This story originally ran in the August 2001 issue of Out.
Waiting up front at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica, Alyson Hannigan is early for her interview. Im always early, she blushes -- with such guileless candor, its easy to see how the charming redhead genuinely may not remember how Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon informed her that her character, Willow, would blossom into a lesbian.
I really wish I had a better memory of how Joss told me, apologizes Hannigan, 27, as she digs into an omelette in a cozy back booth of the restaurant. Her smile is warm and natural, and she has a down-to-earth presence that eludes some actors who have starred in hit television shows (shes been on Buffy since its debut in March 1997) and movies (shes in this months American Pie 2). It was such a non-issue. He mentioned I was going to have a new friend, and she was going to be my friend, she wasnt going to be the groups friend. But we didnt have a sit-down conversation.
The show, based on Whedons flop 1992 movie of the same name, centers around the Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar), whose job is to protect innocents (i.e., us human folk) from the likes of vampires, demons, and all-around shady characters. Since the beginning, Willow has been an indispensable member of the group, as a computer brainiac and now as a very powerful witch.
In fall 1999 the Scooby Gang (their self-given nickname because of their tendency to be those meddling kids who ruin the bad guys day) arrived at college, where Willow met Tara, with whom she would eventually fall in love. But earlier that year we got our first hint that Willow, who at the time was dating a boy named Oz, might be a little queer. In an episode titled Doppelgngland, Willow met her evil twin from a parallel dimension and concluded that her alter ego was kinda gay.
But at that time Oz was still there, shrugs Hannigan. So I didnt give it a second thought.
A waiter comes over to check on things and does a double take. Youre from American Pie! Can I have your autograph? he finally manages to get out as Hannigan blushes and obliges. Dont tell my boss, he whispers, fumbling for a pen. And will you write that line on there?
No, dont make me do it! she groans sweetly as he walks away to tend to another table, leaving Hannigan with the slip of paper. Thats the worst part of American Pie. Everybody wants me to do that line.
That line contains the words Hannigan made infamous two summers ago when playing the shockingly sexually aggressive Michelle in the teen sex comedy: And this one time, at band camp They are words that will haunt her forever, especially since the high-profile sequel is opening in theaters this month.
It was a blast, she says of filming the first movie, in which four guys are determined to lose their virginity before graduating from high school. I just hope people like the second one too, because there are so many expectations. Because of secrecy regarding the plot, Hannigan can reveal only that the movie takes place the summer after the teens first year at college. And my character is now working at band camp, she giggles.
Hannigan was born in Washington, D.C., where her parents, who divorced when she was an infant, were both photographers. So whenever they needed a baby, they would put me in front of the camera, and I loved it, she says. After moving to Atlanta, Hannigan began appearing in print ads and commercials.
After Hannigans father relocated to Santa Barbara, Calif., she and her mother went out to visit when she was 11 and decided to move to Hollywood. Her first job, on the 1988 movie My Stepmother Is an Alien, led to other roles. But things slowed down in high school, and Hannigan found herself baby-sitting (I baby-sat for Bob Sagets girls, she recalls) and working at a video store in the San Fernando Valley, which was much more disturbing than it might sound. Id say that 75% of the store was porn, she explains. There was one guy who would come in right as we opened, renting the maximum -- which was, like, six -- and by the end of my shift he would return all of those and rent six more. He would do that all weekend long. How much porn can one watch? Even on fast-forward, thats gotta give you a headache.
Hannigans headaches ended when she landed the role of Willow Rosenberg on Buffy. She loves to remind Whedon that she wasnt his first choice for the role. Until the day I die, I will give him a hard time, she laughs. At the time, the WB network wanted one young woman and Whedon wanted another; Hannigan was their compromise.
She wont let me forget that, cracks Whedon, who has become close friends with Hannigan. I was charmed by her, but I had no idea, basically, how great she was. She responds to every challenge the same way, which is to be as good an actress as Im ever gonna get to work with.
Shes a very generous actress who is 100% there in a scene, says Amber Benson, who plays Hannigans on-screen girlfriend, Tara. I met her long before Buffy, and the first thing I remember thinking was that she had a great laugh.
Willows self-discovery was initially hinted at when Willow and Tara worked some magic together that seemed like a little more than witchcraft. Obviously, during a couple of the spells, they were so fucking, notes Hannigan. I was like, This isnt a spell -- this is just the sex you can get away with on television!
In one episode the spell they did involved a great deal of chanting and Willow falling into convulsions, which did not disresemble an orgasm, concedes Whedon.
I never had any apprehensions about it, says Hannigan regarding Willows sexual journey. Its always been a part of my environment and my life. Growing up, my moms best friend was -- well, he still is -- gay.
While the shows characters were accepting of their friends sexuality, fans werent necessarily eager to embrace the new Willow. I think there may have been a little bit of shock at first, maybe even some animosity, reveals E! Online TV expert Wanda, whose weekly chat and column get more than 2 million hits a month.
