Alyson Hannigan: Bedknobs and broomsticks

Alyson Hannigan cut her teeth as a witch in Buffy, but her new target is tougher than any demon: the West End. Sam Marlowe hears why she's staking her credibility on the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally

It's a drizzly, grey day in London, but Alyson Hannigan is doing her best to brighten things up with her thousand-Watt film-star smile. The actress made her name playing Willow in all seven seasons of the phenomenally successful TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a role that involved her transformation from sweet-natured computer geek to vengeful flying witch, by way of becoming a lesbian in love. She also appeared in the American Pie movies, a trilogy of bad-taste teen sex comedies that culminated in 2003's American Wedding, in which Hannigan's character, Michelle, finally got her guy up the aisle - and the actress got star billing.

Now, she's in London for the stage adaptation of the Hollywood rom-com When Harry Met Sally, directed by Loveday Ingram, with swinging new tunes by the jazz wunderkind Jamie Cullum and his brother Ben. Rob Reiner's movie, which was written by Nora Ephron and starred Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, was a huge hit when it appeared in 1989. Now Hannigan, along with her co-star, Luke Perry, best known for Aaron Spelling's glossy school soap Beverly Hills 90210, is hoping to tug our heartstrings all over again.

If today's performance is anything to go by, it's a task that Hannigan is more than equal to. Slender and huge-eyed, with long, glossy red tresses and an infectious giggle, she has obviously already won the affection of all the staff at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where the company is preparing for its first technical rehearsal. She's bright, chatty and beguiling, but occasionally her naïve enthusiasm fails to be entirely convincing. Everything, it seems, is "cool" or "soooo cute" - the London streets, the quaint bayonet-type light bulbs around her dressing-room mirror ("We don't have those in America, only the screw kind") and the crackly speaker-system, through which voices float from the stage. But then, for an actress who has lived and worked in highly polished Hollywood since childhood, the shabby backstage areas of a West End theatre must be something of a novelty.

Hannigan was born in 1974. An only child, she spent her early years in Atlanta, Georgia, where through the connections of her photographer father she started modelling and acting in commercials. Even then, she says she had her future career planned. "I just knew I wanted to act," she says, settling her tiny frame into a tatty armchair. "That and soccer were my two loves. But acting has always been my passion, and I just wouldn't have known what else to do." So determined was she, in fact, that at the age of 11, with the help of her parents, who were by then separated, she set up meetings with various LA agents. Their response was positive, so she and her mother waved goodbye to Atlanta and decamped to Hollywood. There, she went to North Hollywood High School, took a small role in the film My Stepmother Was an Alien at the age of 13 and worked steadily in TV. And then, in 1997, along came Buffy.

Hannigan was hired as Willow without ever having actually seen a script - a cock-up on the part of her "not so good" agent of the time that was, she now says, a blessing in disguise. "If I had seen one, I would have wanted the part so badly that I wouldn't have got it," she explains. "'Cause, y'know, you can psyche yourself out." In fact, as she puts it, the scripts "were phenomenal and they just kept getting better and better. The response from the critics was awesome, the fans embraced us - and the rest is history." I put it to her that some Buffy fans are rather more enthusiastic about the show than is strictly healthy, harbouring a fascination with its stars that borders on the obsessive. "No, I don't think they're obsessive, they're just dedicated," she corrects me carefully. What about the girl whose admiration for Hannigan was so great that she personally delivered the gift of a live horse to her home? "She was really, really dedicated."

Asked why she thinks Buffy inspires such devotion, she seems to be stumped. "I dunno. If I could figure it out, I could make a lot of money developing shows." Not that she's doing too badly anyhow. The Buffy series became so huge that its stars were raking in a reported £160,000 per episode in the final season, and American Wedding netted her £1.8m. "It's nice to do what I love to do and make a nice living at it, and to have the luxury of being able to choose jobs, rather than having to take them to pay the rent," she admits. "That's something I'll always be grateful for. But it's not why I got into the business."

While the character of Willow ran the emotional gamut, Michelle from the American Pie movies is sheer screwball comedy. Initially a nerdish flautist whose every anecdote begins with the phrase: "This one time, at band camp", she later emerges as a saucy sex kitten who has found a kinky and far from musical use for her instrument. Hannigan's performance in the role is a riot. "I was attracted to the character partly because of the shock value," she admits, eyes twinkling, "but mainly I just thought she would be so much fun to play." Possibly because of her on-screen antics, some of Britain's tabloids have published racy tales of Hannigan's own sexual exploits - stories that report her coupling on a pool table, in a car while driving and even on a Ferris wheel. True? "Eeeugh. I don't know what you're talking about," she says, looking genuinely astounded. "No way! No, no, no, that's not true!"

Still, she will be giving theatre audiences her best fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally's most famous scene. The show marks her stage debut, and she says she's hugely excited about opening night - but she's also full of apprehension. "I'm sure I'll throw up on the day," she says. "There have been a couple of times in rehearsal when if you'd said to me, would I like to go home, then I would have said: yeah! But at least I don't have to worry about whether people will like the piece. It's such great material, my job is just not to screw it up."

Hannigan says that, as a teenager when the film first came out, she dreamt of playing Sally. "I was so jealous that Meg Ryan got to play her. The film is just fantastic across the board - the writing, the acting, the directing. Every single person can relate to something in that movie; it just hits so close to home - particularly about the differences between men and women. It's just a wonderful, wonderful film - touching and funny and very romantic." Is she a romantic? "Yeah, I really love love," she says, grinning, her entire body visibly relaxing and her face more open and full of real feeling than at any other moment in the interview. She married her fellow Buffy actor Alexis Denisof (he played Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, the upper-class English twit with an occult bent and, yes, a heart of gold) last October, and is missing him terribly. "I'm a newlywed and I've left my husband across the pond," she moans, mock-tragically. It is Denisof, she says, who "talks me down off the ledge" in long-distance phone calls when she has had a particularly tough working day. "And he's coming out next week, so I'm very happy," she adds, her eyes bright and dancing like a honeymooner's.

So, what's next for this all-American sweetheart? She has struck a development deal with NBC, and says that in the immediate future she's planning to stick with comedy, "because I just love it so much", rather than tackling anything more heavyweight. Right now, she is focusing on doing justice to Sally. Previous Hollywood visitors to the London stage have generally failed to find favour with the British reviewers. Is she nervous about the possibility of suffering a critical mauling?

"I've heard so much about how brutal the press here can be," she winces, "but I'm doing this for the love of the piece and for the experience, so I'm going to try not to care. I just hope there's a good quote that the theatre can put out front. Y'know, you walk past theatres and there's all these posters saying 'blah blah blah' " - she adopts a plummy faux-English tone - "but occasionally you walk past one and all it'll say is, 'Good'." She chuckles. "And you're like, hmmmm, that's just one word. I wonder what the surrounding words were. 'This is so not good'! So I'd like to have at least one nice whole sentence, just for the poster. That's my goal."

'When Harry Met Sally' is previewing now and opens tomorrow at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London WC2 (0870 901 3356)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing