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Practical Magic
(From 'A&U' magazine #87, January 2002)

Amber Benson, Buffy's resident witch, sits a spell with A&U's Dann Dulin and speaks out on sexually active youth, coming to terms with death, and the magic of caring.
"You just can't keep using magic to solve all your problems!" Tara scolds Willow in a recent episode of the UPN hit, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Any die- hard Buffy- head knows that these two young female witches- Willow the powerful but reckless neophyte, and Tara, the intuitive, natural sorceress- are hitched in a love relationship, and members of the motley "Scooby Gang" of demon hunters. Cut to a West Los Angeles photo studio where Amber Benson, the bewitching actress who portrays Tara, is sitting in a high low- back chair she is fussed, foofed, and primed for the camera. "If Tara were here," says Amber, "she'd want to cast a spell and rid the world of AIDS, but then she'd realize that all the world's problems can't be solved by magic alone."
Moments earlier, Benson arrived for the A&U photo shoot, dressed casually hip and laden with a heavy stack of eye-catching outfits with her father, a psychiatrist from San Luis Obipso, in tow. Amber is unassuming and apparently unaffected by fame. With her warm and friendly demeanor, one would think that this is just a neighborly visit. Although her parents divorced when Amber was fourteen, and her sister, Danielle, was ten, it became evident that Amber is well grounded and has a strong bond with her pop as the shoot progressed. "I have an awesome mom too. She's more like my big sister or my best friend." Benson and her mom just moved into a new home in one of L.A.'s wooded canyons.
Though Benson, twenty-four, has not lost anyone to AIDS, she recently lost a dear friend to cancer. "It's been surreal," she observes. "J.D. died just a week ago," says Amber of her friend, a production assistant on Buffy. "It's been one tough week. From the time they diagnosed the cancer, it was only a month till she died. She was only thirty. I keep thinking she'll be there when I go to work. It feels like a nightmare and that I'm going to wake up. 
"J.D. was one of these...she is one of these people...er, I don't even know how to refer to her. It's so weird," she says as she fumbles for words. "She was one of these optimists who always put a good spin on things and was forever laughing. I had such fun with her." Amber is noticeably shaken and takes a moment to compose herself. "I knew she would not want me to be upset. So, from the time of her death to the memorial, I decided that I wasn't going to cry! But I just lost it at the memorial service." One of J.D.'s last requests was for all her friends to gather for a party, which they did. As she comes to terms with J.D.'s death, Amber feels less pain. " I don't believe she's gone anywhere. I was always scared of death, but now I'm not that scared anymore."
This was not always the case. During our first interview several weeks earlier, Benson had different feelings on death. "Death has always bothered me. I went through a whole period of my life where I would just ask people, what do you think happens after you die? I read a lot about the subject. Death has always terrified me. There are times when I lay awake at night absorbed by thoughts of death. And it's not just about my death; it's about losing the people I care about. that's what really scares me." After several weeks of reflection, she seems to have reached a higher level of understanding. " I do think our energy continues on. I read a book, Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, and although I don't share all his beliefs, his ideas on continuity of life are so interesting. Life is like a circle, and there's no end. As the rain falls in the ocean, and the rivers lead to the ocean, we're all part of it. It's a cycle. I don't believe that there's some man in a toga and beard sitting on a friggin' throne in heaven. Man certainly has perverted his spirituality by his practice of religion," she says wryly. she sums up, "Hopefully, we go on to something better 'cause this life can be kind of suckee."
AIDS entered Amber's consciousness when she was in high school. "I was scared because we didn't know what it was all about. People were getting sick and nobody was talking about it. The country was in denial." In one of her classes, she was shown an HIV video and a short time later, the Ryan White story hit the news. "Because he was so close to my age, it really impacted me. I remember reading about Ryan in People magazine. This kid was so amazing. He wasn't with us for long and he did so much," she gasps.
"Then the film And the Band Played On came out." The photographer interrupts a moment to give Benson directions for the first shot. She continues: "Actually, I was educated by the media about AIDS. It shaped my attitudes about sex. Actually, it put the fear of God in me!"
Does the fear of God still strike her when she has sex? "I haven't had sex," she replies with a straightforward, dead-on honesty then half-heartedly adds, "I'm a nice girl from Alabama who lives with her mom. I'm terrified of all these Hollywood boys!" She admits to feeling pressure to have sex and has some self-doubt, but she's adamant about her beliefs. "Having sex has become so status quo," she says. " I grew up in the South where you're supposed to wait until you're married to have sex. and of course, growing up in the eighties, sex became deadly. So I just decided to wait till I find someone who I really connect with. That's my choice. Sex is not worth dying for. I'm really a big dork who likes to stay home and read a book."
