Julie Benz is familiar to television viewers from roles in several iconic series. As her extensive list of IMDb screen credits demonstrates, the Pittsburgh-born actor’s career extends back to the early 1990s, encompassing appearances on dozens and dozens of TV series. Fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” for example, will certainly recall Benz for her the recurring role of vampire Darla. Viewers of “Dexter,” on the other hand, will remember Benz for portraying serial killer Dexter Morgan’s (Michael C. Hall) girlfriend and eventual wife, Rita. Benz also had notable stints on “Desperate Housewives,” “Hawaii FIve-0,” Showtime’s quirky dramedy “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” and more.
Benz’s current project is the Lifetime true-crime TV movie “Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer.” Based on an actual story, Benz plays Celeste Beard, a cocktail waitress who seduces a wealthy older customer, Steve (Eli Gabay), and tricks her delusional friend-turned-lover, Tracey (Justine Warrington), into committing a heinous crime. In an exclusive interview with Nicki Swift, Benz chats about the “overwhelming” role, and revisits some of her past, fan-favorite work.
“Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer” airs Sunday, June 13 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.
Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer is based on a bizarre true story
So what can you tell me about “Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer,” your new Lifetime movie?
It’s based on a true story. Well, it’s based on a book about a true story. It’s based on the book… It’s a true story about Celeste Beard, who had her lesbian lover murder her husband, Steve Beard. And it’s an incredible story. She was able to manipulate and gaslight everybody and create this whole drama. And she has two daughters and the final turn in the case was when her two daughters basically turned over evidence against her.
How much research did you have to do into the actual real-life events behind the movie?
Well, I was lucky because we shot in Canada. So, I had a 14-day quarantine and I spent those 14 days researching everything I could about Celeste Beard and I was able to find interviews that she had given in the past. I even found like a… It’s like a webpage that she manages herself but she writes about herself in the third person. And I went down that rabbit hole which was incredible. I also read the transcripts from the trial. I read the book. I read the script. I just tried to get as much information as I could. I also like trying to see how people described her, people that knew her, how they described her, so I could bring her to life.
It was 'overwhelming' at times for Julie Benz to become such a manipulative, scheming character
What was it like to get into the mindset of such a manipulative and devious character?
It was overwhelming some days. There were some days where after work, I’d go back to my hotel room and just feel gross and awful, especially — there are a couple scenes in the movie where Celeste is screaming at her daughters. And those were really hard for me to film, just the way she spoke to them, the things that she said to them, how she treated them. And I really went for it in the scenes, because you have to, but at the end it just did not feel good.
You’ve had a pretty extensive career in Hollywood, and I’m wondering, have you met any real-life Celestes? Any people that you might categorize as gold diggers?
Sure. Sure. Not going to name any names but yes. Especially in Hollywood.
Were you able to draw on some of those actual interactions that you’ve had when you were putting the character together?
Yes, definitely. Definitely. And also, I had to think of Celeste as… She’s a narcissist and a sociopath and I did do some research into what it means to be a narcissist and also a sociopath and to draw from there. And like I said, when you watch it… I don’t know if I told you this yet, but in her interviews that she has given in the past, she still claims that she’s innocent and that she’s the victim of this whole scheme against her. Between Tracey and her daughters and they all wanted the money and she truly believes that. And watching her, I found myself getting sucked into starting to believe that, “Okay, maybe she’s right. Maybe she is innocent.” Just because she’s so believable in it. She has convinced herself that none of this has happened and that she’s the victim.
Julie Benz would have starred in Lifetime's Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer for free
Is that almost an occupational hazard though, because when you’re playing someone who would be characterized as a “villain,” the villain doesn’t believe she’s a villain. You have to believe that you’re justified in doing what you’re doing. So, does that put you in that mindset where you’re maybe more susceptible to understand Celeste’s motivations?
I think so. Entering into it, I really tried to keep an open mind and not pass any judgment on her. Every character I play, I try not to pass judgment on them, whether they’re good or evil. I try not to label them in that way. I try really just to get to know them and understand their motivations and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
During the filming of the show, I would say on set, “You guys, I don’t know. I think she could be innocent,” and everyone’s like, “No, she’s not. You’ve got to read the transcript.” And I’m like, “I did read the transcript. I get it. I get it. I get what the evidence was, but still. I know. I watch her. There’s just no way. I believe her.” So yes, there is that hazard, but it’s a good hazard, because it allowed me to, I don’t want to say make her likeable, but make the audience want to learn more about her, if that makes sense, playing for her.
From an acting perspective, this is a very juicy role. What were your impressions when you read the script?
Oh, I was so excited. I felt like I had been handed a gift. Immediately, I remember I read this script because it had come in as an offer. My rep sent me the script. I read it. I immediately said, “Yes.” And I immediately started researching. When that happens, usually you have to do a deal and all that and get all the money. And I was just like, “No, I’m doing this. I’m doing it.” Lifetime doesn’t know I would’ve done it for free. I had to get paid. I would’ve done it for free, because it was such an amazing story.
Quarantine was no problem at all for Julie Benz
As you mentioned, you also shot this during the pandemic. Had you filmed other things during the pandemic before or was this your first experience in COVID protocols while filming?
