The Saturday Interview

‘We were taught that other actresses were out to get you’: Sarah Michelle Gellar on slaying, sexism and surviving Hollywood

After a decade away, the Nineties phenomenon talks to Adam White about returning to television in ‘Wolf Pack’, burning out in an isolating industry, and those ‘difficult’ rumours

Saturday 28 January 2023 06:30 GMT
‘I’ve always had a very specific sense of right and wrong, and it was hard to have that in this business... because there were a lot of wrongs’
‘I’ve always had a very specific sense of right and wrong, and it was hard to have that in this business... because there were a lot of wrongs’ (Frank Ockenfels)

When Sarah Michelle Gellar became one of the biggest stars of the Nineties, as representative of an era as jelly shoes, Pogs and Bart Simpson, rumours began to surface. Y2K message boards whispered that she was mean. That she was eager to abandon Buffy the Vampire Slayer, her star-making TV series, for a career in movies. That the words her co-stars so often used to describe her – “professional”, “committed”, “a perfectionist” – were coded, or ambiguous niceties to cover up the fact that she was a teen-queen-from-hell. The truth was a lot more complicated.

“A lot of times on sets, you’re told not to make waves,” Gellar says today. “‘Just do the job.’ ‘You’re replaceable.’ And in Hollywood, and when you’re specifically a young female and you speak up about things, you’re labelled as ‘difficult’. But now I’ll wear that with pride, if ‘difficult’ means that I expect everyone to come with their 100 per cent A-game.” She sighs. “If you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, and you’re doing all this work and someone’s late on something – it’s OK to not be OK with that. But it does get you that label, which I think is unfair.”

Gellar speaks fast and forcefully, like a YouTube video on 1.5x speed. If she weren’t an actor, she would have been a spectacular auctioneer. The first thing you notice about her is that she’s startlingly compact – a tiny bundle of Buffy huddled into the crack of a hotel sofa. The second thing you notice about her is that she seems to change the temperature of the room she’s in – it’s as if everyone’s very aware that Gellar isn’t a regular kind of famous. Rather, she’s a living symbol: of strength; of female empowerment; of coming of age; of nostalgia. She was probably the girl you had on your bedroom wall in 1998. However you discovered her – be it from watching her as the Slayer, or in films such as Cruel Intentions, Scream 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scooby-Doo – she left a mark. This extends to the very excited publicists waiting outside the door to her suite, the screaming fans at the previous night’s premiere of her new TV show, and the people in my WhatsApp group chats who can’t quite believe I’m interviewing her. She was, is, and always will be a very big deal.

Gellar is now 45 and starring in a new Paramount Plus series called Wolf Pack. It marks her most significant acting role in nearly a decade. The show is about teenagers bitten by a mysterious creature during a wildfire, with Gellar as the arson investigator faced with the task of figuring out what’s happening. The show is officially why she’s in London, but it also feels like she’s on a bit of a promotional tour for herself. Not only is Gellar stepping back into the spotlight, but there’s a sense that she’s eager to set the record straight on things, or at least reclaim a narrative that got taken away from her years ago.

First, though: why’d she stop? “I was really burnt out,” she says. “I had two babies back to back. Robin Williams passed away. Everything hit me at once.” Gellar was one of Williams’s final co-stars, playing his daughter in a short-lived comedy series called The Crazy Ones in 2013. Williams died just three months after it was cancelled. It prompted an epiphany: career be damned, Gellar wanted to be at home full-time, watching her children grow up. She has two, aged 10 and 13, with She’s All That star and all-round Nineties teen movie prom king Freddie Prinze Jr. They’ve been a couple since 2000, three years after meeting on the set of I Know What You Did Last Summer; they married in 2002.

