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The geeks hope to inherit the Earth as Buffy takes on a trio of unlikely villains
By Kathie Huddleston
So what do you do after your hero faces a god, sacrifices her life for the world and comes back to life? Joss Whedon and his team had a dilemma at the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fifth season (airing Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on UPN). After all, what villain could be bigger than a god? So rather than try to top the ultimate bad guy, Whedon and company went in an entirely new direction by creating a trio of nerdish, and very human, bad guys who began the season with more comic incompetence than villainous intent.
As the latest Buffy villains, Danny Strong, Adam Busch and Tom Lenk have taken on the challenge of portraying the trio of evil geniuses who plan on taking over Sunnydale, even if they can't manage to get a date.
Strong, who portrays Jonathan, has guest-starred on Buffy since the beginning. He's appeared in Dangerous Minds, Pleasantville and New Suit. He also is working on a dark comedy called Die, Harry, Die, based on a screenplay he wrote.
Busch had also previously guest-starred on Buffy as Warren. He has a folk music band called Common Rotation, which tours with They Might Be Giants. He has appeared in The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo and Magic Rock.
Lenk's character, Andrew, is new to the Buffy universe, even if Lenk himself isn't. He's appeared as a different character last season on Buffy, as well as in the film Boogie Nights, and he wrote an original play called Save Me from My Sister.
The three actors chatted with Science Fiction Weekly about their characters, spoilers and being the new bad guys on Buffy.
Tell us about this year's threat to Sunnydale.
Lenk: I guess we're a pretty sad threat to Sunnydale. We haven't been able to do it right so far. At least we have fun doing it. I just love that we are the first threat to Buffy that's been human, so to speak. Last year the big bad was Glory and she was a god with awesome power. At the time, I don't think it was anything the audience expected. I think some of the fans thought [this season, with the three villains], it's not possible for humans to be able to do this to Buffy. But I think that was the whole point.
Strong: The brow-beaten and alienated have formed together to try and wreak havoc against those that have ignored them for so long.
Busch: I think we're underestimated [because we're] human. It puts people off guard, and they're real quick to toss us off. It's interesting because everything is so personal to us. I don't think we're bad people, at least for my character. I don't think I'm a bad person. I think I just have a hard time dealing with the same things everybody has to deal with and I don't know how to stomach it and move on, and it comes out in lots of different ways. Because I think as it goes on I'm constantly given moments for redemption that I don't take because I just don't know how to take them.
How do each of your characters fit into the group?
Strong: I think Jonathan's hopes are different from those of perhaps the other two in the group. But I think Jonathan is really hoping to get the things that he's never been able to get, money and girls. And more importantly, I think it's important for him to be the Slayer's nemesis. Because they rejected him as their friend. You know, he has this spell in "Superstar," and he could have become an equal to them, and it didn't work. So now he's trying to go about it, and if I can't be their equal, I can't be their hero, I'll be their villain. And in that way I can play in their league. I think that's what he's going for ultimately. I don't think he really wants to cause damage. In some of the episodes that have aired already it's been very clear that he does not want to kill Buffy.
I think he likes Buffy. I think he wants to date Buffy.
Strong: Well, wouldn't we all though. Jonathan and Danny.
What about Andrew? How does he fit into the trio?
Lenk: My power is over summoning demons. He was Tucker's brother, and Tucker ["The Prom"] appeared a few seasons back, and that's all I got. It sort of becomes a joke. My character is, even though we're all three evil geniuses ahead of our time, I seem to be the one that's just a little low on the common sense spectrum. I'm just a little out there. I feel like I'm sort of tagging along at this point. Just like I'm bored and I already played all the games on my Nintendo game system. I beat Lara Croft already several times, so like, why not take on Buffy? Originally I think Tucker was supposed to come back, and something happened and I got the part instead. Which is nice because I had been on the show last year as a vampire and they brought me back as a new, different character.
So was it fun playing a vampire?
Lenk: Yeah, it was. It was a little hard. I wasn't too hip with the whole contact lens thing. I had never done that before. It became a big joke to come and watch me get my contacts put in.
And how does Warren fit into the evil trio?
Busch: Warren's very much the leader. I think he says all the things that the other characters are afraid to say.
Like giving out Buffy's address to the bad guys.
Busch: Well, I'm going to do it. If they want to talk about it, we can talk forever. But I'm going to do it and they're more than welcome to come along. I can act like I would do it whether they were there or not, but I don't think I would. I think I need them to tell me that I'm doing the right thing and to tell me they agree with me.
Why does Warren need these other guys?
