Kristine Sutherland on Playing a Mother, Being a Mother, and Everything In Between

Kristine Sutherland is more than Buffy's mom. She's an actress who's graced big and small screens for over 25 years, from soaps to dramas and comedies, a photographer, a mother, and a very graceful and intelligent woman. We were so pleased to kick off our Motherhood Month by asking her a few things about her years on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, her life since, and how she feels about entertainment's responsibility to young girls...

First of all, let me say that your work as Joyce Summers was very loved and many think she's one of the quintessential Great Moms of TV. People weren't just crying during the episode "The Body" because it was well-done. Seeing you and the warmth and realism with which you played Joyce was sorely missed from then on.

By the time "The Body" aired, did you feel there was enough closure in Joyce's storyline or would you have preferred your character's journey to end a different way?

Let me start by saying how nice it is to hear that the character of Joyce was appreciated and loved by so many. Regarding closure in terms of Joyce’s character, you pose an interesting question.  Of course, as an actress, one would love to have one’s storyline fleshed out as much as possible. However, I came to understand that as BUFFY was written, the audience saw Joyce through the eyes of her daughter. Often our sense of our parents, particularly when we’re younger, is incomplete. Above all, Buffy was a coming of age story, and the final passage in one’s coming of age is losing a parent. Very often when a parent dies suddenly, there isn’t closure and it is difficult to grapple with the loss. Both Joss and I lost a parent when we were young and I deeply appreciated being part of that exploration. When I first read the episode I was so struck by Alyson’s (Hannigan, "Willow") character dissolving emotionally in front of her closet because she didn’t know what to wear to Joyce’s funeral. I had the exact same experience when my father died and I very much understood what Buffy’s character faced in losing her mother so young. Acting, at its best, is holding up a mirror to the universal experience of being human.

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As a mother yourself, what are your thoughts on Joyce's relationship with Buffy? Were there any plotlines that really struck you or scenes where you drew from your own relationship with your daughter?

Well first of all, my daughter was around five years old when we started filming, so Buffy was actually my first experience with a teenager. In many ways, it was a fascinating opportunity to anticipate what it would be like to mother a teenager on her own journey to becoming a young adult. There were many experiences that I had as Buffy’s mother that guided me through mothering my own daughter when she got older. I think in many ways a teenager is perhaps the most challenging part of parenting. Your ultimate goal as a parent is to nurture your child in becoming an independent person. Parents need to give their children the space to have their own lives and also make daily decisions about when, how and if you should intervene.

One scene that particularly struck me was when Joyce came home one evening, started to head up the stairs of their home and was greeted by Buffy. Suddenly, out of the shadows, Angel stepped in beside her. As Joyce, I realized immediately that there was a romantic involvement and that he was a young man – not a teenager – and that my daughter was becoming a young woman. As an actor, of course, you anticipate the emotional journey of a scene. But the power of that moment was something – the realization went through my whole body and it was an experience that I have never forgotten.

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You had to play a rather clueless mom at first, but that changed after Joyce knew about Buffy's secret life. Did you especially enjoy branching out to interact with more characters, trying the different dynamics and reactions with characters like Faith, Willow, Angel, or Spike and, of course, with the actors playing them?

I would say that I definitely enjoyed it when Joyce expanded to interact with the rest of the cast, although in the beginning it was nice in many ways that it was just Buffy and I. We had our own private world that was separate from the others, and I think it really helped create the bond between us – both as characters and actors – that is very particular to a single mom and her daughter.

You'd played Buffy's mother for four years and were possibly used to the mother/daughter chemistry there by the time Dawn's character came on the scene. As an actress, was it difficult presenting a new relationship, having such a different dynamic with a younger daughter while also playing it as if Dawn had been there from the start?

I think we all struggled with the arrival of Dawn and how to make sense of it for our characters. Speaking with Joss, he explained that the power surrounding Dawn changed our realities and memories to feel that she had always been there. I think it was a very interesting shift. Knowing that this is a coming of age story, although it happens at a very different time that it would normally, every first-born child has to struggle with the arrival of a sibling and how that changes their dynamic with their parents. It was rewarding to explore those issues, particularly since in real life, I only have one daughter.

Joyce started the Mothers Opposed to the Occult (or M.O.O.) group in the episode "Gingerbread" and, while her efforts got warped by the Monster of the Week, what did you think of that as a step in Joyce's evolution since she'd before been so in denial in the series about Buffy or outright angry about her being the Slayer?

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There was always a double path with Joyce to consider: the reality of Joyce’s life, and what Buffy was willing to see and accept about her mother at any given moment of her journey. Sometimes the changes in Joyce’s life were real changes, and sometimes it was Buffy’s ability to see her mother in a different light as she got older. I think Joyce’s denial regarding Buffy’s role as a slayer was normal. I have seen people deny the most obvious things imaginable. It is how we protect ourselves from events in life that are too much for us to process. Eventually, Joyce comes to terms with her fear and accepts her daughter’s destiny. I think watching Buffy take on the world empowered Joyce to start Mothers Opposed to the Occult.

