Conversation with a Vampire
In the days leading up to the Wizard World Comic Con, taking place this weekend from Jan. 6 to Jan. 8, we had the opportunity to chat with one of the most iconic vampires in television history. And there are a few things we’d like you to know about the man who played the bad vampire with a soft spot for The Slayer: none other than Spike himself.
James Marsters, most well-known for his role as Spike in the Joss Whedon hit television series of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” talked to us about his character in the show. He fits the bad boy stereotype onscreen, but does he actually prefer playing the villain?
When you’re a villain, you just kind of lurk in the shadows and wait for the hero to come huffing by and you just come out and hit them in the face and go home – it’s just a lot easier. I met Joss Whedon, and I was playing all sorts of characters before I met him, but then I got known for Spike, and I became known as a villain. And that is fine — frankly, villains age better than heroes, and I am on the villain train.
It turns out, he does! Those who know the show will easily recognize Spike as the bleach-blonde chiseled vampire with a bad streak and a strong British accent.
But who would be able to tell that Marsters is actually from California, and not at all English?
Fooled you. Yeah, well I come from stage where doing accents is just part of the job, and I had a serviceable cockney accent for the audition…
In fact, it was Anthony Head (who played Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, in the show) that would give Marsters lessons on how to make his accent sound more genuine. The lessons began shortly after an episode aired where Marsters mispronounced the British English word for “balls.”
Tony [Head] lived in England, and I remember a couple of episodes in I had to use the word “bollocks,” which is the English word for balls. It was written by an American who spelled it in the script as “Bull-locks,” and I said it that way. He came up to me after the episode came out and was like, “Alright, I’ve had it. We don’t say it like that, you prat. I’ve got to go home to England and not get laughed at, so we are going to fix you.”
He kind of force-fed me some teaching about it, come to my trailer without knocking and tell me it was time to learn. So we went over the script word by word until I got it, and I was able to do it right on my own. So thank you, Tony! Without him, I don’t think people would have been telling me I sound English.
We just thought that Joss had gone crazy! We thought the show was jumping the shark, you know? We were like, “This is a good show, dude! Why do you wanna ruin it?”
Speaking of force-fed training, episode 7 in season 6 — a fan favorite ranked among the best TV musical episodes to ever air on television — “Once More With Feeling” was also Marsters most beloved episode to work on. According to him, after much bark back and doubts expressed by the cast (many of whom did not have any singing experience), Whedon brought musical tutors and coaches to the set in the weeks leading up to its filming.
As an artist you don’t want to be in your comfort zone, if you stay safe for too long, it’s probably boring — and we were well outside of our comfort zone for the musical. We just thought that Joss had gone crazy! We thought the show was jumping the shark, you know? We were like, “This is a good show, dude! Why do you wanna ruin it?” One actor looked at Joss and said, “Could you please just have me juggle live chainsaws instead of singing? That would be safer for me than what you’re asking me to do.”
At some point, we realized that Joss was not to be deterred, there was nothing we could say to stop this. So then people stopped being afraid, stopped whining, and got to work — we decided as a group that if we were going to go down, we were going to go down swinging. We were sure it was gonna blow up in our face, but we tried our best. I was never more proud of us for that.
And their efforts certainly paid off, in our humble opinion.
Another interesting factoid about Joss Whedon: He prefers to strongly draw the line between good and evil in his creations — Marsters says Whedon tries to avoid the appeal to evil, especially in “Buffy.” The audience is not supposed to sympathize at all with vampires or lament the slaying of them, but things got complex where Spike was involved.
He was not comfortable with the audience responding to me as if I were a romantic character. He didn’t want people to have feelings for vampires. He wanted them ugly and killed off, and triumphed over. He felt that it was endangering his theme, which was that vampires and Buffy are just metaphors for the lessons and challenges you have to overcome when you are an adolescent.
Thus, Spike's character was originally not meant to last. Intentionally scripted to be a hated character, he was made distinctly evil at first so that Joss Whedon could kill him off later on — he was basically a plot tool.
The character [Spike] was designed to die quickly. Evil is not cool for Joss Whedon. And I respect him for that… And he only made me cool because I was going to be killed off by Angel.
Vampires and Buffy are meant to be metaphors, says Marsters. Whedon intended for the show to be an exciting fantasy, but also to demonstrate the challenges young teens face on their journey to adulthood. Vampires are the lure towards a darker path and influences most young adults are exposed to; they have to decide whether to succumb or to fight back and stay true to themselves.
And speaking of stage personas and succumbing to the darkness, guess what Marsters’ all-time favorite role is?
My favorite stage role is Macbeth, just because I think it’s usually done incorrectly. But if you do it right, you can get standing ovations every night and really wow the audience.
On film, you’re allowing people to get as close as a lover and notice every little flick of your face.
Marsters has stage experience in addition to his roles in television and films. When asked which outlet he prefers, he compares the two to being a chef versus being an ingredient.
