Julie Benz: Far from a "Long Shot"
by Terry Keefe
Resilience. It's a word that seems to go hand-in hand with some of the best performances of actress Julie Benz, whether she's playing the seemingly indestructible vampire Darla on "Angel," or Annie Garrett, the competitive horse rider who beats every conceivable obstacle in Benz' new Hallmark Channel movie "The Long Shot: Believe in Courage." But although the two aforementioned characters might both have the proverbial steel spine, their hearts couldn't be more different. While Darla the vampire did acquit herself somewhat during the course of her most recent death on "Angel," when she sacrificed her own life after giving birth to the child she conceived with Angel (David Boreanaz) in the acclaimed episode "Lullaby," she has largely played the villain for most of the series. Benz’ new character Annie Garrett, on the other hand, has nothing but love for the world, even when life has dealt her some pretty lousy cards. Based on the true story of equestrian Amy A. Gaston, “The Long Shot” is a charming story of hope and redemption, which also allows Benz to showcase a very different on-screen persona from the one her fans may have become accustomed to on “Angel.”
When we first meet Annie Garrett in “The Long Shot,” she and her 7-year old daughter Taylor (Gage Golightly) have just been left abandoned and penniless by Annie's fiery-tempered, irresponsible husband Ross (John Livingston) in a new town where he was supposed to have a job waiting for him at a local farm. Annie also has the added responsibility of caring for her horse Tolo, who was supposed to be stabled at Ross' new job and now has nowhere to live. Fortunately, Annie is what is known as a "horse whisperer," blessed with an uncanny ability to deal with horses, who seem to love her one and all. On the eve of being evicted from a local roach motel, she finds a friendly face in Mary Lou O'Brian (four-time Academy Award nominee Marsha Mason), a legendary horse riding champion who also owns and runs the local equestrian center Shamrock Farms with the help of barn manager Guido Levits (two-time Golden Globe winner Paul Le Mat). While working at Shamrock, Annie slowly rebuilds her life and begins training in the competitive riding sport of dressage. But in a double whammy of bad luck, she's injured in a fall from a barn, and Tolo is stricken blind. Faced with increasing debts which would be greatly helped by some prize money, Annie makes the decision to take the blind Tolo into the dressage championships.
After a long string of sci-fi and supernatural roles which have been heavy on the FX and pyrotechnics, "The Long Shot" provides Benz with a simple but charming story, grounded in reality, which gives her a great framework to develop an in-depth portrait of Annie, a character who has an inner strength which is near supernatural itself. Benz creates an Annie who radiates such a warmth and goodness that you want to help her with her troubles, even through the television. And consequently, it’s not surprising when the on-screen characters, not to mention horses, fall in love with Annie immediately.
Pittsburgh-native Julie Benz herself knows more than a little about what willpower it takes to keep your dreams alive, as she's had to test exactly how deep her own wells of strength go from the age of 3, when she started competing as a figure skater. By the age of 13, she was nationally ranked but that same year suffered some debilitating injuries. Although she would eventually skate again, the downtime afforded Benz the chance to try out a new passion, that of acting. She went on to study at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and gained her first real notoriety playing Darla, the “Angel” character who originally appeared (and was killed for the first time) on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Darla is a 400-year old vampire who has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Angel for around 150 of those years. Darla was thought dead until she was brought back as a surprise on the last episode of the first season of "Angel." The series is now in its fifth and final year, despite rabid fan demands to keep the series alive, the likes of which have not been seen since the end of the first "Star Trek." And with the story arc of "Angel" coming to a close, it seems likely that we may see Darla again one last time this year. Other notable roles for Benz include Jawbreaker , a memorable stint on the series "Roswell," The Brothers , and the mini-series "Taken." She is currently shooting “Lakawanna Blues” for HBO, alongside a cast which includes Halle Berry, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Liev Schreiber. Venice met her at local coffee shop Abbott’s Habit in late March.
Tell us about meeting Amy A. Gaston, the real life equestrian who the Annie Garrett character is based on.
Julie Benz: I got to spend two weeks rehearsal with her, prior to the shooting of the movie. She's actually the one who trained me for the horseback riding. I describe Amy as being the type of person, that when she looks at you and smiles, you feel like you're getting a big hug from her. Amazing and effervescent. She has wonderful warmth and heart. She's a modern-day Pollyanna in that she sees the silver lining in every dark cloud and can take any bad situation and find the positive in it. We spent a lot of time together and went through a lot, actually. I was thrown off a horse during the rehearsal process. Going through that with her made me realize that she's not jaded at all. She doesn't have a bad word to say about anybody. And you don't really get to meet those kinds of people here in Hollywood. For me, the performance was about really trying to capture that sweetness and that real innocent, loving nature that she has.
Did Amy really have a lot of those "horse whispering" abilities?
