411mania Interviews: James Marsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel)
James Marsters has been appearing on your TV screen pretty regularly over the last 15 years, with runs on Hawaii 5-0, Smallville, Torchwood, Caprica, and Without a Trace, and noteworthy guest spots on Supernatural, Saving Grace, and Lie to Me, but he will forever be associated with the role of Spike, which he created on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then continued on Angel. On the eve of the 15th anniversary of the series premiere of Buffy we sat down to discuss the show.
Al Norton: Were you aware that this month was the 15th anniversary of the premiere of Buffy?
James Marsters: No. I had it in my head that it was 7 years. I can’t believe it’s been 15 years already. Life goes so fast.
Al Norton: Are you now or have you ever been sick of talking about the show?
James Marsters: No, not at all. I’m a guy that can watch old Twilight Zone reruns for the 15th time. I like things that are well done, well written, and well executed, and I prefer to watch a well done movie more than once over something new that’s not so good. I am very proud of the fact that I was part of something that didn’t have all the money in the world but had the creative force to make something watchable more than once.
One of my favorite movies is the original Star Wars, and not after Lucas did all the computer effects, quote unquote fixing them, I like the version that cost something like $4.7 million. I love the fact that he could take me to another galaxy for that amount of money. I love the fact that the floating car in that movie was done with mirrors; he put mirrors over the wheels of the car and had Mark Hamill drive it to the dessert and he filmed it. I wanted to believe that that car floated and so it did. Yeah, if you look at it closely you can see its mirrors but I didn’t notice it the first five times I watched the movie.
Al Norton: Have you at any point sat down and made a conscious effort to watch the show, either the whole series or certain seasons?
James Marsters: I haven’t sat down and watched the entire thing front to back ever. I’ve watched certain episodes over. I probably should, though. I find that the further I get away from it, the more I can enjoy it as an audience member as opposed to a participant and it gets more enjoyable that way.
When I watched it right away, right after we did it, all I could think about was the blood, sweat, and tears, but as the years go by I can appreciate it as a story and it’s quite delightful.
Al Norton: Do you remember your audition for Spike?
James Marsters: Oh very much. I absolutely believed I owned the role. I did something in the audition that I don’t normally do which was to try to beat down the other actors psychologically by quoting Shakespeare. I don’t know why I thought quoting Shakespeare would freak them out because the role is definitely not Shakespearian (laughing)…but I think it did. I remember someone asking if I was ready to audition and I said, “yeah, I was born ready.”
After the audition David Greenwalt said, “I love these two.” Mainly I was aware I was an ornament for Juliet Landau and whether or not I was going to be cast was based on how well she and I had chemistry, which is something you really can’t force. I remember thinking we had a connection right away because we both came from theater. We didn’t talk a lot but there seemed to be a way of thinking about things because of that background. We were both clued into the importance of the words. It felt comfortable for me and I was hoping it did for Juliet, too, because I needed the money.
Al Norton: Did you do an accent in the audition?
James Marsters: In fact for the first round of the auditions I did both an English accent and then a Southern accent. They were interested in seeing what I could do.
Al Norton: How close to that accent what you ended up playing Spike with?
James Marsters: It was a bastardized version of what I ultimately did. If you watch my first episode School Hard, that’s pretty close to what I auditioned with but I’m fairly proud of the fact that it got better after that. Basically Anthony Head came up to me after I mispronounced bullocks. In the script they spelled it out and so I pronounced it that way, bull ocks, and after he saw the dailies he came up to me and said, “we don’t pronounce it that way, you prat.” Anthony is a wonderful human being but his patience was being tested; he said that he had to go back to England and show his face so I had to get it right. He was a free accent coach for me’ for the first six or seven episodes we would go through every word together until I could do the accent so that he found it believable.
If you compare the accent from the first episode to later on, it gets better, thank god.
Al Norton: How soon after those first episodes did you find out that they weren’t going to kill Spike and wanted to bring you back?