Busch: Because the truth is I really just want friends. I just want to be around people. I just want to feel like I'm accepted. I really do, I think, need them to tell me that we're doing the right thing. And I need their skills. I'm only talented in a certain kind of way. I think Jonathan and Andrew are much better judges of people than I am. I can tell what I want and I have no problem trying to get what I want from anyone, whether it's Spike or a demon or anybody. But I think, ultimately, they know people. They understand the way people work a lot better than I do. I relate to computers and to numbers much more than I do actual people. That's why I think I have no qualms about doing the bad things I do and about how to have enough confidence to say anything I want to any of these characters 'cause I really don't understand them. I really don't relate to people as a whole. It becomes too much for me. I'm too sensitive for it, too sensitive to think of my girlfriend, Katrina, or to think of these people's lives as being real and full and enjoyable. It's like overwhelming. I just kind of see them all as obstacles to getting what I want. It's too much. I try to make the right choice, and it's just so much work and it involves me being so out of control all of the time I can't handle it. And I think Jonathan and Andrew have never been in control so they don't even know what's it like. I've seen what's right and what's wrong and constantly go for what's wrong.
But doesn't that make your character a bad guy then?
Busch: I don't think it makes me a bad guy. I just make the wrong choice. I just don't know any better. I see everybody so happy and getting what they want all of the time, and it comes so difficult for me. So if I can just be in control and boss them around and call myself this evil genius, it's a nice way to explain to myself and everyone else why I'm not a part of what's going on. Because I choose not to be. Because I'm above it. Because I'm an evil genius.
The group at the beginning was more mischievous than evil, but that's changed.
Strong: Yes, it's starting to heat up. It's going to get more confrontational. I'm excited about people seeing this because the scripts we're shooting with now, they're really good.
What did you think when Joss Whedon came up with this storyline?
Strong: Well, I was thrilled. Just absolutely thrilled. I just sort of felt like the Buffy ship had sailed for me after "Superstar." It was such a huge episode. I didn't really know what they were going to do with the character after that, and then when I didn't appear in season five at all, it was like, OK, I guess they're done with Jonathan. It had been such a great run, far exceeding my expectations. You know, it was disappointing, but what a great way to go out, with "Superstar." And then I was invited to their 100th episode party, which was really cool. I went, and the Joss was like, "You know what we're doing next year?" I said I had no idea, and so he told me. I was just floored, so excited to be back on the show.
Lenk: It was so bizarre, because I think I'd been in a few weeks earlier for an audition for Angel and I remember thinking, "Oh, my gosh, I did so good. I'm going to get that one." But I didn't get that one. And I went back in for this part and I read the description of it and was basically a description of me. It was like geeky, but sort of a fun, evil nerd. I went in and auditioned and I just made them laugh and felt really good about it. I had no idea who Tucker was. Like when I auditioned for the role, it said Tucker. When I got the script, I was like, "What? They changed my name and they changed the part." And I realized that they had rewritten it based on sort of what I did in the audition. 'Cause I think in the original, Tucker was supposed to sort of be the leader of the group the way it was written. And that turned more into Warren. And it was interesting because with what I'm doing, definitely Andrew just can't be the one that's in charge. So it was great. I mean they changed it. I was so happy when I found out. I was in the bank and I had to go sit down. I think I couldn't sign my deposit slip.
Busch: I thought it was a great idea. I think that the idea of maybe just going about it the wrong way. Of trying to be a part of a world that's in front of them, but going about it the wrong way. It's such a great idea, because I think a lot of people who watch the show can relate to that, to a lot of feelings that they have of being outside of this world that they definitely want to be in. I think it's wonderful. Just judging from what I've seen the kids say, it's why Joss Whedon is so brilliant. I think he almost knows ahead of time what people are going to think when he first puts out an idea, and then enjoys watching him change it to what he had intended to begin with.
Jonathan has changed a lot since he first appeared on the series.
Strong: I think it's been a really great arc and a really clever arc for this character who sort of just started off by being kind of a one-liner joke guy in the background, and then to pay that off with "Earshot," where he was in the tower with the rifle. I just felt it worked so well, because it was like the guy that gets ignored and no one pays attention to. Well, you know, he's got feelings, too. And then with "Superstar" was sort of the logical next step with what to do with this guy. A guy in the tower with the rifle that just wants people to pay attention to him. OK, he's going to put a spell you so that you have to pay attention to him. I think it's just been very, very well thought out and very believable for what you might expect of this guy. It's the fact that they took such a small character, I mean, I was actually in the pilot presentation that never aired, and to take that character and evolve it into a full-fledged arc that forms the world and the people within the world is really quite brilliant writing.