And suddenly, we were talking about Benihana…
Like every actor who’s done both, I prefer stage. When you’re a stage actor, you’re the chef. If you’ve ever been to BeniHana, an Asian restaurant where the chef comes to your table and cuts up the meat, celery and onions, they fry it up at the table and serve it to you — that’s kind of the show. And that’s a stage actor. The script, props, lights and set, all of those are the ingredients that you chop up at the point of sale and deliver to the audience… You’re the chef!
When you’re doing film, you’re just a piece of celery that’s being chopped up by an editor and served to the audience. And you have to get used to that; your job description shrinks down to minutia. That being said, you have to be a really honest little piece of celery.
Marsters even goes on to compare on-screen actors as having to learn how to become intimate with the camera while maintaining authenticity and sincerity.
On film, you’re allowing people to get as close as a lover and notice every little flick of your face. To allow large amounts of people to stare at you like a lover without running away, without covering up, without lying, is a hard part of film. It’s a little mountain that every actor climbs when the word ‘Action!’ is called. So it’s not actually easier than stage acting — on some levels, it’s a lot harder. Frankly: I love both of them, but I love to be the chef.
And now more than ever a younger audience is discovering the “Buffy” series, often taking up the larger group in audiences at various Comic Cons and Marsters appearances. When Marsters encounters an original “Buffy” fan, it is very exciting for him.
In fact, I meet more people who were not born yet or were very young when the show was on the air that are discovering the show through streaming. When I meet people who were original fans — on board since the beginning — it’s like “Wow! Hi, great to meet you! If it weren’t for you guys, no one would have heard of this show.”
Another thing Marsters enjoys is getting to know his fans, learning about the many interesting people that attend conventions like the Wizard World Comic Con.
I really look forward to meeting that person with the really interesting job. When I talk to fans, some of them have really interesting vocations… I met someone who helped design the Mars Rover. What a cool opportunity!
Also, I met this beautiful young lady who works at the CERN Large Hadron Collider, in Switzerland/France. The largest machine ever built by humans, it’s a particle accelerator built to basically smash really tiny bits of matter together and see what pieces fly off. That allows us to peer back into the earliest days of the universe, which is just incredibly important for physics. I’m a science nerd, so anytime I meet someone with that kind of background I am always interested.
So are we, James, so are we.
Everyone’s beautiful, everyone is safe to be whatever you wanna be, and there are not a lot of places in the world that are like that.
Fact: Marsters has not seen the episodes since they aired, citing the constraints that took away from a script’s initial goals, as well as what didn’t make it onto the show. We are hopeful of persuading him to go back and rewatch them with a new appreciation…
It was always a very painful process to watch when we were first working on the show because I was always aware of how much we missed. You’d always get these inspired scripts — the world was open to you once you started filming. And then you went to battle and the enemy was always time, and time always won. It always took something from you, something away from the show — always some little bit, some little description of action from the script that you recognize didn’t make it in there. So it was always a little painful to watch the show…but I think enough time has gone by for me to appreciate what we did get right, and enjoy it.
Speaking of things that may have been missed, did you know Marsters is in a rock band called “Ghost of the Robot,” which is about to drop their fourth album? They have actually been around since 2002 — while “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” was still coming out with new episodes. In addition to singing, Marsters does some folk-sounding solo work and also performs with an electric guitar. In fact, his last time in New Orleans was actually on a musical venture, not an acting one.
I’ve been to New Orleans three to four times. Usually, I don’t explore at all — I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve seen almost nothing because I travel for work. If you spend too much time partying or sightseeing you have less time for the actual job.
But I’m doing a new project called "Vidiots,” about an idiot named James Marsters who travels the world, has interesting celebrity friends, films movies/television and goes out with his band, etc., but all he wants to do is go back to the hotel room and play video games with his friend Mark. So he’s an idiot. Then sort of like Ricky Gervais’ “An Idiot Abroad,” we go out and explore the town we’re in, meanwhile being as clueless as possible.
So if you’re looking for a new web series to binge-watch before Wizard World Comic Con this weekend, James Marsters has a recommendation:
If you go to Vidiotsonline.com, there’s a free episode you can stream from when we went to Lyons to demo a Bethesda Games title. If you like what you see, you can subscribe for a buck fifty per half hour. So if you can scrape some quarters together, it’s good content!
Get to it, because the event is this weekend! Promising a personal experience for super-fans and first-timers alike, Marsters says he is always humbled by his experiences at the Wizard World Comic Con, and feels a sense of pride in being among the well-costumed gang of sci-fi/fantasy devotees.
I’ve done so many conventions, I’ve lost count. But two things stick with me: one being the environment in general, which I absolutely love. Everyone’s beautiful, everyone is safe to be whatever you wanna be, and there are not a lot of places in the world that are like that.
If you’re a woman in a wheelchair and you wanna be Princess Leia in the bikini, everyone is like “Go for it! We love you.” If you’re a guy who always wanted to be Princess Leia, “Go for it! Have a great afternoon.” The only smartphones you see are pulled out to take pictures of each other, and that’s just beautiful. I always feel like I’m in a tolerant heaven when I’m at these conventions.
Wizard World New Orleans Comic Con is taking place on Jan. 6, 7 and 8, at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. General admission tickets range from $45 to $80 for one- to three-day passes. James Marsters is scheduled to appear on all three days.