Waiting for Willow

Publication: Science Fiction World

Alyson Hannigan signs autographs
Alyson Hannigan signs autographs

Willow? She’s the geeky one in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, right? The Net girl?

Not any more. When actress Alyson Hannigan hit town to promote a new Buffy video box set her nerdy image was fast disappearing. Even without Hannigan’s flute-wielding antics in American Pie, audiences had just been treated to the season three Buffy episode The Wish, which featured Willow as a vampire in a horrific alternative reality.

The chillingly seductive sadist in black leather with the hypnotic sing-song voice and the gruesome line in torture electrified the fans’ bulletin boards. BBC-heads, seeing the characterisation for the first time, went wild. Sky regulars, a season ahead of them and finally able to discuss it without revealing unpardonable spoilers, gleefully joined in. It was the perfect time for Hannigan to visit.

The attention now lavished on Alyson Hannigan is the pay-off for a career that began as a child actor in Atlanta, Georgia, advertising chocolate cookies, hamburgers, and adventure parks. At the tender age of 11 she moved to Los Angeles in search of the classic big break into movies: two years later she found it as Dan Ackroyd’s daughter in My Stepmother is an Alien. Guest spots followed on a variety of television shows, most unknown to a UK audience but including Roseanne.

When the pilot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was shot and pitched to the networks, she was not in it: another actress had been chosen for the role of Willow. But the shy scholar who would become Buffy’s friend and confidant was clearly miscast, and Hannigan took the role over, making it her own. Audiences related to her portrayal of Willow as a smart, funny, and loyal social misfit with an ease that wasn’t possible with the almost-superhuman Buffy. Now, with the fifth season of the show being scripted, she is one of its cornerstones – with the fans to match.

tight schedule

The result of this was a queue at the Piccadilly Virgin Megastore that started to form fully 10 hours before her planned arrival. By 3pm, with just two hours to go, the queue was half way around the block and had reached the back entrance through which she was to be spirited in unobtrusively. A sign said that due to her tight schedule, Hannigan would not be signing anything other than the box set. This did not bode well for the fan carrying an inflatable sheep, already liberally coated with autographs.

The head of the queue moved downstairs at 4.45pm, when Hannigan was still tied up with interviews and nowhere to be seen. Later the dedicated queuers were to complain of anything up to 100 people being allowed to cut in front of those who waited outside for hours. Whether or not this happened, it was certainly true that three teenage girls, of the type who would have looked down their noses at Willow Rosenberg were they fellow pupils at Sunnydale High, came through for autographs very early on. They could not have been in the queue outside for long because they had been hanging around the signing table with exaggerated looks of innocence until they were thrown out ten minutes before the start.

Sparky and animated, but small and underfed
Sparky and animated, but small and underfed

Finally Hannigan and her entourage of PRs arrived. She was sparky and animated but looked small and underfed in a green cardi and jeans, her hair held back by a plastic Alice band. The whole look, voice, and body language was very different from the Willow of the videos she was promoting – much more grown up and confident. Where Willow is the perpetual sidekick, Hannigan was the centre of attention and comfortable with it. A strange little mannerism developed as she spoke to people, consisting of a dip of the head and a simultaneous hunching of the shoulders – not dissimilar to a tortoise suddenly pulling its head into its shell. This, combined with a wide-eyed “who me?” smile, acted to give the impression that she was permanently surprised that people would wish to meet her. But she handled the attention like a pro, and that told a different story.

“One item per person please ladies and gentlemen, quick as you can please,” called the head of security repeatedly. No-one took the slightest notice, including Hannigan. The inflatable sheep and its shepherd finally reached the head of the queue, she spotted the smiley face of her signature already on it from a previous encounter, shrieked with astonished laughter, and posed for a photo with it. For everyone who passed by she had a broad grin and some friendly words – all got more than a perfunctory sign-and-move-on. Some brought cards and presents, which were greeted with unforced cries of surprise and pleasure. One well-wisher’s card read: “Dear Alyson, I am a very big Willow fan. I hope you are enjoying England – well, probably not the food.” Another fan brought a note for her to pass on to Seth Green, her co-star in Buffy and My Stepmother is an Alien. Many people got several items signed and a photograph posed for. Each new person was greeted as if they were old friends who’d unexpectedly dropped by. In quick succession she met a grandmother, a heavily tattooed woman in her 20s, and a small child. She gathered a small gaggle of teenage girls together for a group photo and as they left they burst into tears, as if they’d just met the latest boy band. The queue advanced slowly. Too slowly. It soon became clear that not everyone would get in.

ripple of excitement

Nevertheless a ripple of excitement spread through the back-up team – the store had sold out of box sets. All 400 had gone. Little did they know that some of the people who failed to get theirs signed, or were deft enough to substitute a poster or photo for the box set when they reached the signing table, would later take them back for a refund. Most had ideas for where they could buy one cheaper instead.

