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Under Your Spell
By Abbie Bernstein (Issue 2, Buffy)


        Buffy Magazine catches up with the bewitching Amber Benson for a chat about Tara's recent trials and tribulations, and to find out what she's been up to away from the show.

        "Hush" is a cool Buffy episode for a number of reasons.  Apart from earning Joss Whedon a well-deserved Emmy nomination for his script, it broke the ice in a big way between Buffy and Riley, and introduced Amber Benson as young witch Tara Maclay, who would go on to become the big love of Willow's post-Oz life.
        Amber meets me at a local coffee shop, looking very fetching in a wooly black sweater and maroon scarf, and shows an immediate enthusiasm in talking about her three seasons on Buffy and everything else she's been doing lately - from her independent film project to the stories she's contributed to Buffy's Dark Horse comics...

Buffy Magazine: Do you get a lot of, 'Gee, you're not like Tara,' from people?
Amber Benson: It's funny, because everybody on Buffy thought I was really quiet and shy until they got to know me.  Everyone thinks that I'm tall and fat and shy.  I'm like, "Well, I'm short and I'm slender and I'm very outgoing."  Playing Tara has been very cool, because I've got to explore that very shy, quiet, nervous insecure part of myself that is there, because we're all insecure.

What did the producers tell you about Tara when you auditioned?
At first, it looked like it was just going to be a one or two-shot deal, just a girl from the Wicca group.  I had no clue whatsoever that Willow and Tara were going to become an item.  In fact, I didn't even know Seth Green had left the show, so I was like, "Oh, yay, I get to work with Seth!" "He's not here."  There was a lot of feedback about Willow and Tara's vibe after "Hush" aired.  "Gosh, is she a lesbian?" Everyone had been kind of joking about it.  "Oh, there seems to be this..."
    Three or four episodes in, Joss took me aside and said, "You know, I'm thinking of going in this direction."  I didn't see it, but I'm not sorry that it went that way, because we've been able to explore an amazing storyline.  I think the best part about what Joss and Marti Noxon and all the other writers and producers have done is that, instead of making it about, "Oh, look, we're going to have the episode where they kiss!," they've really made it about a relationship.  So I'm really proud of being able to play this character.

What's the response been like?
I get the most amazing letters.  First of all, you get shy people, because Tara really is quiet and reticent, and people really relate to that.  I mean, there are a lot of people who don't leave the house because they're so uncomfortable.  You get people who say, "I went outside today because I watch you guys and I feel like it's okay to be who I am, because you guys aren't your normal cheerleader type..."  They feel like it's okay to be who they are.  And then I get letters from young lesbians that say, "I came out to my family because of you guys.  I watch you on TV.  I see that you found a wonderful, loving relationship.  I can find something, too - I can find another person."

How have you handled the changes Tara's gone through since we met her?
I think when she fell in love with Willow, she was able to be more comfortable in her own skin and had more self-confidence.  When she first came on, she was very protective of herself.  Since then, she's stood taller and straighter, her clothes have become more fitting and revealing, not in a sexual way, but in an "I'm comfortable with my body" sort of way.
    There have been big transitional moments for Tara - definitely in the musical, when she found out that she was being taken advantage of by her girlfriend.  And in "Family," which was her background episode, when everyone stood up and said, "You can't take her, she's part of our group."  I think that was a pivotal moment for her.
    I wouldn't want to be Tara.  She really has a hard life.  I mean, it's not as bad as people out there who are suffering.  She's not suffering, but she limits herself because she's so insecure.  And it's her upbringing.  Here we are talking about an imaginary character like this, but it's true.  Tara's gotten better.  She didn't have anybody growing up.  Nobody gave her any confidence.  I'm really glad that  backs me and my sister, who's an artist, up 158 percent.  My parents are really supportive of what we both do.
    I never would have pictured Tara's family background, but it totally works.  It gives her a new dimension that she didn't have before that episode.  Having Joss direct it was like giving me a gift.

How was it playing Tara's brain-tampered scenes in Season Five?
It wasn't as hard as you would think.  It was really neat, because I think that none of the characters have got to be in that space.  I got to go crazy - it was really fun!  I liked her not having a brain.  I got to run around in my pajamas and my glasses.  I'm sure there are some funny outtakes.
    Poor Jamie Lynn, who is one of my stand-ins, they wouldn't let her sit down!  They're all sorry for me - they're like, "Just let her sleep."  I was so exhausted.  I was working week-ends on my movie, so I was just like [Amber drops, demonstrating a sudden sleeping spell.]  James Marsters is nudging me, "We're shooting, get up, get up!"