Benson appears wise beyond her years, and quite comfortable in her own skin. having only left her teen years a mere five years ago, what would she advise teens about sex and HIV? "Who's being careful when you're klutzy and it's your first time? You're thinking about other things besides safety! You're too busy just dealing with the situation and so you're not thinking about all the repercussions of your actions. So many kids are not careful." Her voice rises in pitch: "'I can have unprotected sex with somebody because I'm not going to get AIDS.' That is bullshit! It's like saying 'I won't get pregnant the first time.'" She stops a moment almost as if conjuring a vision. " People aren't talking about AIDS like they used to. It's like it's gone...and it's not! AIDS is getting worse- it's not getting better."
For a moment, Amber is tight-lipped as the make-up artist applies a light pink gloss to her already supple lips. Without losing her focus she forges ahead: "The answer is prevention, and there's not not enough money being spent on prevention. There's nobody out there talking to kids about AIDS. There needs to be condoms available to them. They're going to have sex anyway, so let's make sure they are safe, however a condom is not one hundred percent safe," she points out adding that sex can be used by many as a tool to control. 
" 'You do this because you don't want to lose me' I can't tell you how many women have unprotected sex because the guy says, Oh, it doesn't feel the same [wearing a condom]." She looks at me with wide eyes and shrugs. "To me, it's more important to have a life than to be concerned whether a guy will dump you. If somebody really cares about you, they're going to do anything possible to make you comfortable and happy. I don't want to die. I want to live my life!" she says with certainty and lots of zest.
And Benson's life is already jam-packed with experience. although she was thrust into the spotlight with the success of Buffy, she's a film veteran. In her relatively short career, she's worked with such luminaries as Leonardo DiCaprio, Alicia Silverstone, Vince Vaughan, Tobey Maguire, Harvey Keitel, and Reese Witherspoon. Her debut film was Steven Soderbergh's acclaimed King of the Hill when she was only fifteen. She just completed Chance, a screwball comedy she wrote, financed, directed, and stars in.
What does Dad think about his daughter's fame? Ed may be over on a sofa reading, but he keeps one ear pressed to our conversation. He walks over and politely answers. "Amber's worked very hard. She started performing at the age of six. It's amazing...she becomes more relaxed when she's in front of the camera, whereas with me, I fall apart. I've always loved Amber and her sister from the moment they were born. They've always been the single most important thing in my life. I enjoy spending time with them. They're fun to be with. Has fame changed her? Not a bit. She's absolutely the same as before," he says with a knowing laugh as Amber quickly interjects, "I think I dress worse now than I did before." "She has always dressed badly," he replies. "That's nothing new!"
Does Benson think the entertainment business can do more to help in the battle against AIDS? "Yeah," she states with an underlying "duh." "How many times in a movie or television show do you see somebody say, 'Oh, hold on. Let me get the condom.' " She scans her mind for any similar Buffy episodes. "To my knowledge, neither Tara or Willow have said, 'Hey, bring out the dental dam.' " The crew cracks up, and she continues: "In our character's relationship, it's implied that we're having sex but nothing is said about our being safe. I think the entertainment industry should take time tio question their attitudes and practices. we need to talk about AIDS. Look at Elizabeth Taylor. She's devoted her life to fighting this disease. She's always talking about it."
Elizabeth Taylor sparks magic in Amber and she asks if I know of any organizations she could contact. Benson has worked with the Leukemia Foundation and, in response to the 9-11 attack, the Buffy cast raised emergency funds for the victims and their families. "Sarah [Michelle Gellar] was the force behind our relief effort. I was so devastated by the tragedy. It forces one to really see how important life is. how important it is to live and enjoy life-to be a good person and to treat people right." Amber jumps down from the make-up chair. as she heads to the dressing room, she wraps it up. "People need to be aware that the AIDS epidemic is still with us. We need to continue to educate ourselves about the disease,' she says. "It's like the Holocaust. years pass, a new generation grows up, and it's easy for them to say there was no Holocaust. same with AIDS. When it ceases to be in the public eye, people feel it's not important anymore. That's bullshit! It's crazy! AIDS is now hitting third world countries and devastating entire communities. it's a plague that is affecting everybody, everywhere. as shocked as we all were by the WTC attack, AIDS should equally distress us. We're all in this together. If Tara were here, she'd say, 'Education is the magic wand.' "

ALL ABOUT AMBER 

  • She's a voracious reader

  • Loves musicals

  • She's a vegetarian (no fish, no poultry, does eat dairy)

  • Owns a cat, Benneton (Benny) and a dog, Pennsylvania (Penny)

  • Johnny Depp is the person she'd most like to meet 

  • In fall 2001, she acquired a driver's license

  • Favorite food: French fries

  • Favorite contemporary movie: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

  • Favorite classic actress: Merle Oberon

  • Favorite classic actor: Montgomery Clift

  • Favorite musician: Jeff Buckley

  • Favorite authors: Peter Hoeg and Hermann Hesse