There was at first this giant bunch of people on the Net going, I will never watch this show again. You made Willow a fag, remembers Whedon. Im kinda like, Bye. Well miss ya a whole lot.
Many fans were just disappointed that Willows boyfriend Oz [Seth Green] had left the show. The biggest problem was that people loved Seth so much, Whedon points out. We loved him too, but he left. And getting people into a new character is difficult.
But over the months, fans of the show have warmed to Tara and her relationship with Willow. I didnt realize how much so until Tara suffered a tragedy near the end of last season, says Wanda. I started getting E-mail after E-mail asking if Tara would be OK, if they were staying together, if Willow would save her. I got things like You must tell me! Will Tara and Willow make it? I cant sleep at night. Signed, so-and-so, mother of three.
We do have a bunch of people saying weve changed their lives, says Whedon, who has said in the past that he didnt want to make Buffy an issue show. I always want to put out good role models. But I wasnt there saying, I want to help gay teenagers be comfortable with themselves. We talked about the idea of college as being a place where people expand their sexuality or discover their sexuality. Then Seth Green decided he didnt want to do the show anymore. Thats when [Willows sexuality] blossomed into full womanhood. To get these responses was wonderfully overwhelming. It turned out to be one of the most important things weve done on the show.
Not that it didnt cause some grief with the WB. They were a little thrown, recalls Whedon. They said, Weve introduced gay characters on all our other shows. Ultimately, they felt it out, expressed some concern, and called me and said, Do whatever you want.
But it was a different story when Hannigan and Benson filmed a steamy lip lock for an episode that aired in the spring. They called and said, The kiss -- does it have to stay in? says Whedon, who eventually put his foot down. I said, Its not sensational. Its real. Its a beautiful scene that belongs in this show. And if you try to take it out, Im leaving this office and never coming back. I think thats the only time I said that. The WB gave in, and the kiss remained.
We must have kissed a hundred times, recalls Benson, whose character initiated the power smooch to comfort her sweetie over the death of Buffys mom. It was very nice.
After one take, remembers Hannigan, Joss did say, Can we have one thats less like youre going to sleep together in about five minutes?
Had the WB known it would end up losing the show to UPN, they would have probably said, Were taking it out! jokes Whedon, referring to the shows move to the rival network in the fall, after the WB (where Buffy was one of the networks top-rated shows) failed to cough up the shows requested renewal fees.
We think that the money spent on Buffy is not only reasonable but a very good investment, says Dean Valentine, president and CEO of UPN. Buffy is one of the best, if not the best, shows on television.
As for Willow and Tara, Valentine says, the lesbian story line has not been discussed with us yet. However, it is a non-issue in terms of UPNs purchase of the show.
Adds Whedon: They havent said anything except Make the show like you make it.
And hes planning to make it better than ever, even though the title character, uh, died in the latest seasons finale. But have no fear: Gellar is returning. Buffy is going to come back, reveals Whedon, who also brought Buffys true love, Angel, back to life a few seasons ago -- and even gave him his own series. Yes, its going to be as difficult and strange as it can be. And Willows going to have something to do with that. Whedon also says we can expect to see Willows magical powers grow even stronger next season.
Next year...shits gonna go down, he says. Were going to see more strength in Willow than we have before. Her relationship with Tara will continue -- but the course of true love is never easy.
I just hope the spells are in English, because, man, those foreign languages kill me! exclaims Hannigan. Also look for a musical (yes, you read that right) episode of the show that will include a love song from Tara to Willow.
The show is also being turned into a cartoon for Fox, but because that series will take place back in high school, expect to see a young Willow still doting on her first crush, Xander. Every now and then were like, Willow says, Ill have the tuna platter, and we laugh, cracks Whedon. There may be some hidden subtextual joke that keeps us amused, but its a show for younger kids, and were keeping it simple.
Thats how Hannigan likes to keep her life too. As we leave the restaurant and make our way to the Santa Monica Pier, Hannigan puts on sunglasses (not out of pretension; its bright). Walking toward the renowned tourist-trap amusement area, I realize that I may be bringing the poor girl into the pits of hell. No, she says with a laugh. If you dont want to get noticed, you dont get noticed.
Hannigan did turn the head of her boyfriend of a year and a half, Alexis Denisof, whom she met when he guest-starred on Buffy before his landing on the shows sister series, Angel. He wouldnt date me at first, she notes. Professionalism or whatever. So we became really good friends. But it was sort of inevitable; wed had such a flirtatious friendship.
The pair just got back from Fiji, where Hannigan had a chance to relax after filming Buffy and American Pie 2 simultaneously. When I was in Fiji, the actress says, I started to miss everybody and wonder what was going to happen this year.
One thing she wont have to wonder about is the strong effect her character is having on peoples lives. I was at the grocery store, and this woman came up to me, Hannigan recalls. She was with her two kids, and she said, I just want to tell you, Im a lesbian, and your show has done so much. You cant ask for anything nicer than that.