Spinoffs are one of Hollywood's riskiest gambles—for every Frasier, there's a Joey. Twenty years ago, Charisma Carpenter found herself at a crossroads familiar to most actors: job security, or take the risk that offered more rewards? The year was 1999, and the high school supernatural teen drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then in its third season, was finally breaking through as its cult appeal finally crystallized into mainstream hype and acclaim. As part of the ensemble, Carpenter's sardonic cheerleader Cordelia Chase provided crucial doses of both levity and antagonism. But as the series prepared to transition from high school to college, series creator Joss Whedon had an idea. Plans were already in motion to split Buffy and her star crossed vampire lover Angel up for good, and give the vampire-with-a-soul his own, edgier series set in LA, a series where that levity Carpenter was so great it would go a much longer way given the darker storylines.
"[Joss] pulled me aside," Carpenter recalls now, "and I said 'Oh my God, am I fired?'" After joking that yes, she was, Whedon made his pitch and Carpenter's excitement at the prospect of more screen time and responsibility quickly curdled into fear. "It could fail," she remembers thinking, "And if it did, then I would be unemployed. Clearly, it worked out."
Worked out is an understatement. Today marks the 20th anniversary of Angel's series premiere, and as the show slowly-but-surely worked its way out of Buffy's shadow it went on to enjoy a five-season run that, for some fans of the universe (this writer included), ended up being better than the parent show. Carpenter's Cordelia Chase is pivotal to that legacy, developing from a source of levity and warmth to become the heart and soul of what could sometimes be a very dark series—even before Whedon and the writers started building towards a Cordy-Angel romance in Season 3.
However, the rewarding, dynamic journey the writers took Cordelia on has an unfortunate ending, and not just for the character. Ahead of Season 4, Carpenter says she went to great lengths to inform production that she was expecting. What happened from there is still the subject of intrigue for fans, but Carpenter describes a frayed relationship with Whedon, and production hours and demands that weren't as considerate of the pregnancy as they could've been, in service of a story that took the character on some truly unexpected and disliked (by fans and Carpenter alike) paths that left Cordelia in a coma by the end of the season. Carpenter learned she wouldn't be returning for Season 5 online with everyone else, and when a return for the show's 100th episode was broached, it was Carpenter's stipulation that she wouldn't return just for Cordelia to die. Nevertheless, by episode's end, Angel learns Cordy's return was just a vision, and she's passed away.
Despite the sour ending, it appears fences have mended enough for Carpenter—who not only took part in several anniversary events this year, but arguably led the charge for them to happen in the first place—to reflect on her Angel experience, good and bad, as it turns 20. Read on for Carpenter's thoughts on the series today, and her answer to if she'd ever return for a revival.
Let's start at the beginning. Buffy's in its creative peak. At what point does Joss come to you and start pitching a spinoff?
That happened season, when did it ... gosh now it's getting fuzzy. I would have to say, Season 3. I don't know what episode we were working on exactly at the time but I was on set which is what we called Whedon World, which is these random stages that were on the Santa Monica, LA, cusp, West LA Cusp. And slowly but surely as we became more successful, we took over all stages and it became. Whedon world. As you put it, it was the creative peak of the show. Well, I didn't watch the [later] episodes, but I think what I take you to mean is that all pistons were firing.
We were hitting our stride and finding our audience and getting the critics' attention and cast members appearing on major magazines and stuff like that. It happened about that time. He pulled me aside and I said, "Oh my God, am I fired?" First, he said yes I think or made some joke about it and then said actually quite the contrary. I wanted to speak to you about the spinoff and see how you felt about it and I just said "that sounds amazing, I'm honored and flattered" and all those bits and pieces that go along with joy and jubilation. And then immediate fear that possibly, it could fail. And if it did, then I would be unemployed. So it's like a scary opportunity at the same time. Clearly, it worked out.
A lot of spinoffs roll the dice and then just don't make it. Was it presented as an option for you to stay on for Buffy Season 4? Or was it just "we're going to do this and we want you to be apart of this gamble"?
I had an option to say yay or nay, for sure. But it was an opportunity for me as an actress to get more screen time, to have more responsibility, to take bigger risks creatively as an actress and explore more of Cordy and flesh her out. The stuff dreams are made of.
I've been rewatching both shows, one of the things that struck me when you get to the point of the spinoff launching is that, even with all the crossover, you never really go back.
Yea, I never went back did I?
It's weird to think of you never having anymore scenes with Nicholas for example
I think I clocked it but I didn't perseverate over it. Like, oh that's interesting, wonder why I'm not going over. Next.
So Angel takes off, it's building its own fanbase, its own identity. At what point did you or do remember feeling like, okay. This has become its own thing?
That's a good question. I don't think there was a eureka moment where I was like oh Angel is happening and resonating with the audience like Buffy. I don't know, it just felt positive from the onset. It's hard to go wrong when you have the people behind the scenes writing the scripts and the words and the clever existential crisis of a teenager with humor. It's a very rare talent and it's just kind of not surprising that it did well because we were able to, capitalize, I guess is the word, on that talent, being the people that were involved. Marti [Noxon] and Joss and obviously [Angel co-creator] David Greenwalt and some point, Tim [Minear]. I think to this day, I've ever been so lucky to be blessed with so many talented voices writing for a character such as mine.
