Slay Lady Slay: Sarah Michelle Gellar and the Power of Buffy-hood

A lifetime in show biz pays off for the star of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' in our candid cover story

Sarah Michelle Gellar stars in the hit tv series 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer', February 8th, 1999. Credit: Getty

"Sarah, can I please get a picture?" says a bezitted young man. Can you believe? The star of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, standing right under Portrait of James Christie by Thomas Gains borough! "Sure," she says, assembling her game face. Moving on, she stops before an ornate vase, centuries old, embellished with angels. "I used to have a lot of angel stuff, but I'm kind of over it," she says as a hand tugs gently at her sleeve.

"Oh, Kendall, honey, I love your show," says a kindly, Julia Child-ish grandma. Gellar, you see, used to play Kendall Hart on All My Children. Sure, that was five years ago, but when you have been on a soap opera, your fame in some circles is as enduring and eternal as the vase.

"That's so sweet," says Gellar, homing in on a tapestry. Oops — Something Teenage This Way Comes.

"My friend freaked out when she saw how skinny you are," says a girl as her companion punches her. "She doesn't think she has a chance of being an actress now."

"It has nothing to do with that," says Gellar. Perhaps it's time to make our way outside to the gardens and find ourselves a nice bench. "I hate when people say that," says Gellar, taking a load off. "I'd hate to think that I got where I got because of how I look."

Actually, Gellar's mushrooming fame is a result of talent, a work ethic that would shame a turn-of-the-century Nebraska homesteader, and a shrewd choice of scripts. In December's $96 million-grossing Scream 2, Gellar played a sorority sister who gets stabbed and tossed off a balcony; last summer she starred as a small-town beauty queen who gets offed in I Know What You Did Last Summer, which has earned more than $70 million. (Both scripts were penned by Kevin "Ka-Ching" Williamson, cre ator of the first Scream, whose lucra tive ability to put a fresh twist on an old formula has made him the Puff Daddy of Hollywood.) Then there is her weekly gig on Buffy, the creepy, funny series on the WB Network whose ratings continue to climb, thanks to smart writing and a winsome cast anchored by the self-as sured presence of Gellar.

By the way, her looks certainly haven't hindered her progress. Today she's all California Casual: baseball cap, boots, brown suede jacket, black sweater, no makeup, Lucky jeans ("These are my favorites," she says, unzipping them to reveal the words lucky you on the fly). Naturally, she wears a cross necklace. She is tiny, with clear, light eyes and soft, gold-flecked skin. It is also worth noting that Gellar talks with the preternatural speed of an auctioneer — a far cry from Buffy's pithy one-liners.

Gellar's mind, too, seems to hum along at warp speed, organizing, cataloging, planning. The girl is one of the most practical twenty-year-olds who's ever stood in shoes. She doesn't smoke, has a brown belt in tae kwon do, is always early ("Being late is rude"), avoids fried food, doesn't do drugs. "I've never done any, I can tell you that honestly," she says. "It never held any interest for me."

She is unabashedly girly. Her trailer is filled with pictures of her best friends, Ashlee and Brittany. She has a white Maltese named Thor. Her musical tastes are of the Lilith variety (Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos, Lisa Loeb). Ask those close to her to describe her personality, and the same four words crop up: professional, together, focused and nurturing. She endlessly dispenses advice, tips, phone numbers. Did you fly into L.A.? she will ask. "You have to drink a glass of water for every hour you're on the plane." Staying in town long? She whips out the Filofax and reels off numbers and addresses of restaurants. Mention that you like her eyeglasses and she is simultaneously writing down the phone number of her optician. Later, she wants to take you to a cafe that offers the best brownie with ice cream ever. "I want to see your face," she declares, "when you take that first bite." What airline is flying you home? Out comes the cell phone. "I know a person who can upgrade you," she says, dialing madly.

"She knows everything," says Alyson Hannigan, who plays Buffy's shy sidekick, Willow. "She works so many hours, doesn't have a break and is still on top of everything. It's scary. Maybe she's just a computer, and there's this chip in her head. A chip with too much information."

