Charisma Carpenter - Biography & Career
Her story begins on July 23, 1970 in the ultra-hip city of Las Vegas, Nevada. Christened with a name fitting for her flashy birthplace, Charisma admits despising the "absolute curse" of a unique name lifted from an ill-conceived Avon perfume.
"When people first hear my name, because I'm an actress, I get the feeling they don't believe it's my real name or I must be attention-grabbing."
In fact, she goes on to say the misconstructions regarding her name became so hard to deal with, "It took me until I was 13 to go by my real name."
Despite the difficulties adjusting to her name, Charisma's childhood mirrors that of any young girl, well, any girl without "active, outdoorsy brothers and...five wild, Harley-Davidson riding uncles!" Relocating as much as the Carpenter family did during her youth meant Charisma had to make determined choices and live life to the fullest when any new experience crossed her path, something she ascribes to that special flare Las Vegas can imprint on a young child.
"Living my life to the fullest meant performing in local lounge shows, attending a special high school for the performing arts in San Diego (a one-hour commute from out home in Mexico), and, of course, riding motorcycles with my uncles."
This also meant participating in the local beauty pageant circuits during her adolescence. Charisma insists, "I wasn't pushed into it -- it was something I enjoyed doing." Her parents strongly encouraged this interest, but Charisma staunchly denies any strict stage parent insinuations by stating they simply "made sure I enjoyed the experience." During this time Charisma's mother became a great influence.
"My mom never put a bunch of makeup on me or extravagant outfits, even when I was in the pageants...She was into simplicity, and it wasn't about more cheeks, more makeup, bigger hair, big fancy dresses. It was simple, classic."
From the looks of things, one might assume Charisma had a fantasy childhood but she is the first to counter that.
"My childhood wasn't perfect, nobody's is. Everybody has their garbage and their baggage."
Specifically, she notes, Charisma's troubles began in overzealous adolescent excursions which not only left her in trouble at home, as it did the night she stole her father's Corvette for a joyride, but also at school.
"I was constantly in trouble...bad grades, sneaking out, having boys over when my mom wasn't home, etc."
Like everyone, Charisma eventually grew out of the wild streak. What she faced next was a series of moves which would take her from Las Vegas, to Rosarita City in Mexico, and ultimately to San Diego. During this transition period, Charisma matriculated at three different high schools. She initially attended Gorman Catholic High School in Las Vegas, a time she fondly yet comically remembers, "My mom owned a retail store. So I had these hot satin pants. I was like Satan at my all-Christian school."
At 15, her family moved to Mexico, and later to Bonita, California (a suburb of San Diego) where she attended Bonita High School. Finally, she transferred to the Chula Vista School of the Creative and Performing Arts where she graduated circa 1988-89 with an emphasis in classical dance.
"I had a great time in high school," she says, "I certainly had wonderful friends and stuff." There was a downside however, even for this stereotypically popular high school cheerleader, as she confesses some difficulties with fitting in.
"I did have to deal with a lot of preconceived ideas of what I was like also. I was kind of intense. And that was misconstrued often as being snobby, or -- I mean, I was confronted by it before, you know? I guess I'm very pensive and it comes across the wrong way sometimes."
After graduation, Charisma briefly traveled throughout Europe before returning to San Diego in order to begin funding her college education.
"I worked in my dad's San Diego restaurant as a waitress, did property management and clerked at a video store...after doing those 'bread and butter' jobs, I went back to school to study teaching."
Charisma's goal was to teach English once she obtained her degree. In addition to her previous resume, the pursuit of higher education led her into aerobics instruction and a even one-year stint as a San Diego Chargers cheerleader, a self-proclaimed pursuit of cheerleading "to the umph-degree." But regardless of being born in a city seething with show business, and having displayed her talents in the professional arena, a life in front of the camera was not one of Charisma's original goals. The acting bug bit Charisma completely by surprise. "I never really intended to be an actress," notes Charisma. It was during a fateful move to Los Angeles during the riots of 1992, to visit a boyfriend who moved there, that she landed a job waitressing at the Mirabelle restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Needless to say, she was not very good. "I was the waitress from hell," she adds.
