The Dallas native, who appeared at Undermain Theatre and Stage West before being cast in TV’s Angel, on playing Beatrice in Joss Whedon’s film Much Ado About Nothing.
Growing up in Dallas, Amy Acker’s first interest in the performing arts was ballet. But after a knee surgery, she had to put that on the backburner and, at Lake Highlands High School, started doing theater. That turned out to be a fortuitous decision.
That led to her studying theater at Southern Methodist University. While there, she acted in a number of local professional theaters, including at Undermain Theatre in Therese Raquin, for which she was nominated for a Leon Rabin Award; and at Stage West in 1998, in Richard Kalinoski’s Beast on the Moon, about survivors of the Armenian genocide.
After SMU—where, incidentally, she was roommates with Dana Vokolek, now with AT&T Performing Arts Center and married to local director, actor and goremeister Cameron Cobb—it was off to New York, but not before playing Hero in a production of Much Ado About Nothing at American Players Theater in Wisconsin.
Then came the big break: An audition for Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off, Angel, starring David Boreanz as a brooding vampire with a soul. Acker was cast in the part of Fred (short for Winifred), who debuted at the end of season two and became a series regular. That put her in the circle of Whedon’s players, so to speak, a group that has stayed friends. One of their frequent activities, even when Buffy and Angel were on the air, was to gather for informal readings of Shakespeare’s plays.
After wrapping the 2012 mega-hit The Avengers, which Whedon wrote and directed (and is now the second-biggest box office hit of all time, after Avatar), his next Shakespeare reading project was Much Ado About Nothing, with Acker playing Beatrice opposite Alexis Denisof (Watcher Wesley in Buffy and Angel, and real-life husband of Alyson Hannigan, who played Willow in Buffy).
The Much Ado project turned into a film, which was shot in 12 days entirely in and on the property of the house owned by Whedon and his wife, Kai Cole. Several other Buffyverse actors are in it, including Nathan Fillion (Whedon’s Firefly and the final season of Buffy before he broke out in Castle) as Dogberry and Tom Lenk (Andrew from season six and seven of Buffy) as Verges. The film is now open everywhere (when it opened on just five screens in New York, it set records for an independent film).
After time in the Buffyverse, as it’s called, Acker appeared in shows like Alias, Whedon’s Dollhouse and, currently, in CBS’ Person of Interest. She was also in Whedon’s horror film Cabin in the Woods. She married a theater actor James Carpinello (Broadway’s Saturday Night Fever, as Tony; and the original Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages), with whom she has two kids. They spend their time between New York and LA.
On a recent press tour for Much Ado, she stopped in Dallas. We sat down with her to talk about working with the Whedon family, playing Beatrice and working at Undermain and Stage West before she hit it big. Some of that is in the interview below, and some is in the video at the end, which also includes a movie trailer for Much Ado.
TheaterJones: Was Angel your first big TV role?
Amy Acker: Well, there was Wishbone here in Dallas.
Ah, yes, there was a time when every theater actor in town had the TV credits of Wishbone, Barney or Walker, Texas Ranger in their bios. What did you do on Wishbone?
I played so many roles. I think I married him once, I was his mother once. [laughs]
Did you watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer before you auditioned for Angel?
Oh yes. At SMU everybody had a Tuesday night Buffy-watching party, so if I was not in rehearsal or in a show, I was watching it.
Tell us about Whedon’s now-famous Shakespeare reading parties.
When I started doing Angel, he invited me to a Shakespeare reading at his house. The week before he had it he’d say “we’re reading Midsummer, and you’re Helena,” and he’d have copies of the play for whoever didn’t have one. We’d sit out on his patio and there’d be wine and food and we’d be dorks.
Because it was such an informal reading, did you do any wild casting? Like, did you ever play Hamlet?
No, but Joss did a really good Hamlet. It wasn’t anything crazy like that, but at the same time, the reason he killed off Fred [in Angel] and made [the fifth season character] Illyria [which Acker also played] came from one of the readings.
I think it was Romeo and Juliet, actually. He would see different things people were doing, and write an episode based on what we had done in these readings.