Sarah Michelle Gellar was discovered by an agent in a Manhattan restaurant at the tender age of four. A week later, she found herself in a TV film called An Invasion of Privacy, starring Valerie "Rhoda" Harper. From there the telegenic young Gellar starred in a boatload of commercials, among them a Shake 'n Bake ad ("I ate ninety-eight pieces of chicken") and, more notoriously, one for Burger King. In that ad, Gellar reprimanded McDonald's for its skimpy burgers; this happened to be one of the first times that a spokesperson trashed a competitor on the air. McDonald's promptly sued, and Gellar, although barely out of Huggies, was dragged into court. "It was very weird to be four and to be called in as a witness," she recalls. (The infamous dispute was settled out of court in 1982.)

Putting the meat mess behind her, she continued to work steadily — always accompanied by her mother, Rosellen, a teacher, whom she calls "the most amazing woman that I've ever met and probably will ever meet in my entire life." An only child, Gellar lived with her mom in an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. (Her parents divorced when Gellar was young.) The family tree basically ends there. Gellar, who is fiercely guarded about her privacy, will not talk about her dad. When pressed, she says bluntly, "I might have been an immaculate conception. You never know. My father, you can just say, is not in the picture." But he does exist? "Yes," she says. Then the subject is closed.

As a young teen, Gellar attended the Professional Children's School in Manhattan. "One of my best friends was a fencer, and the other was a ballerina," she says. While other kids her age were smokin' weed, she was doing theater and commercials, modeling, making straight A's, earning her brown belt in tae kwon do (which gives Buffy's roundhouse kicks that ring of authenticity) and — why the hell not? — competing in figure skating.

"Sarah always put a lot of pressure on herself," says Professional Children's School principal Carol Kleban. "But she had a super-supportive mother who emphasized her education."

At fifteen, Gellar landed a plum role on All My Children as Kendall Hart, the unhinged daughter of the ruthless and conniving Erica Kane, played by Susan Lucci. "In the first month alone, I tried to seduce my stepfather, burned my parents' divorce papers, slept with a stable boy and got arrested," Gellar says. Off camera, meanwhile, a parallel drama was unfolding.

"I know it was hard for her during that time with one of the actors, who shall remain nameless," says Kleban. "I don't know if I could have done it at her age." That would be Lucci, who, you might remember, has been nominated for a daytime Emmy seventeen times without a win. Maybe that's because she's not really acting: According to sources on the set, Lucci made her younger co-star's life a living hell.

"It was not the . . . easiest situation on the show," says Gellar. "I'm being polite by not saying what I'd like to say. I've always taken the high road. It's hard, at sixteen, to understand some adult things at that point." She stuck with the show for two years; graduated high school early, with honors; and then, at seventeen, decided to leave All My Children. As it happens, she won an Emmy right before her departure was announced. "It was a wonderful . . . well, I don't want to say vindication," says Gellar demurely.

A few months later, Gellar hotfooted it to the relative calm of Los Angeles.

When Gellar auditioned for the role of Buffy Summers last year, she had a few things to overcome: First, the producers had her in mind for the role of Cordelia, Buffy's bookish friend; second, she wore a long skirt for two separate readings. "They thought I was hiding some leg problem," she says, slipping into her gigantic red truck, a recent purchase. "Look, it's got two sunroofs," she crows. "And how about this?" She pushes a button, and a warm feeling envelops my ass. "Heated seats!" We decide to go for a Sunday drive. "Let's go see Tori Spelling's house," she says, rounding a corner sharply; this causes two books to slide from underneath the seats: Before Women Had Wings and a guide to Chinese characters.

When Buffy premiered in March of last year on the WB, the show didn't exactly dominate the Nielsens. Slowly, however, viewers began to warm to the adventures of Buffy, a teen from Sunnydale High who has the power to destroy the undead — who happen to flock to her school in disturbing numbers because of its unfortunate proximity to a hellmouth (a hotbed of demonic energy).

