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Benz steps away from evil

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Julie Benz

Julie Benz

Julie Benz isn't a bad girl, she just usually plays one on TV.

Which is why she's so happy to be playing a good girl in the TV movie "The Long Shot," which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Hallmark Channel. It's a "huge departure" from her most high-profile role — as the evil vampire Darla on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and it's spinoff, "Angel."

"I couldn't believe that they wanted me for this part," Benz said during a telephone interview with the Deseret Morning News. "Because I have played so many evil characters and so much in the sci-fi world, I get offered a lot of those projects. To be offered something completely different was great."

Benz stars in the fact-based story as Annie Garrett, an equestrian who suffers through more than her share of trials. Her sister is killed in a riding accident, her mother neglects her, her husband abandons her and her young daughter blames her for her father's absence. She finds a job and a friend in a ranch owner (Marsha Mason), but just as she's preparing to live out her dreams by entering a riding contest that carries with it a big cash prize, her horse is stricken blind.

By the time the offer for "The Long Shot" reached Benz, she had to make an immediate decision without seeing the script. "They pretty much said the two magic words for me, which were 'Marsha Mason' and 'The Hallmark Channel,' and I was, like, 'Sure!' " she said with a laugh. "When I finally got the script and read it, I just thought — God is on my side. That's the first time I ever accepted a project without reading it.

"I'm really glad I did."

She's not turning her back on Darla — she'll return as the character in the May 5 episode of "Angel." This is despite the fact that Darla is dead. So she appears in flashbacks? "I don't know. You'll have to see," Benz said.

It's the latest chapter in the saga of Darla, who was the first character to appear in "Buffy" when that show premiered. "It's one of those stories that I used to read about happening to other actors, and I still have to pinch myself that it actually happened to me," Benz said.

The character was supposed to die in the original, unaired pilot. "She was just vampire girl. There was no name, no story," Benz said. "And then she kind of evolved."

She did four episodes of "Buffy" before being killed off . . . but that wasn't the end. Benz was appearing on the sci fi series "Roswell" when she ran into "Angel" star David Boreanaz on the Paramount back lot. "He gave me this big hug and said, 'Benz, we're bringing you back.' And I was, like, 'Yeah — how? C'mon. The reality is I poofed (got staked).' And, of course, two weeks later I got a call and went back."

First in flashbacks — but then Darla was resurrected in the season finale. Which led to 15 more episodes over the next two seasons before Darla sacrificed herself to save the life of her (and Angel's) unborn son. "I never in a million years thought I'd ever be brought back," Benz said. "I thought that once you poofed, that was it. I am not a visionary. I'm not ('Buffy' and 'Angel' creator) Joss Whedon. I don't have vision like he does. When I read that I die, I really think that it's over."

She's made one more flashback appearance on "Angel," with that May 5 episode coming. "Working on 'Buffy' and 'Angel' has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was never boring. Every week I had to do something that was out of the ordinary. I had to sing. I had to be buried alive in dirt. I had to ride a horse. I had to wear period costumes. There was always something exciting and different. . . . I loved it."

She also loved "Long Shot."

"It's the first time I ever played somebody who's a real, live person," Benz said. (Her character is a fictionalized version of Amy Gaston, a consultant on the movie.) "I got to spend a lot of time with her. She actually trained me for the horseback riding."

And got Benz back on the horse after she was thrown just before filming began. "Physically, it kind of wrenched my back pretty bad. I had trouble getting on and off the horse. But no serious injuries. I'm a strong woman. It takes a lot more than falling off a horse to hurt me."

And it gave her a chance to know the woman she was playing even better. "She's probably the most unjaded person you'll ever meet. She's extremely sweet and optimistic. And, for me, that was a real key to the character."

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com