We interviewed Buffy star James Marsters last summer, and it’s finally safe for even our ReWatchable newbies to read.
In mid-2016, we got the chance to see James Marsters, who played the Buffy fan-favorite, bleached blond vampire Spike, speak at the Supanova Expo in Sydney, Australia, and to interview him after his panel. Given the subject of the statement we most wanted to share, we’ve chosen to hold this feature back until now, for the benefit of our ReWatchable hosts and listeners.
Despite Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s finale airing nearly 15 years ago, we’re very careful about spoilers around these parts, as Hypable’s ReWatchable podcast is currently covering all of Buffy and Angel. As you may know, ReWatchable’s basic structure involves a group of hosts, half of which are superfans and half of which are complete newbies, watching and reviewing a cult series — we’ve done Firefly, Veronica Mars, Avatar: The Last Airbender, but the Buffy-Angel combo has been our biggest undertaking to date, spanning a schedule of several years.
Cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, circa season 6.
Marsters, a con circuit veteran, spoke very candidly about many topics during his panel, but none more so than when an attendee asked him about his initial reaction to reading the script for “Seeing Red,” the controversial season 6 episode where everything, putting it bluntly, goes to shit. Not only does it finish on the death of one of the series’ prominent gay characters — the very non-supernatural murder of Tara — which sends her girlfriend Willow off the deep end, it also features a story in which Spike, in a twisted attempt to prove that he and Buffy love each other, tries to force himself on the Slayer sexually.
Horrified at both his own attempted rape and at the fact that his old, evil self wouldn’t have backed off, “Seeing Red” sees Spike, unsure of what he is anymore, leave Sunnydale in the hopes of making a change for himself. Superfans know how this plays out, and newbies will just have to wait and see.
Marsters has discussed the difficulty of filming these scenes, and how, in his opinion, what the writers were going for didn’t work, many times over the course of his career — and since this convention took place, has repeated this story even more openly with The A.V. Club, revealing what it’s like to be contractually obligated to do whatever Joss Whedon tells you to do. (“I was curled up in a fetal position in between takes.”)
Still, given that any retrospective discussion about a completed series is somewhat evergreen, we decided to keep our own encounter with Marsters to publish in conjunction with our ReWatchable community’s experience of “Seeing Red,” and this week’s the week. Here’s his explanation in his own words:
“That was the hardest day of my professional career. It was one of the hardest days of my life. I don’t even like to watch a film that has a scene like that. If I know that there’s a movie that has a scene like that, I just won’t go see the film. If I see it on television and it’s a surprise, I’ll just turn the television off. It’ll just ruin my day. I remember going to the set and Steve DeKnight was there, and he had written the script — I just passed him and I said ‘Sometimes you guys don’t know what you put the actors through. You just don’t realize what you’re asking of us, you really don’t.’
The first shot, I was so freaked out by having to do that scene — I have a whiplash [injury], I have a thing in my neck that can pop if I get too tense, or during fights and stuff, it goes off like a [crunching noise.] And I was just so tensed out, I was just standing there and there was like a pop, and everyone heard it, and I just collapsed, because the whiplash just went bam. It was horrible. It was absolutely horrible.
James Marsters for EW’s Buffy 20th Anniversary issue.
What I will say though, in the defense of that scene, is that one of the reasons that Buffy was so powerful is that Joss was asking his writers to come up with the worst day of their life, the day that they regret, the day that keeps them up at night, what’s your dark secret? And then slap fangs on top of that pain and tell the world about it. This is every episode of Buffy, and it was an act of supreme bravery and vulnerability that the writers were constantly talking about.
And in this instance, Steve DeKnight wrote the final script, but the story idea came from one of the female writers, who had broken up with someone in college, her boyfriend had broken up with her in college, and she just thought if they make love one more time, everything would be fine. So she went over to his house and she kind of forced herself on him, until he finally had to physically push her off and say no, and they [the Buffy writers’ room] thought that would be interesting, a way to finally get it through that Spike is the wrong boyfriend right now. And they thought that since Buffy was a superhero, they could flip the sexes.
But my feeling was that any female watching Buffy is Buffy while she’s watching it, and they’re not superheroes, so it’s going to come off very differently than it’s intended, and I think that kind of both [takes] were happening, and I don’t know if it was a failure but it certainly was a risk.”
After the panel, Hypable caught up with Marsters for a quick one-on-one chat on behalf of our ReWatchable team.
What do you think about the show holds up, and what do you think would have to be done differently if it was airing for the first time now?
The costumes would have to change! I think some of the special effects would be slicker, because computers have improved, but I don’t think anything else would really have to change. I think that the reason that Buffy holds up is that the writers were being very vulnerable and brave, and that they were really exposing their own pain in every episode.
I said it earlier, but I’ll say it here: Joss found nine of the best writers in Hollywood. They’re all off now producing and directing some of the most popular projects in Hollywood, but Joss got them when they were all young and hungry and working together, and that just doesn’t happen very often. And he was asking to come up with their worst day. The day that they don’t talk about, the day that they’re ashamed of or that’s too painful to talk about, and then slap fangs on top of that and tell the world about that secret, and that’s true with every single episode.
The writers would come down to the set looking sheepish, and if you told them it was good script, they would cringe, because they were afraid that you’d actually understand what they were talking about. That level of honesty and risk has a payoff, and it’ll grab you in a way that will last. For that reason — among other things, but for that reason, the show will always be able to reach into people’s lives, and they’ll respond to that, because it’s real, it’s honest.
James Marsters and Sarah Michelle Gellar reunite for the Buffy 20th Anniversary celebrations.
Keeping in mind that about half our audience have never seen the show before, what would you tell them about what to expect from Spike, who’s a fan favorite even for our newbies, for the back half of the series?
Hold onto your hats. That’s all I can say. Joss is not there to please you. Joss is not there to make you feel comfortable and safe. Joss is there to make you feel excited and affected and uncomfortable and challenged and you will have a real ride ahead of you.
Do you consider yourself a superfan of any particular show, if you were to recommend one for this podcast to tackle at some point?
The original Twilight Zone. It was an examination of the stresses put on the population by the Cold War, by the fear of nuclear annihilation and the amount of paranoia and hatred that was going on in my country [the United States] during that time, against communism, and what it really did psychologically to the people. Also the impending technological – what technology would be doing to us, all these issues, and it was just an extremely well-written piece.
And you think that would hold up for audiences watching it today, for the first time?
Oh, I hope so. It’s so good.
What would be your top five Spike episodes for a viewer?
“Fool for Love,” “School Hard,” the musical, [“Once More, With Feeling”] “Tabula Rasa,” and the end [the series finale.]