Life Inside The Whedonverse
There are plenty of filmmakers who work with the same actors more than once.
Judd Apatow has his crew of goofy doofuses. Wes Anderson usually calls on Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman to be achingly cool sad-sacks. Christopher Nolan apparently cannot make a movie without Michael Caine. And so forth.
There is no director in Hollywood today, however, whose acting troupe is as deep and devoted to each other as Joss Whedon’s. Since launching his first TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997, the writer-director-composer-and-even-occasional-actor has cultivated relationships with dozens of performers on screens big and small, many of whom have appeared in at least two of his productions. The network of stars is so vast, in fact, that it is known among Whedon’s fans simply as the Whedonverse.
This weekend, the most Whedonverse-y project yet will open in select theaters, a black-and-white adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing that Whedon adapted, produced, and directed, in 12 days, at his Santa Monica home, populated almost entirely with actors he has worked with before (or admired from afar). The self-financed project came together with such breakneck speed — Whedon squeezed it in between production and post-production for his least Whedonverse-y project, The Avengers — that the only way it could have been made is because he had so many friends he knew he could call upon, and who would say yes.
What is it like being a part of the posse of such a singular storyteller? How did Whedon bring all these actors together, and why has he worked with so many of them so often? I spoke with several members of the Whedonverse to answer these questions, and several I hadn’t even thought to ask. Here’s what they all had to say, in their own (lightly edited) words.
The Players Meet The Bard
Joss Whedon’s early career as a Hollywood wunderkind began as a TV staff writer on sitcoms like Roseanne, before moving on to helping to write feature films like Toy Story, Waterworld, Titan A.E., and Alien Resurrection, sometimes without on-screen credit. In 1997, Whedon put his career on the line with a small-screen adaptation of his feature screenplay for 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was his very first TV show as the Big Boss, but even after all that time spent on sets and with actors, Whedon says he didn’t really have any particular philosophy about how he would relate to them.
Joss Whedon: I was just desperately scrambling to find people who could enact their roles. As I cast actors more and more, I more and more began to concentrate on the dynamic that everybody was gonna have with each other, and with me. When you’re looking for an ensemble, you’re looking for how will they mesh as a group outside of the workplace in such a way that it’ll affect the workplace? I cast for sanity.
The most well-traveled member of the Whedonverse is naturally also one of the earliest. Alexis Denisof joined Buffy in its third season as a foppish Brit named Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, and he’s gone on to appear in no less than four other Whedon projects — as well as court, marry, and have two children with Buffy costar Alyson Hannigan. When Denisof first showed up to the Buffy set, however, he was originally only supposed to be there for one or two episodes.
Alexis Denisof (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, The Avengers, Much Ado About Nothing): I hadn’t heard of the show. I thought it was a kooky title and it didn’t sound like something I wanted to do in the slightest. It was a very peripheral role, just meant to be a upstart Watcher that was gonna shake things up a little and go away. We were shooting a second episode and I remember Joss saying to me on set, “You know, we could use you more if you’re around.” I said, “Yeah, I’m around.” Of course, I was thrilled.
Denisof’s twin star within the Whedonverse is his love interest in Much Ado About Nothing: Amy Acker. She joined Angel at the end of its second season as the bookish Winfred “Fred” Burkle, and has also since become a near-constant presence in Whedon’s projects. From the start, in fact, Acker’s fate within the Whedonverse was entwined with Denisof’s — and redolent of Shakespeare.
Denisof: The first time I met Amy was in the context of reading a scene that was basically Shakespeare. Joss had written it in iambic pentameter, and it was loosely based on the lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but in this case it was costar J. August Richards and myself fighting over the affections of what would be Fred.
Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing): I wouldn’t say I knew much about Joss, but I did know about Buffy. My boyfriend in college, his roommate and his girlfriend had Buffy pizza night every Tuesday. At first I was like, “I don’t know about this show, a vampire show,” and immediately got sucked in. I was like, “This is the best writing ever.”
In the sixth season of Buffy, Tom Lenk joined the cast as the soft-spoken and kinda gay Andrew, part of a trio of bumbling geeks with delusions of super-villainy.
Tom Lenk (Buffy, Angel, The Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing): I was not aware of Joss, really. When I booked the role of Andrew and I was told that he watched the audition tapes, I was like, “I should figure out what this is all about, who this person is.”