The show's appeal lies in the smart-mouthed writing and dark, anything-goes story lines. (In one episode, a woman who seduces Buffy's pal Xander turns out to be a giant praying mantis hungering for his head; in another, John Ritter camps it up as Buffy's mom's sensitive new boyfriend who is in actuality a complete dick. And a robot.)

Gellar and her character were separate entities at first. "Let me tell you how un-Buffy I am," she says. "For the first episode, I come in and yell, 'What's the sitch?' I did not know what 'sitch' meant. I still have to ask Joss [Whedon, the show's creator], 'What does this mean?' because I don't speak the lingo. I think he makes it up half the time."

"The slang? I make it all up," says Whedon cheerfully. He calls Buffy "the most manic-depressive show on television. It pingpongs from 'Oh, it's light 'n' fluffy!' to 'It's Medea.' " The show's appeal, he theorizes, is that "it speaks so plainly to the high-school experience, which is something you just don't really ever get over. Everything's bigger than life. In high school, my internal life was so huge, and so dark and strange and overblown and dramatic, that this show seems kind of realistic. And we try to talk with teenagers, not to them." As Whedon sees it, teen shows seem to have fallen into two categories: "Actually, 90210 falls into both of them, which are: 'We're obsessed with sex' and 'We're obsessed with issues.' It's like, 'Today, Donna has sex and Brandon learns that racism is bad.'"

"The network wasn't exactly sure what we were doing in the beginning," says Gellar. "After the praying-mantis episode, they said, 'We're just not sure if we're sending the right message.' We're like, 'What message?' You have sex with her and she bites your head off."

In a weird way, the show is actually reality-based. Buffy is independent, reliable, maybe a little too hard-working and maybe a little too serious — an accurate representation of a Nineties youth. As is Gellar, who routinely puts in fifteen-hour days for the show. The cast members, she says, are close, and most of them watch the show together. "I don't," she says, pioneering her giant rig down Melrose Avenue. "I kind of have this mentality that there's gotta be something better I can do than sit down and watch myself on television. And I sort of feel like it's bad luck."

Gellar has a few superstitions, in fact. "When I was younger, I used to totally fear that a kidnapper was going to climb up to my twelfth-story window — using suction cups like Spider-Man — and kidnap me," she says. "And I have an irrational fear of cemeteries and being buried alive." Given her current résumé, this is unfortunate. Last year, an episode called for Buffy to be put in a grave, and it was to be shot in a cemetery. " I told the producer, 'Look, I can't do it, I'm sorry," she says, looking slightly panicked in the retelling. "Through miscommunication, the message never got relayed, and it was four in the morning, and they basically made me do it, and I was hysterical. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done for my job, ever. Some people find cemeteries a turn-on. Some people like sex in cemeteries. Not me. I cried the whole way home. It was horrible." She shrugs. "It's really hard to be a vampire slayer if you're scared of cemeteries."

The producers have since built a fake cemetery outside the Buffy studio. The cast members walk their dogs in it.

OK, let's just get this over with. Yes, Gellar is single. "I've dated a couple of people recently, but with my job, dating takes a back seat," she says. "Sometimes I get upset and lonely, and it's sort of like, 'Wow, I'm the only single person left in America.' I can't commit to a serious relationship right now, but maybe it's because I haven't met the right person."

Could you be that special someone? Here's what you need to do: Don't be a wuss. "He has to be very driven and very serious," says Gellar. "I take everything that I say very seriously. You can't take back words. And I don't do anything halfway." Read The Economist. "I don't really date in the business," she says, "and it's hard to meet people like that because of what I do. So if you know of any nice Wall Street investment bankers . . ." If you use milk crates as bookshelves, hit the road. "I don't have much in common with people my own age," she reports. "So I always have to date people that are older. A guy who's twenty-two, he's in college and is kind of finding himself, partying, and that's not me."

There.

Gellar zooms her rig toward the Newsroom Cafe, which she swears has the best veggie burgers that you will ever eat. How can you say no to that? Along the way, she merrily relays some Bill Clinton jokes, all of them abysmal. "They polled all these women to ask if they would have sex with Clinton, and they said, 'Not again,'" she says. "The Speaker of the House says, 'What are you going to do about the abortion bill?' Clinton says, 'Pay it.'"