Another thing that's really interesting, especially when you go back and watch the shows side-by-side, is how quickly Cordelia's character grows up compared to the gang on Buffy and they're still dealing relatively juvenile stuff in college. And over in LA it almost feels like you skipped all that and matured much faster.
I haven't—and I know that this irks some of the fandom when I say this—but when I left Angel, I didn't watch Buffy. Mainly because, for whatever reason—maybe it was the extra responsibility—that I didn't have time. I was in survival mode. When you're starting a new show, it's like doing a startup company for an entrepreneur. The hours are intense and it's a vampire show so it's late nights. And you're in some really dank locations. You're literally living, breathing all things Angel. To my defense, there wasn't really an opportunity to do that. I didn't even have a personal life. I couldn't even commit to Thanksgiving dinner with my family because I didn't know what my schedule would be. And that's not a complaint. That's just some kind of insight into the all encompassing, what's the word? I guess, requirements, of being on a vampire show. A one-hour drama that involves special effects and fighting and prosthetics. It just is more time consuming than the average drama.
I still get verklempt talking about what that felt like.
Now the show has a titular character, but pretty much every Joss Whedon show is an ensemble to some standard. What was it that you Charisma, and the character of Cordelia brought to the proceeding that was so crucial?
I'm tempted to be flip and go, "Well I wasn't that integral clearly. I wasn't in the fifth season, so there's that." But I don't know what made her so integral. I guess she was integral. It's such a tricky delicate concept. I don't want to misspeak. I mean, and also you run the risk of sounding like a total and utter arrogant ass. I think Cordelia became lovable and then in the first season, episode 9 when she got the visions, she became vulnerable. I think then we got to see her fleshed out a little bit more and find her less annoying and more endearing. Then her relationship blossoming and her showing up for Angel repeatedly. And in her own charming ways, which is all on the page, she was able to maybe warm her way into the hearts of audience members, I guess. I'm sure there are other people that have more scope and thought about it more deeply who can pontificate on such a subject, but I can't. I just was living it. When I look back on it, that's my best guess.
In terms of character arcs, I would say you have probably one of the most dynamic arcs on the show. At what point in Angel do you remember feeling like the character grew up from the starting point in Buffy, being just an antagonist cheerleader to this mature, heroic figure.
I think it was a slow burn. Obviously again, Season 1, Episode 9, we see her in one of the most vulnerable positions. When she gets the visions, we see one of the fellow cast members die. That really tugs on the heartstrings and then you see our hero care for this silly girl as she was once perceived in such a way that then I think that does tell us and indicate to the audience that there's more than what meets the eye. We're dealing with somebody that stunted in a lot of emotional ways but she has heart and she's lovable and loved. I think when you have a major character such as Angel demonstrating the devastation of possibly losing her, that that may have been one of the changes for her to realize and it gave her her own self worth, maybe. I think it helps demonstrate to audience members that this is someone special and it's safe to love and care for her. I think through all of the visions and the pain, pain metaphorically speaking, her visions are her pain which are the impetus to her emotional growth. But I think that's true in life as well.
I do believe that she has grown quite a bit but I also saw a big change in Wesley (Alexis Denisof). He was just this bumbling idiot that turned into this real demon hunter that turned into this leading man, if you will. So that was quite an arc as well. And I think for Cordelia, they struggled a bit more with finding her full potential and growth and seeing her all the way through. To a better end than ultimately what happened.
So I want to talk about that too because like I said I was rewatching it and and I'm in Season 3 right now. And I am interested to get to Season 4 and see how all of that plays on rewatch. But I just want to talk about how that unfolded at the time.
I try not to talk about that.
I saw that earlier this year a site ran a false story or false quote about your pregnancy and the way that interacted with the storyline.
Yeah I think it was Screenrant, yeah. It's all right there. The correction, the accusation and the corruption. And the support that I got from the powers that be, if you will, pardon the pun, supporting that truth, which is, I never hid my pregnancy. In fact, I was desperately trying to reach again, pun, the quote powers that be, to let them know of my impending motherhood.
In what ways did that inform what became of the Season 4 storyline?
I would imagine that would be a them question and pretty profoundly.
The season before that leading up to it, was there any talk of where the character ultimately went regardless of that?
I think that behind the scenes got a little chaotic. I think people were coming and going. Major showrunner David Greenwalt leaving, other people coming in, and them leaving and being assigned other shows. It just feels like the show really suffered, story-wise with that. That being said, that's not to say that I don't have profound respect for people that did try to step up and do justice with what they had to work with. But I'm a big fan of Steven DeKnight, I'm a big fan of David Fury. I'm a big fan of all of the [writers] I think Mere Smith was there. I'm a big fan of hers. I don't know what transpired in the writer's room. I don't know what happened. I don't know what their story obstacles were or were not. But it did suffer. The whole show, I feel, suffered. Because of these other shows, and these major talents that were servicing the one show, being broken up and put on other shows. To recreate, in another space, what they had already accomplished with Buffy and Angel. So I think that might, I'm guessing be part of the problem.
