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Amber Benson takes the Spike vs. Angel question somewhere dirty

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee. For The A.V. Club’s Buffy Week we devised a set of Buffy-themed queries to throw at the show’s cast members.

Following the conclusion of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Amber Benson quickly made clear she was just as intent on establishing a career behind the camera as in front of it. From writing and directing her own films to publishing a series of novels, the actor who brought Tara to life has shown her character’s bookish tendencies to be very much in line with her own. Her most recent novel, The Last Dream Keeper, came out last year.

1. On average, how much time per week do you spend being recognized for, thinking about, or talking about Buffy?

Amber Benson: It’s tough because the majority of people do that thing where they look at you and they go, “I know I know her from somewhere,” and then they come up and go, “Did you date my cousin’s brother’s father’s uncle’s sister’s friend in Iowa?” [Laughs.] I’m like, “Uh, no.” And then you don’t want to be that weirdo who’s like, “Did you watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer?” And then they go, “No.” I would say 10 percent of the time—let’s say 15 percent of the time a week I’m recognized. Ten percent of that is when they know my face but they don’t know where the hell they know it from, and five percent are people that love Buffy so much that they get very emotional when they come over to say hi. It’s a very small… [Laughs.]

The A.V. Club: Is it that thing where they come over and immediately say, “Tara?” Or do they call you by your real name?

AB: Oh, I get called Tara a lot. I think my favorite story—and I feel bad because [noted fantasy author] Pat Rothfuss is the sweetest guy, and I’m throwing him under the bus. I did a book panel with him and Seanan Maguire and a bunch of other authors at Comic-Con one year. It was the first time I met Pat, and we just totally got on. He’s awesome, his writing’s incredible, and he’s like, “I loved you on Buffy,” and was really sweet about it. Then we did the whole, “We should exchange our books.” So we exchanged books, and I signed mine to him, and he signed his to me. Except he wrote, “To Tara.” [Laughs.] And then I didn’t know what to do. “Do I say something? I should say something.” He was so embarrassed. It was so cute.

2. What is your fondest memory of filming?

AB: Oh, gosh. Probably the musical episode. It was such an amazing experience. I was in seventh heaven because I love musicals and the fact that I got to be in one and be in one that was so beautifully put together. And I got to dress like a pretty princess, which was really fun, even though the corset was uncomfortable. The outfit was beautiful. I would have to say the musical is my favorite experience.

3. Question three is “What is your personal favorite and least favorite Buffy episode,” but you’ve already answered the first half of this question.

AB: Yeah, the musical is my favorite as I sort of came to that before. Let’s see, my least favorite? That’s a tough one. I would say it’s one of my favorite episodes, but it was one of my least favorite to shoot: “The Body” because it was so emotional. I’m watching Emma Caulfield break down in that monologue sequence. It was gut-wrenching. That whole episode was really difficult. And the fact that Kristine Sutherland was dead was very upsetting, because she is lovely and such a pleasure to work with and have around on set. So to have her go away, you’re like, “Nooooo!” Especially when she kept popping back up. But it was emotional and a really intense experience.

AVC: Kudos to you for doing what not a lot of the other actors have been saying and picking the episode where you died as your least favorite.

AB: You know, sometimes you die. It happens.

4. If you could have played any other character on Buffy besides yours, who would it have been?

AB: I want to be Spike. He was so badass, and he had to fight all the time, and he had the best clothes. That jacket! I love that jacket. It’s really a testament to—

AVC: You went for the—

AB: Yeah, I went for the clothes, is really what I went for.

No, it’s just a testament to how fantastic James is, because he embodied that character with so much, like, Billy Idol insanity. He really just upped the game, and I think Spike was an amazing character on the page, but when you put James in it, it transcends. But I want to be James Marsters, specifically, being Spike. Not just Spike.

AVC: Inhabit both of them at once.

AB: Yes. That sounds dirty, Alex. [Laughs.]

AVC: I don’t know why our interviews always go somewhere dirty. I swear to god, I don’t plan it that way.

