Julie Benz:
Slain by Buffy, Now She's a Murderess

by Michelle Erica Green

She's no longer playing the vampire Darla, who was staked in the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but actress Julie Benz is still a killer. In her new movie Jawbreaker, which opens February 12, she and her two best friends bump off the prom queen. "I'm the hit man," the actress explains gleefully. "I do all the dirty work. I have to clean it all up and make it go away!"

Though she already had a cult following from her Darla days - including a fan web page filled with requests from men who would like her to bite them - Benz burst onto the film scene in a small but unforgettable role in the Oscar-nominated film As Good As It Gets, playing fan girl to Jack Nicholson's Melvin Udall. Now she's got the new Jawbreaker and a new TV series - CBS's Payne, the American remake of Fawlty Towers, which will debut March 24 at 8 p.m.

"I love playing the bad girls," admits Benz, a native of Pittsburgh who had a promising future as an amateur ice skater before she decided to move into acting. "I have a very sick sense of humor, and I think it's very liberating." During her very busy year last year, Benz also starred in Eating Las Vegas - a spoof on the Oscar-winning film in which a fat man decides to eat himself to death, comforted by a bulimic hooker with a heart of gold - and the upcoming feature film Dirt Merchant. It's been an extraordinary run for the young actress, who is still adjusting to how quickly success has found her.

"Knock on wood, I never had to wait tables, though I did scoop ice cream once in New York for about a month - I was getting a really big forearm from scooping the ice cream, but I wanted some work experience," says the girl who never attended a full day of school because she was skating several hours a week from age three to age sixteen. It's ironic that in Jawbreaker, she plays a pretty, popular, typical high school student...well, typical if your high school is like the one in Heathers.

"Rose McGowan is the evil one, and I'm her hit man, if you think of her character as being the mob boss," Benz laughs. "Somebody does pay in the end, and I wouldn't say it was me! We all kill the girl - it's a group effort. But it's not like Scream - it's very surreal in a way, and my character is more the comic relief."

Benz auditioned for the part because she "really loved the rhythm of the dialogue, and the style that it was written in. It's very dark comedy, a very stylized piece. You have less constraints in a movie that's this surreal - you can get away with a little bit more, and try some crazy things." Having seen the finished film, Benz was very pleased by the soundtrack and "the whole visual aspect of the movie from the wardrobe to the set design...it's a visually great film. It's also very fun."

In a preview of Jawbreaker, Rolling Stone called her a "chilly blonde." Benz raises an eyebrow. "What did they mean by that? Are they saying that I'm cold? I think they just needed an adjective for 'blonde'!" Chilly is not a word which comes to mind when talking to this actress, who sounds at times like her character from As Good As It Gets, a receptionist who fawns over Jack Nicholson's character.

"I was just like my character around him," confesses Benz. "He came over and whispered something in my ear, and I went, 'Oh my god, it's Jack Nicholson!' I was pretty much like that through the whole shooting - I could not carry on a conversation with him without turning bright red. I was so overwhelmed by the fact that I was standing next to him. At first I tried to be very cool, 'You're just another actor, you're nobody special,' but as soon as we started to rehearse the scene, I went to stand up and I couldn't do it." Benz had known during her audition that the role would be opposite Nicholson, and says she reacted in front of the director exactly the way she ended up performing onscreen. "I just immediately went, 'Ohhhhhhh my god!' I really feel like I am Jack Nicholson's biggest fan, he's just amazing."

The actress squealed over Nicholson for producer Jim Brooks, of whom she is also a fan - Terms of Endearment is one of my favorite movies." He offered her the job on the spot, "but I thought he was lying to me because there was as roomful of girls waiting to read! He said, 'I'm really looking forward to working with you on the set,' and I thought that was the ultimate Hollywood blow-off, so I just went, 'Yeah, me too, sure,' and walked out. A couple of days later I went to my agent to see what was going on, and they said I got the part - they didn't call because they thought he told me, but I thought he lied!"

The one drawback of the role, she jokes, is the popularity of amateur Jack imitation. "Everyone who recognizes me from that movie feels compelled to do their Jack Nicholson impersonation, and very few people do a good Jack! They want to act out the scene with me, so they're like, 'Give me your lines!' and I give them a line and they go on to do their really bad Jack impersonation, and I go, 'Oh, great! You're really good!'" It was intimidating working with the real Nicholson - whose reputation as both an actor and a womanizer are legendary - "but he didn't hit on me, so I don't know what that means! I think he was afraid of me, because I really am his biggest fan."