Felicia Day landed a small recurring role on the final season of Buffy as one of the potential young Slayers.
Felicia Day (Buffy, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Dollhouse): I actually auditioned the year before for Angel, I think for the part that Amy Acker got. I don’t think I got very far. But it was nice that they brought me in again for Buffy — my character was supposed to be an Asian girl. I’d seen some episodes. I was not a superfan. Which is great, because when you go in and you want something really badly, which I would’ve wanted had I known more about it, I probably would have tanked it.
Whedon’s apparent anonymity among actors finally began to dissipate with his third and fourth TV series, Firefly and Dollhouse. Not that that exactly mattered at first.
Sean Maher (Firefly, Serenity, Much Ado About Nothing): I hate to admit I’d never been a huge Buffy fan. Even when my agent came over to my house and we were going over the list of the pilots of the new season, and we got to this new one by Joss Whedon for Fox, we were like, “Eh, sci-fi’s not really our thing. Whatever. But it’s Joss Whedon. Let’s take a meeting.”
There was no script at that point. There was only a couple pages of audition sides. This whole moment in the pilot where Simon explains to the crew the backstory about his sister River. I was so immediately intrigued, the first thing I said to him was, “Please tell me about this show.” So I got to hear about the world of Firefly from Joss’ mouth, which, like, I almost fell of my chair.
Fran Kranz (Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing): I hadn’t watched anything, but luckily I knew who Joss was and how successful he was with his earlier shows. After my first audition, I remember being out in a restaurant in Venice where I live, and they were having the Dr. Horrible wrap party there. I was walking to the men’s room as Joss was walking out. And he stopped me and said hi, and we talked for a minute. I felt I had a real good chance.
I just loved the fact that he was throwing a wrap party for at the time a small internet video. Obviously, Dr. Horrible became quite a thing. But at that moment, it really wasn’t. It was something fun he did with his friends, but still chose to celebrate it, and give that gift of a wrap party to everyone as if it was a larger film. I immediately thought, “Wow, that guy’s really cool.”
As with any friendship with someone who also happens to be your boss, the early stages could be a little awkward.
Jane Espenson (writer, Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse): My first impression wasn’t that Joss was particularly close with his actors, but that Joss was particularly strict with them, in terms of having to say every syllable as written. There was no sense that you could move words around. He wanted to hear the words the way he wrote them.
Denisof: I remember it almost going badly wrong early on. We’re rehearsing a scene, and I said, “You know Joss, this one line, I wonder if it would sound more English if I said it this way.” He said, “It will sound English when you say it with an English accent.” I loved him for that. I still tease him about that story. It wasn’t meant to make me feel bad, it was just his sense of humor. We got each other in that moment. I did say it in an English accent, thank god.
Lenk: I just remember being extremely nervous around him when he would be on set. I just didn’t want to say anything stupid. At that point in my life, I was functioning on high levels of anxiety at all times, so I was like, hoping not to die during each episode. I was always like, “I gotta work hard. I gotta be funny. Don’t fuck it up. Always remember your lines.” Then I started to see how everyone else on the show related to him and obviously all looked up to him so much, especially when he was directing an episode. It reminded me of an English teacher I had in high school where to get an A in her class, you had to get a 92 percent.
Denisof: By the end of the third season of Buffy, I guess there was a big decision to make. I remember Joss said, “So, there’s a debate going on in the writers’ room whether to kill you off or keep you alive. What do you think?” I said, “Well, I’m for staying alive, of course.” He said, “That’s good, so am I.” Now I can look back and say that we were friends, but it was still early for us and we were still getting to know each other. I think by then, the Shakespeare readings might have started to happen.
The Play’s The Thing
Ah yes, the Shakespeare readings. Whedon says he first got the idea of having semi-staged Shakespeare readings at his home after Buffy costar James Marsters mentioned offhand that acting on a weekly TV series is a bit like being in a repertory theater company. That was all the encouragement he needed: Shakespeare Sundays was born.
Whedon: They started season 5 of Buffy, in 2000? I got that wrong, season 4. Wait. Is it four or five? Damnit. I used to know this. I had weekends free, and I didn’t have kids. My wife Kai was doing a semester abroad. I said, “Wellllllll, we’ll fill up our time with something other than the softball league.” And it just kinda stuck. Once I had kids, it got harder and harder to organize them. But for a while there, we were going pretty strong, at least once a month.
