“Everybody else passed,” Sarah Michelle Gellar laughs when speaking about how she came on board for Wolf Pack, a brand new teen genre series launching on Paramount+ this January.
She’s joking of course (who would pass on SMG?!) – in fact, what really comes across about Gellar when we see her at a launch event for the series is that not only does she have a keen wit, but that she’s really passionate about her latest project.
“There were a lot of factors [about signing up for Wolf Pack],” she expands. “Initially when they sent it, I didn’t have any intention of reading it. My team said to me, ‘you really need to read this’ and I was like ‘I don’t do wolves’. They said that Jeff is a really talented writer and maybe you guys should meet and you could find something to do together. So I said: ‘Okay, I’m a fan. I love Teen Wolf!’.”
Indeed, Wolf Pack’s creator, Jeff Davis is no stranger to wolves, having created the hugely successful Teen Wolf series that ran for six seasons (and a movie too!). Though he was hesitant to do another werewolf show, the source material it’s based on (Edo van Belkom’s book series of the same) pulled him in.
“This studio gave me the books and said ‘we’re making this and you’re going to write it!’” he laughs. “Actually, MGM, who owned the rights to Teen Wolf, were trying to get me to do a reboot but I wasn’t really that enthusiastic about doing a reboot of Teen Wolf with a whole new cast. Then they said, ‘well, we have this book series that we’re buying…’ So that was the jumping off point. There are a lot of significant differences [to the series] but it was a great guide and I thank it very much for the inspiration.”
The first episode starts when a school bus full of teenagers gets stuck during a wildfire. When the teens try to escape, they’re hunted down and bitten by something driven from the local woods. The wildfire is from the opening of the book and it struck a chord with Davis of an image he’d had in his head for a while.
“I had been thinking about an idea that I’d had, which was inspired by the image of the 405 freeway on fire with all the cars driving past it in California,” he remembers. “It was just an indelible image in my head and I thought ‘okay, what if there’s a bus sitting on that, stuck in traffic? And what if there are teenagers inside, what if they’re told not to go anywhere and had to stay? And then something came out of the woods…’
“The book started with a wildfire and it was four kids who were all part of the same pack. They’re all cubs in the beginning and during a wildfire the park ranger finds them and they turn human when he brings them home to his wife.”
For Davis, this new project was a chance to bring together this image with his desire to write something a little more personal.
“In order for me to sit down and write another teenage werewolf show I had to make this personal and what’s personal to me right now and [thinking] what’s actually going on the heads in the heads of young people right now? It’s anxiety – a lot of anxiety from the pandemic. I’ve dealt with anxiety myself in my own life. So that was a big factor for the show for me and I wanted to write about that.
“I also wanted to write about the disconnect happening between people because of technology and the question of whether or not teenagers could still find their pack, despite all the technological disconnection.”
Those inspirations and guides must have worked because once Gellar read the script for that first episode, she was hooked. “I read the first episode and was like ‘okay, can I get another one?’. I found myself really drawn into it. And I do think the timing was particularly right.
“One of the main reasons I loved Buffy was we used those demons as the manifestation of the horrors of adolescence; all those things that you have to deal with as an adolescent, the hormones, the first love, coming out to your parents, whatever those moments were. Jeff uses the horrors of this to represent what we’re facing now. Anxiety, isolation, the whole idea of technology and I’ve said this before that as we’re becoming more and more digitally connected, we’re becoming more and more emotionally disconnected.
“We’re missing moments because we’re so busy filming them, we’re not having them. What does that effect have on teenagers? I also think coming out of the pandemic, you look at things so differently, specifically about your pack. In the pandemic, we referred to it as your pod, but your pod is essentially your pack. If it wasn’t for my pack during that time, emotionally, I wouldn’t have made it through.
“So I think it hit me on all of those levels. Then you add into it this whole idea of a fire. The last 405 fire that [Jeff] is referring to that inspired him – I live by it and at two in the morning my family was woken up by sirens saying you have 10 minutes to evacuate. Grab your belongings and leave. As we’re driving away from our family home and you see these flames coming over the ridge, it hits you so differently because you start to really think about why this is happening? What are we doing? What are we doing to our planet? What is it doing to the animal kingdom? So it resonated on all of those levels.”
Gellar plays Kristin Ramsey in the series, an arson investigator who seems to know a little more than she’s letting on. For Gellar, the mystery around the character was enticing… “I think with a lot of the characters that I’ve played from the moment you meet them, whether that’s a large character or even the headmaster in Do Revenge, you know exactly who that character is. This was complicated because you don’t know who she is or why she’s there. But I knew – Sarah knew – and so then I had to play this character who has a reason for being here and is motivated by something extremely personal and specific. But you can’t know it and then later when you do know it, you need to be able to go back and go ‘oh, she knows something’. That’s something I hadn’t tackled yet.”
