look, I know you guys have a kind of anger that you can’t embrace that aspect of the relationship, but what is important here is that you guys are making it okay. You are saying that this is okay. This is normal. You’re putting it out into the mainstream. The relationship is so special, and the way you treat each other. That is what is important. You are making inroads into the normal populace and they see it’s okay that these two women are in love and the more that that’s out there, the more that it’s going to be accepted.” He said what we were doing was going to have an impact ten years down the road. “It’s not about making out, even though you would like that. But you have to understand that what you are doing is making social commentary.” And that made me feel a lot better even though I still felt that it was wrong; that it wasn’t fair.
And even the way Joss did it in The Body was that he had us do this amazingly intense kiss—I’m talking saliva trails–and he turned that in because he knew if he gave them (the censors) something really “out there” that they would tell him, no, you’ve got to cut it down, and so he did and we got something sweeter but still real. He had to manipulate the system just to get the little bit of what we had and it really was a struggle.
And I really loved the way the you guys worked oral sex into Once More with Feeling…
Benson: (laughs) You make me com…plete.
Yes, that was hysterical and a real wink to the audience that this is what really going on. And let’s face it, Willow wasn’t all that sexual of the character to begin with. So it felt much more natural…which is why I felt like some of the criticism was unfair because Willow would not be knocking down buildings having sex regardless, right?
Benson: Even if it had been with Xander…it really wasn’t inherently who she was.
So I heard a rumour that Joss asked you to come back evil and you said no way.
Benson: Yeah, I’d kind of hit the wall at that point. I was getting to direct this thing for the BBC. I had co-written a piece with Christopher Golden called Ghosts of Albion. It was an animated series for the BBC, and I was asked to direct the actors. So I was getting ready to go to London to do that, and directing was something I had been working towards, so this was very important. And I had gotten so many letters and had so many conversations with young LGBTQ kids saying, “I was gutted. I was devastated, and I can’t watch the show anymore.” So I felt like we really did this number on that community and I didn’t want to add to that, you know? And we had talked about how she would come back bad and then work something out so she will come back good later. But you know, I don’t know if they’re going to have another season or what’s going to happen. And for me, we did this awful thing. And it was the one time that it wasn’t magic. It was super violent really…
It was shocking, really shocking…
Benson: Right! It was not a normal Buffy death. And so I thought, I can’t add to that. As much as I appreciate why we did what we did and I understood the storyline—that this was a necessary thing for this addiction storyline that Willow been travelling through for two or three seasons–and it made sense to me looking at it as a writer. But as an actor and a human being, I just don’t know if I have what it takes to do this.
When I heard what you had done, I thought, well done, Amber. Because it felt like exactly the right decision and it allowed it Willow to move on and not have her relationship with Tara be this anomaly but who she was.
Benson: I think it was important that she was clear, “I want to be with women.” It was an important statement for that particular character and for society at large, for the people who watch the show: you know, it’s not a fluke, it’s not a phase. These are feelings and these are valid and it’s okay to be who you are regardless. If you find someone who loves you, you are, excuse my French, fucking lucky.
Exactly! I sometimes get upset when people call me an ally for gay rights. I’m not fighting the fight for someone else; I am fighting the fight for me. Because I could wake up tomorrow and find myself in love with a woman.
Benson: That’s right. That’s right!
And now I’m going to throw in? No. It’s the right of all of us to love who we love. So we all have a stake.
Benson: Exactly! We are who we are. I have a bag that says “God hate bags” on it and I thought I would get a lot of flack for it. But it’s the number one thing that people come over to say, “I love your bag.”
(laughs) Love that.
This gay friend of mine gave this to me and said, I know you are a person who is out in public and I know how you feel about this stuff and I think it would be a positive for people to see it. And it’s a great conversation starter.
Which is why your role in Husbands was so hysterical (in both senses of the word). You get to play the flip side of that acceptance. Someone whose bag would read…differently. Was that role your way of channeling every terrible thing you’ve ever heard?
Benson: (laughs) Well, I’m from Alabama…
(laughs) So it really was…
Benson: So I grew up with that whole Southern Baptist, born-again, fanatical…some of that crazy stuff. My dad was Jewish, and my mom was raised by Southern Baptists so I saw both ends of the spectrum. And yes, there is just hate. People are just filled with hate because they’re scared. It’s fear. So I thought, this woman, she is scared for her baby…her fake baby. But God dammit, she feels righteous and she feels right about this and I just wanted to do something silly with that. It was really fun. I feel like Husbands is doing something really important, in the same way we did with Buffy. It’s important.
