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James Marsters on Buffy : How Spike buffed his ego

By David Martindale

Thursday 29 April 2004, by Webmaster

A funny thing happened to James Marsters on his way to television stardom. The actor, who’s well known to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel viewers as Spike, trekked to Los Angeles in the ’90s with one goal in mind. "I came to make good money," he admits. "The idea was to make a quarter of a million and get out." Financial gain was the only reward he believed he’d reap — and he was fine with that. "I’d done my artistic thing in the theater. I had already found out who I was as an actor. But you reach a stage in life where you say, ’I don’t want to be poor any more.’"

But along with the role of Spike, the vampire with the bad-boy attitude and Billy Idol hair, came a glorious surprise. "I got a project that was consistently better-written than many, if not all, of the great plays I was doing in regional theater," he says. "I mean, wow, this is probably the best job I’ve ever had."

It’s worth noting, of course, that Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy and its spin-off Angel, underestimated James the same way James undervalued TV. After he was cast to play Spike for a mere 10 episodes in 1997, during Buffy’s second season, Whedon quickly pulled James aside and laid down the law.

"Joss said to me, ’If you think you are taking over the show, you have got another think coming,’" James recalls. "He said, ’I’ve got a whole other thing happening and you are here only because I don’t want to kill a villain off every week. I don’t want this show to be Scooby-Doo. I want my villains to be more interesting and multi-faceted and then die.’"

A well-conceived plan, but one Whedon ultimately discarded. After all, when you’ve got a character as compelling and as popular as Spike, and an actor as brilliantly versatile as James Marsters, why let him go? Once his initial run of episodes were completed, James re-upped for another 10, then joined the Buffy cast full time in ’99 and moved to Angel for its farewell season.

Through the years, Spike has made the transition from villain to reluctant good guy to white-knight hero. And James has proven himself up to every challenge the writers can throw at him. He can be scary, he can be heroic, he can be funny, he can be vulnerable. He can even do what was practically soft-core porn. "I’ve loved it all. Well, everything except the porn," he says, referring to the steamy scenes he did opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy in season six. "That part I did not enjoy at all. I was the only one naked. Sarah’s over there, fully clothed, she’s even got mittens on, it’s 40 degrees on the set, I’m naked and she’s making fun of me. That was not fun."

But everything else about the job has been wonderful, he says. "It’s the interplay between the actor and the writers that makes it work," James says. "I mean, I can play all of my darker sides, all of my anger and all of my frustrations. But when I’m me, it’s not funny when I go there. When I say their words and I go there, it’s really interesting."

James was turned on to the acting life as a grade-schooler. "I think it was when I saw a production of Godspell," he says. "I must have been in third grade, maybe fourth or fifth grade, and I might have been in a play already. But what really clued me in was the end of the first act of Godspell, when Jesus turns to the audience and says, ’Let’s have some wine.’ And the actors went into the audience and gave everybody wine and crackers. I thought that was brilliant, the fact that it suddenly became communal. That’s what struck me and that’s what I guess I’m after, that real communication between the actors and the audience."

For years, he ran a theater company in Chicago, then in Seattle, and he’s eager to get back to acting and producing for the stage once his gig as Spike is over. He also has lots of ideas for TV series and movies, including a film adaptation of Macbeth.

But he acknowledges that his years on Buffy and Angel will be hard to top. "This job is so far beyond any expectations I had," James says. "I mean, I’m on a postage stamp in Russia. There’s no way you can plan for that." (The commemorative block of Buffy stamps was actually released in Karakalpakia, a region within the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan.)

"And I don’t know what it’s like to be the Beatles, but I’ve had experiences where there’s a barricade and 50 cops and the girls rush past them and I’m getting clawed at, so they wind up sneaking me out the back, the same way it was for the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. And when something like that happens, you just have to sit back and giggle and go, ’Oh, wow.’"