Gellar isn’t only starring in the show, she’s an executive producer too and though that title can mean a variety of things, for Gellar, it was important that she was fully part of the show.
“It was extremely important [to be an executive producer],” she nods. “It was one of the first things that I said to Jeff. I said I can’t do it otherwise and you have to understand that this isn’t a vanity title that I’m looking for.
“When you love a project, it goes through so many hands. You read the script that you love, that you want to make, and then you start filming and there are notes and then there are edits and then there are test audiences and a lot of times the project that you set out to make becomes something entirely different and it’s not what your performance was. It wasn’t what you were trying to say.
“So part of the reason for taking that role is to be able to protect the material, and be able to be on those calls and say ‘hold on, this is the show that I’m making, if you’re making something else, we’re not here together’.
“This business has changed a lot since I was younger, a lot of it for the good. But the way to continue that is to learn from the past and be able to create situations where people can thrive and that’s by having a set that’s communicative, that’s collaborative, where voices are heard. Specifically as an actor, a lot of times we’re told, ‘go to set, show up, say your lines’, like you’re replaceable. So you’re afraid to say anything. Nobody wants to be the person to make waves but a lot of times you have something really large to contribute and I wanted it to be a place where that contribution was not only heard, but rewarded.”
Being in the business since she was a child (she was spotted in a restaurant in her native New York at four years old), Gellar’s experience was certainly an asset on the show, not just in the creative decisions, but with the young cast too.
“It was a huge advantage to us [to have Sarah Michelle Gellar on board] because when I did Teen Wolf, we had adult actors, but not many of them had grown up in Hollywood, like Sarah had, and to have that influence on the other actors, these young kids… This is the first big break for many of them. That’s a huge advantage to have someone they can turn to and talk to and have someone I can talk to and say ‘hey, can you talk to one of the kids, it looks like they’re struggling’.”
Speaking of the next generation of young actors, Gellar explains that with the advance of technology and social media, young actors have a lot more jobs that they have to juggle these days. “There’s a pressure that’s different,” she nods. “When you add social media into the mix… social media is a full time job. To create content, to have it be artistic, to have it be entertaining, be interesting and to have it be something that someone’s going to click into and either buy or join or follow. That’s a lot of work.
“So these kids are now holding down the biggest jobs of their lives and they’re also asked upon to create this content. There’s a lot going on, and I don’t think that used to happen. You could just focus on your work. I think it’s harder now.”
Gellar’s return to teen genre TV since Buffy The Vampire has been warmly welcomed among genre fans and so plenty of you will be pleased to know that Gellar’s performance as Ramsey harks back to her iconic Slayer role, as Davis explains. “There was a couple of scenes on the show when we were shooting and there was this moment where Sarah pops up from behind this fence with a gun (it’s in the trailer) and I said: ‘Oh shit. We didn’t just get Sarah Michelle Gellar. We got THAT Sarah Michelle Gellar!’”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s influence has lived on far longer than its seven-season run and Gellar says she wishes she knew all the reasons for that (“because I could bottle that and make everything be that success!”). However, she’s certainly pleased that it has and explains that genre really is a space where you can explore important topics
“As an actor you hope what you do resonates and means something and you hope it stands the test of time. That test of time is getting harder and harder because we’re looking at shows through such a different lens. But I think the beauty of Buffy was she represented every single one of us, whether it was a girl experiencing her first love, whether it was someone coming out to their parents. Whatever that emotion was, there was something that resonated for everybody and to make the full parallel, that to me is what [Wolf Pack] represents.”
After the chaos of the wildfire, young Blake (Bella Shepard) and Everett (Armani Jackson) are inexplicably drawn to each other and to two other teenagers (Harlan, played by Tyler Lawrence Gray and Luna, played by Chloe Rose Robertson) who were adopted 16 years earlier by a park ranger after another mysterious wildfire. As the full moon rises, all four come together to unravel the secret that connects them.
For Gellar, the various troubles that the four teens are going through echoes Buffy’s themes. Themes that have never been more important since the Covid pandemic.
“[In Wolf Pack] Everett’s dealing with this huge anxiety that his parents don’t think is real, and you have Bella’s character who is a luddite, who wants no technology. Well, guess what? That’s not the answer, because that is how we connect. That’s how we learn. Tyler’s character really is that boy trying to become a man separating from the parent and you have Chloe’s character who doesn’t have a pack, which is somebody that I can really relate to, how isolating it has to feel.
“I’ve never been someone that’s isolated. I’m a people person, I like talking to people, but being in the pandemic and not being able to see friends for two years, not being able to hug them… all of that really affected me deeply. Every one of us has a part of these characters and I think that’s what ultimately makes something successful. It’s not the monster. It’s not the witty dialogue. It’s ‘does this mean something to me?’
“What I really realised in the last couple of weeks is that supernatural really does allow you to tell the most superhuman stories because life’s really freakin’ hard right now!”
Wolf Pack will be released on 27 January, exclusively on Paramount+