Even though Julie Benz made her acting debut way back in 1990, it was how she did it that would mark her for life. It was a small speaking role in a Dario Argento film, Two Evil Eyes. Although she would go on to do some standard sitcoms and guest appearances on such dramas as Law & Order and NCIS, she truly made her bones, if you will, in the fantasy/'genre' realm.
First, Benz garnered some serious recognition as the evil Darla in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, a role she would return to in the spin-off, Angel. She also appeared in a recurring role in the short-lived sci-fi series Roswell. Since then she’s been working hard and steady, taking on projects ranging from S.Epatha Merkerson’s Lackawanna Blues to her now main job on Showtime's Dexter as Rita Bennett.
If time has proven anything, she has now a well-earned reputation as an actress with quite a bit of range. She also isn’t afraid of the tough roles, roles where she doesn’t mind getting her face shoved in the mud. She’s also a bit of a workaholic.
In a recent interview in support of the release of the Rambo DVD, the friendly and open actress entertained our questions not only about working with Sly Stallone on that film, but about her Buffy past and her work in the upcoming Saw V and Punisher War Journal films, which from her accounts tested her physical and mental limits to the extreme…
NEWSARAMA: Julie, I recently interviewed a voice actress named Grey Delisle, who did 24 different TV series last year…
JULIE BENZ: Wow!
NRAMA: Yeah. Anyway, when I asked her why she did so much, she said she’s always afraid of work drying up. Would you say that’s a motivation for you, too?
JB: Definitely I’ve been an actress for 23 years and I quickly realized that work comes in waves. You have a couple of years where you work a lot. Then you have too much down time. It affects everybody and everybody goes through it. So when the work is flowing you learn to enjoy every moment of it.
NRAMA: Now are you still working on Dexter or is that over with?
JB: No. We’re getting ready to start our next season next week. In fact, I report on June 2.
NRAMA: Isn’t this like the third successful franchise you’ve been involved with?
JB: I guess. I’ve been very lucky when it comes to television.
NRAMA: How’s that shaping up?
JB: I know absolutely nothing about the third season. They don’t tell us anything until we start rehearsing.
NRAMA: How would you describe your character on Dexter for people who don’t know?
JB: Rita is basically the moral compass, which allows the other characters to love Dexter. She is an extremely damaged woman but still has this hopeless romantic quality to her.
NRAMA: A big turn from Darla wouldn’t you say?
JB: A very big turn. Rita and Darla are opposite ends of the spectrum for sure.
NRAMA: Just out of curiosity. Do you keep track of all your former Buffy buddies. Your former love interest, Dave Boreanaz, is doing pretty well these days.
JB: I do! I keep in touch with a lot of the cast from Buffy and Angel. For instance I was in Jenny Mollen’s wedding. I was one of the bridesmaids. I see Charisma Carpenter all the time. All of them. We were pretty tight because we all kind of grew up together.
NRAMA: What about Sarah in the new Rambo movie?
JB: Sarah is very different. I mean there are similarities between her and Rita in that they are full of hope. Sarah though is more faith-oriented. She’s a missionary after all. She believes in a higher power. She also wants to take care of others. She’s also not afraid of danger. She has a lot more courage than Rita.
NRAMA: Would you say it was different to play Sarah. Usually most of your characters have something dark in their past.
JB: It was actually very nice to play someone who didn’t have anything dark; a woman who believes in what she believes in. Now Sarah also happens to be very, very experienced. She’d have to be in her line of work. I imagine though if she were a real person, her experiences in the movie would have changed her forever. I don’t think she could ever go back to what she was before it.
NRAMA: I was going to go there. The body count in this Rambo film was amazing. Was it a rough shoot for you?
JB: It was a very rough shoot. For starters we shot in the northern part of Thailand, which was as close as we could get to Burma. It was the first time I ever worked in a situation where there were constant death threats made. That was completely bizarre. We had real armored vehicles with real soldiers around us besides the fake ones on the set. It didn’t take us long to realize we were half-way around the world without much protection if things went bad.
NRAMA: Not to mention all the pyrotechnics going on in the shoot.
JB: That was actually fun. When I signed up for the movie, Sly walked up to me and said make sure when we shoot certain scenes it’ll be my face in the dirt. He was also really adamant about me being in a scene when a building blew up right beside me. So I thought, ‘OK. I’ll always try a new thing once.’ If I got scared, I knew I could call on my stunt double, Heidi, to take my place.
As it turned out, there was only one stunt that really freaked me out. There’s a scene where I was being held under water by the soldiers. I found out I get very claustrophobic when that happens. So after we did three takes I said enough, I couldn’t do another one.
From what I understand, I wasn’t the slightest bit calm when I called for my stunt double. I was hyperventilating and really, really crying. Even Sly could see I couldn’t take anymore.
NRAMA: So how was it working for Sly?
JB: You know, he’s really an amazing filmmaker. I learned so much about what it takes to be a film icon from him. His dedication to the work and his image is amazing. I’ve never seen anyone so dedicated. He basically supervised every frame of film. His passion for what he wants is tremendous. It raised the bar to me, for sure.
NRAMA: Now the Newsarama readers would come after me if I didn’t talk to you about Punisher: War Zone. First off, what an interesting cast. You have Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle and Dominic West as Jigsaw…
JB: Dominic is really an amazing character actor. Also, I think Ray Stevenson brings a lot of weight and pathos to his role as the Punisher. He plays the darkest Frank Castle you’re ever gonna see. It’s a much darker movie. Dominic West is just terrifying as Jigsaw. He was both terrifying and charming, if that is believable. I had such a great time with the two of them. Both men are incredibly talented and I was in awe being in the same film. I think this will be the one to really launch the franchise.
NRAMA: Well, your character of Angela isn’t exactly a saint, either.
JB: They’re not playing her that way. She’s the wife of a cop, an undercover cop. She’s definitely pissed off at everybody because of something that happens to her in the movie. Still, she’s a mother first and foremost and she will do whatever it takes to protect her daughter. She’s got a little more edge to what I usually play. It’s also the first time I had to do an accent, I hope I did a good Italian-American one. Still, she is not a passive player like Sarah. She won’t let herself be a victim no matter what the situation. She will take action first.
NRAMA: So what was that shoot like?
JB: It was nothing compared to Thailand. When you’re dealing with 120 degree heat, it’s nothing, even when you’re doing minus 20 degrees in Montreal. I mean there was one scene where we were filming in this grain silo and it got so cold it actually was snowing inside. It was actually colder inside the grain silo than outside it. It was cold!
NRAMA: Speaking of movies with followings, you also just did the latest Saw.
JB: Yes. That was also a tough shoot for different reasons. I play a woman named Brit who is a real estate developer. I like to think of her as a thoroughbred. She’s very career driven. Now that movie was more psychologically driven. In fact, I would say it was psychologically damaging, especially for the actors. It’s a scary movie.
NRAMA: Well, it is Saw…
JB: Yes! And if you think it’s scary to watch, try being in one. It gets ya. I think this one is scarier than the last four. The traps on this one are spectacular. There are so many surprises in this one. It’s just going to blow your mind. It blew my mind being in it.
NRAMA: Well, is there a single original character from the first Saw around? Are any of them still alive?
JB: Yeah. It’s tough. To tell you the truth, it’s the first movie I ever did where I wound up having nightmares while filming. I mean not your normal actor nightmares like being on set, forgetting your lines and completely naked. I mean I was reliving scenes that were in the story.
NRAMA: Like you are one of the people tied to one of those traps?
JB: Ummm….I’m not saying if I am or not. I just know I had problems sleeping after that shoot.