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Buffy’s James Marsters on the hardest day of his professional life

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.

James Marsters’ Spike made an indelible impression on Buffy The Vampire Slayer the minute his DeSoto ran over the Sunnydale sign in season two. But his arc extended far beyond the compelling bad boy he played when he was first introduced. As Marsters puts it: “At first I was the disposable villain, then I was the wacky neighbor, then I was the bad boyfriend, then I was the, I don’t know, crazy one, then I was the guinea-pig hero.” Along the way he elicited swooning and disgust. The actor will next be seen again contending with teen superheroes in Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s Runaways.

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

James Marsters: Wow. It depends on the week. Let’s see. If I get on an airplane: 20 hours a week, I’m being recognized. If I’m staying home, just with my friends, maybe 15 minutes. It depends on if I go out or not. In my normal life, I surround myself with people who don’t think about Buffy very much. And so I can have a normal life. If I’m going out, the world wants to talk about it. And I think that’s a good thing.

2. What’s your fondest memory of filming?

JM: There was a scene between Buffy and me in a church, and I think I ended up draping myself over a cross. I was very, very sad. [It was] a very dramatic scene. [Joss Whedon] didn’t direct it. He saw the footage and came up to me and he said, “Okay, James, I’ve got good news and bad news, what do you want?” I said, “Well, give me the bad news first.” He said, “Okay. That scene that was so important, your whole career-making scene? That sucks. It’s horrible. You kind of overacted. It’s not your fault. It was the direction. But it’s just so on the nose, and it’s just cringe-worthy. Do you want the good news?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Okay, I’m going to rewrite it, I’m going to direct it, I’m going to save this, it’s going to be right. Don’t worry.” We filmed 12 to 20 hours to begin with, which is so much longer than other shows. Other shows filmed 12 hours a day for eight days, and they’re going to get an episode out of that. Then, after we finished those eight days, and the main unit started a new episode, we were doing pickups and extra shots on B and splinter units throughout the next week, which was not even entirely legal. But to go back and wholesale throw away an entire day’s work and begin from scratch in the midst of all that other filming was just a huge, huge thing to do. He was willing to do that.

The A.V. Club: What were the changes that Joss made to the scene that fixed it?

JM: He directed me to be less emotional. To be more distant. To be hiding both in the shadows and in my feelings from Buffy rather than try and proclaim them to her. I think that’s the way shame works. I think there’s a lot of shame in this scene. And I think, in general, we say that writing can be too much on the nose, which is kind of a way of saying it’s too direct, it’s too literal, it’s too obvious—and that can be a very subtle difference. The writing wasn’t bad originally, it was just slightly too much on the nose, and it needed to be just a little more opaque and just get that right tone. So, yeah, those were the things he did.

3. What is your personal favorite—and least favorite—Buffy episode?

JM: Oh, I’ve got so many favorites. One of them is “The Body,” because: Wow. So different than other episodes. Really proving that the show can be just a very serious drama occasionally. And I had a week off, which, when you’re doing 12 to 20 hours of 22 episodes—I’m not joking—having the week off is life-saving. “Tabula Rasa.” That’s just an awesome show. Loved that one. I have very fond memories of the first one I was in. That was just such an intense experience. I think the director committed career suicide. He got so excited by what was happening in the episode, and birthing this character with me, that he started adding shots. And he was blowing budget, and Gareth Davies came down and told him, “If you don’t rein it in, you are never coming back on this show.” And he came to me and he said, “Look, they just told me I’m never going to be on this show if I don’t rein it in. I’m not reining it in. I don’t care. This episode is going to be amazing. And I’m going to get so much work off it in other places. But I’m going to make this really cool.” And he really did. I think part of the reason the character broke out quickly is because that first episode was so tight, as far as how many shots he got.

AVC: Do you have a least favorite episode?

