With her girl next door appeal and charm, Julie Benz seems unlikely to be married to a self-righteous serial killer on Dexter, baring her fangs in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel, or battling for survival in Saw V and Rambo. When she started her career she wanted to be in romantic comedies. Funny how things turned out — she has appeared more and more in violent and bloody film and television fare over the last two decades. Who knows, maybe it’s all Dario Argento’s fault for first casting her in Two Evil Eyes, although many of Benz’s fans are probably happy he did. Ultimately most performers cannot predict their career trajectories, and that can be rewarding for both them and their fans, as this star has learned.
With the fourth season of Showtime’s Dexter ready to launch (on Sunday night at 9 PM Eastern), and the movie Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day arriving in November, Julie sat down to chat with ADD about her Dexter character Rita Bennett and her blind love for a serial killer, her Boondock role, how her career has traveled down some very dark corners and why she likes the simple life.
Your career started with a very eclectic mix of roles, but more and more you’re becoming famous for roles in violent films. How did that happen?
[laughs] I have no idea. It just seems to be the nature of how my career has taken shape. It’s definitely not a conscious choice or something I seek out. I attract these characters that are flawed and dark in many ways. I got into this business to do romantic comedies. That’s all I wanted to do. Twenty-four years ago when I became an actress I wanted to be the girl in a romantic comedy. I wanted to be Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock. [On television] I only wanted to do sitcoms. I had no desire to do anything dramatic, and it wasn’t until I started working with Joss Whedon on Buffy that he pushed me [there]. All of a sudden I started becoming known as a dramatic actress. I’ve had a much more challenging career than I ever imagined I would have. When you work in genre material, on a show like Buffy and Angel or even Dexter, given that they’re so extreme it’s much more challenging for an actor, I find.
It’s interesting that the first role you were in 19 years ago was in the Dario Argento segment of Two Evil Eyes. What was that like being your first film?
I had no clue. I wanted to be an extra on the movie. I was literally sitting in the hallway to be seen to be an extra, and Dario Argento just happened to be walking down the hall. He looked at me and said, “You, come here.” He didn’t speak much English. I was with my Mom, and he took us into the conference room and looked at me and goes, “Walk.” I walked across the room, and he said, “Walk back.” Then he looked at me and said, “Okay, you’re Betty.” I was like, “What?” “Do you want to be in my movie?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “No, no, no, no. Do you want to be in my movie?” And I was like, “Yes!” My Mom and I were looking at each other like, “What is going on here?” I had five lines with Harvey Keitel. It was the first time I had been on set. I had done some commercials, but nothing like this. I was fortunate enough that the dialogue coach was one of my acting teachers, and he helped me through it and to navigate my way on set. I was also hired because I play the violin, and the character had to be able to play the violin, so that helped.
Your father is a surgeon. Does he find any irony in the fact that you’re on Dexter?
No, I don’t think so, but I think my father would love to see me play a doctor some day. I come from a family of doctors – my great grandfather, my grandfather, my Dad, my uncle, great uncle and cousins. The whole family is medical doctors. I wanted to be the first female doctor in the family, but I just can’t stand the sight of blood, to be honest with you. So I decided I could become an actor and play a doctor, but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe one day it will.
Can you stand the sight of fake blood?
Umm…I have issues, but I get through it.
What can you tell us about the new season of Dexter?
I think we all feel so lucky part to be of a show that attracts such high caliber talent. We had Jimmy Smits come on last season, and he was amazing as Miguel Prado, and now John Lithgow is joining our cast. It blows all of us away. I think it elevates the work that’s on the show, and it’s inspiring to everyone. It’s amazing. We’ve had Keith Carradine as well. This season is our best yet. When John Lithgow plays creepy, he plays creepy. He plays another serial killer called The Trinity Killer, and that’s about all I can really say. It’s an amazing counterpoint.
In Season One, Rita dressed like Lara Croft for Dexter. What was that like?
That was fun and silly. It was a love scene, so there was a level of tension in regards to that, but it was fun to break out of her normal, oversized, baggy, downtrodden look and seeing her accepting her sex appeal.
What do you like most about Rita?
I love the growth and transition that she’s gone through. She started out as a fragile and damaged bird in many ways, and through the love of Dexter she has blossomed into a very strong woman, into the woman she probably was before all of the damage was done to her. It’s almost like you’re watching a train about to crash because you know at any moment that the rug could be ripped out from underneath her. The more secure she becomes in her relationship with Dexter, and the more bonded they become together through their marriage and having a child together, you’re just waiting for the [other] shoe to drop. It’s a big shoe.