James Marsters: About two years (laughing). I remember doing those first five episodes and, it must have been episode three, and Joss (Whedon) almost physically pushing me up against a wall and saying, “I don’t care how popular you are; you are going to die, die, die.” He made it very clear he did not want the show to be taken over by another romantic vampire. He was not enamored with vampires and that’s putting it mildly.
To Joss, vampires were supposed to be ugly, evil, and quick to be killed. He got talked into one romantic vampire by his writing partner David Greenwalt and that was Angel. Of course Angel took off like a rocket and when I was cast Joss did not imagine me to be popular; Spike was supposed to be dirty and evil, punk rock, and then dead. Things started to turn out differently and I think Joss was passionate that I would not corrupt his theme, which was basically trying to find a metaphor for all of the problems you encounter during adolescence. Vampires stood in for those problems and I think I endangered that theme by being popular. He did not want people to like me at all.
At first I was supposed to die in 5 episodes and then the decided to keep me around for 10, but at the end of 10 that was it; I was gone and there was no plan to bring me back at all. It was only when they spun off Angel into a series and lost their Cordelia, which was the character who told Buffy she was stupid and about to die, that they needed someone to tell Buffy she was stupid and about to die, and they decided to bring me back. I failed miserably at that because I could never be around in the daytime to tell Buffy she was stupid and going to die because I was a vampire and going to catch on fire. There were two or three burning blanket episodes in season four, during which I thought I was going to be fired because it was very obvious to me I was not working out as Cordelia.
Al Norton: Was there a particular moment in your personal life when you realized how big the show was and how popular Spike had become?
James Marsters: No, not at all. I ran from whatever fame was created by that. I hid from it. I was not comfortable being famous, I never really wanted to be famous. When I was in high school I auditioned for the National Thespian Society production of Godspell, which was to be performed at Ball State University. The Thespian Society was the drama geek society (laughing), all the drama students around American, and every other year they meet at Ball State and have a convention and do a production that they cast nationally to perform at the convention. My senior year it was Godspell and I got cast in the role of Jesus because I had a big curly afro.
Within the confines of Ball State University we were Justin Beiber. We were huge. We couldn’t go to the bathroom without girls breaking in to watch us urinate. They would break into our sleeping quarters to steal our pillows. I remember thinking that it sucked, that this was not the life I wanted to have, and thank god I had discovered it now to choose theater above film or television. And that’s what I did for years. I only decided to go to Los Angeles to do television when my son was born and it became perfectly obvious that my son didn’t want to be as poor as the theater actor was (laughing).
I came to Los Angeles and was willing to do anything. I was willing to be Alf’s sidekick or friends with Eurkel, I didn’t care. I was willing to sell out completely, make a quarter million dollars, and then get the hell out of town. Then I met Joss Whedon and suddenly everything blew up in my face. I remember living for five years in Santa Monica and basically hiding, which is very difficult with platinum blonde hair; you just walk out for a burrito and traffic stops.
I was sort of cognoscente of the fact that people were noticing but I didn’t really want to think about it. In the years since then as I’ve traveled around the world I’ve become aware that we struck a chord and I’m very proud of that, very happy to be part of it, but at the time, however much I noticed it, I was uncomfortable with it.
Al Norton: Do you have a favorite episode of Buffy?
James Marsters: I’d have to say my favorite episode would be the musical episode because…because it was so strange, man (laughing). Usually we’d get a copy of a script delivered to our trailers but that week we just got a cassette tape. I remember at lunch heading back to me trailer expecting a new script, which was always good thing because they were so much fun to read, but I got this tape instead. I put the cassette into the sound system in my trailer and there’s Joss and his lovely wife singing and playing piano, doing these songs.
