Dragon Con 2014: Julie Benz Aims For Strong Female Roles

Posted: Sep 6 2014, 5:04am CDT | by , Updated: Sep 6 2014, 11:37am CDT, in News | Latest TV News


Dragon Con 2014: Julie Benz aims for strong female roles
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Julie Benz explained to the Dragon Con press room why strong women characters are so important.

Media Relations at Dragon Con allowed me to attend Julie Benz's press conference on Sunday, August 31. If you don't know who Benz is by name, you probably know her roles. She's acted in Joss Whedon's Buffy and Angel as sociopathic Darla, ABC's Desperate Housewives stripper with a heart of gold Robin Gallagher, Showtime's Dexter as Rita Morgan, and currently stars as Amanda Rosewater on SyFy's Defiance.

Yesterday I posted an article on Julie Benz, which discussed her focuses on aging, acting, and imperfections in people. Julie's awesome in all ways possible. I say this as a fan and press. In either arena, she's completely open, honest, and kind to anyone who speaks to her. She gets excited, seems to truly enjoy the interactions with fans, and opens up the littlest details of her life.

I once called her "boo," treating the actress as a friend without realizing it, and we ended up talking about her adorable little dogs—Sugar and Bamboo. I've never witnessed her disparaging or mocking a single person. The soft, quiet voice belies the strength of a woman who knows the inner core of who she is.

In my last article, I discussed how she sees imperfections as important elements in choosing roles. Her personal strength is shown on screen because of the vulnerability and need to discover more about the characters. Darla's one of the most complex roles I've seen her play throughout the past fifteen years.

“Darla’s pretty epic for me.  I view my time on Buffy and Angel as going to a really great graduate school. I learned more on those sets about acting than I did when I went to NYU. Not that I didn’t learn some stuff at NYU—I did—but I learned more working with Joss Whedona nd everybody over at Buffy and Angel than I learned at school.”

Originally, Darla was meant to be tiny, no-named with a quick death in first episode, but the ending never seemed to come. Until “the third episode when he [Joss] said, ‘we’re gonna kill ya.’” And unlike her time on Dexter, the ending wasn’t surprising.

“It made sense ‘cause they needed to set up that love triangle but Buffy had to win the battle.” Not bad for an actress that tried out for the role of Buffy and still managed to have a long-term role.

Even after dying on Buffy in the first season, Darla returned in Angel years later. Recreated but still fully Darla in all her human glory. “It was exciting because we got to explore more of Darla’s back story. I think I got to grow up a little more as an actress and get some work under my belt. So I could play Darla more.”

Benz works hard at creating a character in the little details. Watch her shifts as Darla deals with an unwanted pregnancy, how she handles the burden, and then realizes the chaotic beauty in creating a warrior.

Darla made Angelus, the coldhearted, sadistic killer. That means Angelus was a creation of her vision, too. But bringing Connor to life meant a different sort of warrior. Benz offered the slightest physical movements, inflections of voice; both subtle changes from tropey vampire to warrior mother.

Interestingly, abuse seems to be a theme in picking female roles for the actress.

Robin Gallagher's rough, abusive childhood led to a life stripping for cash. Being a teacher didn't pay the bills and the dreams of being a ballerina were long past. There's something to be said about choosing a lesbian character on a show like Desperate Housewives and managing to offer some character growth to each of the women outside of romance—or mostly outside of romance, in the case of Katherine Mayfair. While the role was only a few episodes, Julie went from being a fan to being on the set and becoming "part of the mythos" of Wisteria Lane.

“I just loved Robin. For me, I thought she was a character role. I got to change my voice, and how I moved. And play this woman who everyone made quick judgmental calls about but she had such a good heart and good soul.” Once again, playing a role that’s “unusual on Desperate Housewives” and outside the box.

As for Amanda Rosewater's murky-but-there morals? Well, it's the chance to dig into the little imperfections that drive the former mayor to extremes. Cracking that goodness open, adding little morsels of darkness, while not depending on a man to find her way.

She hopes that Amanda doesn’t fall back into the more idyllic role, of giving rah-rah speeches to the masses. “I think the eventual goal is that Amanda will end up back in power. But it would be too easy and too boring to do that right away.”

How did she feel about the character’s development?

“I liked the structure of Amanda and how it’s been set up the first season. Really developing the strong veneer and then season two ripping that veneer off and exposing her soft underbelly.” Strength means more than constant brave faces.

“If we have a season three, I would be really interested to see where they take her. But for me as an actress, it was important: Amanda is the moral compass of the show.”

In each of the roles discussed, the characters never look for a man to fix a problem. Rita straddles the line a bit, but sometimes damaged people revert to old habits that end badly. It doesn’t mean Rita was looking for a solution so much as hoping to find that moment of peace, clarity again.

And each woman finds her own way after learning lessons about depending on people.

After all, even Rita survived her first husband’s abuse and moved on with her life while he was in prison. Dexter was an answer to a question of support, but the strength to leave isn’t something to be lightly ignored.

Blindness in loved ones is a pretty powerful motivator. And sometimes that blindness, that inability to leave a situation that isn't necessary right, can kill you.

Julie Benz looks for strong, multifaceted women who are more than background characters—roles with substance and drive, of success and failure. Strength is not just winning, succeeding, but in sometimes failing and showing weakness. Imperfect women provide a world of choices.

“My goal now is to find strong female roles. I have plenty of time in my career to play the wife or victim role. Because that’s pretty much what they write. So I can find something that falls outside of that box, then that attracts me.”

In an age of television where the good, deep dramas do not have to fall on premium networks shoulders, roles for women are changing, too.

“We’re finding more and more television that the female roles are becoming stronger. We’re an age of television right now where they’re writing really amazing women for television. And we’re seeing that by all the different films stars coming to do TV. So for me, it’s a matter of trying to keep it mixed up for as long as I can because eventually I’ll get old and have to play grandmas.”

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