Sarah Michelle Gellar
Her big break is the stuff of Hollywood legend: she was “discovered” while eating in a New York restaurant with some friends. She was four years old at the time.
Sarah Michelle Gellar was born on April 14, 1977, in New York City. She was a bubbly and intelligent youngster, and her mother must have had a hunch that Sarah was destined for big things. Little did she know it would happen at such a young age. One day in a restaurant, apparently after watching the animated youngster for some time, a woman approached the table where Sarah and some friends of her mother were eating, and asked Sarah if she’d like to be on television. Gellar is slightly embarrassed when she remembers the encounter, recalling that she immediately turned to the agent and proudly rhymed off her full name, phone number, parents’ names, and address. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she laughs.
She impressed the woman nonetheless, and Sarah returned home and announced to her mother, Rosellen, that she was going to be on television. Her mother thought the whole thing was a prank, because her daughter didn’t have any acting experience – that is, until she received a phone call from the agent setting up Sarah’s audition. Rosellen’s own curiosity (and probably some pleading on Sarah’s part) pushed her to follow up. The next day she and Sarah were at Sarah’s first audition.
The movie was called An Invasion of Privacy, and the cast boasted some notable names. The star was Valerie Harper, and Sarah would audition for the part of her daughter. Other cast members included Carol Kane (from Taxi), Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber), Robby Benson (Ice Castles), and Jerry Orbach (Law & Order). The audition was held late in the afternoon, and Sarah was given a scene she was supposed to read with Valerie Harper, but Harper had already left for the day. The youngster grabbed the script, said it was no problem, and started reading her part. When she came to one of Harper’s lines, she lowered her voice and read it out, imitating Valerie. The casting agents found her irresistible and hired her right then and there.
Word spread quickly about this precocious young lady, and Sarah was soon made the star in a series of Burger King commercials that aired in 1981. Many years later, when she appeared on The Tonight Show with Fay Leno to promote Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sarah laughed that they had to hire a speech coach to help her when she was doing the commercials: “I couldn’t say ‘burger.’ I kept saying ‘buga, buga.’” She eventually learned the proper pronunciation, though, and soon North America would be charmed by a little girl in a Burger King restaurant, sitting cross-legged on a chair with long dark pigtails. She was adorable, yet spoke in a very matter-of-fact way that made her seem beyond her years. Audiences everywhere loved her – with one exception.
One of her commercials led to a groundbreaking courts case that would forever change the face of competitive advertising. In it, Sarah tells the audience that Burger King burgers are bigger than McDonald’s hamburgers and that the burgers are flame-broiled rather than fried like they are at McDonald’s. This was the first time in television history that a company had used a competitor’s name in a critical way. McDonald’s sued Sarah, Burger King, and the ad agency that put out the commercials for slander.
“I was five,” she remembers. “I couldn’t even say the word ‘lawyer’ and a few months later I was telling my friends, ‘I can’t play. I’ve got to give a deposition.’” The lawsuit was settled out of court in 1982, but it set a precedent whereby companies could now name competitors’ products in their advertising. Sarah did 30 spots in total for Burger King.
Sarah now had a recognizable face and was in demand. An Invasion of Privacy, which had begun filming the week after her first audition, finally aired in 1983. Sarah then appeared uncredited in a feature film called Over the Brooklyn Bridge, which featured a stellar cast, including Elliott Gould, Margaux Hemingway, Carol Kane, Sid Caesar, and Shelley Winters. After completing these movies, Sarah took a bit of a hiatus from acting in larger productions – she was, after all, only in Grade 2. During this time, she focused more on her schoolwork and her friends, although she continued to do commercials.
By 1986, though, she was back in business, appearing as Emily in an episode of Spenser for Hire. Sarah loved working with the show’s star, Robert Urich. “I was eight or nine, and he was just wonderful to me,” she remembers. The same year she appeared in her first theater production, Horton Foote’s The Widow Claire. The play was at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City, and the cast must have been like a dream for a nine-year-old girl: her co-stars were Matthew Broderick and Eric Stoltz. She remembers that when she was first cast to work with them, they weren’t big-name actors, but soon afterward, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful, starring Broderick and Stoltz respectively, were released. “I was the most popular girl in school because I was working with both of them!” she recalls.
That popularity didn’t’ last. When it was time for junior high school, Sarah enrolled in Columbia Preparatory School in New York and soon realized it would be difficult for her to fit in. Many of the students came fro very wealthy families, and Sarah’s mother was a teacher, with a more modest income. “Many students were used to having everything handed to them on a silver platter,” Sarah says. “Everything I got I worked hard for and got on my own.” As many children know, kids at junior-high are can be very cruel, and the students at Columbia Prep were no exception. Sarah became a longer because the other kids wouldn’t hang out with her. Probably out of jealousy of Sarah’s talent and success, they punished her for being famous by harassing her constantly. Sarah was miserable at school, so she continued putting most of her efforts into acting.
