'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Turns 20: Charisma Carpenter on the Show's Legacy and Playing Cordelia Chase

Tufayel Ahmed

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, aired its first episode 20 years ago Friday.

Whedon devised the show five years after he wrote a more kitsch movie of the same name, featuring Kristy Swanson in the lead role, which had little success at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics. Whedon’s TV take was darker than the film version, while maintaining its wit. The long-running series format allowed deeper exploration of the main character, Buffy, who was born to fight evil.

Buffy’s destiny, or curse, as she so often saw it, to be the slayer was allegorical of its intended audience. The scripts were so deftly written that, although centered on supernatural plots, young viewers could relate to Buffy’s teenage anxieties that derailed her slayer duties. Audiences witnessed Buffy’s growing pains as she experienced her first love, struggled with transitioning from high school to college student, and felt the pain of losing a parent.

Buffy not only set a benchmark for teenage supernatural dramas, without which shows like Charmed and The Vampire Diaries, would not exist, it was also a win for feminist entertainment. Buffy was an empowered young woman. Physically, she was dominant over men, women and evil monsters, but she was also defiant and strong-willed. Today, there is an abundance of complex female characters leading dramas ( Orange is the New Black, for one), but in the 1990s, Buffy was a rarity.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" cast, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter, Nicholas Brendon and Sarah Michelle Gellar. The show celebrates its 20th anniversary. 20th Century Fox

The show’s success was not immediate. The first season was a gamble, recalls Charisma Carpenter, who played Buffy’s high school nemesis, Cordelia Chase. “I didn’t know it would last...the expectations were low, it wasn’t a lot of money,” Carpenter tells Newsweek. “We were trying to accomplish a lot, because it was an ambitious show, but there wasn’t a lot of money or resources.”

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But Buffy gained a loyal following that stayed with it through seven seasons. It also spawned a spinoff, Angel, starring David Boreanaz in the title role. That show ran for five seasons. Carpenter joined Boreanaz, leaving Buffy at the end of season three.

Twenty years after the pilot aired, “It’s hard to believe so much time has passed and we’re still talking about it,” Carpenter says. “It changed my life for the better. It’s an iconic show. How it’s affected my life the most is that I’m forever being confused with Cordelia Chase. People think it really is me. It’s not a bad thing—it’s adorable.”

Speaking to Newsweek to mark the show’s anniversary, Carpenter reflects on her decade as Cordelia Chase in Buffy and Angel, and Buffy ’s enduring popularity:

You originally auditioned for the role of Buffy, right? (Editor’s note: Sarah Michelle Gellar initially auditioned for Cordelia.)

I think maybe me and 10,000 other girls did that!

So how did you end up playing Cordelia instead?

I went in and read for Buffy and [executive producer Gail Berman and Joss] said, “Can you prepare Cordelia’s dialogue, go in the hallway and prepare those lines, and come back and read for Cordelia? We think you might be better suited for that.” So I did.

And then they brought me back to test with Garth Ancier, the head of The WB [network] at the time, and Joss. I was working on [short-lived Aaron Spelling drama] Malibu Shores at the time and we were shooting in Long Beach. It was raining, there was rough shower traffic. I was heading to my test at the WB ranch in Burbank. I was so delayed that they were going to leave. Back then it was beepers, I remember getting a 911 beep from my agent saying, “You have to get there!” I had to wait to respond because I was in so much traffic, I get off on Boron, at a payphone at this liquor store that’s still there. I call my agent back and she says, “They’re going to leave. Where are you?” I said, “I’m five minutes away”—I was probably 15 more minutes away—and I said, “Tell them to go order a pizza, they’re not leaving until they see me.” I did not go through everything I just went through...I think that was sort of a Cordelia moment. I just feel like, before I even walked in the door, I got the part.

Charisma Carpenter as Cordelia Chase

Charisma Carpenter as Cordelia Chase 20th Century Fox

Do you ever think about how things might have been different had you played Buffy?

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what ifs. I don’t think like that. I’m very grateful to have been part of a historic show that is critically acclaimed, that was revolutionary in so many ways—how we brought storytelling through humor, drama, action and special effects. It hasn’t been paralleled.

