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Amber Benson - The Nightmare Gallery

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  • Amber Benson - The Nightmare Gallery

    Amber Benson on ‘The Nightmare Gallery’ and the Influence of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ [Exclusive Interview]
    June 21, 2019Ashley Bissette SumerelBuffy the Vampire Slayer, Interviews
    Amber Benson’s latest project isn’t for the faint of heart.

    Many will recognize Benson from her iconic role as Tara Maclay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Benson has kept an interest in horror and sci-fi since, both on screen and on paper.

    Now, Benson stars in the film, The Nightmare Gallery, as Professor Samantha Rand, a renowned anthropology professor whose life is turned upside-down by the sudden, suspicious disappearance of her star pupil. But when a package of paranormal artifacts arrives on Rand’s doorstep three years later, she embarks on a nightmarish journey into a mystery that will shake her and her wife to their cores.

    I recently had the chance to chat with Benson about the new film, the significance of the horror genre, and the influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    “You know, I’m kind of retired as an actor. And sometimes people will send stuff to my old manager, and they’ll be like, ‘Hey, would Amber be [interested]?’ And he’ll usually say, ‘No, she’s not really.’ But sometimes something good will come through, and he’ll say, ‘I know you really don’t want to do this, but you should read this one because I think you might like it.’ And that’s kind of what happened,” Benson began.

    She was struck by the script right away, especially because she loves horror and sci-fi. “The protagonist is interesting. She has a really interesting arc. She is a lesbian who has a functioning — even though it’s kind of going through some issues during the movie — she has a functioning good relationship with her partner, which I think is really important. And I just thought it was well put together,” she said.

    “It’s a rare thing now that I want to work as an actress. So, it’s a testament to the script, and to the producers, and to the director, Gene [Blalock].”

    Benson described her character, Professor Samantha Rand as “a badass” who is “obsessed with her research.”

    “Something bad happens at the beginning of the movie, and it kind of destroys her,” Benson explained. “She becomes very racked with guilt. And then, she gets the opportunity to kind of right a wrong. And so she goes on this quest to right what happened, and to find somebody who is lost. And in the end, she becomes so obsessed with fixing it that she misses the forest for the trees, and becomes involved in something that she didn’t quite understand she was getting involved with. So, she has this really amazing arc where you think you’re going on this fabulous quest with her, only to realize that she might not be going where she thinks she’s going, and there might be some manipulation happening. I think it’s really intriguing, especially for a female character to go through that experience.”

    “She loses herself when she thinks she’s finding herself. It’s a real mind**** of a movie,” Benson added.

    “It is not for the faint of heart. I mean, it’s not torture porn. It’s not vile, and bloody, and gross. It’s thoughtful, but dark and twisted. And there is some violence and blood, but it’s not gratuitous, shall we say?”

    Something else that struck Benson about the film is the relationship her character has with her wife, and how that’s not a key point in the story.
    “I think you couldn’t have movies like The Nightmare Gallery without shows like Buffy and shows like The L Word. Without those first shows, without Ellen coming out and owning who she was, you wouldn’t have a little independent film where the protagonist just happens to be, you know, LGBTQ. It wouldn’t exist. Especially a woman.”

    “It’s about a person who just happens to be a lesbian. It’s not a big coming out story. It’s not like, ‘Let’s talk about her sexuality. It’s, ‘No, this is just who she is,'” Benson continued. “It’s not written as if it were a male character that they just made a lady who, you know, is a lesbian. There are nuances. There are moments that are intrinsic to the kind of relationship that she has, and the kind of person she is.”

    “They made this movie for no money. The fact that it looks as good — it looks like they had money. The special effects, and the production, and the scope. I mean, they went big with this. This was not a little work, two people in a room having a conversation. This is a big movie that they made on a shoestring budget. It’s very impressive. Gene [Blalock], the director just really brought out something special in everybody who worked on it. Everyone was really committed and gave 150%.”

    Because Benson has done so much work within the horror genre, she also talked about why she thinks that genre is currently so present and popular in the media.

    “I think we’re in the middle of a political crisis in this country and around the world. And I think when you have a skewed political thing going on in your society, you tend to move toward genre because genre is a way of talking about things without getting thrown in jail. You know, you can discuss totalitarianism within the confines of a horror film, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool.’ Whereas, if you tried to make a drama about it, everyone would be up in arms, and you can get in trouble, you know? I mean, in our country right now, we’re lucky enough that if you say what you believe in, you’re not put in jail. But in other countries, that’s not the case.”

    Benson was also more than happy to talk about her role as Tara Maclay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — a role that’s still very influential. In fact, Benson recently attended ClexaCon, a multi-fandom convention for LGBTQ women and allies. She described what it was like to attend that event, which reminded her of the impact her character had — and still has now.

    “To be honest with you, you forget. In the back of your mind, you know that this was a special thing. I know that what I did on that show wasn’t just being an actor. It was actually being part of something bigger, of making social commentary about our society, and moving forward representation in film and television in a way that hadn’t been moved forward very much before,” Benson said.