In 1988, she landed a small role in the Chevy Chase movie Funny Farm, in which she played a student. Her performance went uncredited there, as well. The following year she appeared in the feature film High Stakes, a thriller starring Kathy Bares and Sally Kirkland. Sarah starred as Kirkland’s daughter, Karen, and this was the only time she was credited as Sarah Gellar. She found out that another actress used that same name, so from then on she went by her full name. That same year she hosted Girl Talk, a cheesy Saturday-morning TV talk show for young girls, where the hosts would sit and talk about clothes, guys, and other topics that could be considered “girl talk.” Her co-hosts were Soleil Moon Frye, best known as Punky Brewster, and Rod Brogan, who went on to Major Dad and One Life to Live. However, the lighthearted talk show had a very small viewership and was soon canceled.
By this time, at 13, Sarah was so busy with everything happening in her life that her mother had her wear a pager so she’d know where her daughter was. Sarah shares a close relationship with her mother. Her parents were divorced when she was very young, and she was always reluctant to talk about her father, Arthur Gellar, except to say that they didn’t get along and he was no longer a part of her life. Arthur was found dead in his apartment on October 9, 2001, after a long battle with depression and cancer.
Despite Arthur not being around, Sarah did not grow up fatherless. Her mother remarried in the early 1990s, and Sarah says her stepfather has supported her in all of her achievements. “My stepfather always says that when he sees how many things I handle in a day, he’d be willing to hire a young person like me, because now he sees what an incredible thing it is to see kids so focused and how much they have to offer,” she says proudly. She has said she considers him to be more of a father than her biological one.
Sarah always speaks of her mother tenderly, and it’s clear that Rosellen attended auditions with her, watched out for her, and kept her grounded. However, she was not a typical stage mother who would make decisions for her daughter. Sarah explains, “My mother is not living vicariously through me… It has always been my choice to act. If at any time I wanted to give it up, she would be behind me 100 percent.” She adds, “My mom has always been behind me and we are very close.” Rosellen recently moved to California to be closer to Sarah and they try to get together a few times a week.
It was Sarah’s mother who realized how unhappy Sarah was at the prep school. Because it was a regular private school, the other students simply couldn’t identify with her lifestyle. Sarah was beginning to rebel and started keeping to herself. “I went through this crazy phase where I had five holes in each earlobe and wore a naval ring,” she says. “I’d dye my hair a different color each week. I really wanted to be a Gothic teenager, like one of the kids in The Craft. No wonder people tended to avoid me at school! I guess I was a bit of a nerd, really.”
Sarah admits now that she had many of the same problems in junior high that Buffy has in high school, because she was misunderstood. Buffy has to slay vampires when she should be doing homework or dating, and Sarah faced a similar problem: “I had that same decision – do I go to a school dance or slumber party or do I go to an audition?” Her favorite movie of all time is Heathers – which probably says a lot about how she regarded her school years. (In Heathers, Winona Ryder plays a student who doesn’t fit in with the rich girls she hangs out with. In a bizarre twist, Christian Slater’s character conspires with her to kill their classmates.) Sarah was made to feel ashamed of her accomplishments and was never proud of what she did. “I never liked to talk about my acting,” she recalls, “because if I did I was branded a snob, and if I didn’t I was still a snob. I would cry because I didn’t understand why people didn’t like me.”
Her mother transferred her to the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan. Immediately there was a difference in how Sarah was treated, because the other students worked, just like she did. She made many friends and finally felt as though people understood her: “It’s for anyone with irregular schedules – musicians from Julliard, ballerinas from the School of American Ballet, and writers, and just the most talented group of young people where your talent is special, but it doesn’t affect your schoolwork.”
At this time, Sarah was acting, going to school, taking figure-skating lessons, and learning tae kwon do. She had studied the martial arts for four years, and was two belts away from her black belt, even placing fourth in a competition once. “I would get up in the morning,” she says, “go to the ice rink, then go to school, then go to auditions, then go to tae kwon do. I was cracking.” Rosellen could see her daughter was overworked, so she told Sarah it was time for her to make a choice – she could do two things at once, but no more. Sarah naturally chose school and acting. (Little did she know how important that tae kwon do would someday be for her.) Sarah graduated from the school with a 4.0 grade point average after only two and a half years, but while there her career skyrocketed, setting the stage for stardom.
In 1991 Sarah was cast in the made-for-TV movie A Woman Named Jackie, which was about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Sarah played the young Jacqueline Bouvier, while seasoned stage actress Roma Downey played her as an adult. Downey went on to play Hippolyta alongside Lucy Lawless and Kevin Sorbo in Hercules and the Amazon Women before landing the lead role in the hugely popular television series Touched by an Angel. Sarah loved Downey and recalls that she wanted to be like her. She began mimicking her movements on the set, and Downey was flattered. For the purposes of the movie, Sarah’s imitation led to uncanny similarities in speech and action between the younger and older Jackies, making both performances believable and seamless. Interestingly, one of the cast members was Mark Metcalf, who would later square off against Buffy as the Master.
