Amber Benson is well aware that her role as Tara on three seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is still her biggest claim to fame. Luckily, she’s perfectly content with that, and in the decade since that show ended, she’s carved out a niche for herself as a talented multi-hyphenate: actor (Dust Up, the web series Morganville), director (the sci-fi comedy Drones, written by The Thrilling Adventure Hour creators Ben Acker and Ben Blacker), and author (the five-book Calliope Reaper-Jones series). Currently, she’s promoting her new novel, The Witches Of Echo Park. When we interviewed her, she was right in the middle of her book tour, exhausted, but still very game to talk about her life, her writing, and the benefits of being on a show with an incredibly devoted fan base.
The A.V. Club: At this point in the middle of the tour, you must have a mental spreadsheet of answers to the same endless, Buffy-related questions.
Amber Benson: There are a lot of Buffy-related questions. Luckily, I’m one of those people that’s actually happy to talk about the stuff that I’ve done in the past. I do feel like it’s a springboard that allowed me to do all the stuff I do now, so I’m always down to chat about Buffy. I know there are a lot of people, a lot of actors who are doing something, and they’re like, “I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about what I’m working on now.” I’m not that girl. I’ll talk about anything. I’ll just talk about anything anyways.
AVC: Some artists try to give different answers, but after a while there’s only so many ways to convey something, “So, what was it like working with Joss Whedon?”
AB: [Laughs.] You can just start lying. “I never met the man! I don’t know what it’s like to work with him! I saw him from afar once!”
AVC: You once had a contest for your Reddit AMA to deliberately get weirder questions.
AB: I did. I was determined. I’m not going to just have, “What’s it like to play Tara on Buffy?” as much as I like that; it’s a great question. I want some weird stuff. The one that I ended up choosing—his name was FRAAC and he asked me what’s it like to be a grown-up. That’s a really cool, weird, awesome question. What’s it like to be a grown-up?
AVC: Did you have an answer?
AB: I did. I replied to it. I can’t remember what I said. Something about paying rent and paying your taxes means you’re a grown-up. That’s about as grown-up as I feel. I don’t feel like a grown-up at all. Although, I do have to say, I was hit on by an 18-year-old today on the airplane. I had a special friend. I am 38 years old, and the kid in the seat next to me was very sweet and was like, “Well, you know—” and I was like, “I’m 20 years older than you.”
AVC: He was hitting on you?
AB: He was hitting on me. And I have no makeup on. I didn’t have a shower that morning. I looked like crud. I was like, “Really? You’re so sweet. You must be blind.” But he was so sweet. We ended up chatting the whole time. I was like, “You’re very sweet. But I’m 20—20!—years older than you. I was 20 when you were born. I was almost an adult!”
AVC: When you’re 78 and he’s 58, that won’t be much—
AB: [Laughs.] I just felt like a pedophile. He’s legal. I could have gone there. But Amber’s more grown up than that. Amber’s more mature than that. She likes them at least 22, at least.
AVC: Most of your creative endeavors since Buffy have entailed creating an entire world from scratch. Even Drones, though you didn’t write it, essentially entailed creating a whole universe.
AB: A whole alternate universe, yeah.
AVC: Have you considered it that way? Do you have a thing for universe-building?
AB: I’ve never thought of it in terms of that, but I really like that. I’m going to steal it from you and tell people from now on that I am a world-builder. I do, I love creating other places. I love atmosphere. I love locales.
AVC: Creating a world seems like a talent you’ve always planned on developing—you’ve talked a lot about how you were the most attuned to the writing staff when you were on Buffy.
AB: I always knew that I wanted to make stuff. I love acting, acting is wonderful, but it is very much the kind of career path where you are not in control of your own destiny. You are waiting for other people to give you work. I can’t do that. I like to be occupied. I was like, being an actor’s not going to be enough. I’m going to be sitting around on sets, bored. I’m going to read a lot of books, which I do anyways, so maybe I should be making my own stuff. I should be writing and creating and so that was why I was drawn to hanging out with the writers and producers, because they were doing what I wanted to be doing. I always said that, when I grow up, I want to be like Joss Whedon: I want to have my own world. It’s fascinating to create your own world and be God. Sounds like I have a bit of a—
AVC: God complex?
AB: A little God complex. Little narcissistic, little dictatorial Amber Benson.
AVC: Was there a plan in mind, a strategy for soaking up whatever you could, with an eye to applying it to your own career down the road?
AB: I always ask questions. I find the people that do creative, interesting jobs want to share the information. They love questions. I would be like this little kid on set. I’d walk up to the gaffer and go, “What’s that thing around your neck? What are you doing?” The first big thing I did was a movie called King Of The Hill that Steven Soderbergh directed. We were staying in this hotel in Saint Louis and they had turned the Kiel Auditorium into all the different sets for the film, which takes place in Saint Louis during the Depression. We were shuttled back and forth from the set. I remember sitting next to Soderbergh and asking him, “What makes a good director?” I was 14, this total obnoxious little kid, and he was like, “You cast well.” And I thought, “That is the greatest piece of information ever.” He’s totally on the money. Yeah, I ask questions. I’ve found if you ask people questions, you learn.