    “But 20 years later, you’re like, ‘Oh, I know that,’ but you forget. Like it’s in there, but you don’t think about it. It’s not front and center because you’re not living it every day. But then you go to something like ClexaCon — it is an LGBTQ, inclusive, wonderful, amazing con where people can go and feel safe,” she continued.

    “It’s just a wonderful place, a wonderful environment. You go to that, and you start talking to fans, and it’s all of the people who were impacted by Buffy when they were in their late teens, early 20s watching it, coming up to me going, ‘I didn’t know that there were other people like me. I watched you guys and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m all right. Willow and Tara found each other. I’ll find somebody. I’m not alone in this.'”

    “It was the first awakening for a lot of people, but they were like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, two girls can… Ooh, I think I like girls,'” Benson said.

    “It was an important moment, and to be at a convention where it is just made up of all the people that had that moment with me, but it was for real in their lives, that was really like mind-blowing. I cried the whole weekend. And not out of unhappiness, out of joy, and just out of giddiness that people were okay because of what we did. It changed their lives, and it made it okay. Just talking about it makes me emotional.”

    “There are things you do in this life that you’re very proud of, and being part of Buffy is something I am very proud of. I was lucky that I got to be a part of that and to walk in her shoes. And I know [Alyson Hannigan] feels the same way,” she added.

    For Benson, she believes there are several reasons that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is such a timeless series that continues to have passionate fans.

    “I always jokingly say to everybody when they tell me how much they love Buffy, and how it’s still a big part of their lives, I’m like, ‘Well, you know, it’s a drug. You’re an addict. And if you share Buffy with other people, then you are a pusher of the show,” Benson laughed.

    “I think one of the reasons people are so passionately involved with the show still, that they re-watch it, and they come back to it in times of need, it’s because one, it doesn’t take itself very seriously. Like what we were talking about earlier. Genre is a great way to talk without talking. So, when you watch Buffy, and you see the Willow/Tara relationship, there aren’t many layers to that relationship. If you want to look at just the top layer, if you’re not quite ready to embrace that they’re a couple, you can go, ‘Oh, they’re friends and they’re doing magic together. Oh, we spend a lot of time doing magic together,’ and when you’re ready to dive a little deeper, you go, ‘Oh, magic is a stand-in for they’re falling in love with each other. This is their relationship.'”

    “So, there are all these layers to the show and I think that, you know, obviously that is Joss Whedon and that is Marti Noxon, and that is all of the writers, the creative team behind the show. They are the ones that imbued those scripts with all of that depth and thoughtfulness. But they did it in such a way that you feel like you’re eating candy. You don’t have to take all the protein. You can just appreciate the fluffy stuff on the top if you want. And I think that’s a really brilliant thing. It’s the opiate of the masses, television. But you can share some important things with the audience if you’re smart about it. Like, they’ll come and see the fluff, and they’ll walk away with a new point of view,” she continued.

    “My God, we sell detergent on television. So, don’t tell me we can’t sell that it’s okay to be who you are. It’s okay to love someone of the same sex, you know? You can’t tell me that it doesn’t impact people when they see it. Because I know it does. I’ve had the interactions with people where they’ve said, ‘I saw this and it changed how I feel about it. My mom and I watched it together, and then I was able to come out to her because it changed how she felt about LGBTQ relationships.'”

    She also thinks it’s significant that the series and its characters are so relatable. “There are so many good archetypes in the show that you can find somebody that you relate to. And I think that’s really important to be able to sort of put yourself into the world. You think, ‘Oh, I’m a Xander. I would do what Xander does,” she explained. “And the audience has grown. Age-wise, they’ve changed too, their personage, which is interesting. You might start out as Tara because you’re shy. And then, all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘No, I’m actually an Anya.’ You can find somebody that you connect with.”

    “I think the thing I learned from Buffy was to own who I was. To not feel like I needed to pretzel myself because of trying to keep a job or trying to be part of something. I think I was very intimidated when I came into Buffy because I hadn’t been there from the beginning. I came in the middle of the show. Everyone had relationships. So, it was just like, ‘Well, where do I fit? So, you tend to like try and change who you are to fit into that world. And by the end of it, I was like, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t need to do that. They all like me as I am,'” Benson recalled. “I was 22. So, I really learned about who I was, and what I wanted to be, and how I wanted to present myself.”

    Benson mentioned at the beginning of the interview that she’s mostly retired from acting. Instead, she’s been putting more of her energy into working behind the camera and writing. Benson is the author of the Echo Park Coven Novels, the Calliope Reaper-Jones Novels, and the middle grade book, Among the Ghosts, to name a few. She’s written and directed for film as well and is currently in the process of developing her book, The Witches of Echo Park, for television.

    “It’s a very long, long drawn-out process, and it takes a long time, and it’s definitely been a learning curve. I’ve learned a lot. And I’m hoping that we get to bring it to the small screen. It would be really nice,” Benson said.

    Benson’s main focus at the moment is on writing. “That’s all I do. I’m just sitting in front of my computer, tap-tapping away. But it’s such a joy. I love writing,” she shared. “You know, Joseph Campbell says, ‘follow your bliss.’ And I truly, truly believe that in this life you’ve got to do the things that move you and make you happy, because life is very short. You want to actually enjoy it.”