By SILVIA PIKAL
James Marsters performs at Saskatoon Expo. (Photo: courtesy Calgary Expo)
When asked what he liked most about playing Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, James Marsters doesn’t hesitate: “Getting to mess with Sarah Michelle Gellar.”
Marsters says while Gellar was great to work with, he enjoyed having a bit of fun at the expense of the show’s lead. He adds that in Hollywood the lead actor or actress is usually treated like royalty on set, whether they’re nice people or not.
“When they called the beautiful word ‘action,’ I got to mess with her,” Marsters says. “I would constantly try and make Sarah forget her lines.”
Marsters breaks into the punk-rock vampire’s trademark British accent: “Hello love, I’m going to ruin your day.”
“I really enjoyed just messing with the poor girl.”
Spike was only supposed to be a short-lived character, but he became so popular with fans that show creator Joss Whedon was forced to keep him around. Spike became one of the most iconic characters in the beloved series, and stuck around until the series finale.
Marsters has a straightforward answer for why Buffy is still such an enduring part of popular culture, “Because it didn’t suck.”
He says the show owes its success to the great actors, Whedon’s genius and the team of talented storytellers. Many of the writers are now major power players in Hollywood, and work on all the big shows like Battlestar Gallactica, Lost and Mad Men.
Marsters says Whedon gave the writers the chance to take risks with their writing: “He asked writers to come up with their worst day, the day they don’t tell anyone about, that keeps them up at night. Their dirty little secret. And slap fangs on top of that pain and tell the world about it.”
He says the writing was packed with so much nuance, that sometimes it was a challenge to fit everything into a tight shooting schedule.
“Filming for me was constantly a question of ‘Are we getting what’s on the page to film?'” Marsters says. “That’s not that easy to do when there’s so much good stuff in the script. You’re basically at war when you’re filming and the enemy is time. Time always wins the battle and it’s heartbreaking when the script is really good, and you read through the script afterwards and think, ‘We didn’t achieve that one little flicker or interesting thing that was described.’ It’s painful.”
The show left a mark on television and pop culture, breaking the conventions of genre storytelling and weaving in powerful and realistic depictions of death, loss, love, addiction, abuse, and other issues alongside a fantastical plot filled with vampires, demons and other monsters.
Marsters says the show is still relevant today thanks to its portrayal of teenagers struggling with life’s most important questions.
“How do you make it out of your teenage years without giving up on the world and giving up on yourself?” Marsters says. “How do you get to the point in your life where you realize the world is really messed up, and your parents don’t know everything, and your teachers barely understand the subject matter? How do you decide to keep trying? It’s a struggle. I’m not a teenager anymore but I still struggle with that one. How do I not give up?”
One of Marster’s favourite episodes was “The Body,” where Buffy struggles with her mother’s death.
“All of the vampires and jokes and stunts were stripped out of it and you watch a teenage girl lose her mom,” Marsters says. “We all saw the characters were strong enough to stand on their own as people.”
After Buffy, Marsters remained a pop culture fixture, appearing in shows like Smallville, Torchwood and Caprica; being a voice actor for cartoons and videogames; and narrating the audiobooks for The Dresden Files detective novels. He’s also a member of rock band Ghost of the Robot, and a solo musician.
Marsters will be in town for the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo (April 27-30), and is playing an acoustic solo set at Cowboys on April 28.
“Calgary’s a real fun place to come to,” Marsters says. “I’m really looking forward to playing music in Calgary because you still love guitars. There are few places left in the world that appreciate guitars and Calgary’s one of them. LA’s not a place that is welcoming to six strings anymore. They’re more into drum machines and keyboards right now.”
His show will include music from all the way back to the first song Marsters ever wrote in New York City in the 1980s, music from Ghost of the Robot, and new songs that haven’t been recorded yet.
He says while he loves both music and acting, songwriting allows him to reveal a more personal side.
“It’s very scary but also very liberating to be that honest in front of a large group of people.”