So you have been doing so much. Books, directing, comics… Attention Deficit Disorder or Renaissance woman?
Benson: Combo. Also paying bills because paying bills is very important these days. As a creative individual, as I’m sure you know, being one thing does not pay the bills. You have to diversify and do lots of different things. And I am open to that anyways, because I like to make stuff. But really and truly, if someone comes to me and says, “I have this thing” and I’m I interested in it and it moves me in some way, then I’m probably going to say yes. you know I’m really open to stuff. I’ve very much enjoyed writing the books. That has been something that’s really for myself: because you don’t do that for anybody else it’s just you in your pjs and your computer. That I really enjoyed.
And you have the music…
Benson: Well, more singing in the shower than anything else.
I don’t know. I saw you and Anthony Stewart Head doing the Rocky Horror Anniversary thing and that looked like it was a lot of fun.
Benson: Oh, that was so much fun. He showed up with his own kit. He had his own heels and stockings…he has got great legs.
Amber Benson, thank you very much!
Coming November 4th to FEARnet.com, from the mind of horror icon Tom Holland, the man behind classics such as Child’s Play, Fright Night and more, comes Twisted Tales! All episodes available on 11/4 on www.FEARnet.com
Because we’ve decided Saturday night’s alright for fighting, Literary Death Match LA is following Elton John’s sage advice for our Nerdist at Meltdown debut (followed by a drink-fueled afterparty that will keep the night going). Expect wildness, wonderfulness, and a summerstravaganza that will spin your brainlobes.
The night will feature four writers reading their own wonderful tales for seven minutes or less, judged by three all-star judges. Two finalists will be chosen to compete in the Literary Death Match finale, a vaguely-literary game that will steal your affection and make your heart pound.
Literary Merit: Will McCormack, actor, producer and co-writer of Celeste and Jesse Forever
Performance: Andrea Letamendi, clinical psychologist, Under the Mask scribe, and Bat Girl’s therapist
Intangibles: Sara Benincasa, is an award-winning comedian, author (of Agorafabulous!) and host
* Amber Benson, director/author (The Golden Age of Death)/actor (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
* Brian Finkelstein, writer, comedian and Los Angeles StorySLAM host and Moth Mainstage storyteller
* Cecil Castellucci, award-winning graphic/young adult novelist (Boy Proof; The Queen of Cool; The Plain Janes)
* Nick Antosca, author of The Girlfriend Game & writer for JJ Abrams/Alfonso Cuaron’s Believe (March on NBC)
Hosted by LDM creator Adrian Todd Zuniga.
This is an all-ages event.
Amber Benson became a fandom darling for her role of Tara in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but she has a lot more up her sleeve these days. In addition to acting, she is also a director, producer, novelist and playwright.
Hypable sat down with Benson during San Diego Comic-Con to hear about her upcoming book series, her role on Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires web series adaptation, and of course – Buffy.
There is no doubt that to many fans, Amber Benson will always be Buffy’s Tara Maclay.
Tara quickly became a fan favorite character, but it was the portrayal of the relationship between Tara and Willow (played by Alyson Hannigan) that has been the lasting legacy of Buffy.
Benson is well aware that the frank and open portrayal of the lesbian couple was an inspiration to both future filmmakers, and to many teenagers worldwide.
Hypable: Let’s get the inevitable question out of the way. Obviously returning to ‘Buffy’ as Tara presents certain problems. But if Joss decided to return to the show, would you consider going back?
Amber Benson: Definitely, if it could be done the right way. I know that they have been hinting at her in the comics, and I think that has been really lovely actually.
I just think bringing her back and making her a bad guy was not quite right for me, but I know there’s a way to do it that would be beneficial to the fans. Yeah, definitely. I would love to do anything.
Is there a particular way that you would like to see Tara come back?
I don’t know. I would have to leave that up to Joss. He’s a maestro, he knows what he’s doing. I’ll let him figure all that out, I’ll show up.
From your role in ‘Buffy’, you became a role model for many young people exploring their sexuality. How does it feel to be seen that way?
I’m honoured that I get to help in the battle to bring things to an equal position. We live in 2013, and in a Western society. We need equality for everybody. If one group of people can’t be treated equally, then no one is being treated equally in my mind.
I very much feel like Alyson and I really got to knock on the glass ceiling, and say “Screw you glass ceiling, we are going to knock you down.”
Just in the last 10 years, there has been such a leap forward. And I feel like we were helpful, we weren’t just making television, we were doing social commentary.
