I recently discovered several interviews I did a number of years ago that, for one reason or another, were never published. Rather than have them continue to gather "dust" in my computer, I thought I would share them with you. In this interview - actress Kristine Sutherland talks about playing "mom" Joyce Summers on the hit TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Kristine Sutherland remembers the day that she agreed to help a high school friend whose dream was to be an actress. She had no idea that in doing so she was also paving her own way towards a career in the industry. “My friend was a bit on the shy side, so she convinced me to go with her to the auditions for our high school musical,” says the actress. “Somehow she got me to try out as well, and I ended up getting a part. I didn’t really give it that much thought until opening night. However, when I got up in front of the audience I said to myself, ‘I love this. This is definitely what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ So the whole acting gig came as a real surprise to me, and, of course, my parents.”
After graduating high school, the actress spent three years in the drama programme at the University of Kentucky. She then travelled across the pond to England where she continued her studies in London at The Drama Studio. “Talk about a wonderful experience. We did, among other things, a lot of voice work as well as stage acting. It was only a one-year program, which was ideal. While I was there I also had the chance to see some great plays with some truly talented actors. I took those memories with me when I moved back to the States and New York City. I also brought along a semi-English accent, which eventually developed into a generic American sound.”
Oddly enough, one of Sutherland’s first TV jobs was a guest-starring role on the series Remington Steele starring future 007 Pierce Brosnan. “Having just lost my British accent I had a difficult time getting it back,” she jokes. “As a guest star it’s always tough to come to work on an established show because you don’t know the lay of the land. However, both Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist were extremely generous and made me feel right at home.”
Hot Pursuit, California Dreams and Providence are some of the other shows the actress has guest-starred on. She was also a regular on three shows – My Bloodbrother, The Art of Being Nick and News At Twelve. Her feature film credits include the part of a secretary in Legal Eagles and a lead role in Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. She is, perhaps, best known for her portrayal of the liberated but caring Joyce Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Unlike many auditions, Sutherland’s tryout for Buffy was quick as well as painless.
“I went to the studio and met with a group of people including Joss Whedon [series creator and executive producer],” recalls the actress. “At that point, my character didn’t even have a name. She was just known as ‘Buffy’s mom.’ I was handed a page-and-a-half of material, which I read for them. Joss gave me a couple of notes, I went through the lines again, and that was it. Not long after I received a phone call asking me if I’d like the job and naturally I said, ‘Yes.’”
Joyce Summers first appears on Buffy in the program’s two-episode premiere Welcome to the Hellmouth and The Harvest. The divorced single mom arrives in Sunnydale with her daughter Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Now retired from vampire slaying, the teen wants nothing more than to leave her past behind and start a new life. Sadly, for her, that’s not to be the case. Sutherland chuckles when recalling her first day at work on Welcome to the Hellmouth.
“I was in the very first scene we ever filmed for the series where Joyce is picking Buffy up from school. It was set up so that the jeep I’m driving pulls up to the curb and there are other cars around me doing their thing. Of course, I was nervous, as you always are when starting something new. At one point I left the jeep in reverse, so when I took my foot off the brake and stepped on the gas the jeep went backwards instead of forwards. There was a car coming right towards me and I was just so relieved that I didn’t crash into it. I don’t think I would have liked to have explained that one to the producers.”
During all of Buffy’s first season and most of the second, Joyce had no idea that her daughter was leading a double life. As a result, they had a typical parent/child relationship. “When the series began, Joyce and Buffy loved each other but they didn’t share a closeness,” explains Sutherland. “I always felt that there was a certain degree of estrangement between them because of Joyce’s and Hank’s divorce and other things that had happened in their marriage. Just as in real life, it creates a lot of guilt and clouds the relationship between parents and their kids. Suddenly, Joyce and Buffy were embarking on this new phase of life without Hank, and they became daughter and single mom. That bond grew by leaps and bounds and there were several turning points in its evolution.
“A major defining moment in their relationship was when Joyce found out that Buffy was a vampire slayer with super powers. That was a really difficult thing for Joyce to deal with, which resulted in that ugly scene where she kicked Buffy out of the house. Part of me felt that was against my character’s nature. However, sometimes a parent can kind of lose it when they feel as if they are losing control of their kids. Usually, they try to regain power by making some big edict such as, ‘You will obey me. I’m the most powerful person here. I’m the one in charge.’ This is what led to that horrible summer when Buffy was gone.
“When Buffy eventually came home, it was a matter of my character coming to terms not only with her daughter becoming a young woman, but also accepting the fact that she’s a slayer and carries a burden in life that’s far greater than any burden that Joyce carries. So their relationship really did develop into something quite special and it was truly a wonderful thing to experience as an actress.”
The Summers’ household gained a new family member at the start of Buffy’s fifth season in the form of Buffy’s little sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). Dawn is, in fact, The Key, a magical device capable of breaking down dimensional barriers. In order to keep it from being stolen and misused by demons, The Key was transformed into a human girl, Dawn, who was placed in Buffy’s care. Initially, no one, including Dawn, knew of her true origins. It was as if she had been part of the family all along.
