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From Thestar.com

Conventional Wisdom (julie benz mention)

Saturday 21 August 2004, by Webmaster

In anticipation of Canada’s largest sci-fi/fantasy/horror/comics/anime expo, we chat with some of the talent on the highs and pi


It’s every genre fan’s four-in-one fantasy come true. Or at least as close as we can come short of chatting to Patrick Stewart on the phone while having lunch with Yasuyuki Ueda while Doug Bradley massages our feet and Alejandro Jodorowsky lovingly sketches us, and ... never mind.

When the Canadian National Expo takes over the Metro Toronto Convention Centre next weekend, the event will have something for the science fiction fan, the anime fan, the comic book fan and, new this year, the horror fan. The Rue Morgue Festival of Fear Horror Expo is ready to send tendrils of dread down your spine.

"Basically we have an entire guest list that they helped us put together and they’re working hand-in-hand with us to tie it all in with the magazine (Rue Morgue).... There’s an entire slate of events geared towards the horror fan with special screenings, parties and signings," says John Armstrong, the event co-ordinator for the Expo.

In its 10th year, the Expo, which attracted just over 20,000 people in 2003 (up from the previous year - even with the SARS scare), encompasses celebrity guests, a masquerade, merchandise, artists, autograph sessions, Q&As, star photo-ops and much more.

The Expo started as a small comic book fair and grew from there.

"The first event we added was the anime event," says Armstrong. "Now it has its own budget, its own guest list, we bring in folks from Japan and have some big anime companies that exhibit with us."

Just don’t call it a convention.

"That’s kind of our marketing strategy. When we started out, when you mentioned the word `convention’ - especially if you put the words Star Trek in front of it - there was really negative connotations that went with that," Armstrong says.

He adds that, even though Star Trek is a big part of the show, "This is not some cult, kids living in basements, geeks, nerds or whatever. It’s totally mainstream, Top10 blockbuster."

"You take the Top10 highest grossing movies of all time and I think seven or eight of them are science-fiction," Armstrong says. "You don’t have to wear Spock ears to be a science-fiction fan, you don’t have to have a uniform in your closet to be an active fan."

Putting on the Expo is an expensive proposition. Stars like Patrick Stewart, who will be doing a special ticketed event on Saturday afternoon, cost "tens of thousands of dollars. The top stars we get are extremely expensive."

As for many of the other celebrities: "There will be autograph sessions where we set them up in a booth with a table and folks line up for autographs. A lot of the fans want to take pictures and that’s sort of an informal thing. And then they do their own question and answer periods. Not everyone speaks on each day. We have too many guests to make that work."

But what is it like for the talent attending conventions, er, sorry, expos? We asked a selection of the actors, directors and other artists who will be in Toronto next week.

WHO: George A. Romero

WHAT: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead, Day Of The Dead. Daddy of all zombies.

WHY YOU WANT TO MEET HIM: He’s funny. He has a message (and it’s not just that zombies want to nibble on your brain).

Romero says he used to avoid conventions, but the enthusiasm of his fans was infectious: "There are people who are my age, 64, who saw my first film when it came out and then there are young people who know their stuff. It’s encouraging to know that there are people a couple of generations behind who’re saying `Hey, George, keep cooking.’ So I love it."

But Romero finds that sometimes the enthusiasm goes a bit too far.

"The one thing that disturbs me a little bit are those who come with tattoos of characters from the films and want me to sign their arms so they can get that tattooed. And I always say, `Hey, do you really want to do this?’ But I guess that’s just part of today, and I guess better my signature than George Bush’s."

The writer/director has also learned some tricks to make his visits pleasant.

"When I decided to do this I got a manager who sort of knows the ropes and told me, `hey, don’t check in under your own name,’ all the little tricks that keep you from having fans pounding on your door at four in the morning," Romero says.

He takes pride in the undertone of social criticism in his zombie films. "I’ve used the genre as sort of a platform to be able to express myself a little bit, which I find is so lacking in other genre films."

Romero also admires those who want to become part of the business - because it reflects his own history. "It was the early films that I saw that made me think that maybe I can do this, too ... And anyone who’s serious about it, a career, or seriously interested in fantasy as metaphor, these conventions give the opportunity to hang with them."

"I guess I sometimes feel like one of those Santa Clauses, you know, in the mall at Christmas time. Some people bring their children who are absolutely clueless. `Sit in the man’s lap! Get a picture of him.’"

