EXCLUSIVE: Amber Benson on 'Dust Up,' 'Buffy,' and Being a Book Whore

The star of neo-grindhouse western film "Dust Up" dishes about going indie, literary passions, and her groundbreaking role as a lesbian witch on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
By: Sunnivie Brydum
November 13 2012 3:30 PM

Amber Benson describes her latest movie, Dust Up, released on DVD today, as a "neo-grindhouse Western" that features drugs, sex, cannibalism, and plenty of guns. While the indie shoot-em-up is set in a barren desert wasteland, Benson spoke to SheWired from an entirely different kind of wasteland: New York City following Hurricane Sandy. 

Benson braved the still-receding waters to chat about the occult, playing one half of the world's most powerful couple of lesbian witches, why her career tends toward the fantastic, and the problem with trying to be "normal." 

Benson, best known — especially among her lesbian fans — for playing Tara Maclay, super-witch Willow Rosenberg's girlfriend on the cult hit Buffy The Vampire Slayer, has long been an outspoken supporter of the LGBT community. While her character in Dust Up is straight, soon-to-be-single mother Ella, Benson is used to pushing the envelope when it comes to realistic inclusion for LGBT people, saying she and co-star Allyson Hannigan pushed back on the resistance to having a kiss between the two lady-lovebirds on Buffy

Check out the preview for Dust Up here, and then read on to find out what Benson says all the hot lesbians in Hollywood are doing, and how she got involved in a forthcoming web series called Girl on Girl. 

SheWired: It seems like your body of work has had a trajectory towards the fantastic. Is that something you’ve always been interested in — in the whimsical, the mythological, and the supernatural?

Amber Benson: Definitely. You know, growing up I read a lot of Joseph Campbell, and I was so entranced the first time I actually saw The Power of Myth with the Bill Moyers interview… I was like, that’s what I want to be when I grow up! I want to be a mythologist. I love all this stuff! And the more I started reading myths and getting involved in that world I realized oh, no, I don’t really want to be a mythologist. I want to be a storyteller. And I think that’s why I’m so drawn to these fantastical themes because it’s about telling a story… And it’s also about being on a soapbox, too, and it’s also about being able to talk about important things. Like on Buffy, to be able to talk about lesbianism in a way that doesn’t offend people if they’re not interested in that … we [made] it about magic; they’re magic together. And if you want to say yeah, they’re lesbians and they’re falling in love and that’s what magic is all about, then great. And if you can’t handle that then you just enjoy the show as what it is: magic. You can cater it a lot to people that way. And you can open their eyes. Because that’s what it’s all about. I love the show and I love the magic but I think those girls are falling in love and I’m kind of okay with it and maybe I wasn’t before. I think it’s really important.

Absolutely. When you were doing Buffy did you know that you were creating a cultural icon, sort of a cultural revolution for lesbian representation on television?

I knew we were doing something important. Ally [Hannigan] and I both felt like it was really special and … we were really blessed to be able to play those characters and to be able to walk in their shoes. You know, to be able to open people’s eyes. And it was really interesting because when we were shooting the show we got very upset because they were sort of like you can’t kiss. Joss [Whedon, Buffy creator] was really upset about it and he really wanted it to happen. We really wanted it to happen. We’re like well Buffy’s making out with everybody. Why can’t these two girls who are in love, you know, why can’t they kiss?

Right. So did you get an explanation?

One of the crew members took me aside and he was like, "Look, it’s not about kissing. It’s about the fact that you guys have this amazing relationship. And it’s normal… You’re showing people that there’s nothing weird or different or odd about you guys, you’re just two normal girls who happen to be in love with each other and that’s what’s important." He was like, "I’m gay and that’s what’s important, I’m telling you." So we were like, it doesn’t matter. You know, if we kiss, we kiss, if we don’t, we don’t. We’re changing the world this way.

Absolutely. I think it’s interesting when folks try to use that argument about normalcy. Any same-sex relationships as we see them on TV have to appear "normal," and therefore exclude any physical expression of affection that I think would be considered quite normal in any straight relationship we see on camera.

