James Marsters doesn’t try to embrace fame. That’s quite a contradiction, given his popularity on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel, which not only allowed his star to rise but even cemented his status as a sex symbol – something he laughed at when mentioned.
“In general, my theory is fame is toxic to the human soul. It will tempt you to think you’re better than everyone else, tempt you to think you’re special, tempt you to separate yourself from the population. And the end result is loneliness,” explained Marsters, 53, of Los Angeles, who appeared at the Motor City Comic Con in Michigan in mid-May. “During Buffy, I hid from the world because I just didn’t want to be famous. I didn’t want to admit it was happening. I surrounded myself with people – and still do to this day – that never saw Buffy and don’t care. I try to live a normal life.”
It was The Who’s Roger Daltrey, whom Marsters worked with on Strange Frequency, who taught Marsters how to be famous.
“We’d be out talking between takes and someone invariably would come up – ‘Roger! Roger! Roger!’ Just within the rhythm of his life, he’d sign the autograph, say thank you very graciously, and turn back to me… He wasn’t bothered by it; it was just a normal part of his life. He explained to me, ‘James, this is not gonna go away. You can enjoy it or you can freak out about it. You might as well get comfortable with it and learn how to deal with it and have fun, actually,’” recalled Marsters.
A self-professed drama nerd, Marsters studied at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, CA. and the Julliard School in New York City. A classically-trained Shakespearean actor, Marsters is a veteran of the stage. He has been active in the theater community in Chicago and Seattle.
In fact, Marsters was perfectly content being a poor theater actor. He had no desire to make his living in the movies. However, that changed when his son, Sullivan, was born in 1996. Marsters went to Hollywood to “whore himself out” in order to provide for his family. He felt he’d already proven himself as an actor, given his stage background, and made it clear to his agent that he didn’t care if he was “the new Urkel” – he was in it for diaper money.
In 1997, he landed his most famous role – the British vampire Spike – on Buffy. “(Creator Joss Whedon) wanted a punk rock vampire. I auditioned with a cockney accent and (the producers) asked if I did any other accents. I had an idea to do an old Southern accent that people 150 years ago would’ve sounded like… I thought it might be kinda fun to use that.” At that point, he spoke in a Southern accent. “I auditioned like that. We were told – for that time – a lot of white people sounded like this, but in the modern time would not be speaking like that.” Reverting to his normal voice, “They liked that a lot. They thought it was fun and everything, but they thought Joss’ initial idea was the best. And it was. Joss lived in England for a while; he knows English culture and has a lot to draw from when he writes English characters.”
Whedon stated that Spike and his undead paramour Drusilla (Juliet Landau) were supposed to be the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen as vampires. “I said to Joss, ‘You don’t want Sid and Nancy. This is ridiculous. Sid Vicious was an idiot; he was also a horrible bassist. The reason why the Sex Pistols were the Sex Pistols was because of Johnny Rotten… I’m gonna give you Johnny.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” said Marsters.
Spike was supposed to be killed off after several episodes. Yet, he managed to become a regular on Buffy and later Angel.
“I was just designed to be Drusilla’s boy-toy. I was gonna be schmuck-bait for Angel (David Boreanaz). The idea would be Angel was gonna have sex with Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and go evil so he could break her heart. His first act of evil would’ve been to be kill me off. I was just the expendable boyfriend for Drusilla, who was gonna be Angel’s new girlfriend. They were just basically matching actors to Juliet, trying to find an actor she got along with and she played well with and had some chemistry with,” he explained.
Marsters has wonderful memories of working with Landau. “I auditioned with her. We’re both from theater and we gravitated towards each other easily and spoke the same language. Juliet is just a fearless actress. She’s not concerned with looking glamorous all the time. She’s not concerned with looking beautiful – she knows that she doesn’t have to worry about all that – she’s really interested in grit, in unnerving the audience, making an acting choice that is brave. I cut my teeth acting in Chicago, and the acting style is just like that – very gritty, very passionate, usually pissed off,” he said.
When asked which was his favorite scene with Landau, Marsters couldn’t choose. “All of them! All of them! God…” he fondly recalled. “I can only say that I was cast on Buffy because Juliet liked me. The whole thing was predicated on how does this actor meld with Juliet… We were comfortable around each other. We intimated something hinky was going on below frame… If you go back and look at some of those shots, it actually looks like ‘What are they doing?’”
Landau expounded on that. “James is an actor’s actor,” she explained. “We’re supposed to have been together for 200 years, and you can’t be shy with someone after 200 years. The characters had great chemistry; that was a huge ingredient. Their love story was so interesting because it had gone on for centuries, balancing out their evil and diabolical sides. They had a tender side; it was a bit kinky, but it was fun.”
Marsters attributed Spike’s popularity to Whedon, calling him a “very brave writer.”
“To Joss, evil is not cool; evil is not sexy. That’s why he made us look so horrific when we bit someone; he didn’t want that moment to be sensual in anyway; he wanted it to be scary,” said Marsters. “His show was really about all of the problems he faced in high school and vampires were a metaphor for those challenges. He got talked into one romantic vampire and that was Angel. It wasn’t his idea – it was his writing partner David Greenwalt’s. So Angel took off like a skyrocket, and Joss was like, ‘Okay, we’ll just have one and that’s it.’”
He continued: “So then I came along and – for whatever reason – the audience was perceiving me as a romantic character. That was not what Joss was going for. In some ways, that started to imperil the theme of the show. Now you have two vampires the audience’s perceiving as romantic in a show where that’s not the point at all. Joss – instead of doing the thing I would’ve done, which would’ve been to kill me off immediately – decided to keep me around and explore the character and somehow make it work and not ruin the show. That takes a lot of talent and a lot of balls, frankly. I owe my career to the fact that Joss had the courage do that. Having to find a way to fit a square peg into a round hole unleashed Joss and the writing staff’s creativity. It meant that there was a really interesting journey for Spike.”
And what a journey it was. Spike eventually became Buffy’s love interest. “I said, ‘Joss if you ever want me to have my shirt off on the show, just give me a few months to work out, okay? Just give me a little warning.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, good. You have the summer because next year you fall in love with Buffy.’ I’m like, ‘Great, obviously she never reciprocates, right?’ ‘Not really. You guys are gonna have a lot of sex,’” said Marsters.
There was a scene in “Seeing Red,” a 6th season episode of Buffy where Spike unsuccessfully tries to rape Buffy. In the end, Spike is horrified by his actions and intentions – as was Marsters, who was very disturbed by that scene.
“That was probably the hardest day of my professional life. That was not a good day. In hindsight, I’m glad we did it; I’m proud of it,” he said. “As an artist, you don’t want to be comfortable. I think when you’re out of your comfort zone, that’s when you’re doing your best stuff. I wouldn’t take it back at all, but I didn’t enjoy going through it.”