Denisof: I remember being slightly nervous because I didn’t know everybody that well. On the other hand, I love Shakespeare, and it’s only a reading at somebody’s house, so what was there really to worry about? But it is my boss.
Whedon: I wouldn’t have started them if I hadn’t already liked these people well enough to have them in my home. I certainly didn’t think of it as having any end, like, “Oh, this will help us to bond.” I think it’s perfectly natural for everybody to get together and read a bunch of Shakespeare.
Acker: Joss had seen that I had done Shakespeare on my resume, and he invited me to one of the readings. It was people I recognized from Buffy, and there were people I had just started working with on Angel. It was probably my first or second episode into the show. I just immediately thought, “Well, everyone’s friends with Joss.”
Kranz: He has this classical stone and mossy outdoor amphitheater. It’s something out of this romantic painting. And we sit around, and there’s wine, and it’s very relaxed. They’re such creative people there, you feel the play. It’s a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
Whedon: After the first reading, we all had a little bit to drink, and so I sat down at the piano to get Buffy costar Anthony Head to sing. By the time the evening was over, the musical episode of Buffy was an inevitability.
Denisof: You could just sense what a laugh it was meant to be. Nobody was auditioning or trying to achieve something. We just wanted to hear the play, and the plays speak for themselves.
Whedon: It was as much writers as actors, and then occasionally friends who did neither. Usually a fair mix of both.
Espenson: I’ve played big long elaborate scenes opposite Anthony Head. It’s very intimidating, but it is amazing. It’s the Joss Whedon Shakespeare Players!
Kranz: I’d heard he’d done a reading of Hamlet, and then I shamelessly walked up to him and said, “I need to be at the next reading.” I try not to be the desperate actor. But that was too cool. I just let it all go for that.
Whedon: I basically produced each reading. I’d get everybody’s availability, and then I’d say, “Here’s your part, and here are the cuts,” at least a few days in advance. I tried to make sure that somebody who had been carrying a spear the week before got something juicer the week after.
Day: You’d show up not knowing who was going to be there. That was the fun part, who was going to show up to read what part. I tended to only show up for the comedies. I was conveniently out of town a couple times when it was a history.
Maher: I’ve told Joss this numerous times: They scared the shit out of me. I tried to avoid them at all costs. But in my defense, Joss used to do the same thing about game night. Which I don’t understand at all. He doesn’t understand why Shakespeare Sundays would terrify me, and nobody understands why game nights terrify him.
Whedon: I learned so much about the mindset of an actor. I hadn’t really starred in anything since high school, and suddenly I’m carrying a spear and going, “This play is about my spear. When are we going to get to my line about the spear?” I realized I will never make fun of a day player with nine questions about three lines ever again.
Kranz: He did a reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I played Francis Flute, and I remember Alan Tudyk was Bottom, and Alexis Denisof was the Wall. When we got to the Pyramus and Thisbe scene, Joss said, you guys get up and do it, so we did this impromptu stage production, which might be one of the highlights of my life.
Whedon: Occasionally, it would affect the TV shows, the primary example being the creation of Illyria on Angel, which basically came out of Amy reading Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, and turning off that Amy thing and suddenly being very regal and very frightening. I was like, “Ooh! America has to know she can do that.”
Whedon’s brainstorm: Kill Fred off, and have her body inhabited instead by an ancient demon goddess named Illyria. Because Joss Whedon.
Acker: I was terribly surprised by that. I had spoken in my deeper register in the reading. He’s always so supportive of everybody afterwards, but he was like, “That was great! I loved seeing you do that.” So a few months later, I got a phone call from Joss.
Whedon: I’m like, “You read so beautifully. I’m gonna kill you!”
Acker: I’m like, “OK, just don’t cry. It’s OK I’m not on the show anymore.” He’s said, “But you’re still on the show—you’re gonna be a goddess.” Alexis and Aly were getting married a few weeks later, and at the wedding he showed up with some Illyria scenes to kind of give me a hint of what he wanted the character to be like. It was like, September or October, and we didn’t start shooting the Illyria stuff until probably after Christmas. Then he had Alexis and I come over to his house. In his kitchen, he used to have ways that you could change the light colors. We were reading the scenes, and he was experimenting and somehow turned the kitchen blue. And he was like, “OK, you’re gonna have blue hair and blue skin.”