Can you tell us a little bit about your movie?
It's called Chance.  I wrote and produced and directed and starred in it.  James Marsters is in it, so is Andy Hallett, and Tressa Di Figlia, who is Nick Brendon's wife.  So we had a good time.  It's a romantic comedy.  Making this film has really been the most wonderful experience I've ever had in my entire life.  It was so cool to take what was in my head and translate it so that other people could see it.

Do you enjoy working with actors who are also friends?
I love working with James, and Andy is one of the most talented, good-hearted people I've ever met.  He and I went to the Golden Globes party last year.  There were all these people in their nice dresses, and we were just stargazing: "Oh, my God, there's Faye Dunaway!"  There were all these waitresses with trays taking around drinks, and this very well-dressed woman backed into one of the girls that was carrying a tray and knocked the tray over and broke the glass all over the floor.  The woman turned around and was being nasty to this poor girl - but it wasn't the girl's fault.  I bent down to pick up the glass and I looked over and there was Andy.  Out of all these people, the two of us, in our nice clothes, were picking up the glass.  He's just got the best heart.

Was making the musical episode, "Once More, With Felling," very different from filming a regular Buffy episode?
The only thing we really rehearsed [beforehand] were the dance numbers.  We shot it pretty much the same way we shoot every episode, except Joss story-boarded the whole thing and knew what shots he wanted.  He's say, "Okay, for this shot, I want a close-up on her while she's singing these lines, and then when we get to this line, we'll be in a medium."
    A lot of the time we didn't shoot the whole scene, we'd just shoot pieces of the scene, and he pieced it all together.  We started recording music and vocals about two or three episodes before we started filming.  Then during the episode before ["All the Way"], we shot part of it, and then for a while we split the time with the following episode ["Tabula Rasa"].  You'd be working on Episode Six, then go back to Seven, then do Six, then Seven, 'til you're done with Six, and then you'd start Seven, Eight, Seven, Eight, Seven, Eight... So we would be going back and forth between three episodes at all times.

Was that confusing?
It's no different from shooting out of sequence on a regular episode.  We have the best crew in television, I'm convinced.  You had to put yourself back in the moment, but I've gotten really good at memorizing stuff and being on top of things at the drop of a hat, just because that's how Buffy is.  They give me new script pages sometimes and say, "We're changing this line and this line and this line."  So your brain has to be going all the time or else you're in trouble.

How was the recording done?
We basically did all the singing in the recording booth beforehand, and then they played back the music and the vocals when we were shooting.  We had a great guy who sat there and pressed play!  I kept telling him to make it louder.  Everyone else was like, "Can you make it lower?"  But I was like, "Louder, louder!"  Because when you're dancing , you really need to hear what you're singing so you can stay with the words.

Do you have a musical background?
I did a lot of musical theater growing up.  I love singing.  But it's always been something that I've really done for myself more than for my career.  The music industry is a much harder business than acting.

Did Joss know you could sing beforehand?
Joss is really into Shakespeare, and as long as I've been on the show we've been having Shakespeare readings where everyone - producers, actors, everybody - would just show up at Joss' house and we'd read Othello or Romeo and Juliet.  I got to play Romeo opposite Michelle Trachtenberg's Juliet, which was so much fun!  Everyone was asking, "Should we let James do it?  No, we'll let Amber do it - she's sexually benign."  And then afterwards, we would just all sing.  We'd have [executive producer] Marti Noxon sing, and I'd sing, and Tony'd sing - Tony Head's an amazing singer - we even got Michelle and Mere Smith, who's one of the writers on Angel, singing.
    So Joss definitely had an idea who could sing.  In the end, I don't know why the people who didn't sing in the episode chose not to sing, because I really think everybody sounded good.  Even Alyson, who didn't really want to sing.  The two or three lines she did sing sounded great.

Was this the first time a song was written specifically for you as a performer?
Yes.  In fact, I think 'Under Your Spell' is the first song Joss wrote.  He's a sneak!  At the end of last year, he went through and tested everybody's range, and then, you know what he did to me?  He said, "I made it a few notes higher than your range to give you something to work toward."  I said "Agggh!"
    I like to sing low, and he made it really high.  I wasn't sure how it was going to work, but once we went in and recorded it, I knew it was going to sound good.  I was just shocked when I heard it.  We got a CD of all the songs.  Jesse Tobias, who helped to do some of the music, and his wife Angie and Joss and his wife Kai, cut a little CD of all the songs from the musical.  We got that when we were shooting the third or fourth episode of this season.  So I have a CD with all of the songs on.  I'm going to hold onto it.

