Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of Joss Whedon’s seminal series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and doesn’t that just make you feel ancient? As someone who started going by her middle name in high school because it was the name of Juliet Landau’s character on the show, Buffy played a huge part in my formative years and is probably one of a handful of reasons I get to write about television for a living.
(Side-note: Did you know that Buffy is on Netflix, along with Whedon’s OTHER best TV show—sorry Dollhouse—Firefly? Both shows are only streaming till April 1st though, so really…now is the time to binge!)
In honor of this huge milestone (and to impress the 13-year-old me who still lives in my head), I reached out to actor James Marsters, who played Spike, the bleach-blond, British vampire whose complicated relationship with the Slayer helped pave the way for one of the most hard-to-watch episodes of TV history (season 6th’s “Seeing Red“). Marsters is currently gearing up for his role on the Marvel/Hulu show Runaways, which reunites the creative partnership of Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (The O.C., Gossip Girl) to tell the story about six teenagers with superpowers ganging up on their evil parents. And yes, Marsters will be playing one of the bad dads.
I’m sure you get crazy Buffy fans all the time. But then it just turned out the 20th anniversary is on Friday.
I’m a crazy Buffy fan, too. I’ll go on and on about how good that show is. It’s kind of like Prince music. You could listen to an old Prince album and it holds up.
You’ve said in interviews that you approached playing Spike from the beginning as if he had a soul. That really makes sense. I was watching from Season 2, you were always a more three-dimensional character.
I was pulling out all the stops in order to not get killed off. Joss said, “You are a soulless vampire. Vampires on this show are a metaphor for all the trials of being a teenager. I’m not interested in vampires that we feel for. That’s why you guys are ugly and horrific when you bite someone and I don’t want that to be a sensual moment. So you have no soul, that’s your character.”
I said, “Yes, sir. No problem dude.” He turns his back and I’m like, “No way in Hell.” If you play it like that, the audience has nothing to grab onto and there’s no reason not to kill you off. I always say when you are doing anything in art, you got to find the love. It could be love denied, love twisted, it doesn’t have to be sweet, but you have to find the love. Then you find the gold in the mountain, and then you have the rocket fuel and you can go anywhere.
This sounds like a video game you’re describing.
Well, I game all the time. Horizon Zero Dawn, Oh my God. So I immediately identified the loves of Spike immediately, which was Dru, and on the page he wasn’t that great of a boyfriend. He was judgmental. He was making fun of her because she was a little crazy.
One of my favorite lines of yours is when Drusilla says she’s naming all the stars, and you tell her “You can’t see the stars, love. That’s the ceiling. Also it’s day.”
That line is actually the one I had to deal with the most. I decided to rest my chin on my hand like, “You are so weird and that’s what I love about you. My favorite thing about is you is that you are seeing the stars, but it’s the ceiling. I just fell in love with you again.”
But back then he was supposed to be kind of a jerk boyfriend, because he was going to get killed by Angel and she was going to take up with Angel, so Spike was being set up so the audience was not going to feel so bad when he got killed off.
When you resurrect the Judge he has a line about you and Dru smelling bad because there is a deeper soul connection there. There is so much on Buffy that in retrospect is way ahead of its time. Like the episode where, after having this relationship with Buffy, Spike tries to force himself on her in the bathroom. It was definitely a precursor to the conversation about “grey rape.” And yet, Buffy still needs Spike on her side. I remember thinking about this in college; the idea of, “How do you go forward trusting somebody after they do something like that?” I don’t think the answer is as simple as “he didn’t have a soul and now he’s got one and he won’t try that shit again.”
Let me back up. That was the hardest day of my professional career. I don’t like to watch content with scenes like that. It’s my little red button, I don’t like to press it. What happened on Buffy and the reason it’s lasted is they asked writers to come up with their worst day. The day they don’t tell anyone about. The day they got hurt really bad. Then slap fangs on top of that secret and tell the world. In this case, the idea for the script came from one of the female writers. In college, she got broken up with by her boyfriend and went over to his dorm room, convinced that if they made love one more time everything would be fixed. She really threw herself on him and he had to throw her off. It was an incredible gift that she was willing to share that with the world. The thinking was, since Buffy is a superhero and has the power to throw Spike through a wall, it was okay to switch the sexes.
