James Marsters shared his insight on Buffy’s staying power. Even though the show ended in 2003, it lives on in comic book form as Whedon oversees Buffy’s further adventures. Marsters even penned a few Buffy comics himself.
“This is a secret of Buffy that I think is one of the biggest reasons it lasts is that Joss asked of himself and every writer to come up with their shame, come up with the day that they regret, the day that keeps them up at night, the day they don’t talk to anyone about, then slap fangs on top of that pain and share it with the world. That’s true for every single episode. I think that amount of vulnerability and bravery resonates with the audience. Sometimes you know why, sometimes you can try to guess what the experience was that led to this kind of episode, sometimes you can’t tell at all. But I think it’s always under there and it always resonates,” explained Marsters.
He pointed out that Whedon is really good at hiring nice people, many of whom he’s worked with on other projects.
“He’s aware that the creative environment is like designing a pre-school. Artists are usually broken people who have found a way to be whole through the environment of art. To design a creative environment, you have to design a place that would be safe for a small child. If you do that, the little inner child’s gonna come out and play. But if it’s a harsh environment, it’s gonna be a lot harder to get creative. Joss understands this. He made a place where nobody was peeing on the floor and it was all good,” he said.
Marsters let out a big belly laugh when asked if he minds being remembered as Spike. “I don’t mind at all! My God!” he exclaimed. “Genre is able to say things more clearly than other forms. Sometimes science-fiction and fantasy can address social issues much more directly. That to me is very exciting… I might go on to other hit projects, but I don’t know if I can touch the nerve of the world like I did with Buffy – or be part of something that touches the nerve of the world. That’s pretty rare, so I have no problem at all (being remembered as Spike).”
Although best remembered as Spike, Marsters has other notable roles, a few of which he was reluctant to take initially including serial killer Ted Bundy in The Capture of the Green River Killer, Capt. John Hart on Torchwood, and Brainiac on Smallville. In fact, he flat out rejected the role of Bundy, who murdered numerous young women in the 1970s and died in the electric chair in 1989.
“That is the kind of role I usually turn down right away. Anything that has to do with sexual assault, I try not to be involved in – it’s just too painful for me… When I was contacted for Green River Killer, my initial response was ‘No, thank you,’” he explained.
However, John Pielmeier, whom Marsters knew from his theater days, called him personally and asked him to take the part. “I said, ‘John, for you I’ll do it but I’m not doing any research. I’m not gonna get into Ted Bundy. I’ll come there and be myself and read the lines.’ He said that was fine because the thing about Ted is he comes off as an absolutely normal person, but once you know what he’s done, the amount of people he’s killed, the most unnerving thing about him is how normal he seems, how charming he is. John said that was probably how I should play it anyway. I did no research at all. I read nothing about Bundy. I learned nothing. I went in there, shot for a day, and we got the scene in a few takes. The director (Norma Bailey) was really happy. I felt like I was phoning it in. But they were pleased with how it came out because I didn’t try to go all dark with it,” explained Marsters.
He loved working with Oscar winner Hilary Swank, Oscar winner Kathy Bates, Emmy winner Lisa Kudrow, Gerard Butler, Gina Gershon, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Harry Connick Jr. on 2007’s P.S. I Love You. Marsters played John McMarthy, a friend of Holly (Swank), whose husband Gerry (Butler) dies of a brain tumor. After Gerry’s death, a grieving Holly emotionally withdraws from her life. Prior to his death, Gerry arranges through his mother-in-law (Bates) to send several messages to Holly, all ending with “P.S. I Love You.”
“I learned something there too, which is that the big stars – the real big stars – they’re COOL!” praised Marsters. “It makes sense. The people who pull attitude and think they’re so wonderful and so above everybody, those are usually people who’ve been on television six months. Because if you want a long career, if you lose your perspective and lose your humility, people just don’t want to work with you. Hilary was so humble, so hardworking, so kind… Kathy proved what I said about the big stars.”
According to Marsters, Bates had a high fever during a long day of filming. Not once did she complain. “For 11½ hours, they were over our shoulders on Hilary, then at the very end they turned around for close-ups. When they turned around for Kathy, I would’ve thought they would’ve started with her shot to get her out but they ended with her,” he said. “I thought she was gonna have a word with the director (Richard LaGravenese) about this. But all she did when we’re about to enter this set (was say), ‘Okay, men from the boys, guys. Go!’”
He also bonded with Butler. “(Butler) was amazing. We just had one scene together – he’s dead through the whole movie – we’re in a bar. He sits down next to me” – Marsters does a Scottish accent – “‘All right, we’ve got 15 minutes to become best friends.’ He looks at his watch and spends precisely 7½ minutes – he used to be a lawyer – telling me every horrible thing he ever did in his life, stuff only a best friend would know about. Then he goes, ‘Okay, 7½, your turn.’ So I told him all the horrible things that I’ve done and within 15 minutes, we were best friends.”
Marsters was the first person to ever play Superman villain Brainiac in live-action on Smallville, which chronicled the life of Clark Kent (Tom Welling) before he puts on the cape and becomes the world’s greatest hero. At first, Marsters wasn’t excited about this role.
“I told (series creator Alfred Gough) I was a Batman guy. If you shoot Batman the right way, he dies. So when Batman goes to work, it’s always exciting; you don’t know if he’s gonna come home. At the apex of any hero’s journey, the hero’s life needs to be in danger… he must be willing to put his life on the line to help people. That’s when it gets truly exciting,” he said. “With Superman, if you shoot him, who cares? He’s gonna be fine. Everyone knows he’s gonna come home at the end of the day – unless you give him Kryptonite. So what happens is you have to constantly pull out Kryptonite and that gets repetitive. So, for a movie, you can do that and it works. But for a TV show, you can’t pull out Kryptonite 22 episodes a year.”
However, Gough explained to him that Clark is a teenager; therefore, he’ll be vulnerable every single week to everything a teenager’s vulnerable to – his family, his girlfriend, his school, his sense of identity, his sexuality – not just Kryptonite. “I looked at him and said, ‘My God, you did it! You unraveled Superman!’ That’s exactly what you need to do. What a genius take on Superman. It worked. The show ran for 10 years and never ran out of material because that central idea was always in play. I had a great time on Smallville,” said Marsters. “They told me what was coming down the pike as far as plot because I was the one who was planning everything… I think Tom actually believed we’d become friends. He told them, ‘Don’t tell me who the villain is. I want to play this as the character.’ I think that’s a very smart choice. He might not have even known I was Brainiac because he really bought into the fact that Milton Fine was his new mentor. I loved pretending to care about Clark Kent. We’re up in the loft of the barn, staring at the moon, and I’m telling him, ‘Clark, you have to forgive yourself. Life is all about forgiving those around you.’ I’m giving him all this wisdom when I’m thinking inside, ‘I’m gonna kill you. Come here, little fish.’”