Can you tell us how they did the sequence in which Tara and Willow dance out of the park and straight into their bedroom?
I like to call that bit cheesy-easy [laughs].  We were spinning in the park, and then we went in to the soundstage and they mocked up a foresty-looking thing right next to the bedroom.  So we twirled past the trees right into the bedroom set and they kind of amalgamated the two. 
    The musical is my favorite episode of all.  That, "Restless" and "Hush" are my three favorites.

Can you talk about where you think Tara may be going this season?
I personally think she and Willow are probably going to get back together.  We haven't shot that yet, but I think that's where it's headed.

So about this rumor that somebody dies....
[laughs] I can't say.  I will give you a hunt though.  It's not Xander.

How do you feel about Tara becoming more assertive this season?
I love her being stronger.  And I think the fans really respond to her coming into her own, because that's what it is - it's her finally saying, "Hey, I'm an adult in this situation, too, and I have a voice, and I'm gonna say something here."  I mean, it's interesting, because she is an appendage of Willow's in a way - she is defined by Willow.  Tara never really had a lot of stuff of her own.

Where is Tara living now that she's moved out of Buffy's house?
Well, knowing the dorms as I do, from my sister being in college - you can't get a place in the dorms just coming back.  She's couch-surfing.  She's staying with Spike.... he's giving her a nice little sarcophagus to hang out in!  [laughs]

Apart from him punching you in the nose, have you had any big scenes with Spike recently?
We have a few coming up.  There are a couple of funny little things with Spike.  Not many - he's definitely Buffy's man.  I love James, though.  Any time I get a scene with James, I know it's going to be fun, because he and I work along the same lines - we both like to be in the moment.  I leave the character on the soundstage.  I don't bring her home with me, but I know what she's all about, in the same way that he knows what Spike's all about.  I'm sure he could tell you Spike's favorite color, what he likes to drink, who's his best kiss - just things that you know as a person about yourself.  He and I both think that way with the characters. 
    I think Sarah's like that too.  She's very into what her character's all about - would her character do that as opposed to this?  She definitely says a lot when we're rehearsing - she's very collaborative as an actor.

Speaking of collaborating, how have you found working with writer Christopher Golden on the Buffy graphic novels?
Chris is fantastic!  he's a phenomenal writer, so I'm really privileged.  He's got this one series of original novels, Body of Evidence, that is absolutely phenomenal, about this college student who works for the state coroner in Boston.  It's a cross between Nancy Drew and Patricia Cornwall's stuff.  We're hoping someday that we'll get running as a TV show - I would love to work with him on that.

How do you feel about doing conventions and signings?
It's exhausting, because there's only one of you and there's so many other people who are really into the show and they want to talk to you and they want to ask you questions.  But this is their favorite thing and they're really curious.  You're whom you wouldn't be doing anything.
    It's always nicer when there's a bunch of us, like when I did a signing with Nick in Orlando.  It was great, because we could answer questions together.  And some people are really into him and some people are into me, so there was a give and take, which was very nice.
    Joss signed with me in London at Forbidden Planet shop for five hours.  I think if people are there and they're going to line up and come to see me, I want to meet them.  If they're going to wait for five hours, I'll stay for five hours.  I remember what it was like to be on the other side.

Who have you lined up to see?
My sister and I are really into music.  I met Jeff Buckley - he passed away, but he was this amazing singer/songwriter.  We stood in line for two hours just to meet hi8m after an in-store performance.  So I know exactly what it's like to want to meet people, and when they're cool and they come out and want to chat and stuff, I think it's great.  So I try and be that way, too.

Apart from the projects you've already told us about and of course Buffy, do you have any other plans for the immediate future?
My friend Greg Swartz and I are writing a screenplay together.  He just finished a film, his first directorial feature, Hollywood, PA.  He'd written a part for me, which I did.  We shot it in Pennsylvania.  He has a lot of connections back there, so we're trying to get together to raise enough money to shoot in Pennsylvania.
    It's kind of John Hughes-esque Dazed and Confused.  I'd like to continue making movies.  I'd like to try everything one.  That's what's so great about acting.  You get to pretend to be different things.
    I've been really lucky and I'm really happy with all the things that I've gotten to do.  Anybody can do it - you just have to have perseverance, get your buff in gear, and do it.