Cannibalism and Drugs: Amber Benson on Dust Up and Buffy

Boy, it’s nice to see Amber Benson again. Of course we all loved her on “Buffy,” and saw her pop up on other series from time to time. She is the star of the movie Dust Up, which is now available on VOD, playing a mother who has to save her baby from cannibal drug dealers. We got to talk to Benson by phone and she was just lovely, laughing about her crazy movie and significant cultural impact. Spoilers for “Buffy” in case you’re still catching up.

CraveOnline: Is the message of Dust Up “Just say no to drugs?”

Amber Benson: [Laughs] Just say no to drugs and cannibalism. That’s really the message of Dust Up. At least together. Cannibalism and drugs together, not so good. One or the other’s all right, just not together.

At one point you end up in a nice slave girl costume. Did you think about Princess Leia in that scene?

Oh, I definitely think it was a subtle homage to the Slave Leia outfit. I had my chains, I went for the throat, didn’t succeed. It definitely I think was in Ward [Roberts] our director’s mind when he put me in that outfit.

I love that it ended with a freeze frame ending. We don’t see that enough.

That’s a very ‘70s thing, isn’t it? It’s kind of MIA now.

Did you think long and hard about the pose you were going to strike for that?

It’s funny because we didn’t end it in a freeze frame originally. They did that in post. Originally we were talking and there was a whole bunch of other back and forth stuff. I think they felt like ending it there was really putting a button on the end of the film. So I’m happy with how it turned out. It was originally a little different.

I haven’t seen everything but is this the first time you’ve played a mom?

You know, I played a mom in a pilot I did for Lifetime I did a few years ago. I guess, yeah, this is the first time that anyone has ever seen me play a mom really before. There might’ve been a couple of other things but this was the first real deal mom that I’ve had.

It seems like it’s something that happens in an actor’s life. Did you have a moment where it occurred to you you were starting to get the mom roles?

I will take them. I have no problem with being the mom. Oh, I played a mom once but the baby, spoiler, died. It was in another film. So I was a mom only for a short window of time. No, I think it’s part of life and I’m not a mom myself but I appreciate the moms of the world and I will be the better man for them.

Now I saw Dust Up on VOD. Is VOD making it easier for indie filmmakers to get their films made and for people to see them?

Oh my gosh, yeah. I think more people will see Dust Up than will see probably I would say 80% of the other independent films I’ve done, purely because of video on demand and the fact that it goes into households through cable. It goes into households through the internet. You’re cutting out the middleman completely and just going straight to your audience. They don’t have to go to a theater. They don’t have to go to a video store. It’s right there and I think that’s amazing and I think it opens the market up hugely. So many more people will see this movie.

Have you had an easier time getting projects made in the last few years because that’s an option now?

I wouldn’t say it makes anything easier as far as getting things made or raising money. I think getting eyes on the product at the end, it definitely makes that a lot easier. You know, I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been an actor for 20-something years and I’ve been making films myself for probably 10-11 of those years. When I first started making films, you made it and if it didn’t go to film festivals, nobody saw it. Now film festivals have become a little bit obsolete because of video on demand and Netflix and stuff like that. They’re still important but they’re not the stomping grounds of independent cinema anymore. Now it’s your cable box.

Speaking of your 20-year career, I noticed that your first movie was actually The Crush.

It was actually my second movie. That was the first one that came out but the first film I did was a movie called King of the Hill that Steven Soderbergh directed. Then I went straight from that set to Vancouver to shoot The Crush so they were back to back. It was my second, but first to come out.

How did those films come about? Had you auditioned for a lot more or were you discovered for those films?

I’d only been pursuing the acting thing in L.A. for like a year, not even that when I got King of the Hill. I thought, as you’re wont to do as a young teenager, you’re like, “Oh, I’m made. I’ve got a movie. I’m set for the rest of my life.” Then I got The Crush. Right as we were filming King of the Hill, I got the call, “You’re going to Vancouver.” I’m like I’m totally set! And then I had a year of nothing after The Crush. So there’s no rhyme nor reason to how the business works.

Those films were before I knew you, so what did you play in The Crush?

So I played Alicia’s best friend, Cheyenne, in The Crush. I break my arm. It’s very exciting.

Another favorite of mine, S.F.W., were you the “Everything matters” girl?

Ah, S.F.W.’s awesome.  That’s me. I’m the “Everything matters” girl. Yup, isn’t that funny? God. I was so nervous about holding the gun too and having to shoot it. It really freaked me out.

Obviously on “Buffy” you were in one of the first gay couples on TV, and now we have “Modern Family, The New Normal” and “Partners.” Do you feel that was a pivotal moment in television?

I do. I feel like, first of all we were the first long term lesbian relationship on network television. You’d had Ellen kissing and there’ve been little bits and pieces here, but as far as the lesbian world there really wasn’t anything like what we did on “Buffy.” I think it opened the door and it wasn’t gratuitous. It wasn’t about two girls making out. It was about two people that happened to both be women who fell in love. I think that is more powerful, and that’s what’s so nice about “Modern Family” too. It’s less about the fact that they’re a gay couple. It’s more about the fact that no, they’re a couple and they’re making it work and they have a child. It’s just normal. It shouldn’t be gratuitous. It shouldn’t be about girls kissing girls. It should be like this is normal. This is life. If you find somebody to fall in love with period, you are just lucky, regardless of what gender or ethnicity or religious preference they have.