JM: Not really. Not really. Is there a bad episode? I guess, selfishly speaking, the introduction of Faith [Eliza Dushku] was probably not a good moment for me. I kind of left the show in season two. There were no plans to have me back. Over the break, I was thinking, “Okay, Joss, do it without me now!” And then I tuned in for season three and Faith shows up, and I was like, “Oh, crap. They don’t need me at all. They’re just fine without me.”

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

JM: Are you kidding me? You mean, if I was forced, kicking and screaming, to give up Spike? That is the most depressing question I’ve ever been asked. No way, I quit. I want Spike. I mean, the other characters are great, but I can’t answer the question without feeling a little bit sad. No. I like Spike. No way in hell.

5. Who’s the most underrated character on the show?

JM:. Giles [Anthony Stewart Head].

AVC: Why do you say that?

JM: He was the best actor on the show by a mile. I learned most of what I know about film acting from watching him. I had come from stage, and I was a bit too performance-y, too large. I was a big old thespian in the beginning. His subtlety was a real wakeup call for me. I remember first shooting a scene with him, and when we were shooting it I was like, “Would you wake up, Tony? Jesus, I’ll get you a cup of coffee? Or, in fact, don’t wake up. I’m just going to steal this scene right out from under you.” And then I watched the scene, and he kicked my ass. The exposition scene is where the audience is told all the information that they need to know to set up the actual events of the story. That’s the one that no actor really wants to do because there’s no real payoff. The best you can hope for is to get through it without losing the audience’s attention and boring them. It’s known as a thankless job. Tony, on the other hand, was such a good actor, he could take those exposition scenes where he was describing, “This is the monster we’re facing this week,” and actually make them into some of the most exciting scenes in the series and really just be riveting as he’s doing these thankless scenes. If a lesser person had done it, it would always clunk before it started working. He was absolutely integral to how exciting or how important or how dangerous this week’s episode was going to be.

6. The sixth season is pretty controversial among fans. How do you feel about it?

JM: Season six was the most dramatic example of the double-edged sword of being on Buffy. Normally on a television show, you film one episode and you know what your journey is going to be every time you do that show, because a lot of television is a little bit repetitive. If you do a film or a play, you can read the script beforehand and decide whether you want to do that, or give that, or put yourself through that, or show that. A lot of times, I’ll pass on a script because I don’t want to go through that or I don’t want to show that or become that or whatever. When you work for Joss Whedon, you’re contracted to do whatever comes down the pipe, and you have no idea what that’s going to be. And, at the time—this is not just season six, it’s all of it; the sixth was just the most dramatic example—I got terrified. In six, I really got afraid to read the scripts. Because I was going to have to do whatever they thought of to whoever they thought of to do it. There were just no rules anymore. And I was truly terrified. In hindsight, I recognize that that’s exactly where you want to be. Artistically, if you feel safe and comfortable, you’re boring and you might as well just stop it. You really want to be out of your comfort zone, and I was certainly out of my comfort zone during that time. I don’t take any of what happened in six back. I think it all fit together and led to an incredibly great story. Certainly, Joss is not about comforting the audience and making them feel goody-good-good all the time. He once told me, “It’s not about giving the audience what they want. It’s about giving the audience what you think they need.” And, for me, the most dramatic example of that would be the bathroom scene.

The truth about that scene is that Joss, throughout the entire series, was asking his writing team to come up with their worst day. The day that they didn’t talk about, the day they were ashamed about, the day that was too painful to talk about, their dark secret, the one that keeps them up at night, the day they hurt someone that they regret, or the day they were grossly humiliated. “What are your scars?” basically. And then slap fangs on top of that dark secret and tell the world about it. This is an act of bravery and vulnerability every single episode. In the case of that scene, one of the female writers, in college, had been broken up with by her boyfriend, and decided that if she went over to his place, and if they made love one more time, everything would be fine. And so she tried to do that, and really kind of jumped the guy, and he had to push her off and say, “No, you have to leave now.” The thinking I think was that since Buffy was a superhero and completely capable of pushing Spike through a wall that it was kind of the same thing, and you could flip the sexes. My argument was that, actually, when anyone is watching Buffy, they are Buffy. That’s the vicarious experience that we’re offering. And so the audience, especially the female audience, they are not superheroes, but they are Buffy. And so I’m attempting to rape them. And that doesn’t quite work so well.