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By the way, I very much enjoyed the Monster of the Week and the fairy tale aspect of that episode. In fact, I was so captivated that I had someone bring my daughter to the set so that she could meet him. Many of the crew and myself were so thrilled to have our picture taken with him, but when my daughter arrived, she dug her heels in and was too terrified to go any closer to him than ten feet. I hadn’t realized that you don’t really want to meet the monster under your bed at the age of seven.

Speaking of M.O.O., this May, we at Legendary women are profiling and interviewing women from activist or advocate groups run by, benefiting, or highlighting mothers, like M.A.D.D. and 46 Mommas, among others. What groups out there do you especially support or think do great work?

The organization that is closest to my heart is not really about mothers, but very much about daughters. Shining Hope for Communities provides education and healthcare for young girls in the Kibera slums of Kenya, helping protect them from the consequences of poverty and sexual molestation. The organization was started by two students from Wesleyan University, one a visionary young American woman and the other a self-educated, incredibly driven young man from Kibera himself. I am most struck at how these two young people have taken on the roles of parents and are making such a difference for these young girls. If anyone is interested in learning more about their incredibly dramatic story, check out the link to this article on Jessica in Vogue.

(Rather than gifts, Kristine has asked her family to give to SHOFCO's Matching Challenge this Mother's Day. All donations will be matched up to $50,000.)

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Though Buffy was a reluctant hero at times, she never failed to protect those that needed her. It seemed Joyce was no slouch when she first met Spike in "School Hard," either, going after him with an axe. How do you think Joyce influenced Buffy's protective instincts?

Being a mother, it’s hard to imagine any mom not being fiercely protective of her children. I imagine that in some ways Joyce was a role model for Buffy, but I think that it was mostly Buffy's nature that compelled her to use her gifts to protect people from the evil in the world. And every encounter with Spike was captivating for Joyce.

As a mother who has raised a daughter and balanced a career in entertainment, do you believe that entertainment truly influences a young girl's development as she grows to a woman? Also, do you feel television and movies have a responsibility to present strong women and girls?

For me there is no question that the media has a huge influence on young girls. When my daughter was growing up, I had countless conversations with her, particularly from middle school on, in an effort to combat what I felt were negative images of women and girls in the media. I feel strongly that daughters need their mothers to give them the tools to look at the media representations around them with a critical eye – not to accept representations as reality. As a mother, if you do your job well, you are the most important teacher in your child’s life. As our sons and our daughters grow up, it’s very important as parents to watch the shows and movies that they are watching and help them figure out their messages. I was particularly grateful to have the opportunity to show my daughter the film Reviving Ophelia and have her read the book Ways of Seeing by John Berger. They were important tools in helping me teach my daughter to think critically about the media. I was so proud to be a part of a show that represented a young women as a superhero, but I never allowed my daughter to watch Buffy when it aired originally as she was too young. She watched it dubbed in Italian in middle school and is just now watching it in English for the first time. She is on episode seven, season one, last I heard.

There was an in-joke in the Angel episode "The Girl In Question" about Dawn going to school in Italy to learn Italian that, we hear, is based on your family living there during filming as your daughter went to school there. Are there any other in-jokes inspired by your adventures that we might have missed?

I actually didn’t know about this episode of Angel until you mentioned it, but I’m tickled to hear that my daughter’s life has found its place in posterity! I’m happy to report that, building off that time abroad, she now speaks three languages fluently.

We understand you have a passion for photography and portraits. We'd love to hear about that and any other projects you are currently working on or feel passionately about...

When Buffy ended – or rather, when Joyce passed – it was hard to imagine striking gold anytime soon and getting to work on something as rich and as well written, so I went back to school and studied photography. As an actor, you have to be invited to collaborate. As a photographer, you can wake up any morning, don the hat of a producer, a costume designer, a director, a set designer, a camera operator, or a cinematographer. You have a form of expression whereby you yourself have complete control over the process. This has been a wonderful gift, since as you age in our culture there is less opportunity for meaningful parts. I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a show that contributed in such a relevant way.

[img_assist|nid=286|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=95|height=144]Last summer, I shot a delightful independent film, THE PERFECT WEDDING. (IMDB page and trailer) There were three love stories in one family. Mine was the story of a couple happily married for many years who are facing the diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s and what that will mean for the two of them and their children. It just premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival this April to sold out houses. I hope it will find a distributor and make its way into the world. It is not only a heartwarming story, but one of the objectives of the film was to represent a gay romance without the stereotypes that we often find in the media.

 

So much thanks to Kristine for her lovely responses. Please feel free to clink on the links above to support Shining Hope for Communities and look out for The Perfect Wedding's release.

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JOYCE AND DAWN - A REALISTIC TOUCH FOR A FANTASTICAL JOURNEY

NANCY HOLDER, CO-AUTHOR OF THE FIRST BUFFY NOVEL, INTERVIEW

 

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