AB: It’s me. It’s my mind.

5. Who would you argue is the most underrated or underappreciated character on the show?

AB: I think that would have to be Michelle Trachtenberg, Dawn. I feel like people were really uncertain about that whole sort of introduction of the Key, and I think Michelle was so fantastic, and I thought she brought a lot of life to the show. We were sort of on the downward run of seasons and to have her come in—and she was such a fan of the show. She knew Buffy backwards and forwards. So to have this excited, happy energy on set was really lovely.

6. How do you feel about the controversial sixth season?

AB: Well, for me, it had high highs and low lows. For me specifically, like I said, I got to be in a musical, which was a highlight of my career, period. And then I got killed, so that was a little low and intense. But to be honest with you, I felt like, as much as it was really painful for fans of the Tara/Willow relationship—and I feel like there was a lot of ill will toward Joss [Whedon] because of what happened. Honestly, it was not intentional. This was not something he was doing to upset people. He truly was looking at it from a story point of view. For me, that’s what makes season six so wonderful. You see this addiction storyline, and you see Willow just hit bottom after losing the most important thing in her life, which is Tara. So I think from a story point of view, it’s a really beautiful season. It was just a shame that the way it went down was so upsetting to people. Because if he had realized the impact it would have, he never would have done it. I truly believe that. It was not his intention to hurt anybody. He loved those characters. They were very important to him. He created them out of love.

AVC: You sort of film in a vacuum—it was months prior to anybody seeing it or having a reaction. As you were filming it, did you anticipate any sort of blowback, or did you think it was another great story that Joss was telling?

AB: I did not think we would get the blowback. I really, I didn’t. It’s wrapped up in that whole idea of privilege. Whether it’s white privilege or cis-gender privilege: You don’t walk in people’s shoes. You don’t know what’s going to affect them. So stuff like this comes at you from nowhere, because those issues don’t affect you. So you don’t think of things from that perspective. And I think now, in terms of what happened with Tara and Willow, people are very aware, you know? What happened with The 100? I’m friends with Javi [Grillo-Marxuach], who was one of the writers on The 100, and he was the one who wrote the episode that was so intense. He knew going in—he was very much, like, “We have to be thoughtful on this, but I’m just a writer. I don’t really get to decide what happens.” But he was aware, and he knew there was going to be blowback. And he, like a baller, got online and talked to every person who reached out to him via Twitter or Facebook. And he took the hit, because he knew he wasn’t doing it in a vacuum. He knew it was going to be impactful and it was going to hurt people. And I don’t think it was something he would have personally chosen, but it was something that he did because of his job. And he stood up and accepted it. And it was very important. I think we didn’t know when we did Buffy that that was going to happen. We know now, so we have to be thoughtful storytellers. But I don’t think, like I said, Joss had any idea that that was going to be what happened.

7. How did you feel about Dawn?

AVC: I think we already covered this.

AB: [Laughs.] I love Dawn.

AVC: You’re anticipating these things before we even get there.

AB: What, you didn’t know I was psychic?

AVC: You could have told met that the last time we spoke. It would have saved a lot of time.

AB: I should have just emailed you all my responses. You would have been like, “How does she know?”

8. Who was the best Big Bad?

AB: Oh, my gosh. I have to say the Trio. Just because of what happened with Tara and Willow and that storyline. I think Adam Busch said it best, and I’m paraphrasing: “Here’s a show that’s a supernatural show, and the most impactful thing that happens is a guy picking up a gun and shooting somebody.” And I think that’s a very—that was very prescient about where we’re moving in our world. It’s also very, very thoughtful because it is true: We love serial killers, we love all this really out-there stuff because it’s so removed from our reality, but a guy picking up a gun and walking into a school? That’s become everyday. That has become everyday in this country because of the gun laws that we have, or lack thereof.

AVC: It does seem somewhat prescient. Looking back on it now, does it seem almost a little bit eerily like the world we’re living in right now?