It’s obvious now that they were good songs but the thing was Joss and his wife Kai, they don’t sing very well. And they don’t play piano very well. The songs sounded really cheesy and horrible. Absolutely horrible. I remember thinking, “what the hell is this?!?!” I remember coming out of my trailer, blinking in the sunshine and seeing the other cast members coming out of theirs with the same looks on their faces because they had been listening to their cassettes. Everyone was completely confused. There was this period of about four days where everyone realized this was the new episode and we were expected to perform these songs in front of the camera and freaking out. We were saying, “Joss, you’re ruining our careers. First of all, you’ve never written any music and second of all, I was not hired to be a musical performer. I’d rather juggle chainsaws. This is a career ender.”
Joss just held firm that this is what he wanted us to do and that we were under contract and there was no way we were going to get out of it, and this is why it’s my favorite episode; at that point the cast knuckled down and really started to make it work. We stopped complaining and really just married to the material. I think Sarah hired two different vocal coaches to make sure that if we were going to leap off the cliff, we were not going to fall, and maybe we’d fly. As an artist you want to leap off the cliff and once you leap you better start flapping because there are only two possibilities, you are going to fly or you are going to splat.
I remember us starting to flap and it was beautiful. I remember Joss cut the Xander dance – it was the first scene he filmed and did a rough cut of that – and he wheeled a television set onto the sound stage and showing us what it was going to be and at that point we were overjoyed because it was brilliant. We went from the depths of despair to the heights of self-pride in eight days. I am very proud of us because at some point we decided we were going to try our best.
Al Norton: That’s the episode that did it for me, that got me hooked. I had never watched Buffy before – resisting mostly because all my friends said I HAD to watch – and I happen to catch that particular hour and thought, “this is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”
James Marsters: Yeah, wasn’t it though? It was a true artistic risk. There was no reason to do that beyond pure artistic impulse. There was no commercial reason. So much to lose and so little to gain. There’s someone delightful about watching artists do it because they want to, not because someone tells them they have to. It’s like the Marvin Gaye album What’s Going on. He was already established as a highly successful artist and his record company told him not to do the album, that it would never sell. He had nothing to gain except to voice his own viewpoint on what was happening in the country at the time and so the album is divorced from any commercialism whatsoever, it’s simply Marvin Gaye saying, “this is important, please listen to me.” It’s one of my favorite albums of all time.
I would say Once More with Feeling, whether or not I was a part of it, and I wasn’t a huge part, is one of my favorite episodes of television of all time, and that goes back to the black and white Honeymooners.
Al Norton: I ran a whole bunch of Buffy polls on our website and Facebook page and the one things the readers wanted me to ask you about, other than your favorite episode, was Seeing Red, the episode where Spike tries to force himself on Buffy. There’s been some distance now between you and the episode; do you think it worked and did you understand the story they were trying to tell?
James Marsters: I do understand why they did it but I still think it was a mistake. The truth is the writers on Buffy were being incredibly brave. Joss was asking each of them to come up with their most painful day, their most humiliating day, the day that they made the biggest fools of themselves or the day they hurt someone else the most, and then put a patina of fangs and blood over that. Basically that’s why I think the series is so delightful, because of the bravery of the writers on that score.
One of the writers, a female writer, had a situation in her life where she was and her boyfriend were breaking up and she decided if she just made love to him one more time, that they wouldn’t break up. She ended up trying to force herself on him and decided to write about that. The thing is, if you flip it and make it a man forcing himself on a woman, I believe it becomes a whole different thing.
Even though Buffy is super strong, even though she kicks him through a wall at the end of it, how it plays to the audience changes when you change the sex that way. It worked out and everything but I’m not really sure it expressed what the author was intending and on that score it was not successful. I think it was a big risk for everybody but I think if she could have found a female character to express that with it would have gotten closer to what she was trying to say, and I’m not really sure that we got there with that episode.
Al Norton: When you filmed the Buffy finale did you already know you’d be joining the cast of Angel?