She slides into a chair at the restaurant and orders a water, which is, along with lattes, her drink of choice. "Alcohol? I'm not twenty-one yet!" She lowers her voice. "But I can tell you what my favorite drink might be when I'm twenty-one. I have a feeling it would be a vodka with cranberry, or maybe red wine."

Gellar is in an exuberant mood. Sunday is her one day off, and she hoards her free time, which is in short supply. Last summer, for instance, right after she finished Buffy, she immediately filmed I Know What You Did Last Summer in a small North Carolina town ("It got lonely — Sunday was my exciting day, when I went to the movies and Barnes and Noble"). The day she wrapped that film, she headed to Atlanta to be killed again in Scream 2.

"We were the most obnoxious group — everybody was like best friends," Gellar recalls. "We would all go out together, like, thirty people. On the last night of filming, we went to this big lobster place, and then we went to see David Arquette's band play." She takes a chomp of a veggie burger, which is, in fact, quite tasty. "And the movie was like a high school reunion for me. Jerry O'Connell, Rebecca Gayheart and I all went to the same school. Rebecca joked that nobody would talk to her because she was this girl from Kentucky with pigtails, Jerry said he was the fat kid from Stand By Me, and I said nobody would talk to me because I was a freshman. And Neve Campbell was a good person to work with because she sort of went through everything a year before me, and we had a lot of talks about it."

Allegedly inspired by both Scream movies, a sixteen-year-old Lynwood, California boy stabbed his mother to death with the help of two of his cousins, 14 and 17. Apparently the boys had planned to wear Grim Reaper masks and carry voice-distortion boxes like those in the films, but they couldn't raise enough money to buy the items.

"They're saying the movie made them do it," says Gellar angrily. "I don't buy that. Scream is the excuse they are using to get off. It's horrible, but these people should know better. Murder is wrong — people know that. We don't say, 'Do this.' We are entertaining you. Not everything is a public-service announcement."

Gellar is filming tamer fare this spring: Cruel Inventions, a romantic drama co-starring Ryan Phillippe, also her co-star from I Know What You Did Last Summer "It's an update of Dangerous Liaisons," she explains. "Two wealthy kids bored out of their minds who are going to cause trouble."

At this point she is doing only one film, but who knows? "If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it," she says. "That's going to be my epitaph." More significantly, she says, she wants to remain "normal." "It's really important to me that I have a life that's separate from what I do," she says. "I want to be able to walk into a room filled with stockbrokers and still have something to contribute that's not about what I do."

"Sarah has been doing this for her whole life," says Whedon. "And that could make a person completely strange and . . . stupid. But Sarah thinks about the whole picture. She could direct. She could produce. She could do all of those things very ably. She's as good an actress as I've ever worked with, and believe me when I say that I am as bitter a man about actors as you will ever meet."

Gellar is digging for her keys in her purse (which contains, if you must know, tiny cell phone, Filofax, scrunchy, and Mace in a sleek black case — "All of a sudden your life changes, and there are people on your doorstep"). "I am driving you to the airport," she declares. "You're not going to go to the airport by yourself. No. I want to do it. OK? I want to."

On the way, she makes a confession. "I'm actually thinking of getting a tattoo tonight," she says slyly. Rebellion! "I don't want to say what it is. I'd get it in the small of my back. I have an appointment. I'm wrestling with the idea."

She thinks for a moment. "Maybe I should get a picture of Buffy tattooed across my back," she jokes. We riff about other design ideas. A longer butt crack? A third nipple? A chin cleft? "How about a teardrop on the side of my face?" she suggests, pulling up to the terminal curb.

It is time to depart. "Don't forget water," she advises. "Sleep with your feet raised above your heart level. It doubles your nap time." With that, she roars off.

A few days later, she phones. "Hi, it's Sarah," she says. "I went through with it." On the small of her back, Gellar now sports a Chinese character. (Remember the book, in her car, of the Chinese symbols? She is not some drunken sailor doing this on a whim. She was doing research.) The tattoo is plain and black, one inch high. It is the symbol for integrity.