Many TV actors are justly accused of simply playing themselves (as if that's an easy assignment), and certainly the best TV writers tailor their long-running characters to their actors' strengths and weaknesses over the years. But Alyson Hannigan, who plays Willow, the lovable Wiccan sidekick to the title heroine of the often brilliant horror/comedy series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, seemed to me at first glance to be a performer as awkward and confused as her character. She was immediately compelling and sympathetic, but it didn't seem to be a performance per se. I had to watch more and figure it out.
It's usually meant as a compliment when we say that an actor doesn't seem to be acting at all. In Hannigan's case, at times it doesn't look so much like acting as play-acting: She frowns when she's peeved or sad, stammers or flails with her hands when she's nervous, smiles when she's triumphant, raises an eyebrow when she's making a point, scrunches her brow when she's thinking… you get the picture. In other words, Willow is obvious and subtext-free, right?
Wrong. As with many things on Buffy, Hannigan's performance isn't what it seemed at first. For one, she has added shades and contours to Willow while fielding the many curveballs the writers have thrown her way (a werewolf boyfriend, an evil vampire twin, a lesbian love interest). More importantly, the alert, unaffected enthusiasm of her acting—from her first major part as a jittery teen in My Stepmother Is an Alien to her small, scene-stealing geek role in American Pie—is perfectly suited to the uniquely fraught teen landscape that is Buffy. Call it cartoon naturalism—the way Hannigan, opposite the show's crackerjack ensemble cast, so authentically embodies the discomfort, ambivalence, self-involved theatrics, and awed epiphanies of post-adolescence. As the show has moved past high school into college, and into ever stranger and darker territory, the wide-eyed, redheaded Hannigan—who sometimes suggests a young Shirley MacLaine via Sara Gilbert—remains the strongest link to one of the show's original themes, established so well in the first few seasons, of average kids in extraordinary circumstances.
Hannigan's approach is arrived at honestly from her background as the daughter of print ad photographers; she grew up in front of cameras, which would explain her preternatural comfort on screen. It doesn't as easily explain the craft she developed this way—that's where talent and artistry come in—but it offers a clue to her appeal, and to my puzzled first impression. In short, Hannigan has absorbed the best lessons of the child actor—direct access to emotions, youthful curiosity, hunger for expression, a sense of play—and applied them judiciously to the quasi-adult situations and challenges of the Buffy world. She's made Willow more than just the heroine's mousy sidekick, another thankless Velma, and turned her into a quintessential liminal child/adult, with all the growing pains and stolen joys of youth's last chapters. For this slowly wooed Willow fan, that's as real as it gets.