Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Julie Benz got her start as an actress when she was still in her teens, shifting back and forth between movies and TV and racking up a wide variety of credits in a relatively short amount of time. But it was her work with Joss Whedon—first on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, then on Angel—that put her on the map. Since then, Benz has remained a stalwart in genre projects, appearing in sci-fi series (Defiance) and superhero shows (No Ordinary Family). She’s also earned considerable acclaim for her stint on Dexter and has also turned up in more than a few horror films, the most recent of which, Havenhurst, is out now.
Julie Benz: She’s a woman who’s struggling with addiction. She has to battle her own inner demons. Without giving too much away, she caused the death of her daughter due to her alcoholism, and at the start of the movie, she’s at a very precarious place. She’s just getting out of rehab, and the immense guilt that she feels over what happened to her daughter weighs on her tremendously.
The A.V. Club: Being an indie film, was this an instance where you were sent the script and pitched the idea of being part of it?
JB: Yeah, I was sent the script, and I was out of town at the time, so I did a site meeting with Andrew [Erin, director and co-writer]. It was so bizarre. I was staying in a hotel at the time, and the night before the meeting with Andrew, I learned there was a ghost in the hotel.
I read the script and I went to bed, but I woke up because somebody had knocked on my door. Or at least it seemed like somebody knocked on my door at, like, 4 in the morning. I got up and looked out the peephole, and there was a woman in an old-fashioned maid’s uniform and a weird guy standing in the hall. And they were saying they needed to come in and clean my room, and I was, like, “No! It’s 4 in the morning! You’re not coming in to clean my room!” But they kept knocking! So I finally just opened the door. Well, nobody was there in the hallway.
The next morning, I went down to the front desk, and I asked them, “Is this hotel haunted?” And they said, “Yes!” [Laughs.] And I was totally, like, “Oh my god!” But having just read the script and then add having seen a ghost, I went to Andrew, and I was, like, “Okay, I have to do this movie. I just have to! I don’t know why, but I just have to do it.” And I ended up getting the role.
JB: Oh, my goodness! That’s so long ago. I was a baby. [Laughs.] I was 19!
AVC: That was your first TV role as well as your first series-regular role. How did you find your way into that gig? Was it just a standard audition?
JB: Yeah. Let’s see, I was 18 years old when I did the pilot, so I was a freshman at NYU, and it was one of my first professional auditions in New York City. And I somehow booked the job. I have no idea how. I think it was a lot of luck, a lot of ego, and a lot of naiveté. [Laughs.]
AVC: It was a conceptually interesting show—a ’50s sitcom family enters a relocation plan after their series is canceled and ends up being transplanted into the world of 1991—but it allowed for the gimmick of bringing on guest stars from classic sitcoms from the past. That must’ve been surreal to be just starting out and suddenly meeting people you’d grown up watching.
JB: Yeah, you know, it was a really wonderful experience. I loved Nick At Nite at the time, and I was obsessed with watching it, so just to meet some of the more experienced stars of the older shows was a real treat and a thrill for me. I remember Gale Gordon was in the pilot, and it was one of my very first professional gigs without having an adult take me to the job. We shot on location in Orlando, Florida, so I was there by myself. And I remember I was late one day, and Gale Gordon pulled me aside, and he said, “Honey, when it says you have to be here at 10 a.m., you need to be here at 9:30.” And ever since, I’ve always been a half-hour early to my call time! [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s awesome.
JB: He scared me. I was terrified. I was, like, “Oh, yes, sir! Yes, sir, okay!” But I’m still arriving a half-hour early to my call times!
AVC: Well, when Mr. Mooney tells you something…
JB: You listen! [Laughs.] I mean, it was Gale Gordon! I was, like, “I’m so sorry, Mr. Gordon. I’m so sorry! I’ll never be late again! Never, ever!” And I wasn’t.
AVC: As early as Hi Honey, I’m Home may have been in your career, it wasn’t actually your earliest on-camera role. Before that, you played a character named Betty in Two Evil Eyes.
JB: Yes! That was my very first on-camera role. With Harvey Keitel!
AVC: And directed by Dario Argento. For a first director, you could do a lot worse.
JB: I know! But it’s so funny, because I didn’t really know who he was at the time. I know him now, obviously. But I went in to be an extra on the movie, and he saw me sitting out waiting to meet the casting director, and he pulled my mother and I into a separate conference room. He speaks very broken English—he’s Italian, so I’m going to do a very bad Italian impersonation—but he asked me my name, and I told him, and he goes, “Walk across the room.” And so I walked across the room. He says, “Okay, now come back.” And I walked back. He looked at me, and he said, “Do you want to be in my movie?” I was, like, “Yeah! Yeah, I do!” He’s, like, “No, no, no, no, no. Do you want to be in my movie?” And I was, like, “Yes! I want to be in your movie!” He goes, “Okay! You play Betty!” And I was, like, “Oh, I’m playing an extra named Betty! Great!” So we walked out, thinking that I was playing an extra named Betty, no lines, just background. By the time we got home, they’d called. My mom negotiated my deal. She didn’t do a very good job. [Laughs.] It’s fine!