After hearing "you should really try acting" for the umpteenth time, Charisma decided to give it a go after being introduced to a commercial agent who patronized the restaurant. Unfortunately, this agent turned out to be "a complete loser," but the experience did not turn out all that badly for Charisma. It was through that agent she learned of the top acting teachers in the state of California, and after researching the subject she chose to audit classes at Playhouse West.
"It is an acting school, and after a while I really got the bug. I took the whole thing very seriously and rehearsed all the time. I read 1500 pages a week, did book reports, just totally did the curriculum."
She finally managed to land a credible theatrical agent and began hitting the audition trail which ultimately landed her in over twenty major commercials, the most memorable being her two year stint as the "Secret antiperspirant" spokeswoman. Charisma enjoys comparing her previous commercial experience to that of her famous yet hectic life brought on by Buffy's immense popularity.
"Being on commercials is funny because no one ever recognizes you. They just come up and say, 'Did I go to school with you or something?' or 'Where do I know you from?'"
Interspersed with her long commercial career are reportedly some theatrical works, including such productions as "No, No Nanette" and "Welcome Home Soldier." Her commercial popularity eventually led to the proverbial big break, an audition on the most popular show in the world, Baywatch. She played Wendie, the object of a young Hobie Buchannon's desire, in the episode entitled "Air Buchannon" which originally aired during the 1994-5 season.
It was this performance which piqued the interest of Aaron Spelling himself, who personally auditioned Charisma for the role of the uber-bitch Ashley Green in his new series venture Malibu Shores. She excelled as the deliciously saucy vixen for the entire run of the short-lived NBC daytime teen drama (March 9 - June 1, 1996) in a performance TV Guide describes as:
"The Shannen Doherty bad-girl role is taken by a sultry stunner, Charisma Carpenter, who in the pilot comes across as the most beguiling and fleshed-out character on-screen."
In fact, Charisma was still committed to the series when the Buffy producers expressed interest in her as a cast member. As fate would have it, Bianca Lawson (who made a mid-season cameo as Kendra) backed out of the opportunity which ultimately fell to Charisma. Interestingly, she was originally auditioned for the role of Buffy Summers, but later the executives felt she would be much more appropriate for the well-to-do snob and Buffy-foil Cordelia Chase. It was a chance Charisma almost missed.
"I was on Malibu Shores and they auditioned me for the pilot of Buffy knowing my commitment...I was an hour and a half late for the screen test because I was on the set of Malibu Shores and I had to drive to Burbank in rush hour! But I guess they were really impressed and liked what I had, and thought I was really mean!"
She recounts the story of being paged by her agent who instructed her to hurry down to the Warner Brothers' studios for the audition. Oddly enough, she directed the agent to pick up pizza and meet her there as she began her hectic journey from the set on Hermosa Beach to the Burbank studios. It was so hectic in fact that Charisma showed up for the audition in flip-flops and overalls.
But she expresses a fond memory of the impact of her audition, "I knocked their socks off, right?" Mirroring that sentiment is Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffy phenomenon, "That's how I remember it." However, Willow's Alyson Hannigan laughingly recalls the true reason Charisma landed her legendary role, "It was really good pizza!"
Despite landing such a sweet role, Charisma initially had serious apprehensions about playing a character so similar to the vitriolic Ashley Green.
"I was a little turned off by the idea of doing another bitch. But my agent put it to me quite frankly, that you have to be known before you can be typecast."
And with that new perspective Charisma re-evaluated her views regarding this brainchild of Joss Whedon.
"When it was brought to my attention who the people involved were, their reputation and the prestige of the project, I just felt that it doesn't really matter what the money's like, or if the character's the same. I should just do it because it would be great experience, and to work with these people would only benefit my career. But it was really interesting to see her come to life on television. I was given the opportunity to play her for the first time and I wasn't stepping into anybody's shoes. I didn't have to be compared!"
What follows is the stuff dreams are made of. Initially created as a temporary character intended to reinforce stereotypes and act as a constant thorn in the Slayer's side, fans surprisingly rallied around her character and demanded more, after which Charisma's character became a regular during the second season. Why such support for this character? Charisma attributes that to her genuine realness, an ability to say what everyone else only dares think, and an intrinsic confidence in herself and her goals, however superficial. Like her or not, she says, Cordelia has a way of endearing herself to even her greatest foe.
