TV's original bad boy vampire bares his soul and talks all things 'Buffy,' 20 years later.
Buffy’s a legend. There’s no going around this. A show that’s turning 20 years old this week has changed the face of television and has yet to meet its match. And surely a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer couldn’t have been a critic darling without a remarkable vampire or two. Spike (played by theater trained James Masters) is still one of the most remarkable TV vampires in history, and we had to dig deep into his grave to uncover all of the secrets behind the making of the cult series.
Below, he breaks down all things Buffy, 20 years later.
I was called in at the very last minute. Apparently they’ve been looking for Spike for a few months and haven’t found anyone. They were three days away from filming when they cast me. I think what happened was Joss Whedon, the creator of the show, just told the casting director to scrape the bottom of the barrel and see what he found. And they found me at the bottom of that barrel.
I’d just come to Los Angeles, I only had a few television credits (I come from theater). And no one knew who I was. For me [the audition] was a pretty regular experience. I auditioned at the casting director’s office and then got a call back to the Buffy stages and read for Joss and the other writers of the show. I think the thing that won me the role was that I clicked with Juliet Landau, who played my girlfriend Drusilla. I was gonna be her boy toy for five episodes, and then Angel was going to kill me off. Because me and Juliet are both theater actors, we have the same vocabulary and we were very comfortable with each other right away. If it hadn’t been for Juliet liking me, you’d be talking to someone else today.
Spike had an English accent, and I had what I thought was a fairly good English accent for the audition. But we actually had an Englishman in the cast. Tony Head, who played Giles, came up to me fairly quickly and told me that my English accent was not good enough and that he would be helping me and that I didn’t have a choice in the matter.
He forced me to take tutoring from him for a good two to three months until I could do it to his satisfaction. I will be grateful to him forever for that. I think that breaking point for Tony was when I said the word ‘bollocks’: I said ‘bow-lucks’. And he just couldn’t take it.
I’m trained in judo. And I come from stage where you don’t get a stuntman — I did a lot of shows that had stunts and I actually even choreographed some plays. So I had some ability coming into it, so I didn’t really take fighting lessons for Buffy.
I probably got better just because we were doing it so much. I probably did too many of my own stunts in hindsight. The gentleman who did Spike’s stunts was Steve Tartalia, and he came from Hong Kong. He was doing stuff that other stuntmen would never do. So I had a very talented and slightly crazy stuntman for Spike, but I didn’t let him work enough. I was a little crazy, too. I wanted to take as much as I could.
First Day on Set
The thing that stood out on my first day on the Buffy set was the dawning realization that I wasn’t going to be poor anymore. I had been a theater actor for so long. And I had gotten used to eating a lot of beans. I remember one winter my ex-wife and I would eat oatmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We’d wait ‘til we got sick of that and we would switch over to the Cream of Wheat. And we would eat that all day long. And then switch back to oatmeal. Really, really lean years. Theater actors don’t make much money. And then we had a baby. I was fine with poverty as an artist. Coming out of high school I knew that if you chose to be a performance artist, you were choosing poverty. It only started crushing me when I became a father and thought that I couldn’t give this young human being the opportunities that he deserved. So we came to Los Angeles to try to make a better living.
The very first scene we shot was me stalking Buffy watching her dance in The Bronze. These first shots everyone got really excited about. And I thought: Hey, they’re not gonna kill me off immediately. I may be able to make a few paychecks before they kill me off. I think I’m gonna pay rent this year. Oh my god, it was one of the best days of my life. Poverty sucks [laughs]. Spike, on the other hand, wasn’t concerned about money; it was way beneath him. If he wanted something, he just took it. He wasn’t into fancy cars. If he was, he would have one.
Now that I’m 54, immortality sounds increasingly interesting.
The thing that stands out about Spike is actually something that I have in my own life which is joy, glee, a sense of fun. Spike was having fun ripping people to shreds. The secret of the character was not to let go of that sense of joy through that.
That was extremely painful. There’s a warning on the box of bleach: “Don’t do that more often than every six weeks.” It’s very unhealthy to do that more often. And we did it once every eight days for six years. They would tell me: “We don’t know if you’re going to have hair after this show.” My hair was fine, but my scalp was the problem. I would have open sores from the previous bleach, and they would pour bleach on top of those wounds. And it got pretty interesting. That wasn’t my favorite day.
The reason we had to do it every eight days was because I couldn’t have roots. Vampire’s dead so his hair can’t grow. But hey, it looked great and the chicks looove blondes. And blondes have more fun, I know that for sure. But it hurt, man.
“The Body” [the one where Buffy deals with her mother’s death]. That was the real proof that the themes were good, the characters were solid, that you didn’t have to tell a bunch of jokes to make a compelling hour of television around these characters. I don’t think there was a one laugh in that entire episode.
I remember Joss coming to me and saying, “I’ve written a script and I’m afraid that you’re not in it." And I just looked at him and said, “Joss, I don’t think Spike wants to be within a hundred miles of this episode.” It was just phenomenal.