In 1992, shortly after starting at the new school, Sarah appeared in the premiere cast of the latest Neil Simon play, Fake’s Women. Despite being 19, she played 12-year-old Molly, which began a pattern in her career where Sarah would play someone either older or younger than herself. A year earlier, she had won the role of Sydney Orion Rutledge in the Fox teen soap opera, Swans Crossing, although the episodes didn’t air until a full year after the pillow had been filmed. Playing Sydney would help her win her next role in All My Children. Sydney is a manipulator, the daughter of the mayor in the tiny seaside town of Swans Crossing. Asked to describe her character, Sarah answered, “Well, Sydney is kind of like the town witch. She doesn’t really care about anyone else’s feelings and she feels that everything revolves around her, and it usually does. I guess there are always similarities and differences, but I try to keep the bad parts of Sydney out of my life.” Ironically, a reviewer for Entertainment Weekly would describe Sydney as “a younger, blonder Erica Kane.” The show, focusing on the lives of 12 young people, was mediocre at best – it made Saved by the Bell look like a high-quality program. The town boasted the Swans Cleaners, Swans Auto Shop, and Swans Café (which had a swan-shaped phone), and just made the viewer wonder if anyone in this town could live without those damn birds. Despite the near-ridiculousness of the show, it garned a small but devoted following. Mira Sorvino even appeared in early episodes (before her Oscar, of course).
Swans Crossing prided itself on standing apart from other shows, especially Beverly Hills 90210, in that it didn’t deal with “issues.” For Fox, though, the only thing that mattered was the ratings, which were decent, but not stellar. How Fox imagined that a show geared to seven – to 15-year olds would do well in a 2 p.m. time slot remains a mystery, but after three months of the daily soap, it was put on hiatus. To se if it could pick up any new fans, the network rebroadcast the first three months of the show – in exactly the same time slot. The series had a lot of potential among younger viewers, and the producers had even marketed Swans Crossing dolls. However, the ratings weren’t high enough to cover the cost of producing a daily show, and the series was canceled. All was not lost, though, for after Swans Crossing was finished, Sarah moved on to an audition that would change her life forever.
Sarah had no idea what part she would be getting when she attended the audition for All My Children. She knew it would be a young person, and she’d probably play someone’s child. Then she was cast as the daughter of the manipulative Erica Kane, played by Susan Lucci. Sarah was very nervous the day she walked onto she set. After all, All My Children was one of the hottest soap operas on television, and Erica Kane was the diva of soap divas. Sarah’s fears were quickly assuaged on that first day. Lucci was rehearsing a scent with Michael Nader, who plays Dmitri, but she stopped and came over to welcome Sarah. She then accompanied the younger actress around the set, introducing her to everyone. Sarah was very touched. “I couldn’t have asked to work with anyone better,” Sarah said at the time. “You can’t not have a good working relationship with her.” She would soon be singing a different tune.
Sarah’s character, Kendall Hart, entered the show’s story line just as Erica was about to get married. Sarah often jokes about the plot and what a whirlwind it was, and she’s not kidding. From 1993 to 1995 her character went through just about everything. Kendall made her first appearance on All My Children on February 24, 1993. Erica had been raped and made pregnant when she was 14, but she’d given the baby up for adoption and tried to forget it had even happened. Kendall shows up as someone who idolizes Erica, but won’t reveal the truth about who she really is. Mona, Erica’s mother, sees the birthmark on Kendall’s neck that identifies her as Erica’s daughter, but it isn’t until Bianca, Erica’s other daughter, is injured in a riding accident that Kendall tells Erica the truth. When Kendall then becomes obsessed with finding her birth father, Erica forbids it. When Kendall convinces Dmitri to help her, Erica finds out, kicks Kendall out of the house, and leaves Dmitri, demanding a divorce. Kendall spends the night with Dmitri’s assistant, Anton, and then tells Erica that Dmitri tried to rape her. In a blind rage, Erica returns and stabs Dmitri with a letter opener, remembering when she’d been raped as a teen.
Kendall starts scheming with Del Henry, another guy in town, about writing a tell-all book on Erica Kane. In the attempted murder trial, Erica says she didn’t mean to stab Dmitri, but had hallucinated that he was Robert Fields, the man who’d raped her. Kendall takes the stand and swears that Dmitri had raped her and that Erica’s act was something he’d pushed her to do. However, during the trial she realizes her real father was a monster, recants her testimony, and is sent to jail for perjury, setting Erica free. Meanwhile, Mona kills Fields and later dies in her sleep (after the actress who played her, Frances Heflin, lost a long battle with cancer). Kendall finds out Anton is Dmitri’s son and marries him, but later agrees to a divorce. She and Erica come to an understanding before Kendall leaves Pine Valley for Florida, from whence she came.
Kendall’s life was pretty complicated, but Sarah loved every minute of it (although she sometimes wished Kendall would calm down a bit). Kendall’s crazed behavior allowed Sarah to try things she’d never done before. “It was amazing playing a psycho-loony,” she said afterward. “I got to attempt suicide. I shot at people. It was great.” Sarah probably enjoyed being on this show more than her previous work because of the challenge. The show was on daily, which meant that characters were given a new script every day, and she learned the importance of getting a scent right the first time. “You get a script a day in advance, you rehearse it once or twice, and you get one take, maybe two, and that is it.” She explains. “Contrary to popular belief, we did not have cue cards.”
The fans loved Sarah. As Kendall, she was deliciously evil, yet you really couldn’t help but feel sorry for her because she had been abandoned as a child. In 1994, after having been on the show for less than a year, Sarah was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Younger Leading Actress in a Daytime Drama Series. She didn’t win that year, but it was a thrill for her to have been nominated after such a short time. However, it was also at this time that the rumors began about her relationship with Lucci being less than perfect. Lucci had been nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Daytime Drama Series 14 times, but had never won the award. Sarah would later admit, “It wasn’t an easy time in my life… We didn’t’ have a perfect working relationship. We, um, weren’t going out to lunch.”