Serial fan David Hodgson, from Victoria, had arrived at 7am to make sure of another photo of himself with another star. “I’ve been kissed, cuddled, and hugged by all the top celebrities,” he said. During his own acting days he had charged £5 for his own autograph, having played an Ewok in Return of the Jedi. He was also an extra in Notting Hill but is now on crutches and living on disability benefit. “I’m a film buff,” he said. “I go to all the signings and I love my celebrities. I have a few thousand photographs at home of me with celebrities.” Among the photos he had brought with him were ones of himself with Robin Williams, Steve Martin – and Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, who he had ambushed at 1am outside trendy restaurant the Ivy.

His tips for success, as someone who’s seen signing sessions from both sides, are: “Just be polite to them. And have a lot of patience and time.” He said the fan business had changed over the years: “One time, you’d meet a celebrity and they would be pleased to meet their fans. Now it’s changing because I think there’s too many places selling autographs. A lot of celebrities won’t do anything any more. A lot of the young celebrities are charging £20 or £30. A lot of people can’t afford it. It’s getting like people who are well-to-do are meeting the stars and people who are not are missing out.”

Another early arrival was Jola Stencel, 29, a regular on the Stakehouse posting board at www.buffyuk.org, whose place in the queue was assured from 8am. She said: “I came to meet Alyson and add another autograph to the Buffy collection – it’s growing, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s is on its way.” She expected to add James Marsters (Spike) and Tony Head (Giles) at the Nocturnal fan event the following weekend. To her the programme is “fantastic. It takes you away from the humdrum of ordinary life. You get to kick ass, but on the telly. It’s like reliving your youth”.

favourite character

Fan Paul Gullis came from Oxford because: “I really love the show and Alyson is my favourite character.” He said: “You’re never going to get to see her otherwise. You generally know lots of people from the chat rooms. Once you get talking in the queue you tend to realise you’ve spoken to them there. Everyone’s going to Nocturnal.”

Among the very last in the queue for signatures were Kath and Miranda Tennant, whose dad Keith had driven them down from Preston, Lancashire. He said: “It’s absolutely amazing, we’ve been queuing since 12 o’clock. I’m surprised at the mix of people – teenagers and adults and youngsters.” Clutching their autographs, his daughters agreed it had been worth the wait. “She’s amazing,” said Kath. “She’s beautiful,” said Miranda.

When everyone was through from the signing line they let the rest in for a quick handshake. And “quick” was the word. Fans descended the stairs, turned the corner, and saw Hannigan in front of them. Almost before they had time to say “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, it’s her,” they were being propelled forward, their hand was being shaken and they were on their way, with a “Hi, it’s nice to meet you, sorry it’s so quick,” echoing in their ears. A gift-giver was moved on so fast that she almost had to throw her present onto the signing table. On a couple of occasions people were hustled away as Hannigan was trying to talk to them – it was the only point in the session when she looked less than thrilled.

Finally everyone was through (or so it seemed) and she retreated out the back surrounded by the PRs. No-one spotted a little girl and her mother who had been the last people in the queue and, hanging back from nervousness, had missed their chance. Slowly the child crumpled with silent tears. It was horrible to watch.

Afterwards, opinion was mixed. Many fans were just grateful for the opportunity to meet her, no matter how briefly. Others, more experienced in signings, criticised the organisation at Virgin, the time allotted for the session, and the rule forcing fans to buy expensive video box sets with no guarantee that they would be signed. There was more criticism, too, for The Big Breakfast and This Morning the next day, which both interviewed Hannigan on Euro 2000 football, co-star David Boreanaz and, indeed, almost every subject imaginable except herself.

But one area where there was no criticism was the star herself. Many went to the event as Buffy fans and left as Hannigan groupies. It bodes well for the future of the actor who used to advertise hamburgers, but is now famed for her stakes.