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Published: January 1, 2008 at 07:00 AM GMT
Last Updated: May 5, 2008 at 07:00 AM GMT
Originally Published December 12, 2006
You might not know it from her character as Rita Bennett on Showtime's hit new show Dexter, but Julie Benz is absolutely hilarious and has an extremely contagious laugh.
Benz has done an exceptional job playing Rita, Dexter's girlfriend. If you saw the scene in which Rita confronts her ex in jail (a scene that was difficult for Benz, as she said it was tough to be strong and to find that strength within Rita), you know exactly what I'm talking about. She was remarkable. Benz has been so extraordinary in the role, you'd never notice how nervous she was to star opposite Michael C. Hall.
"When we did the pilot, I was very nervous... I was beginning to work with my favorite actor. I had to do a lot of relaxation to be on set with Michael... I was such a huge fan of his and just couldn't believe I was cast to play opposite him. I was really waiting for someone to come up to me and say it's all a joke," Benz told me during our interview.
In fact, Benz was such a fan, her ringtone used to be the Six Feet Under theme song, a show which Hall previously starred on. "When I got cast in the pilot I thought, 'I have to change it because how embarrassing!' Now it's Black Eyed Peas 'Don't Phunk with My Heart.' I still have the Six Feet Under ring for Michael. I did fess up with it. I said, 'Look, I'm a dork, listen to this.' He laughed and thought it was very funny."
So how did Benz first get cast in such a great part? Benz said she had to "fight tooth and nail for it" as it took some work to really become Rita. "When I got down to the network test I went in and read with Michael, and the note that came to me was that they thought I looked too pulled together to be the struggling mother of two, and would I please come in the next day not looking so good... I woke up the next morning and I didn't shower. I didn't wear any makeup. Nothing. They kept saying my hair looked too perfect, so I didn't wash it and just wore it loosely pulled back. And I wore clothes I'd wear on days when I don't feel so good. I went in and signed in and I was sitting in the waiting room. The producer came out and said, 'She signed in, but where is she?'" Even the producer didn't recognize the makeup-less Benz. In fact they even thought she had put on prosthetic makeup. When Benz read in front of the network that day, they had no idea she was the same person from the day before.
Benz has had some experience with auditions, as she's had quite the robust career playing a range of roles from a vampire named Darla in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, to the catty Marcie Fox in the movie Jawbreaker, to her current role as Rita in Dexter. "Rita, in a strange way, is probably closest to who I really am in her vulnerability and definitely in the look of Rita. I run around dressing like that... I'm amazed at the reaction because I feel it's the most honest work I've ever done. Everyone just thinks it's completely different... For many years I got to play characters where I got to be completely different from who I am. To really start playing these characters who are more quiet and aren't as flashy and who are closer to who you are when your guard is down - to me that's more challenging," Benz said.
As I said, Benz played the vampire Darla, which originated on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As a huge Buffy fan, I've been an even bigger fan of Benz ever since she appeared in the first scene of the series. So, being able to speak with Benz was one of the few times I've been starstruck.
The character of Darla was killed off early in Buffy, but Benz later reprised her role in the spin-off, Angel. Benz had no idea her character would return. "I thought once you poof you poof. That's it. And every time I poofed I thought it was the end. Boy was I wrong," Benz said, with "poof" referring to what happened to a vampire when they were killed on Buffy. As for her time on the two series, she added, "It was a wonderful experience. It was a great place for me to go starting as an actor and not having worked as much, and not knowing what I was doing, and being creative and making choices. Sometimes the choices worked and sometimes it didn't... It was a great place to grow as an actor."
And although Buffy and Angel helped Benz grow, she doesn't necessarily consider it her breakout role. "It's hard because I think there was definitely a lot of recognition from playing Darla, but I do feel that I'm coming into my own now as an actor. And I do feel playing Rita on Dexter... it's not so based on physicality. I don't have to be the hot girl. I can be more raw."
Benz may not have to play the hot girl, but Rita still snagged Dexter as her leading man. "I think in a strange way they really belong together. I think there's an understanding that they have for each other because of the violence in both their pasts. There's that bond... however she doesn't really know about his past. I think there's something that she senses. And you know he definitely brings out the best in her. And I think she brings out the best in him."
As for season two, Benz said she can't even fantasize about what will happen because the writers are so much more creative. For one thing, she doesn't want Rita to ever find out about Dexter's past because of how tough it would be for Rita to handle. But, if she had to say one thing she wants to have happen in seasons to come? "Personally, me as a fan, I want Rita and Dexter to live happily ever after. I so want them to be together."
I completely agree with Benz and would love if Dexter and Rita could stay together forever. If nothing else but for the fun Benz has on set in the role. "Michael's very serious and very intense on set. My process is completely different. I literally joke around and I'm cracking jokes up until they yell action, and then I'm focused. I do think I wore him down, and I do think he thinks I'm a nutcase." Benz continued, "I think in episode 9 when we were all in the house - Deb, Rudy, Dexter, and Rita - I think in that situation [Michael] had no defense at that point. It was the three of us against him. He started joining in on the fun."
It was in that episode that all four characters had a dance party to the song "Slow Ride" by Foghat, which I think was one of the most fun scenes to watch. "I think Jennifer [Deb] and Christian [Rudy] had a great time. I personally am not much of a dancer, and I felt lost and I think Rita felt lost too... I really just wanted to crawl under the couch."
So perhaps Benz really is more like Rita than any other character she has played. And that's fine by me, as Benz does a more than terrific job in the role. Let's cross our fingers and hope Rita and Dexter can live happily ever after so we can keep watching their chemistry for years to come.
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