James Marsters: Yes. We were trying desperately to keep it under wraps. Joss wanted all of the fans to cry, he wanted everyone to think Spike was dead and then magically resurrect on Angel and have everyone gasp in surprise. The problem was Angel was about to be cancelled and the only way he could talk the network into keeping the series on the air was to put Spike on the show, at which point the network wanted to tell the world that Spike was on in order to sell it to advertisers for the next season. There was this tension because of that. I was told not to say anything during interviews and then I would read that The WB had spilled it all over the world.
Whenever I meet someone who says they were said when Spike died I’m thankful there is someone who didn’t hear what The WB was putting out there. I don’t blame them – they were trying to sell a product – but Joss was really mad that they were ruining this great surprise he had for everybody.
Al Norton: Would you have been happy with the Buffy finale if that were Spike’s final scene ever?
James Marsters: Well except for the no paycheck thing, yeah (laughing). I was poor for 20 years so I was quite happy to be part of the art but I also wanted the money. Poverty is fine if you’re doing something you believe in but as soon as you have kids, poverty sucks.
Al Norton: Did you keep any props from the show?
James Marsters: No. I used to run a theater company in Chicago and Seattle and I hated actors who stole props and costumes. I have a special vehement anger about actors who do that. I remember the costume department at Buffy telling me I should take the coat with me and me on my high and mighty horse thinking, “no, I don’t do things like that. I won’t sink that low.” About three weeks after the show ended I read something about how Fox sold the coat for $250,000 and I thought, “how expensive is morality? (laughing)”
I should have taken the coat, I really should have, and I should have sold it. At least I have my horse. It’s a really nice horse (laughing).
Al Norton: Are you at all surprised that Buffy continues to live on successfully in comic book form?
James Marsters: I am not surprised at all that the show in any form continues to live on. It’s a very potent metaphor. I don’t want to oversell this but it’s the same theme as Catcher in the Rye, it’s the same theme as Hamlet; how do you get through adolescence? How do you get through the period from childhood to adulthood when you realize the world is not a perfect place? How do you care about the world, how do you not give up on the world, how do you accept the fact that it is a corrupt environment and still engage it? I think that’s an important thing to talk about, I think that artists should go back there more often, and I’m really glad Joss was able to find a metaphor to talk about something that is a serious subject with so much humor.
I’m not surprised at all that it lives on. I would be very surprised if it ever died, actually. I haven’t heard anyone else talking about it as directly since Buffy. Someone else will come up with another metaphor to talk about the same theme but I haven’t seen it yet.
Al Norton: Did you see that Juliet Landau is writing a Drusilla book?
James Marsters: I did and I’m thrilled. She’s a great writer and frankly one of my favorite actors in the world.
Al Norton: Do you feel obligated to keep up with the books so you know what Spike is doing?
James Marsters: I don’t even care to look (laughing). When they were giving me scripts during the show, what I said in my mind was, “you can make me do anything but how the audience feels about my character is under my control.” I come from theater, where we can read the phone book and make you laugh or cry depending on what we want you to do, so I can take a group of words and make it do what I want to do. I have some control. You can make me do anything but I can decide that the audience will like the character, that’s the one control I have.
With these books, I’ve lost that control. It’s living on – they’ll write what they write and draw what they draw – and I no longer have any input. I don’t really read it because it hurts; I want to have my input. Whenever I do read them, they are always great but at the same time it really does hurt.
Al Norton: More so than any of the other cast members you have taken your relationship with the fans and grown it so it seems to be stronger now than it was when the show as on the air. In one of our conversations you called it a community. How much of that do you think is Spike and how much of it is you? And why you slash him?
James Marsters: I think it was an accident. Buffy was written about and for people who are on the outside. It was not written for the Cordelias of the world. It was not written for the popular kids in high school, it was written for the not-popular kids, which is basically the 99%. Spike, because the character endangered Joss’ theme, was pushed to the outside of a group of outsiders. I think that Joss tried to do it again, this time on purpose, with the character of Dawn. I think he tried to recreate that scenario, an outsider in a group of outsiders, with Dawn but because he planned on it, because he was doing it on purpose, somehow she was too precious.
