Sarah Michelle Gellar: 'I was always different'

At four years old, Sarah Michelle Gellar wanted to be on TV. The Buffy star is just as determined now, finds Lesley O'Toole
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The Independent Culture

Sarah Michelle Gellar has long defied the odds. When the former soap actress moved to Los Angeles, her then agent was hardly encouraging: "You'll never make it. Everyone leaves soaps and comes back." Her new LA agent saw his client turn down every possibility with which he presented her for 18 months - until a TV pilot called Buffy the Vampire Slayer came along.

It made Gellar's fortune, of course. Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran for seven series and earned her the sort of worldwide fame not normally enjoyed by television stars. Japan was a late convert, and when Gellar went there to film The Grudge in 2003, she was able to enjoy relative anonymity. "I got to experience something I'd been looking forward to for so long - not coming through a back door with my head down at a tourist attraction. I went to the Tokyo Tower and stood in line just like everyone else. Being able to look up when I was walking, seeing everything, not having to worry, that was great."

However, Buffy-mania Tokyo-style was in full swing when she returned to Japan to film a tiny role in The Grudge 2, although she only had 10 days of it. That she's in the sequel at all is a surprise: Gellar wasn't alone in believing that her character didn't survive the first film. "When they called me, I said, 'Didn't I die?'. Evidently not. Apparently, I escaped and wasn't a goner after all. Movie magic!"

Gellar is an unlikely fan of Asian martial-arts movies, and still jokes that she stalked the American producers of The Grudge (a remake of the successful Japanese horror film Ju-on) in her quest for the role. The purist in her appreciated the fact that Takashi Shimizu, the original's director, was to direct the American version. "I've always been fascinated by Asian culture, and I love that women can play the lead in a horror film. It used to be only on TV that women could lead, that a show could be based on a woman. But there are still only certain film genres where a woman can stand out, be heroic, be the centrepiece."

Clearly, horror fans loved Gellar as the "centrepiece" of The Grudge: it made $110m in the US alone. She's back as the American nurse, Karen Davis, for the sequel. Gellar is clearly seen as box-office, and was presumably rewarded handsomely. She earned her highest film cheque to date for The Grudge, reportedly $6m.

"I didn't want to come back just to come back, though. It had to be a purposeful story-line. And I love that this film is coming to America."

Gellar, who turns 30 next year, appears to have developed a rather self-deprecating wit. "Buffy fans are so loyal, and they'll say, 'Remember the episode when you did this?'. The episodes all blend together for me, so I don't remember. I can't even remember what I had for breakfast this morning. I always feel I must be such a disappointment to them."

Though she has a tattoo of the Japanese symbol for integrity, Gellar found herself the subject of stories and rumours that hardly indicated integrity at the height of Buffy fever. Some cast members later said that they discovered Gellar was leaving the show by reading it in the papers.

If there were star trips or bad behaviour, there were no serious repercussions. Gellar never received a letter from a studio boss, for example, asking her to stop partying or faking exhaustion, and never lost the adoration of that core Buffy audience. While not admitting to anything, Gellar is happy to have exorcised much of the fame-generated craziness from her life.

"I was very lucky," she says. "I look at all these kids getting fame and attention now. They're just not equipped to deal with it at that age. I was protected on my show. I worked constantly. You don't party when you're on a TV show. You go to bed for 10 hours and learn your lines."

Gellar is a brunette now, her natural colour, after years of bleaching for Buffy. At just 5ft 3in, she's pretty, but not drop-dead gorgeous, thin still, but healthy-looking and nowhere near skeletal enough to merit a "scarily skinny celebs" photo-story.

"I like food. I like eating. And I don't want to deprive myself of good food. Our bodies are machines and have to be functional, and to do that they have to be fed properly. I don't smoke, don't drink much, and go to the gym five times a week. I live a healthy lifestyle and feel great. I can run a marathon, you know."

Gellar's marriage appears in good health, too. She married the actor Freddie Prinze Jr in 2002, after the pair met making 1997's teen horror film, I Know What You Did Last Summer. However, long ago, Gellar decided that she would never discuss her private life: "That's my own and it keeps me grounded." (She blithely ignores my question about whether she wants children.) Another early decision established her career trajectory at a precocious age. "I was at a play date with friends when I was about four, and this mother said, 'Do you want to be on TV?'. I said, 'Sure'. I had no idea what I was doing and my mother wasn't into it, but I just carried on with it."

At the age of six she made her TV debut in a feature called Invasion of Privacy and continued playing mostly guest roles until she won a regular role on the daytime soap All My Children at 16. In common with every successful actor who started on a soap, Gellar considers the job an invaluable learning tool. "Try being a character on a soap opera who has no friends. I was always speaking to myself. Forty pages of monologue every day!"

Gellar's mother was evidently intent on keeping the young actress grounded. "It was she and my New York agent who told me I couldn't move to LA until I was 18, and I'm glad about that now. I really wanted to get myself situated and developed as a person before I went anywhere. And school was always a priority. If my grades ever dropped below an A-minus, I had to stop doing acting work for a while until I got them up again."

Gellar attended an élite Manhattan prep school for rich kids, where she scraped by on a 50 per cent scholarship. While her work on films sets with adults gave her an apparent confidence, the real thing only came years later. "I was different and that's the one thing you can't be at school, because you're ostracised. I didn't have the money these kids had.

"I can remember this kid having an engraved Tiffany money-clip when I barely had enough money for my bus pass. It was amazing to see what excessive wealth at an early age and lack of parental supervision breeds."

She went on to New York's Professional Children's School, alongside a hotchpotch of young actors, musicians and athletes, and children whose only gift was having famous parents. She loved it, graduating a year early. "There was no hierarchy there. There weren't the popular people, the nerds, the cheerleaders. In most high schools, it's about conformity, when it should be about becoming an individual. So my school was a revelation."

She planned to go to college if her LA acting career didn't pan out. Does she feel that she missed out? "I really consider life to be like studying. The first thing I look up when I'm out of town is the local museum. You can always continue to learn. And I don't know what I'd do at a fraternity party. All that might be a little lost on me."

Before returning to film in Tokyo for The Grudge 2, Gellar was in Mexico City filming The Air I Breathe, in which she plays Sorrow to Brendan Fraser's Pleasure, Forest Whitaker's Happiness and Kevin Bacon's Love: "It's all about how you can't survive until you know each of the emotions." She has also taken the lead in the film version of the hit American chick-lit book, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and is currently filming the "tragic love story", Addicted.

Mercifully, there won't be another Scooby-Doo film (in which she starred with her husband). "I doubt whether Freddie and I will work together again. People aren't really interested in seeing a married couple on screen. And no, there will not be a third Scooby-Doo. That I can tell you unequivocally."

What about a return as Buffy? "Oh, God, I'll be in a walker. And Buffy will be killing people with her cane. It's not in my immediate future, but stranger things have happened."

'The Grudge 2' opens on 20 October

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