But when Joss Whedon told you the character was going to become evil, this was a big huge leap for this character.
Strong: Yeah, and it was sort of tricky for me at first, I think. I was nervous about making it work, as far as how he'd been established. Who he'd been up till now and how I'm going to take that and make it evil. I felt like it took me a couple episodes to get my footing with it, to be honest with you. I didn't feel like I had it right away. It took me a little bit of time to figure out where to play at what level. I was disappointed that I didn't nail it right away, but nonetheless that's the reality of it. I feel I got the hang of it now.
Well, you have 10 episodes.
Strong: Yeah, you're exactly right. It can change within the course of the 10 episodes, and it will. It is. I can't tell you how, but it is.
What's the best and worst thing about playing each of your characters?
Lenk: A lot of times Andrew's the butt of the joke, that's the best thing and also the worst thing. But Jonathan's the butt of the joke a lot of times too. I always get great one-liners, that are just so referencing something specific. Everything that we say has been uttered by one of the writers at some point. We sort of represent the little sci-fi geek that's inside of all of us, 'cause I have to admit I've got three Star Wars shirts in my closet.
Busch: I guess the best thing is how human they make Warren. He really is very human and battles with human issues and human ideas. Wanting to fit in with people and having such a hard time relating to people. It's so nice that the character is not just evil, because if he were evil because he was a demon, I think very much like Spike, there's no borderline possibility for redemption. It's fun to watch that line and me teeter on it and whether I bring Andrew and Jonathan with me or not. What's going to happen with us three, whether I'll eventually turn against them or they can turn against us? I think it's something a lot of people can relate to.
What's the worst part?
Busch: People thinking I'm just sleazy. You know, he did build a girlfriend and she was quite attractive. People get upset about that. They get upset about the idea of that, and I think they project that onto me. I think he's misunderstood. Just because he did that ... I think if everybody had the capability to do that they would definitely consider it. But that's all I'm going to say.
And what about playing Jonathan?
Strong: I usually don't think in those terms of playing a character. I just try and make every scene work the best that it can. I sort of enjoy his innocence and his naiveté and the worst part is that he's innocent and naïve. It's the best and the worst, which I think is the same for every part I've ever played. What I like the best about a character is the worst thing about the character. I always want to do what I'm not doing. It's normally in terms of comedy and drama. If I was doing comedy then I wish I was doing drama, and if I'm doing drama then it's like, "Why aren't I in a comedy right now?" But the great thing about Buffy is that's it's both. It's been very, very comedic up till now, and it's been a lot of fun.
What's the difference between you and Jonathan?
Strong: I don't think me and Jonathan have much in common, unfortunately. I think I'm not really shy. I'm more extroverted and demand lots of attention, which is sort of my neurosis, where Jonathan is sort of is off in the corner. I would say that we're pretty polar opposites, actually. I could use a little more Jonathan in me for the sake of my friends.
As this year's villains, what are Warren's plans for Sunnydale?
Busch: I think he'd like to be in charge. If not be the boss, be good friends with the boss and be allowed to hang out with the boss. I'd want to be as close to in charge as possible. And then be allowed to manipulate everything. I think Warren's smart enough to know that he has to be up there, but not [necessarily be] the guy. I think I'd just like to be in a position to get whatever I want, whenever I want.
So he doesn't need to be the Superstar?
Busch: No, but I'd like to hang out with the Superstar and get some of the fallout chicks. But I don't necessarily have to be the Superstar.
Would he have Jonathan and Andrew around?
Busch: Ultimately. As long as they don't stand in his way.
If Jonathan had his way, what would his plans for Sunnydale be?
Strong: Well, I don't know what his plans for Sunnydale are. I know if I were Jonathan.
You are Jonathan.
Strong: You're right [laughs]. It's a good point. I'd try to figure out a way to make that Superstar spell work for the clothes alone.
Then you could forget the other guys.
Strong: Yeah, who needs them [laughs]. Although they are sort of Jonathan's first real friends, even though I don't know how friendly they all are.
What do you think Andrew's true plans are for Sunnydale?
Lenk: We never know what's coming up and they're very vague on what is going to be happening. I have a feeling he would want to take it over and turn it into a skate park for his friends. Well, I don't even know if my character skateboards. I know. He wants to take over Sunnydale so he has all the facilities for music and arts, like the museum and the Sunnydale Philharmonic. Do they have one? Even though they said that's not what my thing was, but I can have that for my backstory. [Andrew would want to] have more time for himself to devote to arts and humanities and cultural affairs.
