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Amy Acker - Femmes Fatales Magazine Interview

Monday 2 February 2004, by Webmaster

Interview from the February 2004 issue of Femme Fatales. Photos from the magazine shoot can be found here.

One of the strengths of Joss Whedon’s series (whether you’re talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel or the short-lived Firefly) is the continual evolution of their core group of characters. What he and his writing staffs set up is a fluidity of central characters that works to a show’s benefit, allowing a character’s departure to not distract from the show itself. At the same time, it allows guest stars to suddenly find themselves in a co-starring position on the show.

When the late Glenn Quinn departed Angel (for whatever sordid or non-sordid reasons you choose to accept), Alexis Denisof was seamlessly integrated, followed in turn by J. August Richards as Charles Gunn. Not satisfied with the core group as it was, the show’s creators decided to add Winifred “Fred” Burkle to the mix, having introduced her from a demon dimension in the three episode arc that concluded year two. Beginning with season three, actress Amy Acker’s name was in the opening credits and Fred had become a central character. The question on more than a few minds, though, was how the impish, oddball, little girl lost played primarily for humor in her introductory episodes was going to fit in with Angel Investigations.

“I kind of wondered about that too,” admits Acker. “I was kind of worried about Fred becoming a regular. My old roomie was a big Buffy fan and she said ‘I was on the website and people are not excited about a new character joining the show.’ It was before I’d even started, so I was like, ‘Oh, no!’ But it seems that everyone responded well to it.”

A Texas native, Acker was born in Dallas and initially found herself drawn to the idea of being a ballet dancer rather than an actress. “But then I had knee surgery,” she explains, “and realized that ballet wasn’t going to happen. I decided to take an acting class and was kind of glad that I did, because I liked acting a lot better.”

She enrolled at the Southern Methodist University to study Fine Arts and her career trajectory has, you suspect, been something of a breeze. Acker has no tales of hardship to relate, no diatribes about the difficulty of breaking into show business while living in roach or rat-infested New York lofts. “I’ve been pretty lucky,” she laughs. “I was lucky because I went to SMU, which has a great theatre department. They have this thing called ‘January Audition’, and lots of people come and watch you - people from grad schools and theatre companies. So in my senior year this theatre company asked me to come do Shakespeare for eight months, before I even graduated. I kind of got an early start and have been pretty lucky. I went to Wisconsin and worked with the American Players where I did maybe five plays and then we went on tour. I moved to New York for a little while, but then ended up doing a pilot and a couple of independent movies.”

Those films were The Accident, The Energy Specialist, and Groom Lake, the latter of which is a black comedy directed by Star Trek’s William Shatner (and Man’s Man FF 12.6/13.1). She decided that since she was making films anyway, she “might as well head out to Los Angeles where it’s nice and warm and sunny.”

Her role as Fred followed shortly after her relocation to LA, though, again, there is no incredible anecdote about how she nabbed the part. “I just went in for an audition,” she giggles, sounding very much like Fred. “I guess they had been looking for someone to fill this part since November (of 2000) and I had an audition in February, so it had been a while. Whether or not I was going to be a regular was unclear in the beginning. They knew that they wanted to add another girl character to the show, but I didn’t have very much film stuff to show them. They weren’t even sure what I would look like on film or anything. The first day I was on the job, Joss wrote a scene for me, J. and Alexis. Something that we might use later on. So we did the scene, the WB saw the audition and I got a phone call asking if I’d like to become a regular. It was pretty quick once I started, but at first I didn’t know.

“I had been somewhat familiar with the show,” she adds. “In college there were people who would have Buffy/Angel nights and they would have a party and everyone would watch the shows. I went to a couple of those. I didn’t know all the backstories, but everyone else seems to, so I’ve gotten caught up. Actually, not knowing that much about it kind of helped with the character, since Fred had spent so much time trapped in that other dimension. On the set I’d say, ‘Oh, we can’t go there?’ and they said, ‘Well, in episode six we went into this other place.’ In the beginning it was kind of like I was learning just like Fred was. I think as we’ve gone on, there have been more similarities between us. I don’t think I talk nearly as much as Fred does in real life, but I do think I’ve started to say random things and people are kind of like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I’m quirky in the sense that I’m kind of klutzy, so I’m always doing silly things. Hopefully I’m smart like her.

“I actually came up with some background for Fred, but during the first meeting I had with Joss and David [Greenwalt], they sat down and told me a lot of what they thought the back history was. We worked together on it. I added my own things to it, but then they’d call me up and say, ‘Oh yeah, when Fred was in high school, she graduated three years early.’ Those are the kind of things they added.”

