Actress Julie Benz on her seemingly supernatural determination, undying work ethic and lead role on the new SyFy show set right here in St. Louis.
It seems fitting that actress Julie Benz would be cast as the mayor of post-apocalyptic St. Louis in SyFy’s much anticipated new show, “Defiance.” After all, it’s Benz's desire to play strong women that has led her to successful roles in other dark dramas like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dexter.”
As “Defiance's” Amanda Rosewater, Benz is charged with keeping the peace in St. Louis, now a refugee camp, where citizens live in uneasy peace with several alien species. The role's complexity—and the opportunity to play a bit of a “badass”—drew Benz to the project.
It's the latest in a long series of intense TV and movie roles for Benz. She first attracted attention in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as Buffy's nemesis, the evil vampire Darla—a role that carried over to “Buffy” spinoff “Angel.” She garnered legions of fans as Rita Bennett, the unsuspecting wife of America's favorite serial killer, on “Dexter,” and won both the Satellite and Saturn awards for Best Supporting Actress. Benz is also no stranger to film, counting among her credits “George of the Jungle 2,” “Saw V,” “Boondock Saints 2” and “Rambo,” which sparked her interest in action movies.
Her impressive resume is no doubt a result of the star's sheer determination, which was evident at an early age. When her high school acting teacher told her she'd never be an actress, Benz saw it as a challenge and went on to appear in more than 70 television shows and movies in her so far 23-year career.
ALIVE caught up with Benz on the set of “Defiance” to talk about her latest gig, her fans and her almost supernatural dedication and drive. As she answered each question without a moment’s hesitation, one thing became crystal clear: Julie Benz is a force to be reckoned with.
ALIVE: When your high school acting teacher told you that you would never be an actress, how did you initially react?
Julie Benz: He didn't like my voice. You know what? It's the best thing that ever happened to me. I still have the little evaluation that was written. I thought, “I'm going to do this and I don't care what you think of my voice.” I'm the type of person that if you tell me no, I'm like, “Oh no? I can do this.” It really motivated me.
ALIVE: Many credit your role in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with launching your career. Do you see it that way?
JB: Definitely. Working on “Buffy” and “Angel” was like going to graduate school as an actor. It was okay if we made a mistake. They always encouraged us to be creative, and I truly believe that was a turning point in my career—because prior to that, I had just been doing sitcoms…a lot of failed sitcoms. I thought I'd only ever be a comedic actress—then all of a sudden I was seen as a dramatic actress.
ALIVE: In “Dexter,” your character Rita being murdered at the end of season four was a transformative moment in the show. How did you feel about your character being killed off?
JB: Well, I was more shocked than anybody; I only found out an hour before they put out the script. My first reaction was the obvious one, “Oh my god, I just lost my job.” My second reaction was, “Who's going to raise the baby?” It shows you what happens when you play a character over a long period of time and the ownership you feel. When I got some perspective, I felt honored that they bestowed such a big moment onto Rita. My fear was that nobody would care. But once it aired, that was put to rest. In hindsight, it was a game changing moment for the show. One of the reasons you work on a network like Showtime is because they're not going to pull any punches. So many times on network shows they put main characters in harm's way, but then they never die. They always somehow miraculously recover. On Showtime, they throw a punch and they make contact. That's why I took the show in the first place—because of the edgy programming that they were doing and the creativity behind it. I really thought it was necessary for the show to move forward. But I did have to have quite a few margaritas before I got to that point.
ALIVE: People were upset!
JB: Everywhere I go, people want to discuss it with me. It's really lovely when I meet a fan and, years later, they're still upset about that moment and remember exactly where they were when they watched it and how they felt. I feel like it's my job to give them a hug and say, “It's okay, it's okay.”
ALIVE: You've done both big budget films and indies. Do you have a preference?
JB: I like doing action movies, whether they're big budget or low budget. I like doing stunts—that plays into my athleticism and a little bit of my “adrenaline junkie-ness” and competitiveness. I never knew that until I worked on the last “Rambo.” I was like, “I love this stuff!” As far as big budget, low budget, television, film…it's all about the work, really. The work itself doesn't change. My job is the same, whether it's an indie or big budget. The trailer is different, there are a couple of more zeros in your paycheck…other than that, the essence of the work is the same, and that's what I love. I love working. I love being on set.
ALIVE: What's most challenging about your latest role in “Defiance”?
JB: For me, it was about finding that balance between power and vulnerability—finding her strengths, but knowing underneath it she's really in over her head.
ALIVE: What do you think about the choice of St. Louis as the location for the show?
JB: I think St. Louis represents the heartland of America, with the Arch being such a symbol of that. In “Defiance,” the town is about hope and independence and rebuilding, and it just made sense to me when I heard it was in St. Louis.
ALIVE: What is it like shooting on the set they've constructed for Defiance? Is it changing the way you tackle a role?
JB: The backlot that they've built is amazing. It's like nothing you've ever seen before. The buildings are functional—you don't really see that very often in television. It really helps immerse you into the world that's being created. We were doing the pilot as it was being built, and we'd get various tours of the backlot. As an actor, it was inspiring to see the creativity that was going into it.
ALIVE: What’s your take on the video game aspect of the Defiance project?