Like turn Sunnydale into a cultural icon?
Lenk: Cultural icon. Also with a skate park.
Fans everywhere are trying to guess what's going to happen this season.
Strong: Well, so am I. I don't even know. You know what I hate, though? I hate the spoilers on the Internet, that everyone reads them. Because when I read the scripts I get so excited for the fans to get to see what I've just read, because all the scripts are so good. And then I find out that they already know what's going to happen because it's already all over the Internet. It bums me out that they don't get to experience it in real time with the story.
Busch: I look at [the spoilers]. I really go on these sites and read what everybody is saying because it gives me more of a clue of what's going to happen to my character than I get from working on it. You know, they really keep me in the dark and I have no idea [what's going to happen.] I can say to you that I notice my character taking a darker and darker turn and getting to a point where I think there is going to be no turning back and it's either all or nothing.
Are you disappointed you didn't get to sing in the musical episode
Strong: Yeah, I was really disappointed. You know, Adam and Tom are both singers. I actually have done a number of musicals and I can't sing at all, which has been a lot of fun for my audience at those times. So, nonetheless, I've got a background in that. It would have been a lot of fun to do.
Lenk: I was on tour with a musical for several months, so we were a little sad we weren't going to be in it. But they actually planned and wrote it that way before they knew they were going to have us on it. It was like way after the fact. But seeing that we could have done a whole boy-band routine, we were a little disappointed.
Busch: Sure, I was disappointed. I am a singer. I play in a band, Common Rotation. It would have been fun. They could have really worked in a nice Warren/Jonathan/Andrew Backstreet Boys routine.
Maybe in the sequel?
Strong: There you go. [We decided we should] break out into a song in an episode and have someone go like, "No, that was like a month ago, dude. What are you doing?"
Busch: That would be a great idea, because that would be something we would do. We'd show up running into The Bronze, or whatever it is, all dressed up like a boy band. And we'd start our musical number and everyone would stare at us and we'd think we were fitting in. We'd think this is surely going to turn the chicks our way [laughs].
How is Buffy different than other things you've done?
Lenk: We have so much fun and we get to be funny. I love that a lot of time I get to just sort of play with what we have. I'll see what I can get away with until they say, "OK, Tom, let's take that down a little bit. Nice job but that's a little bit much." So I like that we get to just play. We just sit around and make ourselves laugh. I think that we work well together. I guess the best part has been coming back week after week and getting to hang out together. That's been nice. I also like it because Buffy's such an interesting show, with sci-fi elements, dramatic elements, funny elements.
Busch: It so rare in a show to see a character like Buffy or even mine that's given a season arc the way they are. To be able to work on a character for a season, and all the characters get such dramatic arcs to work with.
Strong: I approach everything the same. It's just sort of an adjustment in energy. But with Buffy, it's just realism. It's what makes Buffy so cool, is that it's a genre, but within the genre we play it like it's completely straight. We're not playing it like we're in a genre. Except for sometimes there's the comedic element of it, and just bring in a slight touch of the old comedy and go back to playing it straight. I find that I like my performance best when I'm playing it straight and not try to go for the jokes. So I just try and keep the stakes as high and make it as for-real as possible.
Busch: It's just really fun to be around a place where no one really knows what's going to happen. Everything is speculation. No one really is told. And you hear the rumors start and go around. You do a show like Law and Order, they know everything that's going to happen in the episode. [With Buffy you're] pretty much left on your own. It's almost like we get to decide our characters, because I couldn't tell whether I started becoming darker and darker on my own to reflect what the script was doing or whether the script started reflecting me getting darker and darker as I made that choice. It really felt like great sex. It felt really wonderful.
Give us some final words about Buffy.
Strong: I love working with [these guys]. They're such fun guys and such good actors. We have a good time together. It was like by the end of the first day, we had bonded. I really love working with them. It's been fun. I will never forget in my career how much fun I've had working with the two of them.
Lenk: I know there were a few fans that were upset that we were nerds and that we were human and that we were messing with Buffy. But I just want them to know that Joss must have done it this way for a reason. You can't argue with genius, and we're geniuses and therefore you can't argue with us [laughs].
Busch: I've learned from working with [my two co-villains]. We really are three different guys and therefore our characters are three different characters. I think we all teach each other a lot. And I think a lot things, even in terms of our personalities, and what we all take from the characters, I think all together with my ambition and confidence and Jonathan's real need to be loved and Tom's real sensitivity and heart, we'd all make one really great person. One that I think the Slayer would fall in love with. That's what I think. Together we'd make the perfect guy.
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