The tabloids and other papers began reporting that Lucci and Sarah hated one another. To this day Gellar insists that was not the case, that the papers blew things out of proportion. She says they worked well together on-screen, but they didn’t have a very good personal relationship. Mid-way through the season, Sarah decided she would leave the show to move on to other projects (and, some say, to get away from Lucci). She must have wondered whether or not she’d made the right decision when in 1995 she was again nominated for the Younger Leading Actress award – and won (the Emmys were held the same evening as her prom night, and Sarah somehow managed to make it to both). Sarah insisted to Lucci that she had never been in competition with her. “I won for scenes I submitted with her,” she explains. “You don’t work along – this was work we did together.” The very next day, ABC announced officially that Sarah was leaving the show. This was six months after Sarah had told them, and she was very unhappy about the timing. “It made me look incredibly bad,” she recalls. “I was told by ABC that I couldn’t announce my leaving until they made an official announcement… The timing was terrible.”
Despite the ups and downs on the show, All My Children had taught Sarah a lot about show business. “It gave me an amazing understanding of the technical aspect of this industry – how to hit a mark, how to not shadow somebody, how to play to the camera,” she says. “And that way, when I got to nighttime, all I had to worry about was the performance. I made some of the most amazing friends on that show – Eva LaRue Callahan and John Callahan and Sydney Penny – and I learned so much just about being a professional on the set, working those hours. Then it gave me the chance to grow up at home and not move to California until I was a fully formed adult and I could handle things better.”
Sarah would later remember that, in 1993, after a strange comedy called Buffy the Vampire Slayer had hit the movie theaters, her makeup person on the set of All My Children joked about how much she looked like Kristy Swanson, the actress who played the title role in the movie. Perhaps Sarah was destined to become her younger, hipper television incarnation.
When Sarah was on All My Children she enjoyed playing a character who was seven years older than she was. She mentioned in an interview how on television it seemed like adults played kids, but never vice versa. “They just don’t write for kids anymore,” she said. “You always have older people playing younger people… There are some very talented teenagers who can do it just as good, if not better, than any adults, but they’re not given a fair chance.” Later she would say she far preferred daytime television to prime time: “I don’t mean to bash all these people who leave daytime for prime time, but I don’t think those nighttime sitcoms are a hell of a lot better these days. In some cases, daytime has a lot more talented people than in prime time.” One wonders if she regrets those earlier comments now. However, she can’t really be blamed for making them. After all, she hadn’t yet met Joss Whedon.
When Sarah’s agent contacted her about a new show about high school kids battling real demons, she was excited about the concept and decided she had to play the part of Buffy. She could do comedy, drama – and tae kwon do. When she arrived at the auditions, however, the casting agents saw her long dark hair and pale skin and asked her to read for a different role. They said she would be perfect as the snobby and dominating Cordelia, especially after having done such a convincing job in the similar role of Kendall. Sarah went through the audition, but pleaded with the casting agents to let her try for Buffy. They finally relented.
Whedon remembers the experience. Sarah walked in and immediately seemed to possess all the qualities he wanted for Buffy – she had to be funny, tough, attractive, and weird. Now he had to see how her reading went. He was not disappointed. “She gave us a reading that was letter perfect,” Whedon recalls, “and then said, ‘By the way, it doesn’t say this on my résumé but I did take tae kwon doe for four years and I’m a brown belt. Is that good?’ No, perfect,” Joss thought to himself. He says she nailed the part right then and there, but Sarah has a different recollection of events. “It was the most awful experience of my life, but I was so driven,” she says. After the initial audition, she went through five more auditions and five screen tests. But she prevailed, and the part was hers. She packed her things and moved to Los Angeles. The pilot episode was shot and the WB was convinced – this would be a very big show.
Sarah lover her new character, despite having problems with some of the dialogue. She told Rolling Stone magazine, “I still have to ask Joss, ‘What does this mean?’ because I don’t speak the lingo. I think he makes it up half the time.” (Joss admits that he does.) Buffy the Vampire Slayer was different from all the other high school shows because of its focus on a single, tough young woman. The mid-190s saw a wave of empowered women on television: Peta Wilson’s character on La Femme Nikita is a deadly assassin; Xena: Warrior Princess featured two women, Xena and Gabrielle, who have changed the face (and gender) of action shows; Captain Janeway became the first female captain of a Star Trek series on Voyager; and The X-Files introduced Dana Scully, a brave, intelligent woman who must fight powers much bigger than herself and stand up for her own beliefs. However, all of these female characters had made it past adolescence, whereas Buffy was still battling her way through high school besides having to take on vampires. “She doesn’t know if she wants to be a cheerleader of fight vampires,” Sarah says of Buffy, “and that is what makes her interesting and believable. Buffy is a person who is lost, who doesn’t know where she belongs – and you feel for her.” To make her character even more realistic, Sarah took up kickboxing, street fighting, boxing, and gymnastic training. The show debuted in March 1997, and Sarah Michelle Gellar was a full-fledged prime-time star.