Do you ever run into people who are catching up on “Buffy” and haven’t been spoiled yet?

Yes. Yes, I have and they’re so funny. They’re like, “I love you so much, it’s so funny, la la la la la.” Then you’ll see on Twitter months later, “I was the one that met you. Why didn’t you say you died? Oh my God.”

It’s breaking hearts all over again.

Yeah, oh, even people that have seen it. I’ll get tweets from people that are like, “I’m re-watching season six. It’s like a knife to my heart again.” I’m like why are you watching it again? Oh my God, it’s so painful. Don’t watch it again. Skip that episode.

Was that heartbreaking line, “Your shirt,” in the script or something you guys came up with?

Oh no, that was in the script.

Man, Joss just knows exactly what to say to make it the worst.

He does. He knows exactly what to say to destroy your heart.

I’ve always wondered in “Once More With Feeling,” the last song “Where Do We Go From Here” fades out as Buffy and Spike leave. Did you guys record a full song for that?

Yeah, we did. I think it just continues on in the same vein and then it ends, but it does totally fade out in the show, doesn’t it? Just like the com-plete in the “Under Your Spell” song.

But it’s been 10 years and they’ve never released the full version of that song.

Really? It’s not on the soundtrack?

It’s still the TV version where it follows Buffy and Spike.

Huh, interesting.

Do you still sing?

Mostly in the shower. I don’t play a musical instrument so I don’t really write songs, but I’m always up for it. If someone else has something for me to sing, I’ll sing it.

Were you ever part of the Shakespeare readings at Joss Whedon’s house? And if so, why didn’t you get in on Much Ado About Nothing?

[Laughs] Yes, I was part of the Shakespeare readings. I actually got to play Lady Macbeth opposite James Marsters which was lovely. That was amazing. I haven’t worked on another project where people would actually spend their weekends together. It was kind of crazy. You’d work all week together and then on the weekends you’d still want to hang out. That’s kind of a rare thing I think.

When fans recognize you, how many of them know you as Amber Benson and how many call you Tara?

I think it depends on the fan. Usually it’s Tara. [Laughs] Occasionally you’ll get somebody who says your name first.

Did having “Buffy” on your resume open a lot of doors in the last 10 years?

It has. It closed some doors and opened others. It’s like anything in this world. You make of it what you will.

What did it close?

You know, playing a lesbian on television, I would not change it for the world. I feel like we did really good work and I feel like it was important and it was necessary but there were a lot of jobs I didn’t get because middle America doesn’t want to see Amber Benson because she played a lesbian. That was tough but like I said, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Wow. Sorry, I paused because I can’t believe that’s still an issue.

That was 10 years ago and I think it’s a lot better now. I think you don’t have the same stigma that you had back then. I think it’s way better but there was a lot of weird stuff because of it. It just makes me angry because it shouldn’t be that way. I’m not gay but I can imagine how hard it would be to be gay and have to deal with this stuff day in and day out. I just got a taste of it.

I still think we need a gay action hero.

Yes. I agree with you 100%. I think we’ve probably had a few of them. They just weren’t out of the closet.

No, but I mean we need an openly gay badass who saves the world but f***s dudes.

Yup, I agree with you 100%. I look at the fact that we now live in the United States of America and our military is not Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell anymore. It makes me so happy. We were the last holdout in the western world. Every other country is open and here we are segregating ourselves because of homosexuality. It’s just stupid. It makes me angry.

Me too. How was your experience bringing Drones to Fantastic Fest?

Oh my God, it was so much fun. First of all, I love Fantastic Fest. I love the Drafthouse. I love all those guys. I feel like they are one of the last bastions of independent film. They just are so supportive of indies and it’s just such a great venue to show your film. We screened Drones twice and both times it was really amazing. I just felt really privileged to be there. I just think it’s a great film festival and I love those guys.

Did that festival lead to your video/DVD release?

In part. We premiered at Slamdance and that was when things started coming together for the life of the film as far as getting it out there. The more festivals that we did, it just cemented all of that.

Are you directing anything again?

I’ve been working on some web series stuff. I kind of feel like that’s the next [step]. For me, making independent film is not cost effective. You spend a lot of money and the return is not that great yet. It’s changing. It’s getting better again but I just feel like it’s a lot of effort and time and financial drain and you half the time don’t see any return. So for me to make a web series, you get to be creative, you don’t spend a ton of money and then you have a venue immediately. You put it on YouTube, you put it on Vimeo, you can put it on a website and people can access it. So I’ve been working on something called “Girl on Girl.” [Laughs] Not pornography.

What is “Girl on Girl” about?

It’s about two girls who are living in Los Angeles and they’re trying to meet men and they’re failing miserably at it. It’s a little bit of “Sex and the City” meets “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Have you been generating your own projects for most of your career?

I feel like not so much generating my own projects per se as far as being an actor, but as a filmmaker, yeah. Everything I’ve done I’ve had to do myself, except for Drones. Drones kind of came to me through Adam Busch and Jordan Kessler, our producer. They were sort of putting things together and they brought me in. But everything else I’ve had to do myself. I feel like as far as acting, it’s all networking and talking to your friends. Some of them will be like, “Hey, so and so’s doing a thing. You should go talk to them.” So you make a phone call and all of a sudden you’re doing a little film in North Carolina.