It’s not very often these days that you find witches in the West End. Occasionally they make an appearance if Macbeth is playing or enjoy a girls' night out in late October, but generally the bright lights of London’s theatrical hotspots don’t seem that attractive to the be-warted spawn of the devil. So it is with great excitement that theatreland welcomes the bewitching Alyson Hannigan, best known as 21st century teen-witch Willow in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, to the London limelight. Matthew Amer caught up with her at the Haymarket, where she is currently starring in When Harry Met Sally…
Before the nose-twitching antics of sexy sixties sorcerer Samantha in Bewitched, the practice of women using magic to change the world around them was generally frowned upon. Their reputation was not helped by their insistence on wearing black a lot and not utilising an effective skin revitalising cream – this often resulted in warts on the end of the nose or, in some extreme circumstances, a green complexion. In more recent years the balance has been redressed with TV shows like Sabrina The Teenage Witch and Charmed showing that witches can work for the power of good too and may even be attractive. But the queen of the 21st century witches is undoubtedly high school computer nerd Willow who, with the rest of the cast of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, has grown into an icon over the last decade. Anyone who has been a teenager, a student, a sci-fi geek or been related to any of the former cannot have failed to chart Alyson Hannigan’s rise to fame in one of the most popular television series of recent years.
"It’s funny and charming and lovely and now I get to be in it.”
Not content with ruling the television schedules, Hannigan launched an assault on the world of film, starring as the flute-loving Michelle in the hugely successful American Pie trilogy which set a trend for gross out teen-comedies when the first film was released in 1999. Now she is branching out yet again and making her West End debut in the stage adaptation of the genre defining romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. The effervescent Hannigan is very excited about this new era in her acting career and the theatre it has taken her to. “It has always been a dream to be able to do a play in the West End. I’ve just always had that fantasy and then this came up, and the Haymarket is just the most beautiful theatre I have ever been to.”
When Harry Met Sally’s original big screen release, with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in the title roles, helped set the tone for a decade in which romantic comedies ruled the cinematic roost. The story of hate at first sight which evolves in to like, and then a little bit more with time, explores themes of love and sex and evokes that warm feeling in the pit of your stomach usually only achieved through drinking molten chocolate, while still providing more laughs than a pack of hyenas at a tickling tournament. Many consider it the definitive romantic comedy and Hannigan already ranks among its fans. “When Harry Met Sally is a film that I loved so much and a part that I was so envious that somebody else got to play – even though I was ‘however’ old when it came out. I adore Sally and I love their relationship. The difference between men and women is something I still can relate to. It’s funny and charming and lovely and now I get to be in it.”
One particular scene from the film version of When Harry Met Sally sticks in the mind of those who have seen it, is known even by those who haven’t seen it and probably still haunts Meg Ryan to this day. The scene in question sees Sally demonstrating the precise art of faking an orgasm in the middle of a packed restaurant, leading one onlooker to utter the immortal words, “I’ll have what she’s having.” As if faking an orgasm in the middle of a packed theatre wasn’t daunting enough, the prospect of recreating one of the great moments of cinema history is a lot to live up to. Hannigan, though, is fairly calm about the task. “I’ve been practising all the time. She’s a different person than I am so I imagine our orgasms would be slightly different, but it will still be funny… I hope!”
"I imagine our orgasms would be slightly different."
Although the play is based on the film, the success of the movie could prove to be a millstone around the neck of the production. Hannigan, whose infectious enthusiasm knows no bounds, does not see this as a problem. “I hope that once they come to the theatre they have already decided that they are willing to overcome the obstacle of ‘well it is not going to be Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal’, because they have bought the tickets and are sitting in the seats. A lot of people have seen Shakespeare on the stage, then they go and see it again with other actors. There are always going to be comparisons when you are doing something that somebody else has done, but at least it is a different form.”
When Harry Met Sally marks the beginning of a new era in Hannigan’s career. The two characters for which she is best known have both run their course as the final episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer appeared in 2003, as did the last instalment of the American Pie Trilogy. The future that lies ahead is one without the ever-present threat of death by demon or finding oneself constantly wrapped up in comic sexual shenanigans. To mark this change Hannigan is doing something which she has never done before, acting professionally on stage. As far as throwing oneself in at the deep end goes, she may well be redesigning the theatrical swimming pool. “I figured if I’m going to do it then I might as well start at the top! If you’re going to go for it, go big, right? I do feel a bit guilty about starting out here. I’m so spoiled, but I’m thrilled.” The fact that it was something she had never done before was partly what originally attracted her to the play. “One of the reasons I wanted to do it was because it terrified me. I think that’s one of the greatest reasons to do stuff, because you are scared of it; overcome that obstacle.”
With a pedigree built on teen television and movies, the cynics will surely be sharpening their knives as the young actress treads the boards for the first time. Again, Hannigan’s enthusiasm for the project seems to override any fear of critics as she sees the project as a personal challenge. “I love to surprise people, but I’m doing this for myself. I’ve got more to prove to myself than I have to prove to other people. If I can take them along for the ride, then great, but I’m doing it really to prove to myself that I can do it, and I want to do it as well as I can.”
"I’m sure I will be throwing up backstage."
Having only been rehearsing for three days when we meet, Hannigan is still full of unbridled excitement at the prospect of acting on the West End stage. But, it is not her first trip to London. Her new husband, Alex Denisof, star of Buffy spin-off Angel, lived in London for over a decade earlier in his career and the couple have been visiting once or twice a year since they first started dating. Even so, Hannigan still has a touch of the kid in a toy shop about her. “It has been wonderful just walking home and being part of London. I just love this place so much. It is incredible that for a short period of time I get to be a ‘Londoner’.” One gets the feeling that she may be spotted leaving the theatre in a button covered suit, eating some jellied eels and doing the Lambeth walk. But we’d love her for it anyway.
Hannigan is not the Duracell bunny – although science has yet to prove this conclusively – so the boundless energy and lust for life must run out at some point. As exciting as making your stage debut in the West End must be, there must also be some nerves that will play their part. “There is definitely worry. I’m sure I will be throwing up backstage at the opening night, but I’ll have plenty of little mints on hand to get that reek out of my breath so Luke doesn’t water up.” I’m sure he will be relieved to hear it…