AB: It does. You know, what is it—art imitates life imitates art or whatever that saying is. I do believe that. I think what we watch impacts us, and what people experience in their lives impacts what they create. How can it not? We sell detergent on TV for god’s sake. We sell things on TVs. We are selling other things. We’re selling ideology on television, too.

AVC: In the years since Buffy, have you had more of a heightened awareness of that going forward, realizing the ways in which these ideologies sort of play out in the different projects you choose?

AB: Oh, yeah. I just sold my first television pilot. It’s about a female serial killer, and it’s all about gender and identity, and it’s all about stuff I’m interested in. It’s stuff that I want to talk about. It’s the themes of what makes us who we are. Is it our sexuality? Is it our gender? Is it society? Is it our family, nurture versus nature? So, for me, I’m constantly writing stuff that is what I’m dealing with on a personal, psychological level. And I think that I bring that to whatever I’m doing, whether it’s being an actor or a writer or whatever it is I’m doing. I think you can’t help but do that.

9. Angel or Spike?

AB: Oh, Spike! Please.

AVC: In all possible permutations of what that question could mean, Spike will be the answer?

AB: I mean, I choose—because that’s the ultimate. Or maybe that’s just the penultimate. The ultimate is just a full-on Buffy orgy with everybody. That’s the ultimate. [Laughs.] Don’t tell my mom I said that.

AVC: Spike—clear winner on your part, it seems like.

AB: It’s just because I want to be him when I grow up.

AVC: We talked last time about the feeling of being a grown-up, and it’s impressive you’re still answering that question by saying, “When I grow up, Spike will be the one.”

AB: Someday, when I’m an adult person. That was what was so crazy about the political stuff that was happening. This all happened, and I was just like, “Wow, this is going down. This stuff is happening. Who’s going to fix it?” And I had that epiphany. I was like, “Oh, wait: I’m the adult. I have to fix it. I’m part of the solution and also part of the problem.” But it’s on us. We’re the adults. And that was so frightening to realize that I was the adult in the situation. There was no one to point to and go, “Fix this for me.” Scary.

10. What do you wish your character had done that you didn’t get a chance to do?

AB: Do a full-on fight scene. I got to ax a little monster once, but that was not enough for my bloodlust. I really wanted to do some serious fighting. [Laughs.]

11. What lessons do you think can Buffy still teach us in 2017?

AB: I think the beauty of Buffy is that she proves that anybody can do anything. If this kind of adorable little blond girl who really had no idea what she wanted to do with her life can become the vampire slayer extraordinaire, then we can all do anything we want to do. She definitely shows you that anything is possible, and the journey that she goes on, as painful and tough as it is, is a beautiful journey. It’s a journey we’re all on as people to figure out who we are and to find the thing that makes us special and unique. Because we are all special and unique.

Bonus 12th question from Danny Strong: Which other cast member on Buffy was your favorite and why?

AB: Well, now I kind of feel like I’m just in a rock and a hard place, because I really feel like Danny is my favorite cast member. [Laughs.] No, I love Danny. Danny Strong is the best. And the fact that he’s had so much success as a writer and director and creator is so inspiring to me. Gosh, I don’t have a favorite. You can definitely put in there that Amber said Danny is her favorite. To be honest, it was like being part of a family, and it’s really hard to pick favorites. I can’t do it. I don’t know.

AVC: Fair enough. Let me try and tweak his question slightly. Who would you say is the person you got up to the most hijinks with on set?

AB: Oh, gosh. The most hijinks. I’m not a big hijinker. I’m a big sit-in-my-chair-and-read-a-book-er. Who did I get the most hijinks with? I don’t know. I know that I very much enjoyed Emma Caulfield. She is so much fun. I remember at one point we were standing at the craft services table, and she started doing that song, “You’re a fine-looking woman / Won’t you back that ass up / Won’t you back that ass up,” and she would just sit there and do this and smack her ass on backup. [Laughs.] I was like, “I love this person so much.”

AVC: That would definitely qualify as hijinks.

AB: Okay, all right, good. I didn’t participate, but I was an observer.

AVC: You were an appreciator of said hijinks.

AB: Damn straight.