Julie Benz always sells it, whether she's playing a hardened cop or the unsuspecting wife of a serial killer. The Pittsburgh native was an accomplished figure skater until a stress fracture knocked her out of the rink and into acting. She's had numerous TV roles, most memorably as Darla on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," and as Dexter's wife on "Dexter." On the big screen, Benz has not been afraid of exploring her dark side with roles in movies like "Jawbreaker," "Satan's School for Girls," "Saw V," "Punisher: War Zone" and "Rambo."
In director Matthew Leutwyler's ensemble drama "Answers to Nothing," Benz plays a police detective on the hunt for the kidnapper of a young girl. We sat down with the effervescent actress and asked her about her own powers of intuition, how she navigates an increasingly dangerous world, her shocking death on "Dexter" and why she is so passionate about Burma.
Your "Answers to Nothing" detective character, Frankie, has a gut instinct about who kidnapped the little girl in the neighborhood but she cannot prove it. How would you rate your powers of intuition in real life?
I think everyone's guilty, which really sucks! [laughs] I think sometimes I have good intuition and sometimes not so good. The older I get the more I listen to it, so that helps. We all have good intuitive powers, but the question is, do you trust it? I know when something just doesn't feel right. But then there are times when something doesn't feel right and it's fine, like every time I fly.
Did you have to do any special training to prepare for the role of a police detective in "Answers to Nothing?"
I got a phone call on a Wednesday from a friend of mine who is friends with the producers of the movie and he said, "What are you doing tomorrow? We're offering you this movie -- you don't have time to read it -- but we just want to know if you want to take the offer or not. It starts filming tomorrow." Then he said, "It stars Dane Cook and Elizabeth Mitchell ..." and I said, "I'm in." I literally had maybe six hours with the script before I showed up on set and had to fly by the seat of my pants. I'm fortunate enough that I've watched enough procedurals on TV and I have some cops in my family, so I am able to come in with a certain amount of knowledge. Matt [Leutwyler] is a wonderful director and helped guide me along the way.
How can you memorize all your lines in that short amount of time?
I have a memory where I can look at something three times and have it completely memorized, but after I shoot the scene don't ask me what I said. I can't quote one line of dialogue from any movie or TV show that I've done. I can look at it initially and it goes right up my head, though. It's so weird.
In "Answers to Nothing," Frankie says that there are so many horrible things in Los Angeles. You live in L.A. with your two dogs. How dangerous do you think it is?
I think there is danger in every city, and you have to be smart no matter where you live. I've had those moments where you think about starting family and you think about today's world and how dangerous and scary it is. You have to have that optimism that it is going to be OK. Maybe I just know L.A. so well and I have a false sense of safety, but I don't think it's as scary dangerous as people think it is. Certain people attract more trouble than others. Knock on wood -- I don't want anything bad to happen to me -- but you have to take precautions and be aware. Even if you live out in the suburbs or the middle of nowhere, there are dangers and bad people. You have to be smart.
"Answers to Nothing" highlights some lesser-known, grittier areas of Los Angeles. Do you have a favorite place in L.A. that is off the beaten path?
I love Koreatown. It feels like a completely different place. My favorite restaurant there is the Honey Pig because they give you a little pig lighter at the end of the meal. My friends live in Koreatown and have taken us out to a couple of bars and nightclubs there and they still smoke inside. Now, it's illegal to do so in Los Angeles, but for some reason in Koreatown people still smoke in bars. It threw me off. There are people out at four in the morning during the World Cup watching soccer, too. It is very old school and a whole different subculture that people didn't think about as much.
There is also an area down by USC that I filmed in before with these old Victorian mansions that back in the day were just stunning and gorgeous. Now it's not a good neighborhood, but to buy one of those and refurbish it and turn it around would be phenomenal.
You played Rita for four years on "Dexter." Were you as shocked as viewers about your character's violent demise in the bathtub at the hands of the Trinity killer?
I was more shocked about it probably than anybody. I found out an hour before they put out the script. Then I only found out an hour before we shot the scene how I was going to die -- they wouldn't tell me or anybody. It was the last scene of the season, so my family -- the crew, who I spent five years with from the pilot forward -- was very emotional and upset because they couldn't believe it. I at least had a couple of days to process it, so I brought in a Styrofoam tombstone and I floated in the bathtub that said R.I.P. just to make a joke. I needed some kind of levity! Saying goodbye to my character, my job and people I love, was just too heavy.
"Dexter" plays fast and loose with "imaginary friends," and Dexter often has conversations with people who aren't there, like his father, Harry. What are the chances that we'll see Rita again in that capacity or in a flashback?
I actually, to be honest, will say never. I've always felt like Rita was his external and Harry was his internal because Harry knew Dexter's secret and Rita was his cover. There's no reason for her to exist in Dexter's internal life. I also know that they have been trying so hard to move past Rita's death, which I know has been a difficult journey for them. Any kind of bringing her back would set it back. I'm open to it if they felt it served a purpose, but I wouldn't want it to be a gratuitous overuse. I went back season 5 at the beginning and did that lovely little goodbye scene, and that was a nice closure for me, the crew and the writers after the gruesome closing of season 4.
After your experience on "Rambo," you became involved with the U.S. Campaign for Burma. Tell us about how that film and your time working with Sylvester Stallone got you interested in the cause.
When I first read the script, I thought, there is no way this is real. This is total fiction. Then I got online and started researching Burma, and I saw images of children missing limbs trying to flee for safety, the mass persecution and the mass genocide. It's the most underreported war in the world. I remember sitting in my office just balling because I couldn't believe it was true.
When we shot in Thailand, they used a lot of real refugees, especially the children. I was carrying a little boy who lost his leg because his family was fleeing to safety and he stepped on a land mine. I didn't want to ever put him down -- he was so playful and fun. I could only think of the horror his family went through and now they are refugees living in a camp and they can't return to their country. They live basically in limbo. I think we all felt it while we were on set, we can't go back and not try to do something. I wish I could hire an army and go in with Rambo -- I wish he were real -- and overthrow this military government. All we can do is try to get our government involved and try to get the junta out of there. It's now about supporting [General Secretary of the National League for Democracy] Aung San Suu Kyi and what she stands for.
So many Burmese people come up to me in L.A. and have told me how much it means to their families back home. "Rambo" was sold on the black market and, if you got caught watching it, you got seven years in jail. If you got caught selling it, you got a lifetime in prison. Yet people were holding underground screenings and cheering because finally their story was being told.