Amy can whisper to anything, I think, any animal, even people. She just has a way about her, but animals especially respond to her. It's so great to see. I mean, the horses at the stable we were training at - she'd just be standing there and a horse would stick its neck out of a stall and try to nuzzle her head [laughs].
You mentioned that you were thrown badly from a horse during rehearsal.
They say you're not a real horsewoman until you've been thrown off a horse. So I guess I'm a real horsewoman now. [laughs] It was pretty scary. You don't realize at first that you're dealing with a 1200-pound beast really. I mean, horses are amazing creatures and they're really just unique personalities and very special. But they're extremely powerful. And this was a horse they were trying out to be my horse in the movie. He obviously didn't make the cut. [laughs] Throwing an actress is not the way to her heart. I've never had such a volatile co-star in my life [laughs]. It was pretty eye-opening I'd have to say. I was in a lot of pain throughout most of the filming of the movie with my back, but it gave me a tremendous amount of respect for the animal as well. When you're sitting on a horse, you have to be aware 150 percent. You can't joke around and not be listening to everything the horse is telling you at all times. I think the throw gave me that respect.
Had you done much riding before playing Annie?
Not really. I had done some basic western riding, but never dressage. I didn't even know what dressage was. When they told me the story was about horseback riding set in the world of dressage, I was like, "What?" Basic western riding is completely different. In dressage, it's all about the respect with the horse. It's all about you and the horse working together. Even when putting on the saddle, you do it in such a way that doesn't startle the horse. It's a working-together relationship. And there are so many rules [laughs]. It was overwhelming at first. Like you can only get on and off a horse on one side. And you can only get off and on a certain way.
How was working with Marsha Mason?
When they first offered me the movie, they told me it was a movie with Marsha Mason and I was so excited. I'm such a huge fan of hers. The Goodbye Girl is an all-time favorite of mine. She's wonderful to work with. She has this really amazing inner strength on the set. Sometimes if there's a lot of stuff going on on-set, it can get really overwhelming, and I can get overwhelmed as an actor. But then I would look at her, and she's so centered and so strong and able to deal with the chaos. I strive to be that way myself.
How many times have you died as the character Darla over the course of "Buffy" and "Angel?"
I think I've died four or five times. I honestly believe that they like seeing me covered in blood [laughs]. I just think they have a thing with me and blood. I've died a lot!
Each time you've died in the two series, did you think you were coming back in the future or did you think, "This is it for Darla"?
You know, I'm very shortsighted. Every time I died, they would give me this big party on the set because I honestly thought it was my last time. I would sob and hug everybody goodbye and say, "It's over!" [laughs] And then a couple of months later, I'd get a phone call to come back. Everybody's now gotten pretty jaded about me dying on the show. I don't get the big party anymore. I don't get the gifts anymore. It's like, "Yeah, we'll see you in a few months." [laughs]
Tell us about working on Jawbreaker.
It was a lot of fun. I really felt like I reverted back to high school when I was filming that movie. I'd come home and I'd be like [“Valley Girl” voice] "Omigod, you're never going to believe this!" [laughs] We shot it very fast and it was grueling but I think I really became a 15-year old again when filming it. That's one of the perks of being an actor. Characters will take over your life for a short time and you can act out, but blame it on the role [laughs]. And I was not that popular in high school so it was great for me to play the cool girl!
I can't believe you were not that popular in high school. C'mon, Julie!
I was busy! I was really busy with my figure skating and acting, so I wasn't really around much.
That makes sense. You were figure skating from the age of 3.
I always joke around that my parents were suckers because at 3, they were told I was talented. I don't think you really are at 3! [laughs] We started it as a family activity to do on the weekends, as a way to spend time together as a family. And it just grew from there. My brother and sister did it too. We all started at the same time. My brother and sister were Junior National Champions. They were ranked 10th in the world when they retired. I retired before they did. And I was ranked 13th in the country at that time. They always felt like I’d be the one to go the furthest, but I suffered two really bad injuries at 13 and then discovered acting at that point.
Was it devastating for those injuries to happen at 13?
You know, I had to be off the ice for 6 months and I had to be in a cast. But at the same time, I got to have a life. I got to be social. I did go back and skate a couple of more years. But at that point, I had already started acting and doing local theater in the Pittsburgh area where I grew up. I was doing commercials and had met my manager, Vincent Cirrincione, who is also my manager today. I think having met him really made me feel like "I can do this for a living. I can move out of skating and into acting and it can work."
Did you find that having lived through the adversity of being a competitive skater at a young age steeled you for the ups and downs of Hollywood?
I think the most important thing I learned as a competitive ice skater was that there really is no such thing as an overnight success. That it takes years of training and hard work and perseverance. For every overnight success, there is a good 10 years of experience behind that person. They just happened to pop at that time. I trained 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, 2 weeks off a year, from the age of 3 to skate. So it's almost the same with acting. You could go on a reality show and be famous overnight for your 15 minutes, but if you really want to be in it for the long haul, you have to work at it.