Also the idea that this is somebody she has gotten close to, and has had sex with in the past, complicates matters. It seems incredibly well thought-out and nuanced and important.
Spike wasn’t just doing it for sadistic fun. He was doing it out of a twisted kind of love. Normally I would say if a guy does that to you, get away. Smash him with a lead pipe over the face. Shoot him in the mouth if you have to. In that storyline it’s more complicated than that. The way storytelling works is, you give a vicarious adventure to the audience. We convince you to climb behind the eyes of the lead. Anyone who’s watching Buffy, if it’s working, is Buffy. When I’m watching Buffy, I’m Buffy. That’s how I get the adventure. Basically, we are giving them a vicarious experience of rape. I’m attempting to rape everyone in the audience. When we switch the sexes like that, it may not work like you want it to work, but it was perfect in a way, because it was necessary for Buffy to realize she was in an unhealthy relationship, it was essential for Spike to realize he was well short of worthy for Buffy, so that would motivate him to try and get a soul. So it all worked in the larger arcs and all worked, dramatically speaking. I agree with your larger point. There were a lot of times on Buffy that things were talked about that other shows would shy away from. Right after Columbine, we had a student up in a bell tower right about to shoot.
That episode had to get pushed back, right?
It was too close to the bone and I wish they hadn’t. It was just “let’s talk about this.” Let’s go ask the guy “why are you doing this?”
The thing too about the final season is how Buffy goes back. How do you trust somebody again? Two episodes later she’s bringing Dawn by. She still trusts you.
What I was trying to play is, Spike comes back from getting a soul. He loves Buffy, but he knows that he doesn’t deserve her, and he has decided to support her in whatever way he can, but give up the hope that they belong together because he is just not mature enough. People ask me who belongs with Buffy: Spike or Angel? Five or 10 years down the road Spike could grow into the vampire that deserves Buffy. I don’t think Angel was ready for Buffy right after he got a soul, or before he got a soul. That was a big issue for me, was “how is he going to fit back into Buffy’s life after that incident?” The answer for me was to admit that you screwed up. You have been revealed as someone that cannot be totally trusted. Don’t pretend that it didn’t happen and take steps to grow and try to become better. But in the interim, don’t fool yourself into thinking she can trust you.
After that second to last season and going forward on Angel, did you feel like fans reacted differently to you?
While Buffy was filming, I didn’t meet a lot of people. I was hiding from the fame that Buffy gave me. There wasn’t a whole lot of knowledge about what the perception was. I had a general sense that there was a lot of interest in the character. I had a more personal sense that the directors and Joss was happy about what was happening and I felt good about it. But I didn’t get out and meet a lot of fans until after the show was done.
Did you feel Spike was a role that defined you so hard in the pop culture consciousness that you avoided taking other big roles for a while?
I knew Spike was going to be my defining role. You know a band has that first album that is a big hit and defines them. If you run away from that, it’s stupid. Just go ahead and say “yeah, I did that. I’m proud of it. I’m glad it worked.”
I didn’t want to play vampire roles. I still look at that, there would have to be a really good reason for me to play a vampire. Why do it unless it’s gonna be absolutely great? I’ve done it. For a little while I didn’t want to do that accent.
Great accent. It took me a decade to realize you weren’t actually British.
I wanted people to know he’s not. He can play other roles besides the British guy.
What about villains? Because that’s a good segue into Runaways. I see you as a Jason Isaacs type of guy. You can play more than one bad guy.
Villains are fun. They are the best trolls. They age well. You can be the villain and you can ride that into the sunset. I want to be the new Christopher Lee. That dude was 76 years old having a lightsaber fight with Yoda and flipping around. And they made it work. Villains for me.
Sir Ian McKellen.
He’s doing Magneto. He’s in his 70s. Just keep in shape and you’ll have a fine career.
Tell me about Runaways. Are you a big comics fan?
I’ve read so many comics. I had a huge comic book collection when I was 13. I remember finally wanted to cash it in and sell it and I was convinced I was going to make a fortune because the people told me what a collector’s item this one comic was. I went and sold it back to the comic store for $3.
My first job out of college was working at this Brooklyn bar. They had tons of comics in the basement and I’d sift through them all and find out which ones were valuable.
