The Goodbye Girl
by Jeff Jensen
In an exclusive interview, BUFFY star Sarah Michelle Gellar explains why her vamp-dusting, demon-slaying, butt-kicking days are over
The words almost fail her. This is most unusual for Sarah Michelle Gellar, because words rarely fail her. They come rushing out of her mouth with enough volume and velocity to give Hoover Dam a year's respite, about any number of subjectsfrom reality television (she loves Joe Millionaire and American Idol) to being momentarily convinced that unicorns actually do exist. (Never mind.) But when it finally comes to the topic at hand on this February afternoon in Santa Monica, her voice catches, her eyes well with tears. The words almost fail her. Almostand then she says it: "Buffy, in this incarnation, is over."
And with that, a stake is driven into the hearts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans everywhere. After seven yearsfive on The WB, the last two on UPNthe young Scooby-Doo star (a.k.a. Mrs. Freddie Prinze Jr.) is leaving the cult pop sensation that made her a household name. Says Dana Walden, president of Twentieth Century Fox Television, which owns Buffy: "It would be difficult to overemphasize Sarah's value to the show." Adds Buffy creator Joss Whedon: "There've been times that we didn't get along. There have been times when we've palled around. But no matter what, she wsa the other half of Buffy. In seven years, she never let me down."
What's fascinating about the decision-making process is how steeped it's been in passive-aggressive ego-sensitive Hollywood politics. The key creative and business players never sat down to discuss how and when to end the series. Instead, they all operated under an unspoken assumption that this seventh season (the second of its two-year UPN contract) might be the last. "I had the same expectationthat there would be a big meeting with all the generals, commanders, and lieutenants going 'What's going to happen?'" says executive producer Marti Noxon. "But instead of a roar, it's been a whimper, or people going 'Maybe....'" Well, with this interview it's official: She's out.
Gellar is moving on, but plans are afoot to keep the lucrative franchise alive. Whedon is developing a spin-off that may involve current Buffy regulars and will be pitched first to UPN. "It will be a completely different animal," he says. The good news for fans: Gellar has promised to make occasional guest appearances on the spin-off. The bad news: The spin-off will not be based around sexy bad-girl slayer Faith, played by Eliza Dushku, who is committed to a Twentieth Century Fox pilot directed by Phillip Noyce.
Buffy will end with a five-part story that will see the return of Faith, some suprise deaths, and in the final episode, an appearance by a certain Angel. "We're gearing up to tell a fabulous, huge, great arc," says Gellar. "It's going to be pretty spectacular." Gellar herself is girding for many tears during production of the last episode. It was tough enough for her to keep a dry eye during this, her first exit interview. Popping chocolate-covered raisins as she spoke to EW in a trailer decorated with fan-drawn Scooby art, Gellar made us a bet: "Ten bucks says I go home and cry when you leave."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY Why now? Why is this the right time?
SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR I hope it is the right time. This is so weird. This is like the first time I've really said it. Joss and I always [said] from the beginning, as long as we can give 140 percent, we'd always be doing it.
You always worry about being the show that's been on too longespecially when you're a cult hit. Last year, a lot of people were ready to tear us down. [So when] we started to have such a strong year this year, I thought, "This is how I want to go outon top, at our best." I was 18 when I started the show; I'm 26. I'm married. I never see my husband. This has been the longest span of my life in one place. There've been times where that's been difficultyou want to pick up and go, try other things, live in different places. It feels right, and you have to listen to that. The show, as we know it, is over.
EW Why do you say "as we know it"?
SMG I know they are planning a spin-off, and I would love to come back [for some episodes]assuming, of course, that they don't kill [Buffy]. The moment I say all this, I'm going to get the last script and go, "Oh, my God!" Look, this is so scary. I love this job, I love the fans. I love telling the stories we tell. This isn't about leaving for a career in movies, or in theaterit's more of a personal decision. I need a rest. Teachers get sabbaticals. Actors don't.
EW What was it like announcing your decision?
SMG At the beginning of the season, Joss and I had a conversation outside my trailer. We both kind of felt that this was the end, that we should make that decision and say it publicly. And then... we didn't. We didn't even talk about it for a while... [But] the fact the show's been so good [this season] decided it for us. It was a realization that we all came to.
EW If the show had stronger ratings, and had received more mainstream acclaimas in Emmyswould you have stayed?
SMG No. Our show never had top 10 numbers, but everyone talked about it. Joss and I disagree on this. People are always, "How sad are you that your show never won any awards?" I think it's great! This is the cool show, the show the voters don't get. I've won an Emmy. Okay, it's a Daytime Emmy, but it's still an Emmy. It doesn't mean nearly as much to me as my Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Award for Favorite Female Butt Kicker.
EW What money an issue for you?
SMG Money? No complaints. Never.
EW I'll be honest: Buffy on UPN has always seemed like an odd fit.
SMG I knew this question was coming.
EW Do you feel the switch from The WB to UPN in 2001 hurt the show?
SMG It was a hard transition. This is a hard question because UPN has been very supportive of the show. They gave us a home. But I will always have loyalty and a very, very deep appreciation for the support I felt at The WB. The WB and Buffy were synonymous. They made each other.
As speculation mounted that Gellar was leaving the series, a lot of people assumed she was trying to make that treacherous journey from TV to film. George Clooney be damned, it's a hard road: Gellar's only starring vehicle, Simply Irresistible, grossed an anemic $4.4 million in 1999.
The actress is refreshingly candid about her movie mishaps and bad reviews. And while she won't admit to having a post-Buffy plan, one is starting to emerge: supporting roles in blockbuster franchises (Gellar films Scooby-Doo 2 this summer) mixed with a dash of Kate Hudson. At press time, Gellar was negotiating with MGM to star in Romantic Comedy, which is, well, exactly that: Gellar would play a woman whose suitor woos her by cribbing scenes from old love films.