WHO: Julie Benz

WHAT: Eight years playing Darla on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel.

WHY YOU WANT TO MEET HER: Without her there would be no Angel, no Dru, no Spike. Nuff said.

Benz mistakenly thought her first convention - in England about six years ago - would be no big deal. But, "it was insane ... I was really blown away by the whole experience."

"I used to feel that people were slightly disappointed when they met me, because I’m not this dark, evil vampire from hell. I’m much sunnier and loopier," says Benz. "But I have to say that my fans know the difference between fantasy and reality. The fans of Angel and Buffy are a pretty intelligent group.

"A lot of people want to know what it’s like to kiss David Boreanaz. A lot of people want to know what it’s like to work with the other actors. And they’re really surprised that we had such camaraderie, that we really got along," says Benz.

"I get presents. I get a lot of stuffed animals. I don’t know why. I don’t really see myself as that soft, cuddly stuffed animal type. I also get a lot of candy." Benz says one fan wanted her to sign his underwear. "That was a little creepy."

Benz thinks her main role is to thank fans for their support, saying she is thankful "to be a part of a show where the fans are as passionate about it as we are. And even though it didn’t work they made Hollywood sit up and take notice."

"At the conventions I’m always fascinated when families come up to me - and especially parents with teenagers, and they will say that it was really the one show that brought them together as a family.... There are very few shows that cater to such a wide demographic and it’s nice to know that somehow we helped bring families together and communicate through those difficult teenage years."

WHO: Patrick Stewart

WHAT: Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation; professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men movies; voice on numerous video games, including the upcoming Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone.

WHY YOU WANT TO SEE HIM: He is Star Trek royalty.

"I used to feel that people were slightly disappointed when they met me, because I’m not this dark, evil vampire from hell. I’m much sunnier and loopier.... A lot of people want to know what it’s like to kiss David Boreanaz.’

Julie Benz,

Darla on Buffy and Angel

`They either stand there, cowering, trying to hide behind Mom or Dad, or they take a swing at you and hit you in the kneecap.’

Peter Mayhew, aka Chewbacca

Stewart says he "very, very rarely" takes part in conventions. "During the time that we were shooting the show I’d probably do maybe four a year.... It was a great excuse to get out of Los Angeles as well as an opportunity to get back on stage again, but primarily it was a wonderful way of getting feedback on what we were doing.

"These days I doubt if I average one convention a year," Stewart says. "Star Trek is finished. It’s over. It’s history. And in that respect I’ve moved on with my life. But at times when I know that I’m not going to be too busy and it’s not too inconvenient ..."

Stewart says the most-asked question is about the possibility of another Star Trek movie. "Of course, I have to tell them that it’s very unlikely regarding Next Generation," he says, but adds that there have been rumours about a prequel featuring new characters.

"Other than that, the fans like to hear about the experience working on the series and filming the four movies, background stories, they like personal details and so forth. I have found them (conventions) on the whole to be actually rather interesting experiences," Stewart says.

"There is always a percentage of people who are interested in X-Men. There’s a crossover audience there between fantasy and science-fiction."

WHO: George Takei

WHAT: Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek series and in six Star Trek movies

WHY YOU WANT TO MEET HIM: It’s been five years since Toronto fans last had a chance to meet him. Besides, anyone who refers to Toronto as "one of the most swinging, civilized, urbane cities in North America" is all right with us.

"I remember about a year after Star Trek was cancelled, I got a call from a sweet female voice saying that Star Trek fans were gathering for tea at the downtown Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, and she said they would love to have me join them for tea," Takei says.

At his first Star Trek convention, there were about a dozen people present, mostly women.

"So I sat and chatted with them, and I thought, `How nice.’"

His next call was an invitation to a larger gathering in New York. "I arrived at night and they took me to the old Commodore Hotel, and because it was late I went straight to bed," Takei recalls.

"Next morning, the phone rang and they said they were coming to take me to the grand ballroom, and I thought `grand ballroom?’ and they said, `we have about 1,000 people here,’ and I thought, these people are really exaggerating.... And then I heard the sound coming from the ballroom and I knew it was something much bigger than when I went to tea in Los Angeles."

WHO: Peter Mayhew

WHAT: The wookie Chewbacca in three (soon four) Star Wars movies. Also Minoton the Minotaur in Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.

WHY YOU WANT TO MEET HIM: He actually looks like a wookie (if you were to crossbreed one with Howard Stern). And he knows what happens in the forthcoming Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith ("I can’t really talk about it. All I’m gonna say is that it is going to be a great movie, well up to Star Wars standards.")

