‘Buffy’ vampire James Marsters comes out in the daylight for Comicpalooza
Updated 3:52 pm, Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Spike wasn’t supposed to become a thing. When James Marsters took the role on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in 1997, he was told his character, a vampire, would promptly be slayed. But then something happened. The California native took on a British accent, and his brown hair was crisped and brightened with peroxide. And in addition to being fed the blood of victims, Spike was fed some of the show’s best lines, like an early one that involved the crucifixion, Woodstock and an acid trip. And so a fan favorite was … not born exactly, because vampires are sired.
Marsters, 55, got his start in Chicago doing theater before landing some of his first TV roles in the early ’90s. His life changed with “Buffy.” All the show’s key characters enjoyed long, arcing evolutions, but Spike’s perhaps has the sharpest angle from concept to conclusion. Post-“Buffy” he stuck with TV, doing some episodes as Spike on “Angel,” as well as a long tenure on “Smallville.” He’s done more film and TV work — including his current run on Marvel’s Hulu series “Runaways” — written comic books, narrated audio books and played in bands.
This weekend, he’ll appear at all three days of Comicpalooza, an environment in which Marsters thrives because his enthusiasm for such events mirrors that of the fans.Q: I’ve seen actors sigh and roll their eyes through convention appearances. You seem to genuinely enjoy them.
A: (Laughs.) Well yeah, I was a fan, too. When I was 13 years old, I was going to “Star Trek” conventions dressed as Spock. So I guess I was one of the people William Shatner was ranting about on “Saturday Night Live.” So being a fanboy, I tend to think fans are pretty cool. I find they’re intelligent with a good sense of humor, and they don’t take themselves too seriously. That’s a combination I like very much. You can hang out with intelligent people, but if they’re arrogant, you don’t enjoy their company very much. A smart person who can laugh at themselves, that’s a good find. And I find a lot of those people hanging around at a convention.
Q: “Buffy” turned 20 last year. But I feel like there was a fervor building a few years earlier. Did you detect a renewed interest in the show?
A: Yeah, yeah, there has been this growing interest in “Buffy,” I think starting about five years ago. A lot of young people were starting to discover it for themselves. So at this point, even those new fans are coming at it at a pretty high level now. Sometimes at these conventions, there are more fans than I have time to meet in a day. But the interest is a good thing. “Buffy” was a good, subversive show when it was first on the air. Watch it now: It’s still subversive, this show about a woman who can kick ass if she needs to. So I love meeting 12-, 13-, 14-year-old young women dressed as Buffy or Faith or Willow and seeing that the show is helping more young females to realize their power.
I met someone going to a convention once, an original member of the “Star Wars” cast, an old gent. And I was a fan. But he said he didn’t like (“Buffy”). He didn’t believe a girl that size could hit that hard and defend herself. I told him, Sarah (Michelle Gellar) was doing her own stunts and working with triple black belt stunt doubles every day without breaking a sweat. He said it wasn’t the same. But I’m telling you, she held her own. Finally, I said, “How about Bruce Lee? That’s the deadliest guy I can think of. He was what? Five foot five?” That was the end of the conversation with this hero of mine. He was a nice guy, but there’s some generational thinking around those issues. But sorry, pound for pound, Buffy is plenty deadly.
Q: What do you think has helped it endure? One of my theories is despite the hair and clothes, which kind of ring a ’90s bell, there’s this theme of endurance in the show that’s relatable to just about anyone.
A: I agree, though I think, on a slightly large level, the show is about how do you make it from childhood to adulthood. How you get through your adolescent years when you wake up to the fact that the world is not perfect at all. When you learn parents aren’t all-knowing. Teachers don’t always understand the subject matter. Navigating the complexities and pain of the world without giving up. A lot of people don’t make it through. They give up or come out the other side less than they could be. “Buffy” tells you not to give up. That’s an incredible theme. “Hamlet” has that theme. He takes up arms and it creates a sea of trouble. It costs him his life, but he does try to make a difference. “Catcher in the Rye” is in the same period of life, and it’s a horror show. Holden doesn’t make it through adolescence in a healthy way. There’s a dark next chapter to that story that isn’t written. But “Buffy” shows a more positive side of that. People not giving up, even though it hurts them. They don’t give up on themselves, and more importantly, they don’t give up on the world.
And that’s not just for teenagers, if you’re 35, 45, 65, you have the same struggles. Sometimes it’s hard for me to get out of bed in the morning. I don’t want to try today. So I think we all do well to hear that message. The writing is also charming and deft, and the show is a delight to watch. I thought the same thing watching “Wonder Woman.” It’s not this dark, strident judgment against men. It doesn’t put men down for women to be powerful. And it was a celebration of a powerful woman that was delightful and fun. I prefer my good stories wrapped up that way.
Q: You didn’t know your character was going to span seasons, right? Wasn’t Spike supposed to get killed off early.
A: Joss (creator Whedon) was clear in the beginning that I was not going to live. That I was Angel food, that he was going to kill me. So they built Spike up to look cool so when Angel killed him off, Angel would look cooler. I thought I’d be lucky to get five episodes in the first season. I got 10. Then in Season 3, I got one episode, which was nice to get. But it wasn’t going to go further than that. But what happened is they lost the Cordelia character, and they needed a character who was able to tell Buffy she was being stupid and we’re all about to die. Joss decided to try Spike in that role. They found Anya, so they didn’t need Spike for that role. And I thought, again, they’d kill me off.
Spike is a rather strange fit in the show. Joss isn’t interested in portraying evil as cool, and I respect him for that. So Spike was this two-dimensional evil villain, but people were responding to him. And I think Joss was uncomfortable with that. Maybe it was endangering the theme of his show. If I’d been Joss, I worry I’d have killed off Spike immediately. But Joss has an incredible mind, and he was able to weave this journey for Spike.
Q: My kid Hazel, age 11, asks if you have a favorite episode.
A: Well first of all, tell Hazel, “Hello, and that’s a great question.” I have so many favorite episodes, but I think “The Body” is one of my favorites because it’s stripped of all the humor and special effects. It’s really just about a daughter losing her mom. It was a proof of concept that the show had strong enough characters to do that and just be a straight drama that hour. “Tabula Rasa” was a really fun episode. But I think my favorite overall was the musical. We risked the most as actors. Most of us weren’t singing professionally before that. It’s one thing to sing in the shower and think you sound good. It’s another to charge money for it. And to be good enough to charge money for it, you really have to work. And the actors on the show were clear: We’re not professional singers. We begged Joss not to do this. Sarah actually told him she’d rather juggle chain saws. “Just fire them up,” she said. “If I cut off my hand, it’ll be better for my career than to sing.” But we stopped whining at some point and got to work and did our best, even though we were pretty sure we were going to fail. We decided to go out swinging, which is what the characters on “Buffy” do all the time. And it didn’t suck! So what a plus!
Q: Other than meeting fans, what do you like most about these conventions?
A: Just that if any human in the city comes they’ll have a fabulous time. And if you take a second to look around, you’ll notice there’ll be thousands of people around and no one is captivated by their cellphone. No texting or worrying about Facebook. Just people talking and getting to know each other. There’ll be people with a sword in one hand and a beer in the other, and no one will get hurt. No arguments. Just love. If you ever wanted to be Superman, this is the place. Everyone there is beautiful, and it’s where they want to be doing what they want to do. That sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?