Yeah! I personally think it’s crazy because I think that’s just normal. I think that’s human instinct to want to be close to somebody, to want to be intimate with the person that you love or the person that you’re attracted to.

Yeah. I think that relationship helped pave the way for some of the representations we're seeing on TV today, like The New Normal or Modern Family. But there still seems to be a lack of gay female characters.

That's interesting to me… It's crazy because I know so many smart, talented, powerful lesbians in Hollywood, and they're hot. I think it's just, we live in a man's world whether you're a straight man or a gay man, and so there's a lack of great female roles for straight women and a lack of great female roles for lesbian women, and I think it's just the way it is in general. It doesn't matter what your gender preference is sexually. I think being a woman is double-hard.

So what do we do to make that easier?

We make our own stuff and we don’t rely on network television, people who do stuff for us. We don’t rely on Hollywood studios to do it for us. We take it to the internet, you know, and we make stuff like GIRLTRASH

So then is that part of your motivation to go the independent-filmmaking route for a lot of your work recently?

Oh, yeah. I feel like this stuff is more interesting and the people are amazing. You know, I can’t make a living doing it, but it’s crazy. I had a hard time making it as an actor and acting is what I wanted to do. So for me, like, well how can I diversify so that I can continue to make stuff that moves me while also, you know, pay my bills.

Do you still have people who come up to you who are like, oh my God, Tara, I love you?

Yeah [laughs]. You know, it was pretty intense for a while and then it sort of died down, and now that Buffy is on Netflix streaming, there’s a whole other generation of people who are finding the show. So it’s sort of like a yin yang and it’s very weird [laughs].

 

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What does it feel like to be a cult classic? It seems like you’re kind of perpetuating that with films like Dust Up.

You know, I was really lucky to be able to play this amazing part on this amazing show and it really touched a lot of people and I feel really lucky that I get to ride that ride which opens so many doors for me. But I love the cult world and I don’t mind being associated with that. I think some people feel like they're bogged down. Oh, I don’t want to be, but it’s opened so many doors for me. I’m always happy to talk to people about it. It makes me happy that it makes them happy.

Absolutely. Speaking of that cult theme, you recently did a cameo on Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Ringer. How did it feel to be hanging out with SMG again? 

[Laughs] It was great. She — I don’t know what that woman does, but she looks the same now, having had one baby, as she did when she was like 22 when I met her. She’s a big book whore like I am. We would always talk books when I would see her. 

That’s fantastic. What are your current literary infatuations? 

I highly recommend that everybody read [a nonfiction book] called My Stroke of Insight. It was about this woman who was a neurobiologist … from Harvard and she had just had a stroke on the left side of her brain. And it’s all about her recollection of her process of having the stroke and recovering from the stroke. The different types of strokes that there are is amazing. I highly, highly recommend anybody to go and get this book. It’s so fantastic. Really enlightening.

So then, when you do have time for pleasure reading, do you normally go the nonfiction route?

No, I’m much more of a fiction whore [laughs]. I really have gotten into mystery. I’m a big P.D. James and Agatha Christie fan. Give me something creepy and unsettling, and I am your girl. 

Speaking of girls, I hear you're working on a web series called Girl on Girl. Please tell me there's a lesbian storyline in there.

[Laughs] It’s basically about two women who are trying to meet somebody in Los Angeles, but they’re so neurotic and self-involved that they always cause trouble for themselves. The first episode is basically about them having an interview session in order to meet men, but they ended up making out with each other instead.

Awesome.

[Laughs] So I think your readership will definitely enjoy the show, once we get it on the web.We’re in post right now with it, hoping [to have it ready to air] by the beginning of next year. It’s very fun.

Do you have any message you'd like to offer your lesbian fans?

My hello to them, and I'm really hoping we get to see Obama back in the White House for a second term. We can legalize gay marriage and make it as normal as straight marriage because I'm sick of it… My body and LGBTQ rights, those are two very important things to me. 

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