"It’s a wonderful experience, going to these shows," says Mayhew, who admits to attending about 20 shows a year.

"The fans are always so happy to meet you. It’s a part of my job, and fortunately something that I love to do."

He says his admirers include the original Star Wars kids - and, now, their own children. "And I look down and there are two 5- or 6-year-olds, looking up at me. There are generally two kinds - the smiling, happy kid, or the kid who’s bawling his eyes out, because he doesn’t like that particular character.... They either stand there, cowering, trying to hide behind Mom or Dad, or they take a swing at you and hit you in the kneecap."

Mayhew says teenage geeks are challenging, often asking him to do Chewie’s voice. "And you politely explain to them that it was actually a bear’s voice, and they put it in afterward. And they walk off, `See? I told you so.’"

WHO: Jill Thompson

WHAT: The comics industry’s best-known female artist, having worked on Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, X-Men and Neil Gaiman’s award-winning Sandman, among others. Main claim to fame is her popular children’s series, Scary Godmother. Recently collaborated with ex-wrestler Mick Foley on his kid’s book, Mick Foley’s Halloween Hijinx.

WHY YOU WANT TO MEET HER: She’s accessible, because she’s been there.

Thompson says she’s in this for the feedback.

"It’s great to be able to actually speak to someone who may be able to critique your work, or give you pointers," Thompson says. "When I started in comics, it was even more male-dominated. So the people that I met (at conventions) were mostly men. But I just wanted to be a comic-book professional. To do good comics. I really tried to pick their brains, to find out what I was doing wrong, doing right. And now I try to return the favour."

Thompson says she gets a lot of requests for sketches. Fans of Scary Godmother tend to ply her with crafts and homemade dolls.

"There was one guy and his wife, Mark and Andrea Davis - this was at the San Diego ComicCon, which is the biggest pop-culture convention in North America, if not the world. They have a large costume contest Saturday night, for big cash prizes. She dressed up as Scary Godmother, and he crafted this giant Bug-A-Boo costume (the Scary Godmother’s "broommate," a bulbous, blue, multi-eyed scary monster). Apparently they won a prize.

"The next year, I was working with a local Chicago theatre company to put on a (stage) production of Scary Godmother. And we were trying to figure out how to go about crafting a Bug-A-Boo costume. I contacted the Davises, and what they did was just box up their own costume - the box was the size of a refrigerator - and ship it out to us as their contribution to the play. It was just a really sweet gesture. And then they flew in from L.A. to catch the last night of the production. It was really nice."

WHO: Ty Templeton

WHAT: Homegrown writer/artist with a long list of comic credits, including Justice League, Superman, Mad Dog, his breakthrough Stig’s Inferno and recent graphic novel Bigg Time. Currently writes the Simpsons comic, and has just tied up (Ty’d up?) the 13-year run of Batman Adventures.

WHY YOU WANT TO MEET HIM: Was given the honour of officially killing off Batman’s current, animated incarnation.

"Let’s not say `kill,’" insists Templeton. "Let’s say, `Tucked into bed with a lovely cup of hot chocolate.’ But the issue (hitting the racks Aug.25) does literally close the book on that version of the character."

Templeton’s favourite convention experience was in Niagara Falls a couple of years ago, alongside Mark Lenard, the actor who played Spock’s dad on Star Trek, and Robert O’Reilly, who was Gowron the Klingon on Deep Space 9.

"At first, it didn’t even strike me as odd that two Star Trek actors and me, a Batman writer, had been booked at the same convention. But then we got there, and the halls were filled with Klingons and Federation uniforms, without a single superhero in sight. At which point I figured I had just arrived on the wrong weekend.

"Turns out that this really was a Star Trek convention, and one of the organizers had really just wanted to meet me. Which meant that every panel I was on, there would be a room with 300 seats and no one in any of them."

Templeton says the worst of it was not being able to sleep. "There was a group of drunken "filksinging" Klingons in the room next to us, singing "Puff, The Magic Balrog" all night long. ("Filksinging" is the time-honoured convention tradition of rewriting classic singalongs with Star Trek-skewed lyrics.)

"The next morning, we’re coming down on the hotel elevators, to see what fresh horrors were awaiting us, and there are two adult Klingons with a baby in a stroller, and the baby has this Klingon headpiece glued to its forehead - this was an 8-month-old child! At which point my wife took the car and went home."