She's Back From Roswell, And She's Hungry
It's been a busy season on the WB for actress Julie Benz, who plays Darla on Angel and Kathleen Topolsky on Roswell. Both characters have been reported dead at one time or another, yet they keep coming baaaaack!
Take vampire Darla, for instance, who showed up naked in a box with her name on it in the season finale of Angel, despite having been staked on Buffy by Angel himself. Topolsky supposedly died in a fire, but her body was never seen, and now that Roswell's been resurrected for another season, those alien kids might rescue her.
Julie Benz first auditioned for Roswell's David Netter when he was casting the movie Disturbing Behavior. He then brought her in as someone he thought would be good to play guidance counselor and undercover spy Topolsky. The blonde actress, who had already appeared in the Oscar-nominated film As Good As It Gets and on several television shows, was delighted to be asked to play an adult character on the teen drama.
"Originally, the character was only supposed to be on for a few episodes," explains Benz. "I did my first two episodes and they said, 'We want to hire you for a couple more,' and I said OK, so we did a couple more. Then they said, 'Could you do a couple more?' and I did, but then I got a movie and I had to leave. They said, 'When you're done with the movie, would you come back?'"
"At that point Angel had asked me to come back too, so I was kind of doing double duty on both shows," she adds. "They both shoot on the same lot, so it was great. I had a great year last year working on two of the top shows on the WB."
Benz feels like her final appearances were a gift from the producers. In the final episodes, Topolsky had to convince the teens that she was working for their interests while at the same time maintaining a front of loyalty to their opponents. Her paranoia and terror were clear in her demeanor.
"There was a time when we didn't know whether she was evil or not, and they didn't even tell me," she recalls. "They played their cards very close to their chests, they didn't want the cast to know whether I was good or bad. Every week we'd get a script and go, 'What does she do this week?'"
The complexity made the character very interesting to play. "They wrote me one of the most amazing episodes ever written for an actor, the episode 'Crazy,'" she says. "I really went crazy, and I was taken away by the FBI. Then there was a fire and I was supposedly in the fire but they never found my body."
Benz was somewhat traumatized when she looked at fan web sites and realized Topolsky was despised by many who suspected her motives. "I was very sensitive to it," she admits. "It was wonderful that my character was having that effect when nothing was really being revealed about her, so people were really reading into things. But I honestly believed Topolsky was good from the beginning, so I was kind of shocked that people were seeing her as evil. This one girl said that her mother used to throw things at the TV when I came on, and I was really hurt! I felt misunderstood."
Now that the show has been renewed, Topolsky could turn up again, good or evil, sane or insane. "Thank God it's coming back, even if I don't come back, because I think it's a great show. The cast is extremely talented, a group of young people who work very hard. It would have been a shame to have that show cancelled."
Benz was thrilled at the save-the-show campaign mounted by viewers. "I'm so happy the fans rallied around in support - they were sending the network Tabasco sauce! That was brilliant! The audience that has watched the show has really grown to love the characters." She thinks moving the series from Wednesday night to Monday, out of competition with Star Trek Voyager, was a good choice.
"I have no idea if I could be back, but I have a great relationship with the cast and crew and executives. Whatever happens, I'm so grateful to them already."
While she was working on Roswell, Benz bumped into Angel's David Boreanaz on the Paramount lot where both shows film. "He said, 'We're going to bring you back, Benz!' and I said, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,'" she recalls. "I'd been staked by Angel on Buffy. But they brought me back for a bunch of flashbacks, and took it from there."
Benz has had a relationship with the Buffy production crew since the pilot - the Pittsburgh native auditioned to play the vampire slayer herself before Sarah Michelle Gellar got the role. But the producers remembered her when they needed to cast Angel's sire, so she became Darla.
"I think Angel is a much darker show, whereas Buffy has some fun and play just in the scripts alone," she notes, comparing the two. "I love working with David, and I would love to work on Buffy again because I think Sarah has a great energy on the set. Angel is much more...male! It's tough. They've proven that he'll turn vicious if he falls in love, so it seems to me he's kind of holding himself back."
The actress calls herself "a huge fan of those shows" and calls Buffy "one of the best written shows on television. I'm blown away by some of the episodes they've done, like the episode 'Hush' last year. I think Joss Whedon is a genius. I'm a huge fan of the cast as well, I think they're very talented, both the cast of Buffy and the cast of Angel. I talk to David and Sarah a lot, mostly because that's who I've worked with. Those are the people I keep in touch with."
Darla was raised from the dead when the law firm used some ancient scrolls to bring her back to life. "The season finale ends on me naked in a box. You don't know what they're resurrecting, and then you see that it's me!" she laughs. "I wasn't really naked in a box, but I had to look like I was naked in a box - it was the appearance."