EW So now it's on to a big career as... Daphne in Scooby-Doo?
SMG [Laughs] I get a lot of "Scooby-Doo?! That's why you're leaving?" Scooby-Doo was interesting. The reviews were scathing, and I took it really hard. [But] Freddie said to me, "Scooby-Doo isn't for reviewers. We're not making it for them." And when all these children came up to me to say "Scooby-Doo is my favorite movie," that was great. But for a weird time in between, I took everything really personally.
EW Do you have a clear post-Buffy plan for making it in the movies?
SMG If I did, I'd write a book, cash in, and retire. My movie experience has shown me you can't plan.
EW Simply Irresistible was a major flop. Do you have something to prove at the box office?
SMG No. Simply Irresistible was [just] a bad choiceand for that it was a great learning experience. I wasn't ready to make that movie. I was too young. The script was not ready. I knew in my heart before I left [to make it] that I should back out.
EW Have you ever had any fear that you would be trapped by your Buffy image?
SMG Of course. You run that risk with anything you do. [But to] be greatly identified with anything is a mark of success. My biggest fear right now is that people will blame me for [ending] the show. People are going to think that it's my fault that their favorite show is going off the air. And God knows we're always looking for someone to blame.
EW Do you think people will hold it against you in a way that will hurt other things you want to do?
SMG No, it's more personal than that. Less professional, more personal. I love the fans. We were a midseason replacement on The WB called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, based on a movie that was a flop. People were like, "Don't worry, you'll get a pilot next season." People pitied mepitied me. We couldn't pay directors to come here. Nobody wanted to be on our show. And look what happened.
Buzzand ratingsgrew quickly in Buffy's early years. But by the end of season 5, viewership had trailed off and The WB refused to pay the huge license fee bump that the show's producers requested. When negotiations fell apart, UPN inked a two-year contract for the show. Season 6 premiered on UPN in the fall of 2001, and for diehards, it was the stuff of legendin a bad way. The polarizing year began with Buffy's resurrection (she had been killed off the previous May), which was followed by her resulting depression and her graphic sexual relationship with Spike (James Marsters), which annoyed fans of her first vampire love, Angel (David Boreanaz). The year was capped off sweet fan favorite Willow (Alyson Hannigan) turning wickedly Wiccan after her lover Tara (Amber Benson) was killed. As Gellar wrapped up our interview, she revisited a difficult year and took a look forward to her last episodes.
EW How do you feel your relationship with Joss Whedon has changed over the years?
SMG Incredibly codependent in the beginning. We were kind of in this together, against the world. Everybody was so unsupportive of Joss. He had never directed anything before, he didn't know camera angles, and we had a crew that was terribly unsupportive. I remember thinking "You jerks, you're going to be really sorry." ...[It used to be] he was here every single day, I was here every single day, and neither of us could make a move without the other. And then, when he was creating [the Fox series] Firefly, he really wasn't here at all. It's been weird. You're so used to seeing him on the set; now he's much more a presence from above.... It took a while to be able to give that up; even when Marti first came here, I would always go to Joss. Now I have confidence that I didn't have before. I have confidence in my ability to tell a visiting director, "No, that's not right, that's not what Joss wants, that's not the show."
EW Time for some exit interview questions. Has there always been a Buffy master plan?
SMG Joss has had certain episodes planned from the get-go. I knew Dawn was coming two years in advance.... Willow was always supposed to go bad. Willow was supposed to go bad a year before she did, but Joss loved Tara and Willow, so that story line was pushed a year.... I honestly believe his original intention was to put Buffy and Xander together. I really do believe that.
EW Favorite episode?
SMG I loved "The Prom" [season 3]. It stood for everything Buffy was about: the fact that she so badly wanted to be part of the other kids' lives. I think "The Body" [season 5, featuring the death of Buffy's mother] is pretty amazing. I loved the episode in which Buffy and Faith switched. That was one of my all-time favorites because I thought Eliza was so great. And also when Buffy realizes she has to kill Angel and she kills him and he comes back. Those are my favorites.
EW Least favorite episode?
SMG I had trouble with the one [in the sixth season] where Buffy had sex with Spike on the balcony while watching their friends. I really thought that was out of character. And I didn't like what it stood for. That was the moment that I had the most problems with.
EW You've mentioned how much you disliked the sixth season. Why was that? And how did you feel about Buffy's depression, and her sexual obsession with Spike?
SMG It wasn't who Buffy was, or why people loved her. You don't want to see that dark heroine; you don't want to see her punishing herself. You want to see her killing vampires and making quips. It didn't feel like the character that I loved.
Joss always explained that season as being about your 20s, where you're not a kid anymore, but you don't know what you want to do [with your life]. He always said that I didn't understand last year because I've always known what I wanted to do, and I didn't have that confusion, [that] dark, depressive period. But I think the heart of the show lies in the humor of the drama. I felt like Buffy's spirit was missing last year.
EW Who do you think was the best Buffy villain ever?
SMG Angel. Angel and Spike.
SMG There was so much heartbreak when Angel went bad. This is the love of her life and now her job was to kill him! That's heartbreaking. Not to mention the poor girl has sex for the first time and, you know, turned him bad. I've heard of turning [someone] gay, but...
EW So, how would you like the show and your work on it to be remembered?
SMG I hope positively. One thing about the show was it never categorized. It was drama, comedy, action, horror, all of those things combined. And I just want people to remember it as a fabulous run, a fabulous seven years.
EW Do you know what your last scene in the last episode will be?
SMG I can't even imagine. All I can say is that I really hope I have the last line.... Even talking to youI don't know how I seem to you, I don't know if I seem once removed from it, [but] I don't think the enormity has hit me.