‘Buffy’ was really the first. Now we have ‘Glee’, ‘Modern Family’, and ‘Husbands’, but it started with ‘Buffy’.
It opened the door. It brought it into the mainstream and said it’s okay to be who you are. It doesn’t matter who you fall in love with. If you find someone to fall in love with, you are just lucky.
And you’re very prominent in the sci-fi/fantasy/comic world, you must be a role model to so many young women who want to break into the industry.
I just do stuff that moves me. I feel like that is how this world has to work. You have to do the things that you’re passionate about. Yes, there’s always that balance between art and commerce, and how do I pay my bills. Which is why I do lots of things, I diversify so that I can pay my bills.
If I was just an actor, I would be going around with a hat. So I do a lot of different things to pay my bills, but I do what moves me, and it doesn’t matter that I have a vagina. I’m just me, and anybody else can do what they want.
I didn’t know anybody. I was just lucky, and I persevered. If you can do that, and put yourself out there, you can achieve anything.
You say it in a way that makes it sound so obvious.
[Laughs] It’s not obvious, and that’s why I keep saying it. You just have to go and do it.
And especially in this community, it is important for women to see that you can succeed in the way that you have.
You have to help other women. It’s changing, and I have so many female friends in the industry now and we are helping each other. It’s changing. I paid my dues for 20-something years as an actor, and I took it and I applied it.
I feel like for me, I am a maker of things. I just want to make stuff. It’s not about being famous, it’s not about making money, it’s about doing things you are passionate about and pleasing yourself.
You have so many projects, it’s hard to know where to start. What is the one that you are most excited about at the moment?
You know, I am really enjoying this new series I am doing for Penguin. The first one is going to be called The Witches of Echo Park.
I’m 36, and growing up I only had dude friends. Then in my 30s, I started making female friends. I met other women who are like me. I really wanted to write a book about women’s relationships with each other, and I thought what better way than a coven.
A coven of witches, and having to deal with each other, and relationships, and having to support each other and having to fight with each other. So that was sort of the basis for writing this series.
How many books are we looking at?
Three right now. Hopefully more, we’ll see.
And what kind of release schedule will they have?
Next year for the first book, and then probably the next year for the next.
You are set to star in Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires web adaptation, is that still going ahead?
amber benson morganville web seriesYeah. That got funded, everything is good.
Rachel and I have been on a panel together, we had dinner together, and neither of the times we have been able to talk about any of the web stuff we said we were going to talk about in San Diego.
She is such a wonderful person, I love her. She just has such a good heart, and she wanted to do a web series.
I think they wanted to autonomy, they wanted to do it the way they wanted to do it.
I’m sure she has had other offers before this.
Oh yeah. I was like, whatever you need. I want to be a part of your world. I sound like The Little Mermaid – I want to be a part of your world Rachel!
Do you know when that will start filming?
I think October. We are talking about doing some stuff.
It’s six episodes to start with?
Yeah. I haven’t read any of it yet. She’s been working on it. She’s been doing everything, it’s so cool.
You have done almost everything. Is there something you haven’t done that you would like to try?
I want to make more movies. I want to direct more. Adam Busch and I directed a film called Drones, and that was such an amazing experience. I’m ready to do more of that, it’s just finding the right scripts.
Would you like to do more co-directing, or on your own?
Both. He and I will continue to work together, we’re a good team. But I haven’t found a script that I get really excited about. I’m on the lookout at the moment for good stuff.
And what about acting, are you doing anything with that at the moment?
I’m doing this film Blood Kiss, with Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves. And there’s the Morganville stuff, those are the only two things on the horizon.
Mostly I really don’t act that much anymore. I act when friends call me, but I’m not out there pursuing it, I have moved on to other things.
Do you find it more rewarding to be on the other side of the camera, and have creative control?
Definitely, I have more control over my life. I always likened acting to being a pawn in someone else’s chess game. Now I’m the chess master. I’m in charge of all of the pieces.
So it’s a power trip, then?
Oh yeah. Total, total power narcissist here.
Amber Benson won fans’ hearts as the dearly departed Tara Maclay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Looking beyond Buffy, however, she’s also a talented hyphenate: actress, director, writer. BFTV snagged a few minutes with Amber at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con to find out about her myriad of current projects and enduring place in pop culture.
“I get overwhelmed by it all!” Amber told us with a laugh. “I have a new series of books for Penguin; the first book’s called The Witches of Echo Park. That’ll be out next year. I’m doing a film with Neil Gaiman called Blood Kiss, that we did a Kickstarter for. And I have an essay in a fanfiction book that’s coming out. That was kind of fun.”