"I've had experiences with people like her," mentions Charisma, "When anyone feels threatened, everybody has the ability to project themselves and react in a not-so-pleasant way. That's Cordelia every episode. She's just a person trying to survive, to get through school."
Playing a character like Cordelia is inherently challenging and requires exhaustingly consistent dead-on performances, especially when compounded with the caliber of the show's cast and writing. For Charisma, "dancing always came easy, and acting does not," and many times it requires extra effort to push past that immense pressure.
"I always want to excel in what I do. I always want to do the best. So I don't think there's ever a level you can just say, 'I don't need acting classes anymore.' There is always something to learn."
How does someone like Charisma strive to excel in her portrayal of Cordelia? Her rituals involve staying up all night writing her lines over and over in order to memorize them, participating in intense acting lessons on the most challenging scripts, and even so far as Federal Express-ing her scripts to her agent when out of town for over-the-phone tutoring! Charisma says she works so hard to perfect her role that, at times, "I don't have a social life when I'm working.
"But playing a role too well can have its drawbacks, as any actor who has ever portrayed an evil character can describe. "It bothers me, in a way, because people to tend to confuse reality with fiction," adds Charisma, "And they might think that I'm this awful person, but I'm not." Charisma has been confronted with negative public opinion relating to her bad-girl role. Her response? "I'm a really nice girl," she stresses, going on to note her sincere, warm heart and complete adoration of her dogs. Honestly, how can anyone dislike that?
When not acting, Charisma participates in a variety of physically demanding outdoor activities. Initially keeping up with outdoorsy brothers and riding Harleys as a girl, she evolved into such endeavors as horseback riding, rollerblading, hiking, and rock climbing (which keeps her focused during her off-time). With regards to her rock climbing exploits, Charisma states, "I figure if I could do that, I can do anything." And as a reminder, she keeps a picture of her first climb as a symbol of that adage in her Buffy trailer.
If dangling precariously from sheer mountainsides was not thrill enough, Charisma received the gift of skydiving from a good friend on her 26th birthday. "I completely loved the rush," she remarks, noting after the fact she would have been required to buy the 16 other divers a round of drinks had she not taken the plunge! The rush was too much for one person, and Charisma passed on her exhilaration to Alyson Hannigan, who immediately fell for the idea. Not literally of course, since the WB network caught wind of the young actresses' exploits, and all were required to sign stipulations banning them from life-threatening activities for the 5-year run of their contracts.
As a result, Charisma spends her adventure-free time creatively expressing herself through poetry when she is not entertaining friends, keeping up with her dogs, reading magazines, at Home Depot satiating her desire to constantly better her home, or spending time with her husband (Damien Hardy) and son (Donavan).
So what lies in this talented young lady's future? Perhaps a film or two as she's hinted in the past, noting small independent productions as her favorites. Charisma can currently be seen as Beth Sullivan in Full Moon Entertainment's films, Josh Kirby - Time Warrior Chapter 1, Planet of the Dino-Knights and its sequels, Chapter 2, the Human Pets, and Chapter 6, Last Battle for the Universe, with a yet-to-be-seen small role in The Groomsmen. Additionally, Charisma stars in two broadcast movies - VH-1's "Strange Frequency," and ABC Family's "See Jane Date." And if Joss Whedon gets his way, she may very well reprise her role as Cordelia Chase in a feature Buffy movie. But with a hectic shooting schedule, promotionas, and the responsibilities of a family, Charisma mentions the need to keep her ambition in check, especially with the myriad of opportunities presenting themselves as a result of her Buffy success. "I'm ambitious, but I want balance. And I'm not a tiger and I'm not a barracuda," she remarks, "I know what I have to do to excel, and that is I don't like to be running around to three, four appointments a day."
"I'm not going to get up and do something that I don't feel 100% about. I'm not going to get up and do something half-assed. And if I don't feel like I could get into it or love it, then I'm not going to do it."
Early in her career, Charisma mentioned one of her goals would include ending up "married...with children" in an Andie McDowell-like lifestyle allowing her to live comfortably and happily out of Los Angeles. She's already achieved the "married with children" portion of her dream, and with a new set of projects ahead of her following her depature from Angel, the sky is the limit for this lovely young actress.