Do you think the show will ever let the other shoe drop?
I think it’s definitely an element that at some point could be revealed. I hope never, personally. I honestly believe that Rita would never accept it anyway. You could say you’ve been filming her life and this is what your husband does in his free time, and you could show the footage to her, but she would say that’s not him. I don’t think it’s stupidity or naïveté. I think that when you share your life with someone – when you share your heart, your body and your soul and you create a life with someone – we’re not made to handle that. If you’re in love with a serial killer, what does that say about you?
People don’t like feeling that they’ve been deceived.
It’s also a reflection of yourself. It’s why so many serial killers’ wives and family members still don’t believe it. Because what does that say about them? And for Rita, it goes even deeper. What does that say about their child? It’s a Greek tragedy in many ways. I don’t think Rita will believe it. She already fell in love with a drug-addicted abuser. She doesn’t have a great track record.
What was the most fun thing and the most difficult thing about shooting Rambo in Thailand?
The most difficult was the physical elements. We were out in the jungle. It was unbelievably hot, and the bugs were the size of birds. It was rough. I did an interview and said my trailer looked like a 1962 bomb shelter, and then got called out – “Why are you an actor if all you want is glamour?” The point was that it was rough. There was no glamour on that set, but it was also part of the excitement of doing it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. I’ve never experienced anything like that. You just had to throw yourself into it. I was working opposite Sylvester Stallone, a film icon, and he wasn’t just starring in it. He was writing, directing and producing. I was able to witness why he is a film icon and why he is one of the most recognizable people in the world. No matter how you feel about his work, his level of commitment and work ethic is so extreme and inspiring. He gave me a great piece of advice: What we do is being captured on film for eternity, and there’s no caption that comes up underneath saying, “Please forgive the actress in this scene, she’s having a bad day.” There’s none of that. You have to commit to every second of footage that’s being shot. You have to give your all. And that’s hard.
You’ve had an interesting career so far, and with all of these recent projects it seems that you’re bubbling under and getting ready for something bigger.
That would be nice. When I saw Boondock Saints II for the first time, [I saw] a character that you don’t see me in at all. She’s so completely different from me, and that was the challenge. I watched it going, “I can’t believe that’s me.” I think I’m evolving. I evolve a little bit slower than other people, but I’m evolving.
How is the Boondock Saints character of Eunice Bloom so much different than you?
First, she’s extremely Southern, and I’m not naturally gifted at accents. I have to work very hard at them. She’s a fiery redhead, she’s sexy, she’s a badass with weapons. For the first time I wasn’t playing a victim or a love interest. I was playing a woman who could take on the men. She’s smarter than everybody else, she’s tougher than everybody else and she’s sexier than everybody else. She doesn’t lose her femininity. She wears 6-inch stiletto heels to a crime scene. She’s dressed in tight pencil skirts and wears pink rubber gloves. I describe her as the woman every man wants to fuck and every woman wants to be. And that is not me in real life!
What do you think your fans would be surprised to learn about you?
I don’t know. A lot of people think that Rita is not very close to me, and I think Rita is probably closer to me than any other character I’ve played. I have a little bit stronger armor then she does, but in many ways her vulnerability, her sensitivity, her positive outlook and her commitment to love and relationships, all of that stuff is more me, even her flaws. I have never been abused or experienced the depth of anything that she’s gone through, but for some reason I just innately understand her. I remember when I was auditioning for both Debra and Rita, I originally thought that Debra was an amazing character because she got to swear all the time. I worked my ass off on those scenes, and I really didn’t do a damn thing to prepare for Rita. Then they tried me for Rita, and as soon as I opened my mouth they said, “You’re our Rita.” It was hard for me to acknowledge the fact that this woman is just me. I just understand her.
If you have that same sense of naïveté as Rita, how does that affect you working in this business?
I have a great group of people that surround me. I’ve been with my manager since the very beginning. I’ve been with him for 24 years, so I have an amazing support team surrounding me. I think that I do have an amazing business sense as far as the industry goes. I keep it purely business and don’t take it personally at all. Maybe I should but I don’t, so I am able to separate that aspect of the industry. I’m very normal. I know people think actors lead these very glamorous lives, and I lead a very simple life. I have got a little house and two little dogs. Yeah, I get invited to certain glamorous parties and it’s fun, but I have a lot of friends that aren’t in the industry. I cook a lot. I don’t know, I’m just normal.