Poised as a Parisian model in a diamond pendant, Sarah Michelle Gellar, aka "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," fields questions with a cool many adults would, well, kill for. A working actress since the age of 4, she says the only way to maintain that calm eye in the center of the Hollywood hurricane is to keep a firm firewall between her public and private selves.
"The most important thing [to] keeping sane is to have two really separate lives," she says, "to have a work life, a life that's out there for everyone to see, and then a life that's yours, so that when you go home at night, you're still a regular person."
Levelheaded words for an actress barely out of her teens whose career is on a star's trajectory. Network suits rightfully attribute the cult success of three-year-old "Buffy" (the new season premires Tuesday, Oct. 5, on The WB network) in no small measure to the young dynamo who weekly lowers the mortality rate of the fictional small town of Sunnydale, Calif. They gush over Ms. Gellar.
"She has been the kind of team player that any network would love," says Brad Turell, executive vice president of publicity and talent relations at The WB. Calling her one of the top five actresses in TV, he pays her the ultimate Hollywood compliment for a young performer: "She's a pro."
Her writers are no less effusive. "I've fallen in love with her," says Joss Whedon, the show's creator and executive producer, referring to Buffy and Gellar at once. He says the show is a pleasure to work on largely because of the closeness of everyone on the set.
Gellar came to Hollywood from New York at the age of 18 to take her first nighttime dramatic role in "Buffy" after making a name for herself playing Susan Lucci's daughter on the daytime soap opera "All My Children." Coming off a set where a rocky relationship between the two was well-publicized ("Sometimes two people just shouldn't work together, and that's an instance where we probably should not work together again"), Gellar is grateful for the harmony in her new job.
Besides, she says, "they keep me up working 22 hours a day," with only a small laugh of exaggeration. Most of her friends are from the set by necessity.
The native New Yorker, who attended the Professional Children's School (PCS) in Manhattan, says her social life has never been what any teen would dub normal, although she has nothing but gratitude for her experience as a working child. "I never would have been able to have the private education that I had," she says, "if I hadn't worked to afford it."
She began her junior high school years at a regular private school. "[It] was pretty rough," she says. "If you're not wealthy, from Park Avenue, you don't fit in, and obviously, I didn't have those things." From there, she weathered a brief stint at New York's High School for the Performing Arts (the school depicted in the film "Fame").
Although it was a large school, that wasn't her biggest problem.
"They have this theory that until they've taught you everything that you need to know, that you can't go out there and work" in the arts, she says. School officials threatened to fail her, despite her good grades, when she took time off for auditions. Within months, she ended up at PCS, alongside other working teens such as Macaulay Culkin.
"Everybody was different there," she says, laughing. "Because of that, everyone had their own niche. They fit in somewhere." She remembers PCS as a great learning experience. "If someone didn't like you," she says, "they didn't ostracize you; you guys just weren't friends."
Obviously, the experience of being an outsider is one that has fed her inner life playing a teenage vampire slayer. "Buffy's not the most popular," she says, "she's not the smartest in school, and she's an individual. And I think that the hardest thing to learn as a teenager is individuality."
Individuality will be a strong theme in the coming season, as The WB spins off one of the key characters in "Buffy," Angel, into a show of his own. "[Buffy]'s going to leave her boyfriend, she's going to leave her mentor, Giles, and she's going to learn to experience things on her own. Hopefully, that will be something that a lot of young girls and boys can relate to."
Gellar takes her status as a role model seriously. "[Buffy] is an incredible role model," she says. "I wish growing up that there were characters like that that I could watch."
Now that the show and The WB are gaining so much popularity with young audiences, she pays attention in her private life as well. "I'm not going to drink in public if I'm not 21," she says, "and I'm not going to say things that are inappropriate for my age.... You're just not going to see me at the Viper Room on a Friday night; it's just not going to happen."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society