This was my first experience, and it was also the first time I left my house. I was nervous at first about the 14-day quarantine. I had known other actors that had done it, and everybody was saying how terrible it was and how hard it is. And so, I was terrified about the 14-day quarantine. And I remember when I got to the hotel and they closed the door, I had a little bit of panic because to go 14 days and not see another person and not open the door. Like, can I do this? And I have to tell you, I thrived. I did. I was amaz[ed]. I loved it.
I was so busy. I get up and workout every morning and then I would work on the script and then I would do a Zoom call or a FaceTime call with a friend and then I’d work on the script some more. The best thing was that I went to bed every night at 8:30 p.m. It was amazing. I got so much sleep and I felt like I was able to focus and get a lot of work done during those 14 days. And actually, when my 14th day was up, I was like, “Can I have another day? I can use another day by myself, please.”
The surprising downside of COVID-19 protocols on Lifetime's Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer
What about in terms of the actual filming itself? What were some of the weirdest new protocols that you found yourself dealing with
Well, you get COVID tested a lot. There’s a lot of COVID testing. So, you arrive in the morning and you get tested and they take your temperature and you fill out paperwork. And that adds a little bit of extra time to everything. I think the hardest part was — I love being on set and I love working with my crews and hanging out with them and getting to know them and talking to them in between set-ups or whatever and downtime and eating lunch together — the social aspect was gone. Although, I still managed to feel like I had some sort of social life on set. My last day on set, I told everybody — because everyone was masked up except for me — So, I’m like, “You all know who I am. All I know are your eyes. So, if you see me walking down the street one day or if we’re on another show together, please come up and remind me and tell me. Because I just know your eyes. I don’t know what the rest of you looks like.”
Everybody was masked and face-shielded. So, that part is hard. That part’s difficult. I’m a hugger, too, on set. I like to hug people good morning and can’t do that anymore. You can’t do that anymore for a lot of reasons. Not just because of COVID.
That’s right, yeah.
I’ve had to stop hugging before the pandemic. But just having that interaction is tough.
Julie Benz hopes the real Celeste doesn't try to reach out to her
Once you began delving into the true story behind this, what’s the most surprising thing that you discovered about the story?
There’s a lot that’s not in the movie because otherwise it would have been a five-part miniseries. She got remarried six months after Steve died. And she also was poisoning [her new husband] with botulism.
Oh, come on.
Yeah, and grinding up sleeping pills and putting it in his drink. And she was drugging… There’s a lot. We touched a little bit on some of that but not all of it. She did a lot of stuff. A lot of really, really bad stuff.
Do you anticipate that she might try to reach out to you and get in touch once this airs?
I really hope not. Maybe. I wouldn’t blame her if she did. I would understand, but it would be better if she reached out to Lifetime and spoke to Lifetime about why they did a movie about her life and not to me. I hope she would direct her phone call to Lifetime.
The cancellation of her acclaimed Showtime series 'devastated' Julie Benz
I also wanted to ask about your role in the Showtime series “On Becoming a God in Central Florida.” I really enjoyed you in that and that was just such a weird situation, how they announced the show was renewed and then announced it was not renewed. What was that experience like for you?
It was devastating in many ways. I really loved being on the show. I loved playing Carol and I loved Carol and Carol. The Carols. It was such a bizarre show and working with Kirsten [Dunst] was an amazing experience. So, it was because of the pandemic, why we ended up getting canceled. We were originally supposed to start in April, and then it got pushed obviously because of the pandemic. And then we were going to start again in September. And I still would have been a little nervous about going back to work in September. We shot in New Orleans. It was kind of a daunting, scary idea to go to New Orleans, and basically, you only go to set and you go home, and I would be separated from my family, but I was willing to do it, because I thought, “Well, it’s just going to be this one year.” It’s just this one moment in time.
I think everybody was willing to do it, but for whatever reason, they ended up pulling the plug on it. So, I don’t really know why. I actually found out in an Instagram post, and then I got an email, because one of the other actors had posted about it. And then 20 minutes later, I got an email from — everybody got an email. So, it was probably because I didn’t check my email. I checked Instagram first. So yeah, it was really sad that that happened.
It really was such a unique show.
It was so creative and inventive, and Kirsten was just a powerhouse on it. She was absolutely incredible, and she was producing it and she had a four-month-old baby at home while filming it. She was absolutely incredible. And it was such a joy to get to know her and work with her and it was an amazing experience for me.
Julie Benz won't be back for the Dexter revival, obviously
Another show from your past is making a comeback, “Dexter.” What are your thoughts on that?
I think it’s great. I think from what I understand, I don’t know anything, except from what I’ve read, is that it’s going to give the fans the ending that it deserved versus the ending that was. But I think it’s exciting. I’m excited to see Michael [C. Hall] back in the role of Dexter.
I’ve got to tell you, I loved your response to the people who asked if you were going to be returning [Benz posted a video on TikTok referencing the fact that Rita was killed off on the fourth season, writing, “Last I checked, Dexter was a serial killer and not a vampire slayer”].