I genuinely do still feel that it was a wonderful show and I still was given so much to do and I will always forever be grateful for that.
Was it hard to play at the time, just in terms of beloved character and you were just taken down a road that was unexpected from both it seems like the fans and you yourself.
Yeah, it's always interesting to me because when I hear that fans love Season 4, it was just really tough. It was just a tough, tough time. It was tough logistically. In terms of being in advance pregnancy and having a call time of 9 pm on a Friday night. How are we going to make this work? Or staying healthy or working on sets where you're dealing with smoke and you're like, is this safe? Is this safe for me, is this safe for my body or my baby? Physical demands, they weren't considered in those regards. I remained pretty active and was told what I could do and could not do, and I'm an active person. But when you start getting in the throes of a pregnancy, say second trimester. [coughs] Maybe this is an indication of something. My voice is getting choked up and it's cosmically telling me to shut up. I think that when you're in your second trimester, your whole body is just changing exponentially. We weren't doing standalone episodes. We were doing episodes that led into episodes that led into episodes. So the costumes had to be adjusted. I was getting more tired as I became more pregnant, and the hours are the same. And demands are the same. And so that was definitely a challenge. It wasn't necessarily graceful on either side. So it was difficult, I think for them to accomplish what they needed to accomplish with a female lead in the position I was in but these things can be done and they have been done and they've been done gracefully in the past with other productions, I'm sure.
And I went on to work after Angel on a show that accommodated my breastfeeding and having a six-week-old baby so beautifully. I think maybe I was [the production team's] first [instance handling a pregnant lead]. I was the first. So it was growing pains, I don't know. It was probably the hardest thing I've gone through because I am by nature, a people pleaser and I want to give my best but I also do have limitations and I can only do so much when you're in that state so it was a real challenge.
Right. Then on the other side of that I have to imagine at that point, you'd been playing the character for almost six or seven years so there was a little attachment to that too and the way the character's story unfolds.
Yeah, I'm definitely protective of her and very much so.
The 100th episode is really fun but also a little bittersweet. How did that conversation start in terms of coming back but ending Cordy's story there?
This is a well-documented question and answer. I wish there was a way to keep it fresh for you but it's just more of the same. Eventually, I was approached to come back for the 100th episode and I said I would with the caveat being, I didn't want to die. I didn't want to come for Cordelia to die. Then I was told after I agreed to do it that then she would, in fact, be dying. And I think I cried for a good little bit and I was having all the feels lamenting the whole situation in general. Just the sadness around it all. I would have loved to have seen her not die and on a positive note. And it was just really intense, it just hurt. It just really hurt. There's no other way to put it. I still get verklempt reliving or talking about what that felt like. [beat] It was a big part of my life. So, it was intense.
The character's still so beloved so I'm sure you get some solace from that?
Sure, it does make a difference. There's a positive in that for sure.
What did you think of the finale objectively?
Didn't see it.
I've never seen it.
I didn't watch after I died. Sorry [laughs] I didn't watch.
But you've heard about it?
I mean, I've seen clips and I've read fan reaction and stuff. And I know for some there is disappointment that I didn't feel like it was unending ending. There's all kinds of analysis. One thing for sure, our fans are probably the smartest people I've ever encountered. It's just really intense. The breakdowns and the scholastic points of view of the show and courses being taught about the show and how it's all human made. I think in some regards made bigger and more important than really it is. But I'm still flattered that some people feel that way about it. But I'm like, yeah more of that. That feels good. It's sweet but it's also just ... it's so put on a pedestal at times that it's just, it takes your breath away and you also have to take it with a grain of salt as well. It's a real tricky thing to navigate.
Yeah, I mean I think that happens a lot with the genre of television too specifically, you know.
Yeah, that sort of legacy gets tricky, you know. You start believing importance, it's just tricky. It's just the most wonderful thing to be still so embraced and apart of the conversation. And 20 years later, it's the biggest compliment that any actor could ever have and I've never understood actors that didn't embrace and aren't incredibly thankful for the job that made them endearing to a group of people or a huge fanbase. I've never understood people wanting to one and done it and be assertive like, well that was then this is now. I'm moving on to this next job and I don't want to deal with Cordelia at all. I don't want to talk about Cordelia. I've never understood actors that have taken that position because I just feel like it's such a slap in the face to the blood, sweat, and tears that went into doing that show. And it's such a disrespect to the people that support you as an actor. Without fans, we are nothing. Anything I have to this day is because of that fanbase and because of the talent that puts the words on the page
We are in a big age of revivals and all that so if the topic ever came up, would you be interested or would you rather leave it?
Yeah, 100% I would be interested. Who the players are would be my first question. So that would probably be the most important thing. It's got to be done well and done right. After Season 4 [laughs], whose hands we put things in obviously makes a big difference to me.