The author of the successful Calliope Reaper-Jones series of novels, Amber explained that writing has been part of her resume for about as long as she’s been acting. “I always wrote, mostly really bad poetry and weird short stories, and I had a journal for many years, but it was something that I’d always done,” she revealed.
“Then when I was on Buffy, Christopher Golden approached me about doing comics. He and I did three Willow/Tara comics for Dark Horse. Then we ended up doing something for the BBC. We did an animated show for them. It’s just kind of gone on from there.
“Writing is something you can do by yourself,” she continued, “and as an actor I had so much downtime. Especially on the Buffy set. I’d be sitting there waiting while they’d do stunt stuff or special effects stuff – so I’d just sit there on my computer and write.”
So how does she describe Amber Benson, the author? “I like to say if you took Neil Gaiman and The Devil Wears Prada and you pushed them together, that would be what I write,” Amber told us. “I write urban fantasy that is silly and fun, but has a mythology to it.”
With five novels in the Calliope Reaper-Jones series since the debut of Death’s Daughter in 2009, Amber has established herself as a talented author, capable of cultivating a literary audience in addition to the one that knows her from her TV exploits.
Speaking of television, there’s no doubt that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the biggest small-screen phenomenons of all time, and truly something special to have been a part of. But is Amber ever concerned that folks might be more focused on her as Tara than her more recent accomplishments?
“You know, it’s funny because I guess some people are terrified to talk to me about Buffy,” she said with a chuckle. “But for me, it’s how I am able to do the things that I’m doing now. It’s part of who I am and I am always willing and excited to talk about it.
“To meet people and see how that storyline especially moved people and helped people. Getting letters from young LGBTQ kids saying ‘I didn’t kill myself because of that relationship,’ or ‘I came out to my Christian parents in Des Moines, Iowa because of Tara and Willow.’ So for me, I’m very proud of it.”
“I’m never satisfied with anything I do. I’m always like ‘You can do it better, Benson,’” she continued. “But I definitely feel like the Buffy stuff was important as far as society, because I feel like the LGBTQ stuff was super-important. There needs to be equality across the board. So I feel like we helped with Buffy.”
Looking forward, with forthcoming books and a new film in front of her, Amber is grateful for the big things she’s been a part of, but also appreciating the small things, too. “We all want to do these amazing, deep, important things, but really sometimes just making people laugh, it’s kind of a special thing,” she reflected. “I feel like with the books especially, if I can just make people laugh and sort of leave their world for a little while, I’ve done my job. I’ve contributed to society in a positive way.”
With her talent, down-to-earth charm and passion for her work, Amber is still winning us over, now just in print as well as on screen.
You can keep up with Amber by following her on Twitter (@amber_benson).
As part of our Comic-Con International coverage this year, Hero Complex reached out to a select group of actors and writers, asking them to document their experiences in San Diego. Amber Benson — the actress, director and writer who first made a name for herself playing Tara Maclay in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — shared some of her convention observations. Check out her videos, above, and her thoughts on the San Diego expo, below.
I started going to the San Diego Comic-Con more than a decade ago when I was on the television show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Something Joss Whedon was very adamant about was having a “Buffy” presence at Comic-Con, so over the years most of the cast and crew have put in an appearance — even if they had to wear a Storm Trooper helmet just so they could walk the floor and buy stuff. (I’m not naming names.)
Something I don’t remember from those early days at Comic-Con are the clumps of men and women standing outside the San Diego Convention Center with yellow picket signs. As I go back and forth from the Gaslamp District to the convention, I keep trying to figure out what they’re protesting: “Star Wars,” comic books, cosplay or just Nerd Culture in general?
When I saw the juxtaposition of the yellow picket signs and the Hello Kitty truck, it just kind of tickled my funny bone. I started trying to imagine who would win in a throw-down between the two. If I were a betting lady, I would tell the protesters not to underestimate the pretty girl in pink.
The other thing I don’t remember from my first years at Comic-Con is the prevalence of smartphones. I think most of us were still flip-phoning back when I started going to San Diego, so the need to plug-in wasn’t as great. Now our super tech-heavy Nerd Culture has us fully reliant on IPhones, Blackberrys and Androids. To the point that if your phone dies on the Comic-Con floor or at a lame party, the event is likened to a mini-apocalypse — so knowledge of where the electrical plugs are located is coveted information.
Sadly, the most “action” the majority of Comic-Con attendees see during five days in San Diego is their smartphone humping the back of some stranger’s smartphone. With all the slutty “plugging-in” going on at Comic-Con, I just hope no one got any digital STDs.