Gellar was more than deserving of a break. Born and raised in New York City, she became an actor at the age of four when she was spotted by a casting agent in a restaurant. By the age of 18, she’d appeared on Broadway, won a Daytime Emmy for her role on the US soap opera All My Children, been sued by McDonalds for trashing them in a Burger King commercial, and made dozens of appearances in film and television. “I was a little cocky,” she says. “By 20 I’d had, like, 15 years of experience. But you also don’t know s*** when you’re that age.” Many co-stars who knew her back then have spoken about the almost preternatural poise she had at such a young age, but today Gellar disputes that. “People like to think I was a lot tougher or more secure than I actually was.”

You shouldn’t drive if you’re tired. Do you know how many car accidents I had on ‘Buffy’ before they got me a driver?

In 1996, aged 19, she was cast as Buffy Summers, a high-school cheerleader cursed to protect the innocent from vampires, demons and all kinds of gooey evil. It made her a star, running for seven seasons until 2003. Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains one of the best and most influential series in TV history – a witty, complex and genre-bending masterpiece that understood how horrifying adolescence and young adulthood can be. For years it had a golden reputation, as did its creator Joss Whedon, a self-proclaimed “super woke bae” whose public image – nerdy, feminist, unbearably annoying but forgiveable – seemed iron-clad.

That changed, though, in 2021, when numerous Buffy cast members alleged that the series was plagued by behind-the-scenes conflict, with Whedon identified as the source of it. “Buffy was a toxic environment and it starts at the top,” tweeted Amber Benson, who played witch Tara in the series. “There was a lot of damage done during that time and many of us are still processing it 20 plus years later.” Charisma Carpenter, who played the gloriously self-involved Cordelia in Buffy and its spin-off Angel, wrote that Whedon was “mean and biting, disparaging about others openly, and often played favourites, pitting people against one another to compete and vie for his attention and approval”. (Whedon has largely avoided commenting on specific allegations, but has admitted to “yelling” and being “not mannerly” at times.)

Amid the early allegations, Gellar expressed pride in her co-stars for speaking out, and reiterated her pride in the show itself, while adding: “I don’t want to be forever associated with the name Joss Whedon.” She has since maintained that she will never talk publicly about her experiences with Whedon, but has alluded to working on “toxic” sets in her early years in Hollywood.

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Today she wants to make clear that it wasn’t just a Buffy problem. “The toxic environments I [experienced] weren’t one-job specific,” she says. “I think people automatically think it was one job I was talking about, but there were lots of jobs I was talking about.”

I ask her if she ever saw the irony in Hollywood casting her as such strong, powerful women – even her characters in Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer fought like hell before meeting sticky ends – but wanting her to be small and compliant in reality. “I think I chose to play characters that I wanted to be,” she says. She mentions Cruel Intentions, the salacious 1999 thriller in which she played a ruthless Manhattan socialite. “I didn’t want to be as mean as Kathryn, but I wanted to be as secure as she was. As powerful. She used her power, her sexuality, and her mind.” Gellar seems wistful.

Bite me: Gellar and James Marsters in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Shutterstock)

The way she describes it, the peak of her fame was underpinned by struggle, insecurity and loneliness. Cruel Intentions, for instance, was a film she had to fight for. “My team didn’t want me to do that job,” she remembers. “They kept saying: ‘We don’t get it, it’s so ridiculous – she’s such a bitch and you’re the superhero.’” They were convinced she should play Annette, the virginal good girl marked for destruction by Kathryn and her stepbrother Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe). “I got so much pushback. But I had two real team members back then, and let’s just say that only one of them still works with me to this day.”

Gellar held her ground, eventually winning the role of Kathryn, with Reese Witherspoon recruited to play Annette. The pair weren’t particularly close off-camera, but Gellar says this was the mood of the era. “It was hard. Women at the time were really pitted against each other. We were taught that other actresses were out to get you.” She remembers only Scream 2 being different, as she found mentor figures in Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox, equally uber-famous women with massive TV shows to their names and fledgling movie careers (“You’ve gotta be 25 to rent a car, and Courteney was the only one of us old enough to rent one, so if you wanted to go somewhere, you had to ask her to take you”). Typically, though, she and her female co-stars were instructed to keep distant. She says she and Witherspoon reconnected years later, and realised how much they had in common. “We’ve since gone deeper into things we experienced [on other sets]. We found out that we were both going through so much of the same stuff.”