AVC: So you had a plan. But once you found yourself with that success on Buffy, you just took it and ran with it?
AB: Yeah. I was like, it would be awesome if this helps me to do the things I want to do. And it did: it opened so many doors. I started writing professionally because of that. I did the comic books with Chris Golden—the Buffy Willow/Tara comics—and that opened the door for doing the animated show for the BBC, Ghosts Of Albion, and we novelized that into books from Random House. It just snowballs, and that’s all because of Buffy.
AVC: How many out-loud conversations have you had with yourself or with others at the time —
AB: I’ve had many out-loud conversations with myself. That is not a joke.
AVC: —to say, “How do I parlay this,” into making the creative moves you want to. It seems like you and Seth Green, you guys had similar plans of, “I want to take this success and try and do something with it.”
AB: I think that the answer is just, “Say yes.” When someone says, “Here’s this creative thing that I want you to be a part of,” unless they’re asking you to take your clothes off or do something offensive—and even if they do ask you to take your clothes off, maybe you want to do that. I’m a little bit of a prude in that respect. But unless it’s something awful, say yes! Go do it. Also, I’m an artist and I have to make a living, so a lot of times, it’s like, “Are you going to pay me for this? Sure, I will do this random, weird thing.” Then all the sudden I’m writing this webseries or directing an independent film. Just say yes! Just say yes, life is short. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve said you were always writing, and that once you started actually publishing it didn’t feel like that much of a transition. But it must have been somewhat of a shift.
AB: I have more control. When you’re writing, you are in—let me rephrase that. When you are writing a novel, you are in control of what’s happening. It’s you and your editor, and that’s pretty much it. Whereas, I grew up on this very collaborative stage of being an actor, and you need all the moving pieces to make a T.V. show or a film. It changes, and the way it’s written as a script becomes something different when it’s filmed that becomes something different when it’s edited, and it becomes something totally different when an audience gets a hold of it. This is a lonely, just-you, lone-wolf experience of being a writer.
AVC: But that was appealing to you, in a way?
AB: The control was appealing to me.
AVC: There seems to be a theme emerging.
AB: Yes, I’m a little bit of a control freak. I’m working on that. But the way that I balance that is that I have a writers’ group that I write with called The Shamers. We shame each other into doing work. We’re all working on different things, but we meet at coffee shops and we sit there and make sure that, when you’re been on Twitter a long time, someone will be like, “Hey, you’re on Twitter. What are you doing? Trying to pick up men on Twitter? What are you doing?” No, I’m going back to my work now. Thanks, guys, for shaming me.
AVC: In interviews, you call yourself an actress in a former life. Yet, according IMDB, you’re co-starring in three movies in 2015. You just did a webseries. Is there something about being thought of as an actor that you’re actively trying to get away from?
AB: What it was is that I stopped auditioning. I stopped chasing being an actor. That is the job: You’re pounding the pavement, going on auditions, selling yourself to people. And I stopped doing that. If somebody calls me and they’re like, “Hey, we like you, come in and meet with us,” and I still don’t do the job, that’s fine. But that idea of walking into a room where it’s cold and it’s a cattle call and there’s tons of people—I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be in my 50s going, “I’m here for this commercial audition. I’m not going to get it. There’s 50 other women who look just like me and I’ve got to pay my bills and I’m freaking out and I’m desperate.” I don’t want to be that girl. I hit that wall. I’ve been doing this since I was 13, 14 years old. I got tired. It’s like being a heroin addict: You’re constantly chasing the dragon and looking for a fix. I didn’t want to be that girl anymore.
AVC: You wanted to be the recreational heroin user.
AB: I wanted to be the recreational heroin user. Exactly. I wanted to be in control of my own world. It’s depressing to be an actor because you’re rejected all the time. You’re constantly going into rooms, and somebody’s going, “I don’t like how you act, I don’t like how you look, I don’t like you,” or the opposite of that, which is, “You’re amazing! You’re great!” How do you balance that? It inflates your ego, on the one hand, and it destroys you on the other. Luckily, my family’s very down-to-earth, and I came out of it relatively unscathed. But I grew up with all those actor kids—DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire and Alicia Silverstone and that whole crew—a few of them made it, a few of them have real lives, and a few of them didn’t make it out at all. It’s scary. It’s a really awful world at times.
AVC: If that’s the case, what does it take to pull you into an acting job these days?
AB: Friends. Rachel Caine, who writes the Morganville Vampire books, we’re friends. We became friendly because we have the same publisher and I was here at every freaking Penguin event. I was like, “You’re awesome. I love you. I want to hang out with you.” And she went, “Well, speak of the devil. I’m doing a Kickstarter. I’m going to make this series myself.” And then Geek & Sundry came on board and we did six episodes of Morganville. But it’s because they’re people I like, because I’m too old to work with people who are—pardon my French—fucking assholes. I only want to work with people that are nice or I know and I know I’m going to have a good experience. I don’t want to work with schmucks anymore. I’ve done that.