It was the hardest day of my professional life. I was curled up in a fetal position in between takes. I can’t watch scenes like that. I choose not to. I won’t go to a movie that has something like that. It’s a specific hot button for me. It just really makes me crazy. It was really hard. It was just unbelievably hard. But again I’m glad we did it. Spike was evil, and I think a lot of people forgot about that. Joss was constantly trying to remind the audience, “Look, guys, I know he’s charming, but he’s evil.” He’s a bad boyfriend. It would be bad to date a guy like this. And I think he wanted to reinforce that in the most dramatic way imaginable. And also give Spike a really good reason to try to reform and try to become better and try to get a soul. Joss doesn’t do anything with half measures. He goes all the way with things. And I’m glad he does.

7. When Dawn appeared in the fifth season, some fans were taken aback. How do you feel about her?

JM: Great.

AVC: What was your reaction when Dawn was introduced, having been on the show in the pre-Dawn universe?

JM: I thought it was genius. Basically, whenever you tell a coming-of-age story, there’s a point at which you have to get the parents out of the way. At some point the young person has to stand on their own. That’s what was happening. For most writers, just killing the mother would be enough. But Joss was like, “Okay, the mother’s dead, and I’m just going to wave a magic wand, and now she’s the mom. She’s going to have to sacrifice in the way that a parent does, and that way I’m going to turn the screws on her and test her. Is she really a hero?” I used to say this to my kids—they’re in college now—I used to tell them, “Heroes are real, they’re all around you, they’re called parents.” Being a hero is about sacrificing your own needs or wants for the good of someone else. And this is what parents do all the time. So is Buffy a real hero? Really? I mean, she likes to fight vampires, but let’s see how she bears up in the face of real heroism, which is day-to-day parenting. So I thought it was genius, yeah.

8. Who was the best Big Bad?

JM: Who was the best Big Bad? Were there any others besides Spike? I was unaware.

AVC: So you’re going to go with Spike?

JM: I really am. Again, this is for writing more than anything else. Spike just had such an interesting journey. He was set up to be a disposable villain. He was set up to be the ultimate Big Bad, the ultimate cool guy, just so that when Angel killed him, he could be the Big Bad and break Buffy’s heart, basically. That was the whole point. When Angel goes bad, he goes bad in a big way. Then they decided to include me into the series. I was assuming the mantle of Cordelia [Charisma Carpenter], because Cordelia went over to [Angel]. So I had to be the character to tell Buffy, “We’re stupid and we’re all about to die.” And it didn’t really work out. Joss used to come to me once a season and say, “Look, I have everything. I have the plot for the entire season. I have everybody’s storylines, how they interact, I’ve got it all figured out—I have nothing for you. I don’t know what to do with you at all.” And I’d say, “Well, you’re paying me. You’ll figure something out.” And I think what happened was, he would kind of plug me in as necessary to support the other storylines he had going. Because of that, the trajectory of Spike wasn’t the smooth kind of trajectory of a normal dramatic character. It was a winding road that was always surprising, but because Joss and the rest of the writers were so good, it all stitched together into one believable journey. But it was just so surprising to everyone. I think mainly it was a happy accident. And I don’t know that you can preplan that. I think something like that has to happen organically. Again, that has nothing to do with me.

9. Angel or Spike?

JM: Angel. For the run of the series, Angel.

AVC: Really?