Denisof: This is what I love about him. He sees something that he doesn’t think anybody else has noticed in an actor and he wants to explore it, shine a light on it.
“Hey, I Need To Talk To You About Something…”
In truth, Whedon had been showing an interest in showcasing his actors’ hidden talents before the Shakespeare readings had started — but the process was a gradual one. He started with his Buffy spin-off show, Angel, deciding in 1999 to import Denisof’s Wesley from Buffy to Angel, which launched the character on what would become an epic arc from a silly fop to a hardened and heartbroken demon fighter.
Denisof: I think Wesley was put on a shelf with a “to-be-determined” label when we were wrapping up the season 3 finale of Buffy. They had already started work on Angel, and so a few weeks into that summer hiatus, I was just back to looking for work, and wasn’t really having thoughts about Wesley or Buffy — certainly not Angel. Joss called and he was like, “Hey, I need to talk to you about something. Can we have breakfast?” Now when he says “I need to talk to you about something,” I get a little excited — it’s been all my favorite jobs I’ve ever done. At that time, I didn’t know what that call meant. I was amazed and thrilled, and we immediately started talking about how Wesley needed to be retooled a little. Joss is relentlessly creative, and the one thing he doesn’t enjoy is stasis. I think that even then, much more than I realized, he saw the potential for what that character could go through on the show.
As Whedon’s career progressed — and as he got to know so many of his actors professionally and personally, on the set and in his home — his feelings of fellowship with them grew far stronger. Like the time Whedon managed to reunite the entire Firefly cast for a feature film version in 2005, three years after the show had been canceled by Fox.
Whedon: I feel a responsibility towards my actors, and when Firefly got canceled, a great deal of my rage and my passion that got Serenity made had to do with the fact that I felt that I had lied to them. I had told them that if it was good, it would go, and I had let them down. They are family.
Maher: The day we were canceled, he was adamant that he was going to find a way to continue to tell the story. Some time later, Summer and I came over to Joss’ house for dinner. He was cooking and saying he was off to Cape Cod to write the script. I was astounded. Truly the moment where it resonated the strongest with me was our read through, when we were back together and I was sitting around this big table with these people who I’d loved so much, reading the words of these characters who I had missed so desperately. I wasn’t even paying attention to the script. I was just getting lost in hearing these actors say these words again. It’s been a part of my life for 10 years. These cast members are like family members to me now. It’s a beautiful thing. I hope I haven’t taken it for granted.
As Whedon branched beyond Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, he started sprinkling his shows (2008’s web phenom Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and the Fox series Dollhouse, which premiered in 2009) and films (2012’s The Cabin in the Woods) with actors he’d worked with before, but this time in brand new roles — expanding the Whedonverse ever further. But he did not do it without some hesitation.
Whedon: At first, I was like, I don’t want people to go, “Oh, that’s so-and-so from such-and-such.” I want them to experience a performance completely without some external context. Then I thought, “For the love of god, they’re great at what they do, and I need someone right away. Who cares?” I had that struggle on Dollhouse and then I was like, “Just hire Amy Acker. Your life will be better.”
Acker: Dollhouse was a real surprise. He was telling me about the show, and I was teasing and saying, “Can I be in the costume department or something? I just want to be around.” He was like, “There’s not really a part for you.” A few weeks later, he called and said, “Will you come read this part?”
Day: For Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, I believe the email was “Can you sing?” That was it. It had the same spirit as the Shakespearean readings, really. Dollhouse was an accident. I think they cast this actress in this role and she dropped out the day before. So I got a call from Joss, and he was like, “Heyyyyyyy — what are you doing tomorrow?” I didn’t even know what the job was. If Joss asks you to do something, you just do it. Except if it’s one of the Shakespeare histories.
Whedon: It’s about talent, versatility, personality. Someone like Fran I pursue because he’s very different every time he works for me. Tom has always got that Tom Lenk thing. There are different things that I’m looking for. In general, it’s because we connected inside the work and inside the workplace. I like people who are used to a heavy workload. People you can talk to not just about a character or a scene, but a sentence or a syllable, and they will get where you’re coming from.
