Does that mean she's practicing in the meantime? "No, you know what? Rita's just going to sound like me," she says. "It's not like they're asking me to be a phenomenal singer; it's, like, a singing along to the radio kind of thing. It's totally embarrassing for me to have to sing in public. But Rita likes to rock out a little bit."
And who can blame her? For the past three seasons, Benz's Rita has been on a whiplash-inducing emotional roller coaster, evolving from damaged doormat to iron-willed survivor. "She started out as this very fragile woman and has managed to grow self-esteem through the love of a serial killer," says Benz, chuckling. "Unbeknownst to her, of course."
Recently, Benz—who also stars in the Lifetime movie Held Hostage, premiering July 19—took a break from shooting Dexter's highly anticipated fourth season to chat about connecting to characters, auditioning, and the joys of finally being liberated from false eyelashes.
Back Stage: How much input do you have on Dexter? Do you ever offer up suggestions for the character?
Julie Benz: I don't give much input into the character, because I really feel that they've tailored the role to me. I feel that our writers are very intuitive. They're very much in tune with who I am as an actress and what I do, and they pretty much write the role for me. As far as plot points and stuff, I like being in the dark—I'm probably one of the few actors that doesn't ask, "So what's in store for the new season?" I love getting the scripts. They were handing out new scripts last week on set. Oh my God, I raced over and grabbed mine! It's very exciting.
Back Stage: The writers have really put Rita through a lot. As an actor, how do you connect to her?
Benz: This is a character I can relate to on many levels. In Season 2, when Dexter had an affair, I think that's something we can all relate to: We can all relate to being rejected in some way by someone we care about. The majority of my work, the majority of how I approach Rita, is I really just try to be as relaxed as possible and work off of Michael.
This last season, when he proposes to me, I had no plan on how I was going to react to that. Right when we started to rehearse it, I got filled with all this emotion, thinking about the journey this woman's been through and then to have this man that she loves so much propose. It was so overwhelming; magic happened. It was one of those moments where I keyed right into Michael and really listened to what he was saying. Even though he stole the speech from a psycho killer, it doesn't matter! I didn't know that! [Laughs] I think that's what makes her so lovable: She doesn't know these things. She bought the speech.
Back Stage: I understand you really fought to play this character. What was your audition process like?
Benz: It was long. In the very beginning, I pre-read for the casting director. I know so many actors won't pre-read, but I loved the script so much, I was like, "Of course." They originally had me read for the role of Rita and for the role of [Dexter's tough, foulmouthed sister] Debra. In the very, very beginning, I thought I was Debra. I just wanted to swear on TV—this woman gets to say "fuck"! I was totally excited about it. And it was just like shoving a square peg into a round hole. This was not a fit at all. I worked my ass off on that character, and with Rita, I really didn't have to work at anything. With Rita, I just was and am. I could just be. It felt too easy, in many ways.
Then they had to go through the process of auditioning for casting directors and producers and producers again. I tested for it, and Showtime thought that I look too pulled together to play this damaged woman and struggling mother of two. So after my test, I got a call from my manager, who said, "We just got the funniest note for you. They want you to come back with no makeup on, not looking attractive." I went back the next day, and they didn't even recognize me. Our director at the time thought I was wearing a prosthetic. I was like, "Do I really look that awful without makeup on?" [Laughs.] But it was so refreshing. Season 1, I had a five-minute hair and makeup call. For the first time, I knew what it was like to be a guy. It was great: taking that mask off and just being able to be this raw, real woman. I had come from working on the WB, where when you're on your deathbed you have false lashes and lip gloss. It was a relief in many ways to strip all that away and not to have to worry about that.
Back Stage: Speaking of the WB, here's a final, silly question. Rita is so different from Darla, the vampire you played on Buffy and Angel. What do you suppose Darla would think of Dexter?
Benz: I think she'd kill him. [Laughs.] No contest. She's a vampire! She's got superpowers! She would just suck the blood right out of him. She might turn him into a vampire: He'd be a fun playmate for her. And then he might kill her.