After months of anticipating how television audiences would react to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sarah wasn’t actually in Los Angeles to witness the huge summer promotional campaign the WB launched. When the show went on a five-months hiatus between the first and second seasons, Sarah found a side career as a horror-movie scream queen for wunderkind screenwriter Kevin Williamson.
Williamson can be credited with single-handedly reviving the horror genre for the ‘90s, despite having been told by a high school English teacher that he’d never succeed as a writer. He attended theater school on an acting scholarship, but was more interested in writing scripts than acting them out. His first script, Killing Mrs. Tingle, failed to make it to the big screen until 1999 as Teaching Mrs. Tingle. He returned to more well-known Hollywood jobs like temping and dog walking but recalls a very strange experience that happened when he was home alone one night. A noise in the kitchen prompted him to grab a butcher knife and a cell-phone and call a friend, who began asking him trivia questions about 1980s horror flicks. This surreal situation became the opening scene for a new script, which he penned in three days.
Scream was bought by Miramax and became the biggest-grossing horror movie of all time. Starring Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Courtney Cox, and Drew Barrymore, the film was an ironic look at the horror-movie genre, poking fun at its conventions while following them at every turn. Fans and critics loved it. Williamson’s characters were different – smarter – than their counterparts in earlier horror films, and he is very conscious of how he writes dialogue for his teenage characters. He refers to the teenager of the ‘90s as “a very self-aware, pop-culture-referenced individual who grew up next to Blockbuster in the self-help, psychobabble ‘80s.” His characters don’t get scared as easily as victims in earlier horror films; for example, when the killer calls her house and says he’s standing on the porch, Sidney (Campbell) throws the front door open to prove him wrong. With a cutting-edge writing style and at only 32 years old, Williamson was very similar to Whedon. It was probably inevitable that he would choose Sarah Michelle Gellar to be one of his stars.
I Know What You Did Last Summer, starred Freddie Prinze Jr., Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ryan Phillippe, and Sarah. When Sarah first read the script, she was a little wary about the role of Helen Shivers, the local beauty queen, because she disliked the idea of playing a dumb blonde. However, after thinking about the character for a while, Gellar realized there was more to Helen than she’d originally thought, and she accepted the part. Williamson immediately took to her the same way Whedon had. “You know that when you hire her to do a job she’s not going to be in the trailer, complaining about everything,” said Williamson. “She’s going to be right out there at three in the morning, barefoot, in the freezing cold, giving you the tenth take.” Sarah relocated to North Carolina for the duration of filming the movie, and realized how much easier feature films were than television series. On Buffy, she worked long hours, and a one-hour episode was filmed over eight days. However, the two-hour movie was shot over two months, so there was ample time to go back and change things. Helen Shivers was an exciting part for her because she was a big fan of horror films, having seen all the Friday the 13th and Halloween movies. “There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush you get,” Sarah says of horror films. “You know it’s fake, that nothing bad is actually gonna happen, but it’s still scary and fun. It’s kind of like a roller-coaster ride.”
In I Know What You Did Last Summer, an adaptation of the Lois Duncan novel, four teenagers spend a frolicsome evening on the beach. Driving home, they hit a person standing in the road. Desperate, and assuming the police will accuse then of drunk driving, they take the body and dump it in a lake. However, their problems don’t disappear. The honors student can now barely get passing grades. The promising football player falls apart and quits the team. The beauty queen gets stuck working at a clothing store, haunted by the past. And the past catches up to them when they begin receiving mysterious notes that read, “I know what you did last summer.”
The movie, while not as clever or deep as Scream, is filled with suspense and gore. The killer dresses as a fisherman and guts his victims with a huge meat hook. At one point, he chases Helen through the streets to her sister’s clothing store, where she pounds on the glass, begging to get in. Her sister nonchalantly wanders away to get the keys, and the suspense created by Gellar banging her fists on the window is heart stopping. Filming this scene was difficult for Sarah, because she had been conditioned over the previous months to fight back. Instead of running, Sarah kept turning to fight the killer. “I’d punch the guy, and it’d be like a right hook to the jaw – boom!” she laughs. “And [director Jim Gillespie is] like, ‘No, you flail your arms.’” She would continue to fight later when she was working on Scream 2, and Wes Craven, the horror legend and director of that film, would joke to her, “Don’t kill the bad man, because then he can’t come back for a sequel.”
So Gellar learned to run from the killers, but that posed another problem. She appeared to be too athletic for a beauty queen and kept outrunning the bad guys. So the director put her in six-inch heels, and Sarah put pebbles in her shoes, and she slowed right down. Once she got used to being helpless, Sarah enjoyed the challenge of playing someone so different from Buffy: “I don’t think that Helen – I hope – [has] any Buffy traits. I hope I did a good enough departure that you don’t sit there and think, ‘Oh, there’s Buffy.’”
Sarah enjoyed working on the film because she became very close to her co-stars. Considering that everything in Southport, North Carolina, closed at 9 p.m., there was really nothing else to do. She and Hewitt would wander around the town occasionally, but it became a frightening activity as filming went on, because every time they saw a fisherman in his rain gear they’d jump in fright. The other disadvantage to filming in Southport was that the townspeople were unhappy that a group of film people were shaking up their town, and began to resent their presence.