Espenson: Joss likes actors who are playful, in the sense of willing to get in and experiment and not be too locked down into process. If you’re the kind of actor pacing around the set with a dark cloud, that tends not to be the kind of actor that Joss really clicks with.
Whedon: Clark Gregg was my greatest takeaway from The Avengers. He and I just clicked, and I knew, “This is a guy I can relate to on a personal level.”
Clark Gregg (The Avengers, Much Ado About Nothing, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.): I’d been to some Comic-Cons. I was a little bit of a geek myself. I knew that Joss was the King of the Con. I was thrilled when they announced that he was directing The Avengers, because I thought he stood a chance of making what seemed to me an insurmountable task work. Then he came up to me in the green room at Comic-Con and said, “I’m going to use Agent Coulson a lot. Can I introduce you as part of the cast?” I knew enough about him and his following and his body of work to be really, really thrilled by that. He took Agent Coulson and explored all the things that other people had begun to set up about that guy, and even saw nuances that I think others hadn’t seen.
Speaking of The Avengers, there was even a time when a charter member of the Whedonverse basically badgered Whedon into admitting a new recruit.
Whedon: Cobie Smulders got The Avengers in no small part because I happened to run into Aly at the store, and she was like, “You have to read Cobie!” I said, “She went on tape.” She said, “I know that! PAY ATTENTION!” She was like a terrier. I looked at the tape, and said, “Let’s call Cobie.” That very specifically happened.
Occasionally, Whedon plays things much closer to the chest.
Kranz: I auditioned for Cabin in the Woods like any other movie, which was weird, because I saw Joss almost every day shooting Dollhouse. I got an email from my agents saying the project’s name, the role, where to go and when, and then the list of the producers, and I’m like, “Wait a minute. I know that guy. I’m going to see him tomorrow.”
Denisof: The Avengers was not a “Hey, I need to go to breakfast and talk to you” from Joss. That was an e-mail from my agent with a “You have an audition for this movie, here is the scene, you have to sign a confidentiality agreement and send it back.” I read the scene, and it made no sense to me at all. It was between Man 1 and Man 2, and I was playing Man 2. I even complained to my wife. I was like, “What is this? Why wouldn’t Joss just call me and tell me about this?” Because of course in my world, everything revolves around me.
Kranz: Joss eventually told me that Cabin’s director, Drew Goddard, had come to the Dollhouse set maybe a month or so previously to the audition, because I was working. Joss had a hunch that I might be right for the role in Cabin, and he wanted Drew to see me work. It’s such an embarrassment of riches, I get embarrassed telling that story.
Denisof: I went to the audition, and the casting director gave me some notes: “Could you do it now like you’re a little bit of a spider creature from another planet?” My agent called a couple weeks later and said, “You booked it.” That’s when I picked up the phone to Joss. We shouted, “Waddup! We’re doing this!” That is when he told me, “By the way, the character’s not called Man 2.” By then, in my mind, he had evolved to a character called Man Dos, and I gave him a swarthy accent. (In a swarthy accent:) I thought perhaps Man Dos will arrive in Avengers and be the first and last Avenger! (End swarthy accent.) That’s how I kept myself amused. My wife had teased me about Man Dos a lot. Man Dos never made it onto film; fortunately, he was re-configured as originally conceived by Joss as The Other.
Kranz: I guess in a sense I like to think that I fought for it, and I think that made me do my best work, which he wanted to see. Despite having actors that he likes, he picks the right person. He’s not just going to do anyone any favors, ‘cause the story is the most important thing.
Indeed, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
Maher: He brought me for Dollhouse, and it didn’t work out. And he just recently brought me in for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and it didn’t work out. I trust his judgement. There’s never a moment where I feel like, “Oh, gosh, somebody else is doing something that I should.” Just recently with S.H.I.E.L.D., there were a bunch of actors who have known and worked for him and went straight to him and said, “Will you bring me in on S.H.I.E.L.D.?” And he said, “There’s nothing for you.” And that’s it. You accept it and you move on. And then when you least expect it, you get a magical email saying, “Hey! Come be Don John in Much Ado!”
Much Ado About Much Ado
In the fall of 2011, as Whedon was wrapping up the massive, multi-month shoot for The Avengers, his wife Kai Cole convinced him to ditch their trip to Italy and instead use his contractual vacation — designed as a brain break before diving into editing and finishing the enormous Marvel Studios movie — to mount a self-financed feature film version of Much Ado About Nothing he’d been talking about for years.