But that’s how I got my S.A.G. card. But I really didn’t know who Dario was. I didn’t know who Harvey Keitel was. It was a wonderful experience, though. Working with Dario was a lot of fun. He’s a larger-than-life character, and with an Italian accent. He would yell at you in Italian, and I’d have no idea what he was saying. I’d just go, “Okay!” [Laughs.] But it was a really great experience. It was shot in Pittsburgh, and that’s where I was born and raised, so it was really nice to be a part of Pittsburgh film culture.
You know, it’s really interesting—I wanted to become an actress when I was young because I wanted to do romantic comedy. And I did a lot of comedies very early on, but then my career took kind of a left turn with Joss Whedon, and I discovered that doing genre work is actually more interesting as an actor, because the given circumstances are more extreme. And it really is creatively more challenging. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve had a career where I’ve bounced around a lot between different genres, and I feel very lucky and very blessed that that’s happened to me. And I love the fans of genre. Genre fans are the best fans. They’re loyal, they’re dedicated, and they’re passionate about the projects. They get it on a cerebral level. Being a part of that culture and that world… It’s very gratifying and very fulfilling. The fans are just as passionate about the projects as we are about making them.
JB: Oh, Marcie… [Laughs.] That movie was so much fun to shoot. We were all in our mid-20s at the time, playing high school students. Which was the point. It was the point of the film to hire older actors to play high school students. But we had a blast. It was fun to play that surreal high school life. I was a huge fan of the movie Heathers. But I think at the time—you know, when the movie was released, it was a very limited release, and it didn’t do very well at the box office. And I love the fact that it has found legs and that the audience has kept growing and growing over the years. I have so many people come up to me, 20-some years later, and saying, “I loved you in Jawbreaker!” [Laughs.] But I loved everything about that movie. The fashion, the friendship amongst all of us girls… it was great. We had a blast filming it, and it was really wonderful. It was a very special time.
JB: No one ever asks me about her! [Laughs.] I did the pilot for that right after Jawbreaker, or at least right around the same time, and it was an Americanized version of Fawlty Towers. That was the first time I worked with John Larroquette, and it was definitely not the last time. I’ve worked with him numerous times since. Oh, that was also the first time I worked with JoBeth Williams, which was also a case of not being the last time!
I love doing sitcoms and I love performing in front of a live audience, so it was a really fun experience. I was sad the show only lasted one season. It was a big undertaking. It’d be fun to revisit, but it’ll probably never happen. [Laughs.] But it was a really great experience, and both John and JoBeth over the years, it’s been great reconnecting with them and working with them on other projects as well.
AVC: We talked to John a few weeks ago, and when he discussed the show, it was with a certain amount of regret about having tried to do an Americanized version of Fawlty Towers in the first place.
JB: You know, I think he did a great job. I really do. And he’s so wonderful and generous to work with. He’s one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. He’s very cerebral and book-smart. He would say things and I’d have to go look them up, thinking, “That can’t be true!” And they’d be true. [Laughs.] But he’s very generous as the star of a show. He always made sure that if we had a joke that didn’t work or something, he’d fight for the other actors. I just don’t think it was the right time to do it, maybe. It was timing, not so much that it was executed wrong.
Defiance (2013-2015)—“Mayor Amanda Rosewater”
JB: I loved working on that show. I mean, that show was brutal. We worked long, brutal hours in really brutal weather. But playing Amanda was a wonderful opportunity for me. She was strong, dynamic, a complete badass, not defined her relationship with a man. She could hold her own. I really loved her. I was sad when the show got canceled. It was heartbreaking for all of us involved. It was definitely a project that everyone involved poured their heart and soul into. But we had three good years, which is, you know, three more years than most shows get. [Laughs.] That’s on the plus side! And it was a big undertaking for Syfy to do a game and a show at the same time. That was one of the reasons I took the role—to be a part of something groundbreaking interested me.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1996-2000) / Angel (2000-2004)—“Darla”
JB: Darla was where I grew up. For me, Darla was like going to graduate school for acting. I learned so much with Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt. They encouraged us to make creative choices with our characters. And some of the choices didn’t work and some did, and it was okay. They pushed me out of my comfort zone. I’d been doing comedy up that point and hadn’t really done a lot of drama, and then all of a sudden he casts me as a 400-year-old vampire from hell. It was, like, “What?!” [Laughs.]