Meanwhile, back in the civilized world (i.e., cities with cable), Buffy was becoming a hit and Sarah didn’t know it. Web sites devoted to the show and its stars were popping up on the Internet, and by the end of the first season, there were over 40 of them. Buffy posters were in subways, on billboards, and on the sides of buses, but isolated in Southport, Sarah had no idea of the phenomenon that was taking off. She got a clue, though, when she visited New York during a downpour and people still recognized her. “I have mascara running down my face,” she recalls, “and people are going by in cars honking their car horns, going ‘Hey, Buffy.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
On its opening weekend, I Know What You Did Last Summer grossed $16 million, almost recouping its budget of $17 million. Throughout its six-month run, the movie grossed over $70 million worldwide.
Partway through filming I Know What You Did Last Summer, Williamson offered Sarah a small part in his next big film, Scream 2. Many young actors in Hollywood had been hankering for a role in a Williamson film, so to be offered a part in two was very flattering to Sarah. To film Scream 2, Sarah again relocated, this time to Atlanta. She says she was a little intimidated at learning that the sequel would once again star Neve Campbell, because the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer watched Party of Five religiously. However, as she got into an elevator with the cast of Scream 2, Neve turned to Sarah and said that Jennifer Love Hewitt wanted her to say hello. Sarah knew everything would be fine. In fact, when she realized who the rest of the ensemble cast were, she described the shoot as a high school reunion, having attended high school with Jerry O’Connell and Rebecca Gayheart.
Sarah’s role in Scream 2 is actually very small, but it was convenient because she had to get back to California to begin filming the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the movie she plays a sorority sister who gets a phone call from the killer when she’s alone in the sorority house, being “sober sister” for the evening. Williamson had gotten used to Sarah’s sense of humor and sarcasm when she was on the set of I Know What You Did Last Summer, so he’d written this part especially for her. Sarah’s brief time-on screen is great and full of suspense. Williamson was on the set to watch her final scene, and Sarah laughs, “When he saw me on the set of Scream 2, he said he just loves the way I die.” Scream 2 was a fascinating experience for Sarah, because she worked for the first time with Wes Craven, who had directed the Nightmare on Elm Street films. She gained a profound admiration for how he directed. “Whereas most movies have some guy off camera going ‘bang’ to make you turn around,” she explains, “Wes hides people in different places just to freak you out. And it works.” Scream 2 had a dark comic edge to it that I Know What You Did Last Summer lacked, so it was more up Sarah’s alley. She was thrilled to do both movies because of the diversity of the characters, and because “they offered me the opportunity to do drama, to do horror, to do action, to do comedy. That’s an actor’s dream.” No wonder she enjoys being on Buffy the Vampire Slayer so much.
Scream 2 garnered $33 million on its opening weekend, the biggest opening of any Miramax film and the biggest December opening of any movie in history. It grossed $96 million in its first month alone and was re-released into theatres the following April, raking in another $50 million worldwide. Sarah had just finished filming two of the most successful horror films in history, and when she returned to L.A. she realized she was also starring in a very successful television show. She was on a roll. By the time the second season began airing, Sarah had become one of the hottest young stars in the world. She was living proof that Hollywood was finally starting to write realistic parts for people her age, rather than making them caricatures. “What Kevin did with his scripts, and what Joss has done for me with Buffy,” she said, “is written three-dimensional human beings: people who make mistakes, good choices, bad choices, have flaws.” Talk shows began scrambling to get Buffy stars on, and suddenly they were all in demand.
Fame had its disadvantages, however. Sarah was used to doing many things at once, but she was busier now than she’d ever been. She had begun filming the second season of Buffy while finishing work on Scream 2, and then hit the talk show circuit and had newspaper and television interviews. One of her favorite stories, which she related in several interviews, was that one morning she was driving to the Buffy set with the top down on her convertible and she noticed a lot of people staring at her. Assuming that people were recognizing her, she thought nothing of it. However, the stares got weirder and weirder until she glanced down and realized she was wearing nothing but a slip – she had been so tired she’d forgotten to put her dress on! She knew then that she would have to start getting more sleep, but she takes it all in stride: “Yeah, I don’t have much of a life beyond work, but how many other girls get to really release their inner demons for a living?”
On January 17, 1998, Sarah hosted Saturday Night Live. Although the show had been waning for a few seasons, with failing ratings, lame skits, and a lot of criticism, this episode was very funny. Even Rosie O’Donnell later said to Sarah of the show, “I think it was the funniest one this season.” Sarah admitted to being extremely nervous beforehand, and she’d thought to herself, “I’m gonna be the first host to just get out there and go, ‘Uh… uh…’” However, Rosie was right. Sarah brought her sarcasm to many of the scenes, making otherwise flat skits absolutely hilarious.
Right after Sarah was on Saturday Night Live, the Buffy ratings passed the four million mark, and two weeks later it had surpassed five million. The show was taking off. To top it all off, it won three Petcabus awards, which are given to the under appreciated shows that deserve awards. Buffy the Vampire Slayer won the Golden Petcabus, given to the best under appreciated show on television, as well as awards for Best Ensemble Cast and Best Recurring Character (Juliet Landau for Drusilla). On March 10, 1998, Sarah herself won a Blockbuster Award for Favorite Supporting Actress in a Horror Movie for I Know What You Did Last Summer.