AVC: Are there things that, when you scan the resume, you look at a particular movie and you really wish that hadn’t happened?
AB: And it’s not because of the content. It’s always because of the experience. I’ve worked on some of the stuff that you’re just like, “Oh, my God.” Like One-Eyed Monster. [This is the horror-comedy Benson made in 2008 co-starring Ron Jeremy. —ed.] Everybody always makes fun, like, “Oh, you worked on that?” It was such a wonderful experience. I read the script and laughed out loud. The guys that directed it were amazing. It’s not the movie that you look at and you go, “Amber’s going to win an Academy Award for that one.” And then some of the more hoity-toity nicer indie things that I did, it wasn’t a good experience. Maybe the product was good, but it wasn’t as much fun.
I was really spoiled because Soderbergh is amazing, and that was my first set. He would take his per diem and he would throw softball games for the cast and crew. We’d buy food and drinks and everyone would come and hang out. I was spoiled. Everyone on the set was amazing. There was no yelling, no one was mean, everyone was happy to be there. I was like, “This is every set!”
AVC: It feels like you’re establishing yourself as an author, too, now. What is this, your sixth—it’s the first one of the new series, you had five books in the prior series. You’ve done basically one a year.
AB: Pretty much.
AVC: It does feel like it has a degree of that mindset, “There’s always money in the banana stand.”
AVC: Is that how you think of it vis-à-vis your other work? Or is acting still, “This will help pay the bills.”
AB: Acting keeps my health insurance up. You have to make a certain amount in the Screen Actors Guild in order to keep your health insurance. I always try and do that. There have been a couple of years where I haven’t, and COBRA is very expensive. I’m a poor artist.
AVC: Witches Of Echo Park continues a lot of the themes of stuff you’ve explored before, like female relationships, desire.
AB: It’s interesting when you look back over your work as an artist, and you’re like, “Oh, there is some stuff I am working out. There is some stuff that I have not dealt with yet, that my therapist and I need to go back over because I am obviously still trying to work it out.”
AVC: Is there a main one where you flip open the book and are like, this particular issue clearly is a thing for me?
AB: Something I realized with the Death’s Daughter stuff and with this book is that idea of the prodigal child, coming back and accepting who you are. That is something—and it’s something that I’ve dealt with in therapy, too, this idea of owning who you are. For me, I’ve always been about being very humble. I don’t want anyone to think that I think I’m better than them or that I don’t think we’re equal or something in this world. And it was this revelation, going through the writing of this stuff and in therapy, this idea that I don’t have to make myself feel small to make other people feel better. I can be who I am and own who I am, and if someone has a problem with that, that’s their problem. Even though it’s that female thing of, “I don’t want anyone to think that I’m”—it’s weird, and I see it in the books. I’m trying really hard to own it about myself—at 38!—to own who I am and not hide my light under a bushel.
AVC: It’s funny, because now, it feels like those same issues from the early books are being addressed but through a lens of frustration of being older and still having to deal with that same emotional—
AB: Still having to deal with these immature things that we as human beings deal with because we don’t have to go out and kill woolly mammoths and find shelter and not die. We live in a world where we can philosophize. We can deal with these philosophical issues of what it means to be an artist or what it means to be a woman in a male-centric society. All this stuff that I think about because I have time to think because I don’t have to go kill something.
AVC: Or run from that woolly mammoth.
AB: Or run from the woolly mammoth or the saber-toothed tiger. It’s interesting that we’re lucky enough, in this day and age that we can stop and think about these things. And be destroyed by them, psychologically.
AVC: That would be the downside.
AB: That is the downside. We went dark, didn’t we? [Laughs.]
AVC: With this one, did you have a list in your head or a plan of things you wanted to do differently in the new series? Was there a desire to stay in a fantasy world but insure that you didn’t repeat yourself?
AB: I wanted to not rely on humor. That is my crutch. I go to funny. I know I can make people laugh. I can do stupid stuff and I can trip and I can make people laugh. This was a serious book. I wanted to see—not even see; I wanted to discover if I could do it, if I could get through it. There’s still humor, but it’s not going for the joke every time. I wanted to stretch myself in that respect, and I wanted to write something that was really pretty prose. I’m a book whore. I’m a reader. I wanted something that had magical wheels and feel. Practical Magic was a big inspiration, [and] Gabriel García Márquez.
AVC: Comparing it to the first things you wrote that were published, do you have that sense of growth?
AB: I feel like I’m a much better writer. I look at those first books, and there’s some great stuff in there. They’re fun and fluffy and they’re fun to read and I’m proud of them for what they are. But this, to me, feels like an adult book. It feels like a more grown-up endeavor.
AVC: Thanks for taking the time. I hope we were able to talk about something—
AB: We got to talk about woolly mammoths.
AVC: Tomorrow, you can go back to, “What was it like to kiss Alyson Hannigan?”
AB: “What does she smell like?” That was one of the Reddit AMAs.