One of the things that’s most intriguing about Angel for Acker is that she’ll often find Shakespearian connections with the material. She smiled, “When I got the job, my mom called and I said, ‘It’s not Shakespeare, but there are some demons.’ The thing is, Joss has us over to his house once a month where we sit in his backyard or his living room and just read Shakespeare plays, eat food, drink beer and stuff like that. He’s so smart and knows so much about everything, I think he brings that into the shows. At some point you stop and say, ‘Oh, I see, we’re doing the Midsummer Night’s Dream episode!’ That connection is definitely there.”

To this day, there are two fairly significant Fred episodes that stick in Acker’s mind: “Fredless” and “Billy”. In the former, Fred’s parents come to town, the reunion giving the audience a glimpse of Fred as she was before she was taken away. In the latter episode, the touch of a killer manifests resentment and hatred in men towards women, and in a sequence as frightening as anything in The Shining, Fred is literally running through the hotel to avoid a psychotic Wesley and, then, Gunn.

“They wanted to use ‘Fredless’ as a turning point for my character,” she says. “They wanted to keep her quirky, but get her a little more to where she can fit in with the group and help out. She had been trying to figure out her role on the team since her parents left. In that episode, she says, ‘Gunn’s the muscle, Cordy’s the heart, Wesley’s the brains, Angel’s the hero,’ and she realizes maybe it’s okay that she doesn’t fit into one certain role.

“‘Billy’ is one of my favorite episodes,” Acker elaborates. “Alexis is so much fun to work with and I was really scared most of the time we were shooting that. There wasn’t a lot of acting going on there. Both Alexis and J. were pretty scary. Add to that the fact that the hotel where we filmed those scenes was in downtown LA in the middle of the night, and there was nobody else around. It was just a scary place to begin with; scary because you’re in a deserted hotel at 5 o’clock in the morning, being chased by someone with an axe.”

Although she has certain directions she would like to see Fred go in the future, Acker admits that she, like just about everyone involved with Angel, is pretty much clueless about where the storylines are heading. But, also like everyone else, you can sense that she’s excited about the possibilities. “Like the fans, we often hear rumors about our characters,” says Acker, “but we never know until we get the script if it’s actually true. I would just like to see her have more of a role in solving things. I like the episodes where she builds something or helps figure something out. At first people don’t get what she’s saying, but then they’re like, ‘Oh, she was right.’ I would love it if he had some sort of special power, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. A lot of people have asked me whether or not it was hard to go on a show that was already kind of set, but not at all. Everyone was so helpful and welcoming and they’re just a great group of people. I really like all of them so much. Everyone has different qualities and brings different things to the scene. When I started, I had all of those scenes with David (Boreanaz) and I thought, ‘Wow, he’s so wonderful to work with’, but every time I did a lot of scenes with anyone I realized they’re the ones I enjoyed working with.”

Angel and its characters are in a constant state of evolution, and that includes this current season where the show has moved away from more serialized storytelling and gone into standalone mode. Additionally, James Marsters as the vampire Spike has shifted over from Buffy and the show’s locale has moved from the abandoned hotel to the law offices of Wolfram & Hart. “In some ways, it feels like we’re doing a whole new show,” Acker muses. “We’ve got James Marsters as Spike, all the Buffy people came over, there’s a new set and there’s a different approach to stories.

“One of the strengths of the continuing stories, especially for the characters that aren’t Angel, is that we got more of a chance to have developed storylines,” Acker points out, “like the relationship between me and Gunn or me and Wesley. You might only deal with those things a little bit each week, but it led to sort of a much bigger storyline. Now you don’t really have those little moments as much, so that sort of stinks for us. Of course now it feels like they’re starting to bring a little bit more of that back in.”

An additional change seems to be a conscious attempt to make Fred a sexier character, which may or may not have something to do with the departure of Charisma Carpenter at the end of year four. “We also got a new costume designer, plus since Cordelia wasn’t around and we were in the office setting, I think all of those elements changed,” she says. “Personally, I like the jeans and T-shirts better, but they felt that wasn’t good for the audience. They had said that to me at the end of last season that they wanted to make me a little sexier. I guess that meant wearing mini-skirts. As far as I’m concerned, the way my character acts is the same, I just dress differently.

“For me,” she closes, “this is something so different from anything I’ve ever gotten to do. Usually in everything I’ve done, I’ve played an ingénue victim role. In this, I get to be funny and nerdy and it’s really exciting to play something completely different than you’re usually cast as. I feel as though I’ve gotten to play so many different characters on the show. In the beginning, I was in a potato sack in an alternate dimension and now I’m the head of the science department at Wolfram & Hart. There have been so many transitions in between. But any time I predict a way that I want them to go, it never seems to go that way. I feel something’s going to come to a head with the Wolfram & Hart situation; there’s got to be some negative ramifications of all of that. I think that’s going to be an interesting thing to play out, to see who’s affected in a bad way and what happens with it all.”

And you can count on the fact that we’ll keep watching Amy Acker.