During Sarah’s second-season hiatus, she filmed two more movies. The first was Cruel Intentions, a modernized version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, co-starring Ryan Phillippe. In it she plays Kathryn, the part played by Glenn Close in the 1988 version. Her stepbrother, Sebastian, is in love with her, so she makes a bet with him: if he can convince avowed virgin Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon) to sleep with him, then Kathryn will let him have sex with her. But if he loses, she gets his car. Kathryn is evil and manipulative, and Sarah went back to her real hair color for the part, as if to show how much Kathryn had in common with Kendall. As far as Sarah was concerned, she was pretending to be the students whom she’d gone to Columbia Prep School: “It’s frightening what that much money and that much freedom when your parents aren’t there can breed in a young child. It’s real. It breeds terror. Not every school is like that, and not everyone is like that, but it does exist. There were kids in my class who had money clips that were monogrammed!”
The film was praised by critics, and audiences loved this new side of Sarah. The following year at the MTV awards, Sarah won Best Actress for her role, and she and Selma Blair won the award for Best Kiss, for a scene in the film where Kathryn tries to teach another girl how to kiss properly. Sarah wasn’t sure why there was so much hype over the two women kissing, although she remembers the actual filming to be a little uncomfortable. “Well, I had to kiss another girl,” she says. “Big deal. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that we had to shoot that scene in Central Park on probably one of the nicest days in New York in seven years. We had quite an audience, but I guess I did a convincing job. My mother said to me afterwards, ‘Did you have to use so much tongue?’”
As soon as Sarah finished Cruel Intentions, she starred in Simply Irresistible, about a woman who suddenly gains magic powers after inheriting a restaurant. Unfortunately, the movie was filled with flaws (for example, it was a complete rip-off of the far superior Like Water for Chocolate) and non sequiturs that were never explained. Critics were decidedly cold to it, and the movie earned less than $5 million (it had cost $6 million to make). Sarah had starred in her first flop. “That was really hard for me,” she recalls. “I read a script that I fell in love with and learned a very hard lesson – that it doesn’t always work out. I’ve always wondered why good actors did bad movies. I’d think, ‘Didn’t they read the script? Didn’t they know?’ Now I understand what happens. Whether it’s the direction or the production or some of the acting, it can change in the transition from the script you first read.”
Finally, she also lent her voice to one of the characters in the computer animated Small Soldiers, a very funny film where some toys develop superintelligence and wage a serious war. Sarah voiced one of the Gwendy dolls who get caught in the middle of the fighting.
Sarah was becoming a star outside her hit television show. As Buffy entered its third season, she was considered a role model to young women everywhere. Maybelline picked her up as a spokesmodel in 1999, because they saw her as a positive example for young women. She was identified as part of the new Brat Pack in Hollywood, but as far as Sarah was concerned, this new generation of young actors weren’t your typical Hollywood brats: “We’re not raucous, we’re not wild, and we don’t go out and party until two in the morning. You haven’t heard one story about this new group of actors I run with beating up photographers or trashing a hotel room. We’re not a partying group. We’re a very sedate bunch: Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, myself… and I don’t really know why. Maybe Hollywood’s getting pickier and the studios are now giving opportunities to the few of us who can handle it.”
As someone who represented a strong yet feminine woman who didn’t get into trouble with the media, Sarah was perfect for Maybelline. When asked what her beauty routine is, she answers confidently, “I carry a bottle of water with me all the time. I don’t really drink… anything except water and iced tea. I really believe vitamins can fix almost anything: skin and hair problems, energy problems, colds. I always take my vitamins, usually a multi and a vitamin C. When I’m not working, I rarely wear makeup. I just put on sunblock, moisturizer and lip balm. I’m very careful with my skin. I use Rembrandt whitening toothpaste.” Emma Caulfield, who plays Anya, admitted that Sarah doesn’t really need makeup because of her natural beauty: “She gets in at like 5a.m. in the morning for makeup, and I swear, she doesn’t look any different with the pancake makeup on. She’s stunning. Oh, and she has a fetish for… she’s gonna kill me but… toenail polish! Every hour she paints then a different color.”
In interviews reporters would ask Sarah who she was dating, and she would say that she was taking time away from dating and that the only men she was around were actors, and she didn’t like dating actors. She was seen around town with Jerry O’Connell and there were some untrue rumors spreading that she was involved with David Boreanaz (his marriage was breaking up at the time, so the tabloids went for the obvious lie). But by early 2000, her friendship with Freddie Prinze Jr. was blossoming into something more. They had remained friends after filming I Know What You Did Last Summer, and by the end of 2000, the media was starting to catch on that they were dating. In April 2001, Freddie proposed to Sarah, giving her an engagement ring designed by cathy Waterman (who had designed rings for Gweneth Paltrow, Meg Ryan, and Meryl Streep). Prinze has said, “Sarah’s so smart. You just sit back and listen; and when she’s done, you think: ‘I’m a smarter person.’” And the feeling is mutual. “I love Freddie a lot,” Sarah says. “Ever since we’ve been together I’ve felt more together and happy.