Specifically, after Whedon saw Denisof and Acker perform the lead roles of verbally sparring couple Benedick and Beatrice at one of his Shakespeare readings back when they were both on Angel. None of them can quite remember whether one of those readings also inspired the ultimately tragic romance between their characters on Angel. (In the 2004 series finale, Wesley died in Illyria’s arms, after she transformed herself back into Fred, because Joss Whedon wants to extract all the feels ever.) Whatever inspiration first brought them together, Whedon has since worked more with these two actors than any other in the Whedonverse.
Whedon: It’s because I am in love with them, as people, as actors, and as a pair. The energy between them and the energy between the three of us is something that is very rare and very beautiful to me. It makes me want to make them kiss and then kill someone. You know, it really was exciting making Much Ado to go, “Oh, they’re kissing, and neither one of them is bleeding out. That’s nice.”
Acker: We shared something kind of special when the three of us worked together. When we saw each other, it was like, “Oh, wouldn’t that be awesome to do something again with you, me, and Alexis” or “you, me, and Joss.” Hopefully they were saying that about me when I wasn’t there. Maybe I was the only one saying it.
Denisof: It’s a hard thing to put your finger on. Why do friends find each other? You’re asking a question that is constantly being explored in every movie and TV show. Why do we have this special connection? I don’t truly know, but it’s something to do with feeling lucky to be in each other’s lives and truly enjoying what we bring to it together.
Over a few weeks in September, 2011, Whedon gathered the troops, polished the adapted screenplay he’d long had on a shelf, and prepared his Santa Monica home to be transformed into a movie set. But it wasn’t until some of the Whedonverse actors who’d been recruited for Much Ado arrived in October to shoot that they fully understood what they’d gotten themselves into.
Acker: Joss called about three weeks before we started shooting and said, “I’m walking home from Alexis’ house. I just talked to him, and he’s in. Do you want to play Beatrice in Much Ado?” “Yes!” I think I had in my mind that we were gonna just be sitting there reading the play and he was gonna film it, maybe with his iPhone. I had no idea until the first day when I showed up on set, and I was like, “Oh, you mean a real movie.”
Kranz: When he first emailed me about the project, I’m almost positive he used the word “reading.” I just really believed that when I was going to show up, it was going to be shooting us reading the scripts with a little handheld camera. That would’ve been neat enough.
Gregg: I was the newest addition, and I felt a little anxious about it. So much of it happened so quickly — I only had 48 hours to learn my lines. Amy and Alexis and everybody else were so welcoming, they kind of treated me like an original gangster from the beginning.
Perhaps one of the best physical manifestations of the Whedonverse — other than the work itself — came in the form of the giant tour bus that transported several members of the Much Ado cast as well as Whedon on a 25-hour drive from Los Angeles to the SXSW Film Festival this past March.
Kranz: There is this ongoing email chain between the Much Ado cast — I don’t know any other film that’s ever been that way. You certainly have little email chains or text chains going for the month maybe after filming, but this has been over a year. Which is pretty special.
Whedon: I had that once before, and it was Firefly. Even before there was ever a cut of the movie, we were all hanging out a lot together.
Kranz: Everyone was talking on email about getting to Austin, and I think it was Reed Diamond who just threw out “What about an RV?” It definitely started as a joke, and at some point the joking just continued where somehow it crossed that weird line of, Are we serious now?
Whedon: I said, “Look, I’ll get us a bus,” because I knew people wanted to go and they couldn’t get rooms and they couldn’t get flights. Some of them couldn’t afford them. It definitely turned into a thing, which was grand.
Kranz: At that point, then it was like, the cool kids are going on the bus. It was the cool thing to do.
Lenk: I can’t believe Joss took two days out of his time to do that with us. It’s a little insane. Does Michael Bay get on a party bus with his cast? Probably not — they’re robots. He drives inside of them!
Life Outside The Whedonverse
With all the work in front of the camera and tomfoolery behind it, one could easily forget that all of these actors do have professional lives that don’t involve Joss Whedon. Leaving his orbit, however, can sometimes prove difficult.