I remember they did all the makeup tests on me for Darla… Sorry, for “the vampire.” I was the test monkey for the vampire look, so I went through numerous variations of the prosthetics and camera tests before I actually got the job. I remember reading an interview that Anthony Hopkins had given about how he developed Hannibal Lecter. He said he just looked in the mirror and, I forget exactly what it was, but he looked in the mirror and realized that when he smiled, it looked creepy. [Laughs.] So I had the prosthetics on, and I went to my trailer, I looked in the mirror, and I smiled. And I was, like, “This is the character—everything she does is with a smile and a bit of glee and joy.” And that’s how I created Darla. Prior to that, I was, like, “I have no idea how to play this 400-year-old vampire from hell!”
And Darla wasn’t Darla in the beginning, by the way. Darla was just Vampire Girl #1. But I just started adding a little bit of glee and joy into everything she did and just relied on the fact that the prosthetic does the work. And then I didn’t have to be scary. The prosthetic was scary enough. I just had to smile and show off Darla’s really great dental work. [Laughs.]
AVC: So at what point did Darla stop being just Vampire Girl #1 and become a recurring character?
JB: Well, when we did the pilot presentation, she was just Vampire Girl #1. And then when it got picked up to series, I think she was given a name, but I was still about to die. But we re-shot the pilot when we got picked up, and on the day they were going to kill me, Joss came running onto set and said, “We’re not going to kill you! We’re not going to kill you! You’re going to come back next week!” And I was, like, “Great!” You know, I was a struggling actress at the time, so I was, like, “Great! Another paycheck! Awesome!”And then I was supposed to die in that episode, and then that day Joss came running to set again. “We’re not going to kill you!” “Awesome! Another paycheck!” But finally they came to me and said, “Okay, you’re gonna die.” I was, like, “Aw, man!” [Laughs.] But she had to go.
And then I remember when they brought me back on Angel, I was working on Roswell at the time and bumped into David Boreanaz on the Paramount lot, and he jumped out of the golf cart he was in and he grabbed me in a big hug, and he was, like, “Benz, we’re bringing you back!” I was, like, “No, you’re not. It’s not possible. I poofed! Once you’ve poofed, you’ve poofed. You’re dead. I’m dead!” And he’s like, “No, no, no, no! We’re bringing you back! We’re bringing you back!” And I was, like, “Okay, uh, cool…” [Laughs.] But then I got the call that they were bringing me back. And then I was killed off, like, 17 more times or something ridiculous like that.
AVC: Which would seem to be a testament to the devotion Joss Whedon had to the character of Darla, or at least to your portrayal of her.
JB: Yeah, I think they really enjoyed the dynamic between Angel and Darla. Joss really falls in love with the characters he creates, and he’s got such joy and exuberance about what he’s doing that he makes you so excited.
They would call me and they’d be, like, “Okay, so you’re going to be buried alive, and we’re actually going to bury you in the dirt. How do you feel about that?” “Uh… That’s fine.” [Laughs.] He made it sound like it would be so much fun that I’m, like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! I want to be buried alive! That sounds exciting!” And then you’re actually doing it, and you’re like, “Oh my god, I’m so scared!”
One week they called and were like, “We’re going to have you sing. Can you sing?” “Uh… Not really, no. But I’ll try!” So I tried. And I sang. That was my voice. Another week it was, “You’re going to ride on horseback through fire. How do you feel about that?” “Uh… Okay!” [Laughs.] But it really taught me that acting is not just about being emotionally challenged. It’s about being physically challenged. And I enjoyed both aspects of that.
Punisher: War Zone (2008)—“Angela”
JB: Oh, wow! You know, she was fun. I got cast in that and showed up in Montreal two days before the film started, and they said, “We need you to do a New York accent.” And I was, like, “What?! Why didn’t you tell me this, oh, I don’t know, two weeks ago, when you cast me?” [Laughs.] So I had to do some emergency cram sessions with the dialogue coach on set. But it was fun, because every actor on that movie had to do an accent, so we were all talking the whole time in our accents.
The boys in that movie were so awesome and so great. It was a great experience, but I just remember that it was freezing cold in Montreal, and there was this giant snowstorm that shut the whole city down, and we still had to go film! And we were shooting in this old silo, and it was snowing inside the building. It was insane. But to me, that’s what filmmaking is about—insanity.
Dexter (2006-2010)—“Rita Bennett Morgan”
JB: Rita. Lovely Rita. You know, when I first auditioned for Dexter… Well, I was sent the script, and I read it and loved it, and I knew right away that it was going to be a hit because it’s the type of programming that I like to watch. It’s that very morally ambiguous thing where you find yourself rooting for someone who’s really an awful person, but… is he doing good? You’re constantly calling into question your own moral code. I love that as an audience member.