Sarah’s movie career was still blossoming. She took a year off after Simply Irrestible. At the time she worried her movie career might be over, but friends convinced her that flops were just part of the business – she had to move on and make another movie. She chose Harvard Man, an indie film. Written and directed by James Toback (Two Firls and a Guy, Black and White), the film also start Adrien Grenier (Drive Me Crazy), Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy, Eric Stoltz, and Rebecca Gayheart. The story is about a basketball player, Alan, who becomes involved with a cheerleader (Gellar), who happens to be the daughter of a mob boss. Her father gets Alan involved in sports betting, not realizing an FBI agent is following their every move. The film was shot mostly in Toronto, Canada, in the summer of 2000. The producer of the film, Michael Mailer, told an interviewer that Sarah plays a “classic female manipulator, who is very smart, very street savvy, and very tough at the same time. And she is doing a remarkable job.”
Sarah added that if reviewers thought they saw a trend in her character choices, they would be right: “To me, when I look for a character to play, I look for someone that would be interesting for me to watch, and watching a one-dimensional character – the bad girl, or the dumb girl – there is no interest in that for me.” The film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival before going into limited release in summer 2002.
By the beginning of 2001, Sarah was finally getting recognition for her role as Buffy. She had won the Teen Choice awards in 1999 and 2000 for Best Actress on Television (and won the Extraordinary Achievement Award in 2001). She was nominated for the Best TV Actress Saturn Award every year since 1999, and won it the first year she was nominated. And she was (finally) nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV Series – Drama. In the same category were Jessica Alba (Dark Angel), Sela Ward (Once and Again), Edie Falco (The Sopranos), Amy Brenneman (Judging Amy), and Lorraine Bracco (The Sopranos). Although the award predictable went to Ward, it was interesting to see both Alba and Gellar nominated.
Later that year, Sarah went back to movies in the told of Daphne Blake in Scooby-Doo. The cast also included Sarah’s beau Freddie Prinze Jr. as Fred, Matthew Lillard (SLC Punk) as Shaggy, and Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks) as Velma. Scooby-Doo was filmed on an island off the Gold Coast of Australia, where she stayed in a solar-powered house with Prinze. If given the opportunity to live in a similar house full-time, Gellar would choose not to. She said, “There is nothing worse than having an 18-hour day in the sand and you’re all gritty and want to some home and take a hot shower and there is no hot water because there was no sun.” However, she loved the country. “I want to move to /Australia,” she told an interviewer. “There is something about Australia that is the best mix of everything. It has the culture and nightlife of New York and the cosmopolitan aspect, but it has the relaxed laid-back atmosphere of California and the people are so nice. I just think it’s such an amazing place. Australia has an amazing way of life. They take everything with a grain of salt.”
As for the filming, Gellar said she had a great time on the set. Internet rumors abounded that on Buffy the Vampire Slayer the gang would have to stop using the term “Scooby gang” because Sarah was appearing in the film, and the crossover paradox would just be too weird, but those rumors appear unfounded. Sarah was thrilled to be part of such an important part of pop culture, even if she did have to suffer the psychedelic get-up. “Daphne is a fashion plate: I get on a plane in one outfit, I get off the plane in a totally different outfit,” she says. “Everything is purple – the scarves, the headband, the skirt. I was like, ‘What if I look terrible in purple?’ And then there were the knee-high boots. I hate knees – I think knees are ugly. I was an ice skater when I was younger. It’s a big deal to get me to wear short skirts. The costume designer would ask, ‘Don’t we have something shorter?’ And I was like, ‘No!’ But I’m doing all these running and chasing scenes with little short skirts and knee-high boots. And the crew always cracks up, because the second they yell ‘Cut!’ those boots are off and my sneakers are on.” The movie became one of the biggest blockbusters of 2002, up against other summer fare such as Spider-Man and Stars Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
Sarah Michelle Gellar is one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood today. As for rumors that she acts like a diva on the set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, her co-stars say they’re just creations of the media with no grounding in fact. Amber Benson, who joined an already tight and well-oiled ensemble cast, was immediately put at east by Sarah’s friendliness: “Sarah, here she is Buffy, and she’s super-nice. She’s never been anything except extremely sweet to me. I don’t drive, and she calls me and offers me rides to work.” And James Marsters has nothing but praise for his sexy co-star: “Sarah is an absolute dream. A lead of a TV series has the power to make the set a nightmare of heaven. Sarah has chosen to use her powers to make it heaven. She’s always on time. She always knows her lines. She’s always wonderful to work with. She’s always fresh. She’s always jovial. You know, nobody really wants to push her around, but other than that she’s a dream. Truthfully. And kissing her was no chore!”
Sarah has proven that she’s not a child star but a serious actress. She has starred in successful movies and in one of the hottest shows on television today. Is she in danger of being typecast? It’s not likely, because in the past she has chosen very diverse roles. But, as Sarah puts it, so what if she is? “If this is typecasting, you know, God help me, I guess… I should be so lucky.”
What we can bank on is that Sarah will always be busy, taking on a million tasks at once with detailed precision. But that’s okay with her. As she told Rolling Stone magazine, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. That’s going to be by epitaph.”