Official BtVS Magazine #5 - Big Man on Campus (Fall 1999)
After two seasons in the background, Danny Strong finally took the spotlight in his senior year at Sunnydale High
by Matt Springer
It's about time.
Buffy fans have probably notices Jonathan in the halls, in class and at the cafeteria since early in the second season. Whether a suspect in some potentially evil plot or the seductee of an Incan mummy girl, he's only been visible in the background. This year has been Jonathan's moment to shine, though it didn't start out that way. In the fall, he was still an unwitting victim of abuse, offered as a mock potential boy toy to Cordelia in "The Wish". But by graduation, he was showing off his action hero side by helping stop the Mayor's plot to much his classmates like so many magic spiders. His greatest moment on the show came after that final battle, as he becaome the envy of the entire Sunnydale High male population when Cordelia turned to him for consolation in the wake of the evil Mayor's destruction.
"She jumped into my arms," says Danny Strong, the actor behind the strong, silent Jonathan. "She knows. She knows who's gonna protect her. None of this Buffy s---. Jonathan's the man."
It's a good thing Strong doesn't share the reluctant demeanor of his Buffy alter ego, or it would have made for a short interview. Instead, he views Jonathan's recurring role on the show with a healthy dose of self-depricating humor. "I sorta described him as the Kenny of Buffy," he jokes, referring to the endlessly muffled South Park kid. "That's kinda how I see it. Except that he never dies. [He's] the Kenny that never dies."
Few fans realize that Strong's Buffy acting career actually began long before the show hit the television airwaves. He initially auditioned for the role of Xander, and after waiting a few months for a callback, finally received it. It obviously wasn't for Xander, but for a bit part in the show's [unaired] pilot. Though we first saw Jonathan in 'Inca Mummy Girl', his humbel beginnings are actually in this pilot episode as a nameless 'Student' with a single line. His clever way with a few words must have captivated the show's writers, because he was brought back for another cameo and has been roaming the halls of Sunnydale High ever since.
"I think they've been very clever about Jonathan," says Strong. "I know there have been certain episodes where it wasn't even Jonathan. It was just some random student doing something, and they'll have Jonathan do it, to keep the continuity of the world. For them to have turned it into this ongoing thing was really clever."
His appearances have been as unexpected as they are numerous. Whenever you least expect to see him, he's been there, the ultimate clever inside joke for regular viewers and a witty distraction from the business of slaying and saving the world. But by the show's third season, Strong was ready for Jonathan to take on a more active role on Buffy, becoming a central part of the show's plotlines instead of merely a witty footnote. He got his wish in "Earshot," where four years' worth of pent-up anxiety over his place in the shadows unleashed itself in an attempted suicide narrowly prevented by Buffy.
"That episode was the one I had the most fun doing, because I had the most to do," says Strong. "It was a matter of me needing to be part of the storyline and not just a gimmick. For me as an actor, I just felt that way. I just approach thins to however they're written. Whatever the writing is, that's what the character becomes, as opposed to me trying to force something onto it. After 'Earshot,' it kinda changes things. It was neat that it just started to happen."
Along with his early rise to prominence as an actor on Buffy came an escalating number of parts on other projects, including a second recurring television role on Clueless. As his career picked up, it became harder to squeeze in any time to share a cafeteria line with Willow or slurp on a Big Gulp with a disaffected stare. But Strong has always been available to return to Sunnydale when needed.
"What they'll do is call my agents and put me on hold for a certain number of dates," he explains. "They don't have to use me if I'm on hold. Then the sooner it gets, there's always this period of 'are they gonna book me, or not.' There was actually only one time so far that they didn't book me, so every time they've called, they've booked me."
His work on Buffy has also earned him his own small but thriving faction among the Buffy populace. As you might expect, there are a few websites devoted to Jonathan, some of them never even mentioning Strong's name but instead solely devoted to the character himself. When Strong appeared in a Los Angeles theatre production, a group of Jonathan-piles held a Buffy night and attended the show en masses before joining Strong afterward for some Cokes and coversation. He's even been approached on the street a few times. As an ardent Twin peaks devotee, Strong understands the fans' enthusiasm ("I'll meet Mel Gibson and I won't really care, but oh, there's the Log Lady, and I can't believe it". In spite of his own acceptance of it, their reaction still ocassionally blows him away.
"They had a big party last year that they invited me to, and I showed up," he recalls. "I didn't know if anyone was gonna even know me; I was nervous about it. I figured I'd probably be sitting in the corner, drinking by myself the whole night. And I was overwhelmed by their response. I signed hundreds of autographs and took so many pictures. I felt like a Beatle for a night. And I knew the second I walked out the door, it was all over. That was a fun two hours of fame."
Such a powerful fan reaction is an ironic twist for an actor who is known for portraying such a low-key character. Perhaps it could be just a case of fans latching onto a minor detail of one of their favorite shows. Or maybe Jonathan is such a captivating figure because he's so mysterious, "a riddle wrapped inside a myster inside an enigma," as Strong quips. Then again, fans might just enjoy seeing Jonathan at Sunnydale High, because deep down, they understand the heart of his character all too well.
"I think everyone is sorta like Jonathan," theorizes Strong. "Either they're like Jonathan, or they're just trying to cover up their Jonathan qualities. Either they're awkward and shy, or they're doing everything they can to not appear awkward and shy. I'm not really very shy, but I certainly can be awkward at times."
After his prominent role in destroying the Mayor and subsequent liasion with Cordy, it looks like Jonathan might be growing out of his shy and awkward stage. Since he was one of the Sunnydale High students who managed to survive graduation day, it's possible that we'll have the chance to find out just how much Jonathan has matured since high school.
"I was told at the wrap party that I was definitely going to college and I was specificially not killed off because of that," says Strong. "However, I haven't heard from them yet, so who knows. I would love to do it, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for them as writers and the world they've created, so if it doesn't fit in with what they're doing, then it's too bad for me, but I respect that."
At last, Jonathan has earned the credit he deserves alongside Giles, Willow and Oz as a vital component of the Sunnydale High vamp-slaying community. If the clues left to us in 'Graduation Day, Part 2' pan out, he could someday find himself in an even more integral role. After all, there are worse spots to occupy in the world of Buffy than as a crying post for Cordelia Chase. Just ask Xander.