JB: When they told me about it, it struck me as a simple idea that made so much sense that I was surprised it had never been done before. It's actually very complicated to execute. It seems that trans-media is going to be the new future. People want more than just an hour of television each week. They want to be immersed in the world. They want to experience it on different levels. The game will allow those fans who want more to have more. We see it in so many other shows, as well. They don't have games, but iPad apps and motion comics and all of that. Dexter has a motion comic online. With all the media we have and the way we watch TV, it's very different than five years ago. We stream it, we download it, we DVR it, we watch it on iTunes…it's there when we want it.
ALIVE: Do you have a favorite role or project?
JB: Every project has been a very special experience. “Rambo” was such an iconic film, and working with Stallone is an extraordinary treat. Obviously, Darla gave me the opportunity to grow and to play and be creative. And then Rita was a huge gift for me. I always say she took me from girlhood into womanhood, in a weird way. Defiance has been another amazing experience for me. I get to work with one of my best friends, Jamie Murray, on a regular basis, and Kevin Murphy, who I've known for a long time. Shooting in Toronto is very magical in many ways, as well. It's been a very special experience.
ALIVE: You seem to gravitate towards shows with sci-fi or supernatural elements. Has this always been an interest of yours, or is it a specialty that developed organically through your roles?
JB: I think it developed organically, though I am a science fiction fan. The female roles are more challenging in science fiction material. One of the things I loved about “Defiance” when I first read the script was that every female character was extremely complex and very strong. There's not one character that's just the mother/wife/victim role. You don't see that much in mainstream television. I like to say that every female character in “Defiance” is a complete badass—that's why I'm really drawn to genre material. The older I get, the more I want to play these stronger women.
ALIVE: Are there other areas or genres you want to explore that you haven't yet had the opportunity?
JB: Oh, I always say I want to be the girl in a romantic comedy. You know, the girl that the boys all want. I've done very few of those. I love doing comedies, as well, so I'd like to continue to have the opportunity to do comedies down the line, in between [other projects]. My career has exceeded my expectation in terms of where I thought it would go, and I'm very thankful for where it's gone—and where it's going.
ALIVE: Are there any particular performers or people you dream of working with?
JB: Oh, everyone. I would love to work with Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett. Jennifer Lawrence is tremendous….there are so many that I would love to work with, the list is super long!
ALIVE: Looking at your filmography and TV credits, you've literally always been working. Does it feel that way to you?
JB: I don't do unemployed very well. I'm very aggressive about finding work and continuing to work. I don't sit on my couch very well. I always say I'm a frustrated workaholic.
ALIVE: What do you do to stay grounded?
JB: I'm a big foodie, so I love cooking and creating in the kitchen. I've got two great little dogs I spend a lot of time with, I have my husband, I work out a lot…I just lead a very normal life. I have a great group of people that I've surrounded myself with.
ALIVE: Is there a particular style of cuisine you prefer?
JB: I cook everything. I try to cook healthy, so I guess I would call it “California cuisine.” I don't eat dairy or gluten. Pretty much everything I cook is healthy, though I do splurge every once in a while. I just love getting into the kitchen and cooking up meals, and having everyone over for dinner. And, I have the tiniest kitchen in the world. It's so small, and I love it! Everybody asks me if I want a bigger kitchen, but I'm like, “No, I love my tiny kitchen. It keeps everyone out of it when I'm cooking.” Two to three times a week, my girlfriends all come over and I'll cook dinner and we'll sit and drink wine and gossip and laugh and eat and have a good time. That's really special. My husband always comes out and joins us for a little bit.
ALIVE: You've been quoted as saying you like to audition, which actors traditionally dislike.
JB: Yeah, I love it. I find it to be a challenge. Auditioning is my time to produce and direct the scene how I view it and with what I want to bring to life in the character. It's also my time to audition the producers and director to see if I want to work with them. There's nothing worse than being on set with people you just don't click with. I want to make sure I'm right for the role, too. Sometimes you get cast in something that you're really not right for and it's painful and hard. It’s especially important in television, because you have the potential to play the character for five to seven years. You want to make sure it's a character that you enjoy playing, that you have fun with and that you can challenge yourself with. Every day I get to be an actor is a good day. Sometimes all it is is an audition, but I get to be an actor that day. I get to go and do something I love to do. And that's why I love it.
ALIVE: How did your connection to animal rights issues come about?
JB: I got involved in animal rights through Patrick the Miracle Dog. I happened to be in New York at the time when he was discovered in a garbage chute, starved to death and barely moving, and it really affected me. I had a chance to visit with him during his recovery. Unfortunately, animal abuse is governed state to state. There's not a federal law about animal abuse. In a majority of the states, it's just a slap on the wrist. Animals are lives. They have heartbeats. It's sad about Patrick. He made a full recovery, but the woman who was charged with abusing him still hasn't been sentenced—and I doubt she will be.
ALIVE: Green living is another cause close to your heart—can you tell us about Ozoshare?
JB: Ozoshare was started by a friend of mine. It's the green social network—a place for people to sign up and partner with various people and companies, and learn more about being green. I've been a big supporter of making the changes that you can on a regular basis to save our environment. We have one planet, and we're pretty much destroying it. It's our responsibility to take care of it. We take care of our homes. We take care of the way we dress. Why wouldn't we take care of our planet? You can do it in such small, creative ways.
Photo credit: Courtesy of NBC