A Conversation with Julie Benz
by Ben Poster
Julie Benz/Rambo, Dexter Interview
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Though one assumed she’d remain most beloved for her recurring role as Darla in Buffy and Angel—parents still stop her on the street to thank her—Julie Benz’s recent tear may be enough threaten even that holiest of legacies. Fresh out of the Thai jungle, where she was more than up for the challenge of playing the only female role in Rambo, Benz is ready for the primetime network spotlight when Dexter premieres on CBS on February 17th. Her only concern? That she might be just a little bit more emotional as her role of Rita continues to develop.
Ben Poster spoke with her recently:
Ben Poster: So I’ve been reading a lot lately about the research that your director, Mr. Stallone, did for this new Rambo flick… talk a little bit about how he’s emphasis on the reality of the situation in Burma/Myanmar effected your approach to the role…
Julie Benz: You know, when I first read the script I started doing research online, because, like the majority of people in America, I had no clue that this was going on in Burma, so I started doing all of this research online and I was so overwhelmed by these images that I saw of what the Burmese were doing to the Karen people: the human rights violations, and the horrible torture, especially to children, and, the images just really deeply affected me. And, so, I had printed out a bunch material before I left to go to Thailand just so I could be reminded, while we were filming, that what we were doing was important.
Because a lot of the time when you film a movie, you get wrapped up in the Hollywood-ness of a movie, you know like, “My trailer’s not big enough,” and “I don’t have this, and I don’t have that,” and for me, it was important to not get wrapped up in that and to really honor the story that we were telling, and to really be reminded that this was going to bring international awareness to a situation that a lot of people in the world don’t know about—the subject matter was actually bigger than what we were doing.
And so, for me, it was very important to be reminded of that, and to give respect and honor to the story we were telling. It made me be more committed to my work, more dedicated to the job. You know, as an actress, sometimes you can just phone it in, and this project, to me, was a deep spiritual journey. I have since become involved with the uscampaignforburma.org. I couldn’t move forward in my life without doing something, and I can’t save the world, and I can’t solve the situation over there, but I can lend a voice, and bring awareness.
BP: Was that the collective feeling on set amongst the cast…? Or was that more your personal experience?
JB: I mean, obviously, it was Sylvester Stallone. He could’ve set Rambo anywhere, but I think he was really moved by what was going on there, as well. And it’s hard not to be affected when a lot of the refugees in the movie—the children especially, that were amputees—they were all real victims of landmine explosions trying to escape Burma. They were real refugees. And you can’t not be affected by that, I mean you are working with people that have been affected by what’s been going on in that country.
To me, it was a very important movie to make, because it wasn’t just an action movie for the sake of being action, because there’s also this message behind it. And that’s what always made the Rambo movies so special, is he’s always tackled big issues.
BP: Yeah, you can really see that, even more so in this one, it’s almost like a revisionist approach to the franchise. Not to call them clichés, but you saw things in the previous films that you didn’t see here—I mean you live through this one, for instance. It seems like, overall, there was more of a sense of the real in this one…
JB: Yeah, I mean, first of all, just the way that he shot it, it really feels like you are in the battle, like you are a viewer in the movie…
BP: Yeah was that different for you? Were there, like, multiple cameras running at once? And so, how did his approach affect your performance?
JB: There were times when we had seven cameras running—you had to be on your game. I was constantly asking like, “what’s your frame? what’s your frame?” because you don’t know. You had to be—every take—100% present in every moment—there was no time to fuck around—excuse my language. It was just a very intense atmosphere.
But then, I also think that there was this whole adrenaline rush filming this movie. I mean, the camera department was excited to do all this handheld work, he was really challenging everybody. Every single person on that set was being pushed to go above and beyond… the norm.
BP: Weren’t you doing some of your own stunts even…?
JB: Yes, I did. I mean, I had a great stunt-double who took over whenever I was too scared to do something but… it was exhilarating, I was excited to get up and go to work each day. And it was also, very empowering to me, being the only woman in the movie. I knew they were apprehensive about it, that like, the woman was going be the weak link but… they didn’t realize what woman they hired. I’m very competitive so I set out to prove that I could do anything, that I could actually be better than any man in that movie…
BP: Did you ask for your own throat-ripping scene…?… did it go that far…?
JB: Pretty much! I mean, it would’ve been nice to be more of an active member in the action as opposed to a passive member but… I ran through fire. I let them have buildings that were going to explode behind me. You just… have to be present and deliver, each and every time, because when you’re dealing effects like that, that’s what takes precedence. So, as an actor, you just have to be on your game, and they have to trust that you’re on your game, because you don’t get many takes of exploding buildings so… you just have to be at your best. You can’t have a bad day.
BP: Yeah, I sort of wanted to contrast that approach with some of your TV work where your character’s arc is, you know, given more… space—or lines, really—to develop, and so, how does your approach differ in each set-up? I mean, clearly, the set of Dexter isn’t as intense as what you described on Rambo but, you know, conversely, you’re on set a whole lot more so… for you, how does the episodic TV thing differ for your approach?
JB: The one luxury that you have when you’re on episodic television is that, if you’re working with great writers, like I have had the opportunity to do on two different shows—Buffy/Angel and now Dexter—there’s this great synergy that occurs between actor and writer where they start writing towards your strength and the character starts becoming custom-tailored to you. So you can go deeper in the emotional work that you have to do because… you like meld into the character. There’s this understanding that’s occurring and that allows you to explore more of the emotional life of the character because you are living with her for two, three, four, five seasons every day, so you have a better understanding of where she’s coming from, where she’s going, and what’s she’s doing.
BP: And how has that synergy occurred with Rita on Dexter?
JB: Well it’s strange, because this has happened to me on every show that I’ve worked on, but you have this weird chicken-and-egg thing happening where things that are happening in the character’s life, you start noticing these things in your own life. Like, when I came back from Thailand, they had already written a few of the new episodes of Dexter, and Rita had this inner strength, this new found strength… and when I came back from Thailand, I had that! I had this new sort of confidence. And everyone was kind of floored by it. It’s a weird synergy that occurs between character and actor.
BP: Yeah… so the line can be blurred a little bit…?
JB: Well, I do know that when I play Rita, I do live in a much more vulnerable state, like… even in my own life, my mask comes down a little bit… it’s just harder to keep the armor up… and I do get a little more emotional. Which is not a bad thing but, things can just upset me a little bit more so… I just always have to explain to people, ‘it’s just for four and a half months.’
BP: I mean, part of that has to be an attribute of the role itself. I mean you humanize him on that show, and if you didn’t see the side of Dexter that he has with you, your interpretation of him would be much different.
JB: I think that the role that Rita plays on the show is that she makes the audience love Dexter. She’s what allows the audience to say, “Wow, okay, he could be a good guy, it’s okay to like him because, she likes him.”
BP: Well, it’s what you were saying before, it’s heightened vulnerability for you, because it’s the vulnerability for the whole show. Rita’s like the soft spot for the whole series. That world of him and you makes up for the non-vulnerable everything else so… it’d make sense if you’d be feeling a little bit extra weight because, there’s kind of a lot of it.
JB: Especially when you put it like that, now I’m going to be thinking about it when I go back to work.
Ben Poster is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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