Gellar keeps the specifics of her experiences slightly fuzzy, but a throughline emerges in our conversation – of young women working for tyrannical men, and being deliberately isolated from their peers so that they’re vulnerable and submissive. It’s no wonder she eventually shut down. “At first I didn’t know if I missed acting,” she says. “But then during Covid – that’s when I got the itch. That’s when I was really jonesing.” An offer to star in and executive-produce Wolf Pack came along shortly after. “And I’m enjoying myself so much more now. I’m not putting the same pressures on myself.”

‘She’s such a bitch and you’re the superhero’: Gellar in ‘Cruel Intentions’ (Shutterstock)

Why did she do that to herself for so long? “Yeah, why did I?” she asks. Her voice takes on a comic, child-like whine. Buffy-esque, you could say. “I don’t knowww-uh! Because it was harddd-uh! I’ve definitely always had a very specific sense of right and wrong, but I just didn’t know what to do with it. And it’s hard to have that in this business – especially when I was coming up. Because there were a lot of wrongs.”

Lately, Gellar has been working with actors the same age as she was when she was working on Buffy. On both Wolf Pack and in last year’s Netflix teen thriller Do Revenge – in which she cameoed as a cutthroat headteacher – she says she found herself in awe of how differently young actors interact with each other. “I spent a lot of time with Maya Hawke [on Do Revenge] and I absolutely worship her,” she says. “Her generation has been taught to talk about how they feel. My generation was not. We were taught that you don’t talk about feelings. You don’t talk about anxiety. They’re more open about sexuality, about emotions. It’s really, really good.”

Part of the thrill of working on Wolf Pack, she says, is fixing Hollywood from the inside out. “It’s why it was so important to be an executive producer – I wanted to create the kind of environment that I didn’t have.” Back in her Buffy days, she remembers being a vocal advocate for crew members, who often had to work incredibly long hours for none of the pay or adulation the on-camera talent received. She’d fight for shorter shoot days, flag when filming overran, and demand shared respect for everyone on set. This seemed to contribute to the negative image that once surrounded her – essentially, she made life harder for people who wanted to cut corners and treat others horribly.

New blood: Gellar as an arson investigator in Paramount Plus’s ‘Wolf Pack’ (Curtis Bonds Baker/Paramount Plus)

“You shouldn’t drive if you’re tired,” she says. “Do you know how many car accidents I had on Buffy before they got me a driver? But the crew doesn’t get that. As a producer now, I can get them an Uber. On Wolf Pack, every Friday we have a truck come to pick up the crew. We also remember to say thank you – just a thanks for a hard week of work. These aren’t huge things, but they’re things that so often get overlooked. There’s this notion that there are ‘above-the-line’ and ‘below-the-line’ employees – the cast and then the crew. But why? Without the below-the-line, the above-the-line can’t do their jobs. We’re all in the same house. And that’s the world I want to create, and the world I want to live in.”

As I listen to Gellar, I keep thinking of her favourite episode of Buffy. For years she’s named her number one as “The Prom”, a season-three hour in which Buffy’s classmates present her with a “Class Protector” award for her years of largely overlooked heroism. I always felt the episode was a surprising pick, since it’s not generally considered one of the show’s classics. But as Gellar speaks about her past, her advocacy, and her reclamation of her own story, I start to see the episode differently. I ask her what it means to her now.

“It means that people see you,” she says. “People know you, and not the perception of you. The perception of Buffy was that she was just this nerdy girl who wasn’t cool in school. But in actuality she was saving the world.”

‘Wolf Pack’ streams weekly on Paramount Plus, with new episodes dropping every Friday

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