“The dynamic in the Summers’ house changed when Dawn came along,” notes Sutherland. “It created a triangle, but not a bad one. Naturally, there was sibling rivalry between Dawn and Buffy, but for me playing the parent it was quite interesting. When Dawn appeared on the scene, the relationship between Joyce and Buffy had gone from mother/daughter to older woman/younger woman. Buffy was in college and wasn’t as dependant on Joyce. Suddenly, there was a young girl in the house who didn’t have super powers and who needed looking after. So it brought out all these maternal feelings in my character, which I enjoyed.
“I’d actually known for a couple of years that Joss was planning to bring a second daughter onto the program. Originally, I had heard Joyce was going to adopt, so I had no idea if Joss was going to stick with that or not. Then one day a script arrived and out of the blue it was like, ‘Here’s Dawn!’ We began rehearsals and after an hour or so someone finally asked the producers, ‘Exactly how did Dawn get here?’ and they said, ‘Well, it’s like this.’
“We were then given some background information on the character and that was that. We just jumped into this new relationship as if it wasn’t new, and to be honest it truly felt like that. The addition of Dawn really energized the series in a positive way. Everyone kind of hit the decks running and it really did seem as if she had always been there. As for Michelle, she’s such a doll and a lovely young girl. She not only fit easily into our on-screen family but our off-screen one as well.”
Although her character was a responsible adult, Sutherland did occasionally get the opportunity to let her hair down when playing Joyce. One such time was the third season episode Band Candy, in which all the Sunnydale adults began acting like teenagers again after eating cursed chocolate bars being sold by an unwitting high school marching band. This sparked off a fling between Joyce and Buffy’s watcher Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), which proved to be a hit with the show’s fans.
“I got the impression that audiences would have liked that romance to have continued,” says the actress. “I always felt, though, that it wouldn’t happen for two reasons. Number one, Joss never does what you expect him to do. He’ll always go in the opposite direction. I also didn’t think that the romance was right for the series. If Giles and Joyce had gotten together then Buffy would have had two parents and that wouldn’t have worked. The whole single parent dynamic was a strong facet of the show. To top it off, Joyce and Giles represented two different parts of Buffy’s life. My character was the real world of, ‘Make sure you eat your breakfast. Pick up your clothes, etc.’ Giles, on the other hand, was her mentor and father figure in that fantastical world. It didn’t seem to me that it would make sense if we tried to bring those two universes together.
“That said, I very much enjoyed working on the episode. As an actor, the script required you to put yourself emotionally in that place as a teenager. Doing so brought back a variety of memories and emotions for me that were extremely powerful. It proved to be a fascinating acting challenge.”
Not long after welcoming Michelle Trachtenberg into the fold, the Buffy cast and crew were saying farewell to veteran castmember Sutherland. Having survived a brain tumour, Joyce ultimately succumbed to an aneurysm in the fifth season episode The Body. The character’s departure was mutually agreed to by the actress and Joss Whedon.
“A tremendous opportunity came up that required I be out of the country for a year,” says Sutherland. “I loved the show and the last thing I wanted was to leave. I wrestled with the decision for a long time but I finally realized that I had to seize this other opportunity because it wouldn’t come again. Once I made up my mind I immediately told Joss. I had no idea what his reaction would be. In the back of my mind, though, I knew Buffy was getting older and Joyce’s role in her life would diminish. It’s reflective of the pattern in real life.
“When I told Joss he said, ‘Oh, my God, but you are coming back at the end of the year, right?’ I said, ‘Definitely,’ and he told me, ‘OK, well, you really have to come back because I’m going to kill off Joyce.’ He went on to tell me his plans and I immediately understood where he was going with this. We then had a great conversation about the fact that losing a parent is the final maturation process in a person’s life. I lost my father when I was in my late twenties so it had enormous resonance for me personally. This was what Buffy experienced in the fifth season.
“At first, leaving Buffy was hard but in a strange way it’s been easier for me because it’s still being produced. I’ve since returned three times to guest-star as Joyce, so that’s been great. Also, I live fairly close to where the series is shot so sometimes I’ll even drop by the set for a visit. My husband [actor John Pankow] was on a series [Mad About You] and when it ended everything was packed up and everyone just ‘disappeared.’ It was so final. My situation on Buffy was much better because I had time to process my departure while still getting to see everyone and, on occasion, even be on the show. So things have worked out pretty well for me.”
While some actresses may shudder at the thought of being cast as “mom,” Sutherland could not have been happier in her role of Joyce on Buffy. “A lot of times when you play a mother on a TV show you’re just a cardboard character. I was lucky, though, because I got to explore so many different aspects of being a woman and a mom with a child who was going through her adolescent years. To top it off, how many other actresses my age get to fight vampires? I often felt like a kid playing cowboys and Indians. I’m truly grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of the rich imaginary world that Joss created for Buffy.”
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