JM: Yeah. Angel was not as fun because he felt so bad about everything: “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that. I regret that. Oops, oops.” That’s a hard thing to make entertaining, but, frankly, that’s a mature attitude when you’ve done the stuff that he did. Spike wasn’t a good person. I used to tell people, “If a man is bad to other people, and you date him, he’ll be bad to you too. It doesn’t change in the bedroom.” You know? And then Spike got a soul. I think the series ended before he figured out what to do with it. I think that he had a lot of maturing to do. I think he did have a profound love for Buffy that confused him and drove him to try to be a better creature. And I think ultimately, in the long run, once Spike has enough time to mature, he was the right one for Buffy. In the long term. But for those first seven years, she probably deserved someone who knew the difference between good and evil.

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

JM: If you ask an actor what they want to do or what kind of role they want or what they want their character [to do], they always give the same answer. It always revolves around, “Something to make me look cool.“ Every time. And if you leave it up to the writers, they always don’t go that way. They go somewhere vastly more interesting than that. I have never bothered to try to kind of spin that one out, never tried to answer that question. I never went up to the writers’ offices to go talk to them and give them ideas and find out what they’re thinking and try to influence where the character’s headed. A lot of actors do that. I later learned that the writers absolutely loved me for my absence. I cannot imagine what we could have done that I didn’t do.

AVC: You mentioned the ultimate redemption arc and how maybe Spike eventually would have been the right person for Buffy. Do you ever wish you could have gotten to play the full extent of that version with her in the context of the show?

JM: Yeah, that would have been great. We would have needed another four or five years or maybe at least three more seasons before he could do that. But I got to write a comic book where I began Spike along that journey, the journey that would end with him being mature enough to go to Buffy and say, “I’m ready now.” The problem with the Spike journey is, how do you not retread Angel’s journey? How do you take a vampire who gets a soul and tell that without going Angel? A lot of what Joss does in his writing is to do the opposite of what a perfectly good writer would do and then make it really great. Like with [The] Avengers, everyone was afraid it would be Super Friends. Well, okay, how about if they hate each other? If Angel was an epic character, and he was always in a mansion, in front of a large fire, sipping port wine, wondering about his soul and what to do with it, then Spike would be homeless and starving. Because he can’t mug anybody for clothes, he can’t kill anybody for food, and he’s not going to get a damn job. No way in hell. So he’s going to be having a hard time figuring out what he’s going to do. I wanted to tell a story where his shoes are falling apart. He’s almost losing fights because the soles are ripping off. He’s in a bad way and he tries to be a hero and gets his butt kicked; he tries to be a boyfriend and gets dumped; but he figures out a way to get a new pair of shoes without hurting anybody. And just that one little small step toward figuring out, “How do you be a decent person in life?”

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

JM: Oh, my god, it’s so relevant. The world is hard. The world is not perfect, but we can’t give up. If I could condense the theme of Buffy into three words, it’s those: “Don’t give up.” It began just as the story of an adolescent who’s going through a period in her life where she realizes that the world is messed up, her parents don’t always know what they’re talking about, her teachers don’t always know the subject matter they’re teaching, and we’re going to watch to see if she gives up. If she’s going to continue to try to find answers and engage with the world or just going to cocoon and give up. I think it’s well done enough that someone who’s older or younger than that can still identify with that and say, “Oh, I know what that feels like.” It’s hard to wake up every morning and not give up and [instead] say, “I’m going to try to help out today.” I think that’s very important right now.

Bonus 12th question from Nicholas Brendon: Underwear or commando?

JM: Commando. It’s a dirty character, man. Is Spike going to wear underwear? For god’s sake, no! When De Niro played Al Capone, he read that Al Capone had special silk underwear and the guy who made them for him was still alive, and he went there and he got the same underwear. You know, you never see that of course on film, but that’s a very personal kind of choice to reinforce where I am in the world and what’s important to me. I got Buffy knowing that little thing about De Niro. I always thought that was such a great thing to do. I was like, “You know what? When I play this character, it’s got to be commando.” He’s not going to be, like, washing his tighty-whities, for god’s sake.

AVC: So you’re answering as Spike, not necessarily James.

JM: Yes.