"I don't think Darla's evil at all," she adds. "I think she's just surviving. I do think we have a lot of great women on those shows. Buffy is a great role model for girls. She can kick butt and she's still fashionable and sensitive too. In terms of hearing, 'You can't do that because you're a girl,' I think television is changing things a lot."
A champion ice skater who became an actress when injury sidelined her, Benz quickly became popular playing beautiful teens. Now she's ready to grow up. She's still playing a teen in Rhino Films’ horror spoof I Still Know What You Screamed Last Summer with Tom Arnold and Tiffany Amber Theissen, but that role, she says, was too funny to pass up. In The Bubble Factory’s upcoming film A Fate Totally Worse Than Death, she plays Danielle, a self-centered high school student put under a curse that makes her age from 18 to 99.
"It's based on a book about three girls who do something wrong, and we start to prematurely age," Benz explains. "I had a ton of prosthetic makeup, six-and-a-half hours a day to be exact!" The film also stars Monica Keena, Nicole Bilderback, Christopher Lloyd, Janet Leigh, Jonathan Brandis and Aaron Paul. "It's coming out hopefully in the fall. It's a fun movie. Working for a company like the Bubble Factory, which is run by [former MCA/Universal president] Sid Sheinberg, it was a really great project to be a part of."
Roswell gave Benz her first adult role on television as the mysterious Topolsky, whose motives were never entirely clear. Of course, the immortal Darla has been around for ages. But in addition to trying to move out of teen roles, Benz would like to play someone a little bit nicer.
"I became a little frightened this year because every character I played this year was evil," says the actress, who reveled in playing bad girls two years ago when she starred in TriStar's Jawbreaker. "I did Satan's School For Girls, I did Angel, I've had a year of just being evil, evil, eeeeeeeevil. It's a lot of fun, but after awhile I was worried - am I so repressed that hidden deep down inside is this dark side they see that I don't even know about? Now I'm looking to be loved!"
Last year, she was lucky to get a meaty role on Payne, but the series shot only nine episodes. "They aired all nine, but we all knew that the network wasn't behind it and supporting it. They moved our time slot three times. Nobody can find a show that's being moved that much; it's hard to build and audience."
The series, a remake of Fawlty Towers, starred John Laroquette, whom Benz considers "a comic genius, really. It was surprising to have a show with someone of his ability connected to it not succeed. But it was a tough show to try and impress upon the American public, a remake of a classic a lot of people are very opinionated about."
She recently filmed a Barry Levinson-Tom Fontana pilot for NBC, Good Guys, Bad Guys, with Dana Delaney and Jon Seda. If that show gets picked up, she may have considerably less time to make return appearances on Angel or Roswell, but the show did not make the fall schedule. "They're still trying to retool it for midseason," says Benz. "It was a great experience, I got to work with Jon Seda from Homicide, and I adore him. He's an extremely talented young actor."
As Good As It Gets
Benz is getting ready to fly to Amsterdam to film a movie called Dial Nine, with Liev Schreiber, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Mary Tyler Moore. "I have a really nice part in it - I seduce Liev Schreiber's character!" she grins. "I'm very excited about it. I was supposed to go two weeks ago, but there's a big soccer tournament in Amsterdam so they're having trouble getting permits to shoot on the street."
And after that, what will she look for in a role? "It's a mixture of stuff. Sometimes it's who else is cast in it, and who's directing. A lot of it is, is it a smart woman? I really look at what purpose the character serves in the script. I still get offered teen stuff and I'm just at a point where it just doesn't interest me anymore. When you've been playing a teenager since you were a teenager, you start craving to do more."
She's also not interested in playing dumb blondes, though she gets offered parts like the one she played in As Good As It Gets where she gushed over Jack Nicholson's character. "I don't need to do those anymore unless it's a comedy or something where it can be funny. I'm really looking to do a romantic comedy, but it's very hard to find a good romantic comedy script to do. I've never been the girlfriend - I've just been viciously evil!"
Still, she is quick to say, "I love that I've worked in every genre from sitcom to episodic and I'm on film across the board from dramatic to comedy to sci-fi. I've had an amazing career in that I haven't been pigeonholed into anything. I even did an episode of Diagnosis: Murder where I used my skating ability. But never on Angel, except maybe the Christmas special!"
Benz would love to work on a show that's more of a "dramedy," where she gets to lighten up without losing the depth of character. "But in the meantime I'm busy, and definitely not bored. Every opportunity I get is so different from the last character, I hope it continues in that vein."
Having left competitive skating, where the competition is even greater than in Hollywood and where Benz was ranked 13th in the U.S. at one time, she keeps work in perspective. In what spare time she has, the actress plays with her two dogs and tries to improve her golf game. An excellent chef, she loves to shop and sometimes surf the Internet. "Go to my web site on celebrityboulevard.com, they have fan-based web sites and there's a fan site for me there," she encourages fans.