With me, with Spike, he really meant it. He did not want you guys to like me and that created a situation where the character was a true outcast because the author really didn’t like the character. It was nothing he planned on but he created the uber-outsider, which spoke to the audience in a deep way.
It’s one of those things that happen in art, when you have a group of artists who are sincere about what they are doing, the love comes through and sometimes it comes through in surprising ways.
In respect to the fans, the thing is I used to be a Star Trek geek. I was at the very first Star Trek convention in the world in the mid 70’s in Oakland, California. I had a blue Spock tunic my sister made me, I had a phaser I had carved myself out of balsa wood, and I erased my eyebrows with soap and painted on Spock eyebrows, and I had a big blonde afro, and I was beautiful. For the first time in my life, I was beautiful. Everyone came around and said they liked my tunic, my phaser was cool. At that point I was not popular in school at all. I think it was junior high and I was a nerd. That was one of the first times I can remember of feeling accepted.
Later in high school I was a punk rocker and I specifically did not want to be accepted, I wanted to be on the outside. I was wearing Chinese slippers and Zoot suits and suddenly I was popular, but I don’t know why. I think it was because my parents left once a month and we’d have massive parties at my house. At that point in my life it was an important part of my progression as a human being to find a group of people who accepted me and I think of conventions as a Grateful Dead concert or a Burning Man festival. In those environments you can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do as long as you don’t hurt anyone doing it, and you can be beautiful doing it. And people will respond to you positively for being yourself. I think it’s an incredibly wonderful environment and I am willing to do whatever I can to foster that. I think the world doesn’t have enough tolerance, enough appreciate for things that are different and beautiful.
Al Norton: If Joss calls you tomorrow and says he has a project, do you say yes without asking what it is?
James Marsters: I wouldn’t even ask. I told him years ago that wherever I am on earth, if he has one line or 50 lines, I’ll come, and that holds true today. He’s one of the best writers I’ve ever met in my life.
Avengers, right? Can’t wait. Give that man some real money, and Robert Downey, Jr.? Can you believe it? Joss Whedon and Robert Downey, Jr. on a set together. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall.
Al Norton: At this point are you comfortable saying you’ll never play Spike again?
James Marsters: Yes. I remember the first time you and I talked telling you about a conversation Joss and I had when Angel was getting cancelled and he asked me if I wanted to do a Spike project. I said yes but that he had 7 years to film it because I’m a human being and getting older and Spike is not, so in order to hold to that truth I think I can believable play the role for another 7 years but after that we’d have to cheat. We’d have to tell the audience, “oh, he’s aging slowly because he’s drinking pig’s blood” or some bullshit like that and I wouldn’t want to corrupt the character or the mythology that way. At this point, I am aging gracefully but I am not Spike; I don’t think that would hold anymore.
Al Norton: Your IMDB page is quite long, you’ve worked steadily for years, you’ve recorded albums, you’re a Dad, and now a new husband, but are you ok if many, many years from now your obituary reads, “James Marsters, Spike from Buffy, Dead at Age 97?”
James Marsters: Yes. To me it would be fop but to the world, that’s fine. I think that lightening struck in my life and I was able to be part of something that lasts and I’ll never run away from that. I’ve never understood actors that ever did. Most of us are part of projects that are semi-entertaining at the moment but go away from the public consciousness and I think if we’re all honest, we dream about being part of something that will hold the audience’s fantasy for years.
I would have loved to have played a character in Casablanca. I would have loved to have been in Blade Runner. I didn’t get to do those things but I did get to be a part of Buffy, which is just as good and I’ll always be thankful that I’m remembered for it. I’m very proud of it.
Al Norton: If you can put it in a couple of sentences, what do you think the show’s lasting legacy will be?
James Marsters: Don’t give up on the world. The world is worth it. The world is not perfect but it is worth caring about.
Stay up to date with James and his appearances at www.jamesmarsters.com. The entire 7 season set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is available on DVD on Amazon.com for under $100.