That broke my heart when I was a kid. I stopped reading comics for a while. In college, someone handed me the Frank Miller Daredevil arc. It was this long arc of comics and I became a Frank Miller fan. When Dark Knight Returns came out I got all of those. And then I got really into Swamp Thing, the really twisted one with Constantine. I remember Young Mutants were just coming out. This was the mid-80s. You know what I noticed the difference between Marvel and DC was?
What is it?
In Marvel, when the characters fight their mouths are open. In DC, their mouths are closed. It’s like, “Batman, do you really care?”
Batman vs. Superman, I’m not interested to see how that fight ends, I’d rather see the Avengers or even X-Men.
Stan Lee had a lot to say. Behind that universe is a lot of good messages about the human condition in a strange way. I know it’s comic books. In the 60s putting out Black Panther comic books, putting out the Iron Fist comic books, embracing the cultural changes that were happening in the ’60s. I like Stan a lot, I’ve met him. He’s a great guy. There is a fascist bent behind most comic books. The rich powerful guy will solve all the problems, and the cops can’t do it.
Or the literal Ubermensch will do it. Or the police are so bumbling and so crooked. Who doesn’t want a vigilante? Brian K. Vaughn is one of my favorites, and Runaways I remember reading in college. It’s like how they are doing American Gods. I can’t wait to for that show.
Oh my god. I didn’t know they were doing that.
What was your experience? Have you read Runaways before?
I don’t want to know what my character doesn’t know. It takes a lot of energy to act ignorance. If you know what’s coming down the pipes you have to act really hard to pretend that you are not aware of that fact. It’s good to just be unaware and play what is happening today.
Did someone reach out to you about this role or were you actively trying to get this role?
It was pilot season and I was auditioning for pilots and I remember the character was described as an evil Elon Musk. An engineer who was remaking the world and who NASA comes to for advice. Driving to the audition I made up an improvisation for my mind. I should go in and address my company. What are your marching orders for today? I said “Alright guys, drop your projects, NASA just called, they need help with the Mars mission. It’s all about recycling on that craft to get to Mars. They don’t have enough fuel to throw stuff away. You have to recycle food, water, oxygen. They’ve figured it out for all those systems. They can’t get water out of poop.” This is actually true. It’s one of the issues they don’t know how to solve. “I want an interesting idea on my desk by the morning and don’t come to me with boiling the poop. Any caveman can do that. It takes too much energy. We need something that’s low energy. The coffee is free today. But I need something interesting, it doesn’t need to solve the problem, but if I don’t get that, someone’s fired.”
That in itself is not evil.
He doesn’t know he’s evil. Villains never do. They graciously agreed to film that minute of improvisation. They showed it to Marvel and thought “ah, we found him.” I’m glad I had enough coffee on the way to the audition that day.
Do you just keep up with a lot of NASA news?
I’m a science nut. I love politics and science and read a lot on those two issues. Also history.
I did want to ask you about your band as well. Since you sang “Rest in Peace” in the Buffy musical episode, did that become the big “Free Bird” at your concerts.
We never play that song. I actually didn’t write it, Joss wrote it. The band is a respectable pop-rock band with Jazz influences. Like Ben Folds Five or Weezer. We’re a good band, but our chords progressions are very different than the song in “Once More with Feeling.” That’s a Broadway version of a rock song. The chord progressions reflect that. It’s a very different song. I’m glad you like the song, but we don’t do covers.
Do you still perform?
Yeah. We are working on our fifth album right now. Pair of Bowls will be out this summer. You can get all of our stuff on Itunes and Amazon. Or physical copies on GOTRmusic.com, which stands for Ghost of the Robot. We’ve toured the world. We’ve been together since 2001. We’ve sold every venue in London out. We’ve sold out in Paris, Germany, Amsterdam, Spain I think. We’ve had a really good run.
I’ve got a third project that I’m really proud of. It’s a web series called Vidiots. It’s a lot like Idiot Abroad. Our show, Mark Devine and I travel the world and understand nothing and at the end of the day, we like to play video games. We flip the Youtube thing on its head. You can see thousands of videos of people who are experts at video games, but try to crack jokes and are not funny. We do the opposite. We are unforgivably bad at video games, but we are really funny when we do it. It’s on Vimeo and Amazon and it’s $1.39 an episode or you can get all 15 for $19.95.
Are you going to do a second season?
I’m driving right now to film. I’m going to a rehab center. In the show, Mark got famous and now he’s got an addiction to Peppermint Patties.