What was your favorite Cordelia scene?

The graduation episode [in Season 3] because I got to stake my first vampire. It was a momentous occasion for Cordelia. She’d always been the damsel in distress and she got to have her moment. I asked Joss [for that]: “Three years on a hellmouth you’d think she’d learn how to stake a vampire yet.” And he’s like, “Yeah, good point. Yes, you can.” Had I not spoken up that wouldn’t have happened.

What was it like working with Joss, who is such a visionary writer and producer? How much input did you get to have on Cordelia?

There was absolute trust. There wasn’t a lot I would feel I would need to [suggest]. I didn’t in those first three years. It was the beginning of my career and I don’t know how much storytelling I had in me at the time, or if I was thinking like that. I was learning from him and [co-executive producer] David Greenwalt in those formative years. I think those lessons in storytelling have stayed with me today. I was in really good hands.

Of course, he was open and collaborative, but there wasn’t a lot of squawking on my end. Whenever there was something that concerned me, like, “Hey, is Cordelia a slut? I don’t know how I feel about this,” we would have the conversation and it would be really funny. [I’d say] “I don’t like that Cordelia is so ditzy,” and he’s like, “Charisma, that’s why America loves you.”

I was very concerned with my character being represented in a way that was less than flattering—which is not acting. What acting is getting as far apart from yourself as possible and still being believable, and it’s a compliment. But at the time I was a baby, I was still learning and I wanted to stick up for my character. I didn’t want her to always be the damsel in distress, or slutty or ditzy. But he quieted those anxieties.

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Buffy is a strong, empowered female character. Cordelia begins the series as the popular mean girl at school and she often needs saving from vampires. But she really evolves and becomes more empowered...

I feel like that was changing, even throughout the first three seasons...we were starting to see her [grow]. You’re on a hellmouth, you’re going to pick up a trick or two, you’re going to get savvy and hip to avoiding danger. When you continually survive those nights fighting vampires, you can’t help but become stronger, more confident and more empowered.

By the time she moves from fictional Sunnydale to Los Angeles in Angel, Cordelia definitely feels more grown up and strong in her own right.

I think the real change for Cordelia was when she got the vision [which allowed her to see people in danger]. I think that’s when things got real for her—whether she was willing to help the helpless, or turn her back on her fate.

Was there anything pitched or written for Cordelia that never materialized?

Not that I know about, no.

Was there anything that made it onto screen that you weren’t happy with?

No. I mean, I wasn’t crazy about Angel Season 4, but my pregnancy threw things for a loop. They had to quickly shuck-and-jive and put a season together.

But nothing in the Buffy years?

No, not that I know of.

How did you feel about the jump from Buffy to Angel in 1999?

I was nervous that, if the show got canceled, would I have a net? I remember saying that to Joss. It was a huge compliment to be able to explore Cordelia [more] and he wanted to tell those stories. I was very flattered. My fear was, what if it was canceled and I leave this popular show, can I come back? He was like, “Of course.” I just wanted to make sure I would be OK, and I was. He said he would take care of me and he did.

Buffy was such a feminist needle-mover for television in the 1990s. Why do you think the show remains so iconic for its portrayal of women, particularly Buffy?

I read a quote recently where Joss was asked why he wrote a female heroine, why he felt it was necessary, and he goes: “Because you’re still asking me that question.” It’s kind of lame that we have to ask that question. I’m grateful Buffy came along and that it did open eyes and create awareness for a lacking of [those characters]. There are a lot of shows where women are carrying the shows.

It’s been integral to a shift. It’s not to say there hasn’t been [other shows]. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was revolutionary: a woman in the workplace, having an opinion and talking back to her boss. It wasn’t that it hadn’t been done, but it hadn’t been done by a teenager—to give the idea that as a young person there’s no time like the present to start to own your power.

Do you get to keep in touch with the rest of the cast much?

We see each other all the time at conventions, a couple of times a year. Social media’s very helpful as well.

What do you think Cordelia is up to now?

That’s a really good question. I have no idea. But she is in the Buffy and Angel comics [that act as a continuation of the television series]. I haven’t thought about where she is today, but I have no doubt that she’s owning her potential and living her life on her terms.

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