The year before, Benz had auditioned to play Buffy the Vampire Slayer "like every girl in Hollywood," but lost out to Sarah Michelle Gellar, whom she had known in New York when they were both auditioning for soap operas - in fact, Benz tested with Gellar for the prominent role on All My Children which made the latter famous. "I didn't even come close to getting Buffy, but the casting director really liked me, and I had met Joss and we hit it off. So when they called and said, 'Would you be interested in playing a vampire?' I was like, sure, whatever!"

Benz had not yet seen the script, but jokes that, like Michael Caine, she's up for almost anything. "I was interested in going through the whole process and getting the prosthetics on, because that was new to me - I'm a big scaredy-cat in real life, so I didn't know how I was going to play this scary vampire, but the makeup took care of that." The head casts alone were almost enough to frighten her away. "There's one person whose job it is to keep your nostrils clean so you can breathe while they put the stuff on you - you just have to trust them. The people who were doing it had done it many times, and nobody had died - that was my first question!" The makeup crew switched from the pilot to later episodes in which Benz appeared, so she had to go through the process twice.

The Master's favorite for several hundred years, Darla's human appearance was that of an innocent Catholic schoolgirl with a penchant for Gothic clothes. She vampirized Xander's friend Jesse, then tried to bite Buffy's mother and kill Buffy. Unfortunately Darla "puffed" early in the first season by her onetime lover: "I got staked in the back through the heart by Angel." Still, she returned that spring for the season finale flashback sequence.

For years after her demise, Benz's vampire face was visible in the opening credits of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though now only her chin remains. "I'd go back anytime," she says. "I had so much fun working with David and Sarah, and a great group of people from the crew."

The N.Y.U. graduate idolizes Shirley MacLaine, whom she describes as "an amazing talent - she's an amazing singer and a great dancer and a tremendous actress who can combine the humor with the drama, you look at Terms of Endearment and some moments are fall-down funny, and then she just tears your heart out. She's so good at that." Though she has broad training in mime, movement, dance, and drama in part from college and in part from years of classes to train for skating performances, Benz considers herself primarily a comedic actress.

Her new series, Payne, will give her a chance to show those skills when it debuts next month. "We had such a good time shooting it," she recalls of the nine initial episodes, which could lead to more next season if the series is well-received on CBS, which is already having a good year. Benz plays would-be-artist Breeze, "the do-gooder, who thinks everyone has an ounce of good in them - including Royal Payne," the main character played by John Laroquette, "even though he always has a scheme going on." The actress explains that her character always ends getting involved in the antics, including "a lot of mistaken identity, and people with navel rings that get caught together, and there's a cat that gets squashed, lots of crazy stuff."

The series also stars JoBeth Williams, and between the two of them, Benz had a hard time keeping a straight face on camera. "They always made me laugh in the middle of a scene - I was always the first one to crack up. John would say things, he would just improvise in the middle of filming, and I could only go along with it for so long before I started busting up. I would completely break character and laugh so hard I was crying, and the makeup artists would be going, 'Don't do that!' I can't help it - I can't work with funny people!"

Having come from the cutthroat world of competitive skating - where she was once ranked 13th in the U.S., and where she once had a romance with Philippe Candeloro, the current heartthrob of men's skating - Benz can keep the pressures of Hollywood in perspective. "I pretty much knew that I would quit by the time I was 18 anyway - I wanted to go to college, I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in an ice rink." Her brother and sister were junior national ice dance champions, ranked tenth in the world, but when Benz had a growth spurt followed by a serious stress fracture, she let her mother talk her into signing on with a local modeling agency and working with a community theater. The agency sponsored a seminar with a manager from New York who was interested in Benz. He found her work in New York, and when she graduated from N.Y.U., she followed him to Los Angeles.

Recently married to actor John Kassir (the voice of the Crypt-Keeper), whom she met in the first acting class she took on the west coast, Benz jokes that she wants to make a lot of money and retire young because she's already reached two of her goals as a performer - to work with Jack Nicholson, and to appear in an Oscar-nominated movie. She adds, "I'd love to work with Robert De Niro, I'd love to work with Joseph Fiennes, Meryl Streep and Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, Goldie Hawn." Asked what she likes best about the profession, Benz promptly responds, "Free clothes, and you can wear sweatpants to work, and you don't even have to do your hair!!"

But she quickly sobers. "We're very lucky, being actors. Even though it can be long hours and it can be very stressful, I'm just so thankful that I can make a living at this. I'm just amazed that I got here from where I came from, out of all the people who try to do this - from Pittsburgh! I enjoy making people laugh and I enjoy laughing myself. Being an actor is such a great job."

Benz is computer-literate, though she's having a little trouble with her net connection right now...but be careful. If you're one of those people posting that you want Darla to bite you, she knows who you are.

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