By Jeffrey Epstein
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. 'I'm always early,' she blushes -- with such guileless candor, it's 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 (she's been on Buffy since its debut in March 1997) and movies (she's in this month's 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 wasn't going to be the group's friend. But we didn't have a sit-down conversation.'
The show, based on Whedon's 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 guy's 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 'Doppelg'ngland,' 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 didn't give it a second thought.'
A waiter comes over to check on things and does a double take. 'You're from American Pie! Can I have your autograph?' he finally manages to get out as Hannigan blushes and obliges. 'Don't tell my boss,' he whispers, fumbling for a pen. 'And will you write that line on there?'
'No, don't make me do it!' she groans sweetly as he walks away to tend to another table, leaving Hannigan with the slip of paper. 'That's 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 Hannigan's 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 Saget's girls,' she recalls) and working at a video store in the San Fernando Valley, which was much more disturbing than it might sound. 'I'd 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, that's gotta give you a headache.'
Hannigan's headaches ended when she landed the role of Willow Rosenberg on Buffy. She loves to remind Whedon that she wasn't 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 won't 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 I'm ever gonna get to work with.'
'She's a very generous actress who is 100% there in a scene,' says Amber Benson, who plays Hannigan's on-screen girlfriend, Tara. 'I met her long before Buffy, and the first thing I remember thinking was that she had a great laugh.'
Willow's 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 isn't 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 Willow's sexual journey. 'It's always been a part of my environment and my life. Growing up, my mom's best friend was -- well, he still is -- gay.'
While the show's characters were accepting of their friend's sexuality, fans weren't 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. 'I'm kinda like, 'Bye. We'll miss ya a whole lot.''