Also I think the episode where Tara and Willow kiss is always going to be a high point for me. It was the first teenage lesbian kiss on TV. And I’ve met a lot of people who said that they saw when they were quite young and it helped them admit to themselves and also the people around them their own sexuality. I’m a Star Trek fan from way back and the thing that Star Trek fans will tell you they’re most proud of was that they had the first interracial kiss on American television at the time when that was absolutely taboo back in the '60s. And when we got our kiss and offended some people, I was really quite happy.
I think it was suggested that Spike and Angel had hooked up at some point. I remember filming a scene with David [Boreanaz]. You’re doing so many scenes, you're just trying get the shots right. And I look at David and go, “Did we just shoot a scene that says we slept together?” And he’s just like, “I don’t know, man, I guess, let’s just keep going.” I don’t know which episode that was.
The Musical Episode
I remember being terrified before we shot “Once More With Feeling.” The entire cast was terrified. I didn’t use to be a musical guy. There’s a lot of musicals now that are amazing, but growing up I wasn’t a Hello Dolly sort of guy. I was the Apocalypse Now sort of teenager. I liked All the President’s Men, Serpico and dark gritty movies. Now there are musicals that are quite serious like Les Miserables, that I absolutely love. But I didn’t want to put Spike in a musical [laughs]. This guy was supposed to be like a Sex Pistols. And he ended up singing Broadway rock’n’roll. He’s a punk rock character, what the fuck?!
Tony Head and I were comfortable singing, ‘cause we were already doing it. I was in a band, he was putting out albums. I personally didn’t think Joss was an inexperienced songwriter, I didn’t know if he could pull it off. One of the actors went up to Joss and said, “Look, you hired me to be one camera dramatic/comedic actor. That’s my wheelhouse. And you’re asking me to do something that I’m not trained for, I’m not experienced for. You’re gonna put me in front of my audience doing something that I’m not good at. Can I please just juggle chainsaws and cut my hand off? It won’t be as bad for my career.” I think it’s a fair point.
Eventually the actors got over their fear and realized that Joss was not going to be persuaded. And we stopped whining and complaining, and we got to work. It turned out to be the most amazing episode. None of us realized how big of a genius Joss Whedon was. We knew he was a genius, but didn’t realize the magnitude of his talent. It was like, “I’m lucky he knows my name.”
The Greatest Thing About 'Buffy'
The greatest thing about Buffy was that whenever you tuned in, you never knew what ride you were going to be taken on. It was always a bit of a surprise.
The Pros and Cons of Being a Vampire
Where there any cons?! So many pros! Of all of the dramatic characters out there, playing a vampire is one of the coolest. If you ask an actor what kind of role do you want, they’ll always give you some variation of “the role that makes me look cool.” They’ll disguise it in a number of ways, but at the center of it actor just wants to look cool. And a vampire is the coolest character I can imagine.
The cons were that I couldn’t go into sunshine for seven years. And there are specific health problems when you do that, and I had to go to doctors. I missed the beach and sunsets [laughs]. The head of the makeup department made me promise the oath of honor that I would not hang out in the sunshine while I was playing that role. And I took it seriously. I knew that I had to live in darkness to really pull off that role.
Work Out Routine
I basically was dieting the entire time I was filming Buffy. Because it occurred to me that the only vampires to really stick in the imagination of the audience were the ones who were very thin when they played the role. There weren’t a lot of pudgy vampires that people remembered, even though there are pudgy vampires in film. The only exception to that was Bela Lugosi. Somehow he was so amazing that even though he was overweight he was still cool enough to be Dracula. But everyone else is just rail thin. I think it’s because vampires are metaphor for hunger — not just physical hunger, but psychological and sexual hunger. And it was a mandate for me that I just stopped chewing very much.
And then a lot of stomach crunches and a lot of free weights with a lower weight but at higher repetitions. If you do high weights with low repetitions, you tend to get larger muscles that are not well-defined. But if you do lower weights with higher rep, you get a leaner look that is sharper looking, which I think is better for a vampire.
Joss’ writing style is that he takes what a really good writer would do and then he does the opposite and does it very well. That’s why he’s such a surprising writer.
When he did The Avengers, everyone was concerned that the Avengers will be like superfriends and one big happy family solving crimes and it will be very cheesy. So of course Joss Whedon writes it and they hate each other — they can’t stand to be in the same room together — and it was genius.
The thing that I remember mostly is just people telling me that watching the show got them through a really difficult time in their life. Some people who come up and say, “I had a family member dying of cancer and home was a sad place, but we all got together and watched Buffy and got to laugh once a week.” Or a teenager that said that he had no friends in high school but Buffy helped him grow up in some way.
I am forever grateful that I did my bit on the show that touched the nerve of the world. I didn’t make the show. I was in the show. And there’s a big difference. But I was very lucky to be in the show.