Acker: It’s completely affected my entire career. So many writers who have written on Angel and Buffy and Dollhouse have gone on to work on another amazing shows: Alias, my first job after Angel, with Jeffrey Bell and Drew Goddard. And then I was on Once Upon A Time with Jane Espenson and Andrew Chambiss. And I did Grimm with David Greenwalt. It’s fun to go into a room and have someone be like, “Oh my gosh, I loved Angel, and Joss is amazing.” It’s always a nice ice-breaker.
Kranz: I’m so reluctant or nervous to consider myself as a go-to actor despite the three things I’ve done with Joss, just because if it ever stops it would be really embarrassing. Recently, I feel like all my work is with him. Sometimes I’m surprised when I’m in a meeting, and someone says “I love you in this,” and it’s not a Joss Whedon thing. I’m almost like, “Oh right, yeah, I’ve done other stuff.” Obviously, I don’t expect it to go on forever. While being completely grateful to be associated with the Whedonverse, I also want to have as much opportunity to do different stuff in my life as I can.
Denisof: Coming off of Angel, I felt there was a conviction that I was that character. If it wasn’t British or a effete pontificating fool, then I wasn’t gonna book the role. That’s not Joss’ fault by any means. You’re lucky if you get identified with a role because it means you played a role that created some sort of awareness. But it was hard for a time to talk people out of that.
Maher: After Firefly was canceled, I was on a pilot, and one of the executives in the room before I started to audition, he was like, “I just have to tell you, I’m such a huge fan of Firefly and I’m such a huge fan of your work.” It took me by surprise, because this was a medical drama. I’m not saying I got cast in that pilot because I was on Firefly. I would hope it was because I gave a good audition. But you have a little of that. And then, like, Syfy’s Warehouse 13 came knocking. They thought, “Oh, we can do an homage to Firefly and get Sean and Jewel Staite to come back.” Our schedules both worked. It was perfect.
Lenk: It always comes back to Buffy, because I wouldn’t have any sort of career without that. It’s been interesting to carry that with me and then do another Joss project. It can only help to be working with the coolest director in Hollywood now. I mean, Jennifer Aniston, with each movie she does, she’s still trying to get away from Friends. But I have gotten into a habit of watching Friends reruns, and transporting myself back to a happier, simpler time in the world. Like, “These are m’stories! Oh, m’friends! M’friends are tellin’ m’stories!” Look, it would get a little repetitive if you just saw me and Nathan Fillion playing comedic duos in every Joss Whedon project. Wait, no it wouldn’t — it would be amazing.
The Ties that Bind
In speaking with both Whedon and the actors in the Whedonverse, what comes across most clearly is the lasting affection they all have for each other.
Lenk: When you respect someone so deeply for their work and their talent, sometimes it’s so hard to separate, “Oh, I’m also friends with them.” If I think about everything that Joss has done when we’re hanging out, it’ll totally send me into a tailspin. I did a small stage show with my friend Kirsten Vangsness from Criminal Minds. Joss was sitting in the front row. At one point, I had to draw a picture in the show, and I left my Sharpie somewhere and I was scrambling. Joss pulled out a pen, handed it to me, and I said, “Thanks, Joss.” People’s heads exploded up in the balcony.
Acker: You hear stories about sets where it’s miserable and people don’t get along, and I think Joss chooses people he knows will be team players, and that he knows love what they’re doing and want to be there. If you’re around Joss and he’s hanging out with someone, you know you’re gonna like whoever he’s hanging out with.
Kranz: The joke on the Dollhouse set was, oh, we won’t last longer than a season, and that’s just the way that goes. And now he’s directed, what, the third highest-grossing movie ever? Things have changed so dramatically, and yet remained the same within his circle. He’s still making home videos with his friends. It’s just now they have summer release dates. You hear about S.H.I.E.L.D. coming out, and it was a gimme, it seemed.
Gregg: It’s funny. In the S.H.I.E.L.D. cast, Ming Na seems very Whedonverse to me, but I guess she hadn’t worked with him before. The rest are young actors I didn’t know well, and then as soon as I got to act with them a little bit, I said, “Oh, Joss really knows what he’s doing. New members of the Whedonverse!”
Lenk: The fact that I’m still friends with some of these people from the Buffy days? Alyson and Alexis weren’t married and didn’t have a family when I first met them. We’re getting old together!
Denisof: The work I’ve done with Joss is the favorite work I’ve ever done. Wesle