Sarah Michelle Gellar is jet-lagged from her commute. She has just flown back to Los Angeles from a few days filming the forthcoming Teen Wolf spin-off series in Atlanta. Her decision to join Wolf Pack, as both a star and executive producer, partly depended on the freedom to stay based in LA with her family and commute to the set, packing only a carry-on for each East Coast stint.
After an extended hiatus from acting, the actor, now 45, is in the budding phase of what she considers her “adult career”. And this time around, Gellar is working on her own terms.
“I think I’ve earned it in a very honest way,” she says in a recent video call. “I come with 40 years of experience. Some good, some bad, some in between.”
First up: a small role in the high school dark comedy Do Revenge (out on Netflix), directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson. More than 20 years after Gellar played the crucifix-carrying, cocaine-snorting Kathryn Merteuil in Cruel Intentions, she is once again surrounded by scheming teens on screen. Only now, she’s their advice-giving headmaster.
“I wouldn’t want to be 17 again for anything,” she says. “Thirty-two maybe, but not 17.”
Gellar began acting as a child in the 1980s before eventually becoming one of the biggest names in Y2K-era young Hollywood, thanks to roles in Cruel Intentions and I Know What You Did Last Summer, and the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Calling from the LA home she shares with her husband, Freddie Prinze jnr, and their two children, Gellar sits in front of a monochrome bookshelf displaying a People’s Choice Award and a Hamilton book signed by the original Broadway cast (a gift from Lin-Manuel Miranda). These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
How did your role in Do Revenge come about?
I’ve taken quite a few years off, and I was just getting into the mindset of, okay, I think I’m ready to go back to work, but I wasn’t 100 per cent there yet. They sent me the script, and I said, it’s not really for me. I mean, if I was in my 20s, I would be clawing to star in that. But let me meet with Jenn. Within the first 10 minutes I realised, Oh, she’s my new best friend. I said, “I want to come in and chew some scenery and go home. I just want to dip my toes in the water.”
When they sent you the script, was it to play the headmaster?
There was no role. Jenn is a big Cruel Intentions fan and just said, “Do you think we can write something?” And we sort of came up with the character together. We designed the office together. We even tried to give the headmaster a name, de Merteuil’s real name from Dangerous Liaisons. But it felt a little too hammer on the nail.
Jenn told me that in her mind, the headmaster is your Cruel Intentions character grown up. Was that how you played it?
Absolutely. I always say, I wonder what Kathryn’s doing now? Who does that person become? But we really wanted her to be a champion of women, too. She is building women up for what you have to face as a female.
In Do Revenge, Drea (played by Camila Mendes) is a similar, quasi-morally bankrupt character to Kathryn, but Drea gets to have a happy ending. Do you wish Kathryn had a redemption arc in Cruel Intentions?
No. I think that not everything in life gets wrapped up with a happy bow. There was never going to be a happy ending because I don’t think she would allow herself to have it. The youth of today look at it differently. They feel like they deserve the happy ending, and thus, they will go out and get it. I think that’s a really positive thing.
You filmed an NBC pilot for a Cruel Intentions reboot series before it fell apart in 2016. Would you be interested in revisiting it in new ways now?
I don’t know. That was a whole crazy time. Nothing against NBC, but Cruel Intentions is straight streaming. On the first day, I was like, “This isn’t working.” It’s just not a network show. And if it is a network show, it’s not my Cruel Intentions. So, I was actually grateful.
You’ve been in this business a long time. Did you have generally good experiences as a teen and young woman in the industry?
No. It was really hard. There weren’t great female roles when I came up. It was the girlfriend role, the wife role. That’s why Buffy was so spectacular, because she really had something to do, and then we had I Know What You Did, where it was the women figuring things out. That was all a new turn of events.
That was on the script side of it. And then there’s the other side of being a young girl in the business. Growing up in New York, I had a little bit of street sense going into it, which is helpful. But no, it was not easy. And I’ve had my fair share of experiences, I have just chosen not — I don’t win by telling my stories, emotionally, for me. I look at people that tell their stories, and I’m so impressed. But in this world where people get torn apart, and victim blaming and shaming, I just keep my stories in here.
Earlier this year, you posted a selfie with the caption, “I can’t take back the past, but I can fight for the future.” Is there any more behind that that you wanted to share?
Especially now, I go into my projects as an executive producer. Wolf Pack, for example. I have these two young girls and two young boys [acting] on it. I have made it very clear from day one that if there are things the production wants to talk to them about, I want them to go through me. Because I’ve been there. And I want [the performers] to always have a safe space.
But also, I always try to come in with a smile on my face and set a tone on a set. We’re all equals. It doesn’t matter what job someone does; they get treated exactly the same. When I was on Buffy, I made sure that I did every job at least one time, so that I understood what everyone did. I held the boom; I tried to mix sound — I was really bad at it; focus pulling. I think a lot of young actors go, “My job is to show up and say my lines.” Not really. Your job is to be part of the whole team.
You and Freddie have been married 20 years. What do you attribute that longevity to?
I think we live in a very disposable world right now. When I was a kid, if your TV broke, you carried it to the repair shop and got your TV fixed. Now, if your TV breaks, you go get a new one. I think sometimes we look at relationships like that. You have to be willing to put in the work. That’s something we’ve always been willing to do. You have ups and downs, but you don’t walk away.
So, is this the beginning of a full-blown SMG renaissance?
I think so. You sometimes have to step away to miss something. I’d been working my whole life. I did The Crazy Ones [opposite Robin Williams] when my son was weeks old. I thought, I can do this for the next five years and be a mom. And when Robin passed away, I just had to re-evaluate everything. I saw what it did to him. And I needed that chance to be a parent and be present. That time away just made me appreciate what I get to do now. — This article originally appeared in The New York Times