Yeah. It’s so funny, because the week they announced that, my phone was blowing up like crazy. People were congratulating me. And I was like, “You guys do remember that I died on the show. It’s not a supernatural show. I’m not playing a vampire here. I actually died. I am dead.” So, I was like, “I don’t really think the congratulations should be coming to me.” So, that was my response so people would stop congratulating me on something that I wasn’t part of.
Now, of course there could be a flashback, but I’m pretty sure that if you were going to be in a flashback you’re probably sworn to secrecy and wouldn’t tell me anyway.
I will say that there is no flashback. They haven’t asked. If they asked, I would do it in a heartbeat and not tell you, but I can honestly say there is no flashback.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is probably permanently in Julie Benz's rearview, too
Let’s talk about another role from your past, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” It seems like the show has been having this sort of renaissance thanks to streaming, where new generations are discovering it. Have you encountered that? Maybe not necessarily recently when you’ve been trapped in your house, but previously when you run into people and they’ll say, “Hey, it’s Darla.”
Yes. Oh definitely. And what’s incredible is even through social media, young people — and when I say young, who are 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, who weren’t even a thought in their parents’ heads back when Buffy was on the air — are reaching out and saying, “I’ve been watching ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel.’ My God, it’s such a fun show. I love it.” And so, people constantly rediscover it. Discover it and rediscover it. So, it is fantastic to have been a part of that legacy.
It must be interesting to be a part of these shows that do have that lasting impact and that staying power with viewers, where they just keep attracting new fans; something that you did ages ago is this fresh new discovery for them.
Oh yeah. And what I love is when they go, “Oh, you look so old now. You aged.” It’s like, yeah — you’re going to age too. You’re watching me 20-some years ago. Yes. I aged. And it’s OK. It’s a gift to age, because the other option means you’re not around, right? So, it is a gift to age. So, you do get a lot of that kind of like, “Oh, you look so different then when you’re…” It’s like, yeah, of course I looked different. I grew up. I was really young on the show.
Now, there’s also been some talk about a Buffy revival or reboot or vague reports about bringing the show back in some fashion. Have you heard anything about that?
I know there was some talk about it. I don’t know. I would love to see a reboot of some sort. I do think it’s a storyline. It’s a show that could do it, but I don’t know. I don’t know. I highly doubt they’ll be asking me to play Darla, you know what I mean? Vampires don’t age. So, although I would play her in a heartbeat, but yeah. I think right now everything’s just been put on hold.
Outside of potential reprisal roles, you’ve also got a new role coming up in the Hulu show, “Love, Victor.”
Yes. Yes I have. It’s a small little recurring arc on “Love, Victor.” I was a fan of the show on Season 1, so I was so excited when they called and asked me if I would come play with them for Season 2. And to me, it’s such an important show. It tells very important stories that young and old people need to watch but it definitely resonates with a younger audience and it helps them work through some things that they might be going through. I think it’s a really wonderful, wonderful show.
What is Julie Benz's all-time favorite role?
Now, looking back at all the roles you played. I just took a little swing through IMDb and wow, what a lot of work. Is there one that really springs to mind — a memory that you have of a great experience?
I will tell you and people kind of laugh whenever I say this, but my all time favorite was “Desperate Housewives.” Just because I was a huge fan of the show. I was a huge fan of all of the women on the show and their work. They do such incredible acting on that show. And so, I remember my very first day on Wisteria Lane and getting out of the van. I was with Teri Hatcher, and I was trying to play it cool and not be this fangirl, and I couldn’t help myself. I started running up and down the Wisteria Lane, going, “Oh my God, there’s Susan’s house.”
And I remember Teri just looking at me and then laughing. And she’s like, “It’s so charming to see somebody who’s so excited to be here.” I was like, “You have no idea. You have no idea how excited I am to be here and to be working with all of you.” And there would be moments where we would be doing big group scenes together. And I would literally be watching, and I would feel like I was at home on my couch watching them act, even though I was in the scene and I would forget my line. Just be like, “Oh wait, sorry. I’m actually here.”
And it happened quite a lot. It was such a wonderful place. And I came right after my death on “Dexter,” which was very difficult for me. And so, it was such a wonderful place to go and heal and have some fun and play another really wonderful character and work with women that I had respected for so many years.
Is there a difference on a set when it’s predominantly led by a female cast?
Well, it’s more glamorous, first of all. I will say on “Desperate Housewives,” they spent time doing hair and makeup, and it’s nice. You weren’t rushed through the works. It was like, “No, no, no, no, get everybody ready so they look really good.” There’s a lot of time spent with hair and makeup, which was fantastic. I love that part of my job.
The food is healthier, usually. The food is better. It’s not just donuts for breakfast. There’s actually healthy options that you can eat. And I would say, especially on that show, because pretty much all of them were mothers or they had other things going on in their life. I remember Eva [Longoria], she wasn’t a mother just yet, but Eva was going to graduate school. She was studying for her graduate degree. They all had other things going on. So, when they were there to work, they were there to work, and we worked and it was just very efficient in how everything was timed and how everything worked.
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