I originally read for the roles of Debra and Rita, because they didn’t know what direction they were going in, and I worked so hard on Deb, because I just wanted to swear. I wanted to say all those nasty words. That was it: “I want to swear on television!” [Laughs.] I worked so hard on that role. And I barely worked on Rita. But I read for casting—both parts—and they said, “That’s great, we’re going to bring you in for producers.” So I read for some producers—both parts—and they said, “That’s great, we’re going to bring you in to meet the creator.” And I went in, and as soon as I walked in the room, he looked at me and he said, “Oh my god, you’re our Rita!” And I said, “No! I’m Deb! I’m a total Deb!” “No, you’re Rita!”
And as an actor, it made me realize a really important lesson. I didn’t have to put any spin on the ball as Rita. All I had to do was speak. And there was such simplicity in that as an actor. With Deb, I was trying to put a square peg into a round hole, and it just didn’t work, but in my mind, because I had to work so hard on it, I was, like, “Oh, this is acting!” But that’s not acting.
The hardest thing to do as an actor is to be simplistic, and to just be. It was a very important lesson in that process, and once I accepted it… Because, you know, I was, like, “Rita’s too easy for me. It’s too simple. I’m not doing anything.” And yet I understood her on such an organic level—she just existed in me—that it just made sense. I’d always thought that acting was, like, you had to work really hard, you had to change the way you walked, you talked, and all of that. But that’s not acting. That’s shmacting. [Laughs.] So I was schmacting. With Rita, I was acting.
AVC: Given that we spoke to John Lithgow for this feature not so long ago, it seems only appropriate to ask about the experience of meeting your end at his hand.
JB: Oh, you know, I wish I’d had a scene with him! It would’ve been lovely! But, listen, in the moment when it happened… Because they didn’t tell me. I didn’t know that’s how the season was going to end. I found out at the last minute. The rug was ripped out from underneath me. And, you know, first and foremost, this is how I make a living, so my first reaction was, “Oh, my god, I just lost my job. Fuck!” [Laughs.] Right? And my second reaction was, “Wait, who’s going to raise the baby?” It was such a weird mix of the synergy between actor and character. I was, like, “This is so fucked!”
So in the moment, it was a lot to wrap my head around. And I was deeply saddened by the decision. In hindsight, it made sense in the progression of the show that they had to do that. In the moment, it made no sense to me. And it made no sense to many of the other actors. Many of the other cast were, like, “What the fuck?” [Laughs.] But my biggest fear in the moment was that the audience wasn’t going to care, and if the audience didn’t care, then what does that say about Rita? And when it had the impact that it had, that made me realize how important Rita was to Dexter.
I think I thought that they just thought she was expendable, and I was afraid that the audience was just going to go, “Oh, finally! Finally she’s gone!” But, in fact, it was the exact opposite, and to be given that honor to carry that moment… It’s a moment that I will be asked about for the rest of my life as an actor, and I carry that moment with pride, that Rita had such an impact and that it was such a gut-wrenching moment for audience members. I still have people coming up to me, and it was, what, six or seven years ago when that finale aired? And they tell me who they were watching with, what their emotional reaction was, and how they were devastated for weeks about her. So it’s nice to know that Rita had that impact, and it was nice to end a character on a high note like that. But, again, in the moment… [Laughs.] I always say, nobody was more devastated than me!
No Ordinary Family (2010-2011)—“Stephanie Powell”
AVC: Is there a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
JB: No Ordinary Family. For sure. It was right before the superhero phenomenon took off on television, so we only did one year of it, but it was such a fun show to work on, and working with Michael Chiklis was a real treat. I always say that No Ordinary Family was the show that should’ve been.
As Good As It Gets (1997)—“Receptionist”
JB: Once again, I went in for an audition, but the audition was with James L. Brooks. I was the first girl in that morning, and there was a whole waiting room of girls waiting to read for it. So I did my audition, and he asked me to step outside. So I stepped outside, and when he asked me to come back in, he looked at me, and he said, “Well, I’m very excited to work with you on set.” And I was, like, “What?” I thought it was a Hollywood blow-off. It didn’t seem real. I was just, like, “Oh, yeah, sure, me too!” Thinking, “Okay, sure, buddy!” [Laughs.] And I left.
I didn’t tell anybody, because I was just going, “Well, that was the strangest audition…” And I just thought, “There’s no way he gave me the job on the spot when there was a room full of other girls waiting to audition for it.” But then I didn’t hear anything for a couple of days, so I finally called my agents, and they’re, like, “Oh, yeah, congratulations! We know Jim told you in the room that you got it.” I said, “Well, yeah, but I didn’t believe him!” [Laughs.] They all thought it was funny, but I just thought it was a Hollywood blow-off from a big-time director. I thought it was his sign-out to everybody.