To celebrate Buffy The Vampire Slayer launching on All 4 and E4, we sat down (virtually) with James Marsters - who played notorious bad guy Spike - to discuss all things Buffy.
- Buffy is a cult phenomenon - what is it about Buffy that you think audiences have connected with and have stuck with for all these years?
JM: I think that it has a wonderful central theme which is ‘don’t give up’. Specifically, in Buffy it’s about a teenager going through high school. For Joss Whedon, the vampires and the demons of Buffy are just metaphors for challenges that you face when you’re in adolescence and when you discover that the world is not perfect. I think what Joss was saying is that the world hurts sometimes, but it’s worth it and don’t give up.
I think it was well done. I didn’t make Buffy, I was in Buffy, so I can say without bragging that it really was a good show and the theme resonates with people of all ages.
One of the writers once told me years ago when they were writing scripts for Buffy, Joss told them to come up with their worst day, the day they got hurt or the day they hurt someone so badly that they don’t talk about it. The day that keeps them up at night. So, I think that the writing on Buffy was the sustained act of vulnerability.
- Buffy has a devoted fan base, but how would you describe Buffy The Vampire Slayer to new audiences who might not have fallen in love with Sunnydale?
JM: Buffy is a rollercoaster ride, it will make you laugh, it will make you very angry and it will break your heart. You never quite know when any of that is going to happen.
- Spike bordered the fine line of baddy / goodie / romantic interest for Buffy – how was it developing that character over the seasons? Was it a challenge?
JM: It was both very challenging and very easy. And I enjoyed every second of it. It was easy to be an actor in that you have a script, a piece of art that you are inspired by. You get to follow the script, and when the script is very good – it’s very inspiring. It leads you through your journey so in that way, it was very easy to come up with ideas for the character.
What was hard is that Joss is not interested in keeping the audience safe. He’s not interested characters that are always happy and so if you really give your heart over to the role, which I did, it can hurt you. There were times I was afraid of reading the next script for what Joss was going to make me feel in the next week. So, in that way it was very terrifying.
Normally in a television show, you know what kind of things you’re going to be asked to do, but with Joss you really have no idea what you’re going to be put through, or what you’re going to put yourself through in order to get that on film.
- Spike must have been a real career-defining role for you, do you miss stepping into those shoes?
JM: Yeah! I think that every actor is wanting a role that is very challenging and asks a lot. One that takes them places that they normally wouldn’t go – both physically and mentally. I also miss the writing, Buffy was the mixture of a lot of good things – kind of like being in a band. It’s an alchemy – you don’t quite know why it’s working so well. Kind of like the Rolling Stones – they are just amazing, but their solo albums, they are not bad, but they are not the Rolling Stones. You can’t say that Mick Jagger did the whole thing or that Keith Richards did the whole thing – it was something almost indescribable. I think that everyone that worked on Buffy really was at the top of their game, but there really was something about the mixture of everyone that really was more than the sum of their parts. I miss it very much.
- Do you have a favourite episode of the show?
JM: Oh, I have many! It’s very hard to pick one! I think my favourite is The Body. I think Joss really proved that with that, the show didn’t need jokes, it didn’t need vampires or special effects. The Body was just an episode about a young woman whose mother died and I think that the show proved that it was dramatically strong. It is when Buffy really must grow up fast. She goes from being a high school student to starting college to losing her mother and then Dawn arriving in her life, which effectively made her a mother in quick succession. I love that episode. The other thing about The Body, is that I got the week off, my character wasn’t in that at all so I got time to rest.
I will always have a soft spot in my heart for School Hard which is my first episode, that was an intense experience and it was such a good one because I felt from the very first scene that it was working. That the character fit well, and it gave me a lot of room to manoeuvre – I was having a lot of fun exploring Spike. There is a saying in theatre that it’s called a play for a reason. The audience isn’t going to pay the actor to just walk, they are paying to watch an actor play. You’ve got to have fun or it’s worth nothing. Even if you’re doing a really sad play, having fun is the centre of it, and I was having a blast.
- Were some episodes more of a challenge to film? For example, the musical episode and your notable solo ‘Rest In Peace’ during Once More With Feeling?
JM: The musical was awesome, it was right up there with my favourite episodes. The cast was terrified when we were doing it, especially in the beginning. We all thought Joss had gone crazy. Musicals really weren’t done on television, it wasn’t a normal thing to decide to do at all. We all thought Joss was taking the television show and flushing it down the toilet. The cast were rightly concerned that they had been hired to be a one camera dramatic / comedic actor, and Joss was asking them to do musicals in front of millions of people. Sarah [Michelle Gellar] asked could she please juggle chainsaws rather than do the musical. I was comfortable singing because Anthony Head was comfortable singing. I just didn’t think Joss was writing very good music – I was a punk rocker and I heard the songs which were just recordings of Joss at the piano. I learned on that episode to trust Joss, because if he thinks he can do something, he can do it.
- How are you doing at the moment and how do you think Spike would be coping during lockdown – I guess a vampire has got to eat?
JM: I’m ok, I’m often travelling (before lockdown) doing something, always going to film something, doing music somewhere, so I was very rarely home often wishing I could enjoy my house – so this is a forced staycation, so I’m quite comfortable about being wise about things and not going out.
I think Spike would be quite the opposite, he would hope that there is a lot of people not staying at home and take long walks at night to find them [he laughs].
Buffy The Vampire Slayer is now available to stream on All 4 with individual episodes available to watch on E4 at 11pm on weekday evenings.