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Sarah Michelle Gellar: The second coming

Eight years after pulling up stakes and leaving the small screen, the star is making her return to TV on ”Ringer” — only this time, one leading role just isn’t enough

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Since she was 4, Sarah Michelle Gellar has worked in front of a camera. Commercials and TV movies at first, followed by a two-year, Emmy-winning stint on All My Children, and then seven years on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the prime-time drama that made her an international pop icon and brought her movies like Cruel Intentions and The Grudge. Here on the set of her new thriller Ringer, debuting Sept. 13 on The CW, the 34-year-old actress knocks out her work with a poise and proficiency that only 30 years in the biz can cultivate.

Not a wasted gesture. Every look and glance has a purpose. Nothing breaks her focus. Not the black Versace dress soaking up the hot Los Angeles sun. Not the paparazzi stationed outside the fence of this downtown park location. Not even the absurdly lush eyelashes of her costar Nestor Carbonell (Lost‘s Richard Alpert) can throw Gellar off her game. At least not today. ”Sometimes I look into his eyes and I get so distracted that I forget my dialogue,” says Gellar during a break in shooting. ”And I never forget my dialogue.”

Ringer — a sexy-sinister mystery filled with curveball twists, soapy drama, and two deliciously complex central characters — is a show that requires maximum concentration from its star, even in a scene where she has to play dumb. In this pivotal moment from the third episode, Carbonell’s dogged FBI agent, Victor Machado, is quizzing Gellar’s character — a woman he believes to be a wealthy, unhappily married Manhattan socialite named Siobhan — about her recent erratic behavior. What Victor doesn’t know is that this isn’t Siobhan but Siobhan’s twin sister, Bridget, an ex-stripper who believes that Siobhan is dead (boat accident, there were no other witnesses, very suspicious) and who is now pretending to be Siobhan in order to hide from Victor himself, who is trying to find Bridget so she can testify against a vicious mobster who wants her dead. Siobhan’s life was full of closeted drama thanks to her troubled marriage, and Bridget must figure out all of Siobhan’s secrets to master and maintain her high-stakes masquerade. She must also avoid getting killed by someone trying to murder Siobhan — which brings us back to today’s work, because as part of her effort to subvert this assassin, Bridget had decided to risk exposure by meeting with Victor yet responding dumbly to all his questions.

Oh, and Siobhan actually faked her death and is hiding in Paris. Got it?

For her long-awaited return to series television, Gellar has certainly chosen a creative challenge with an impressive degree of difficulty. A recent day on the job found her performing five different roles: Bridget in a flashback, Siobhan in a flashback, current Siobhan in Paris, current Bridget in New York City, and ”Siobet,” Gellar’s term for Bridget pretending to be Siobhan. (”It was a little bit of a confusing day,” she says with a laugh.) Gellar has also chosen a career vehicle that advances her public image — decidedly adult, not teen — and yet contains the ingredients of her best, most memorable work. ”Ringer is the perfect balance of what audiences want to see me do,” says Gellar. ”It’s Cruel Intentions meets Buffy.”

The CW hopes so. It believes it has one of the new TV season’s buzziest stories in Gellar, as well as a series that can broaden the network’s appeal among viewers (and advertisers) by skewing toward the older end of its 18-to-34 niche. Ringer will follow 90210 on Tuesday nights, but The CW’s new president, Mark Pedowitz, is counting on the Cult of Buffy, not a weak lead-in that averaged 1.8 million viewers last season, to make the show a success. ”It’s all about Sarah Michelle Gellar,” says Pedowitz. ”We thought it was a major get for The CW. She’s a bona fide superstar.”

If Gellar is feeling any pressure, then she wears it as well as the designer dress she’s sporting for today’s scene. Kicking off the ”fancy footwear” that’s pinching her ankles and snacking from a plate of fruit in between shots, Gellar takes time to geek out over her favorite TV shows — Dexter, The Amazing Race, the Real Housewives franchise — and bemoan the death of daytime soaps, the genre that made her famous. ”It breaks my heart,” she says. ”I think there was a way to save the medium, and I just don’t think it was explored enough. And I am sorry, but The Chew? The [talk] show that is replacing All My Children? I don’t think it’ll last.”

A conversation with Gellar can cover a lot of ground very quickly. She’s a speed talker with an even speedier mind; she says she’s never done drugs or even drunk a Red Bull for fear of blowing out her already busybusybusy brain. Gellar has always exuded maturity beyond her years (Ringer co-creator Nicole Snyder sums up the star in a word: savvy), but she seems to have acquired a deeper quality of groundedness since we last knew her on TV. Part of it comes from becoming a mother. In 2009, she gave birth to Charlotte, her daughter with actor Freddie Prinze Jr., her husband of nearly 10 years. (Add Sesame Street to Gellar’s list of must-see TV shows: ”I swear my child isn’t as interested in it as I am. I love it.”) But part of it also comes from feeling so confident in Buffy‘s legacy that she has nothing to prove. ”Ultimately you want to do something in life that people will remember. And with Buffy, I did that,” says Gellar. ”I don’t feel like I need to achieve something. I just do it because it’s fun. And that takes a lot of pressure off.”

For Sarah Michelle Gellar, the road back to television has had more twists and turns than Ringer itself. After staking her last vampire in 2003, Gellar wanted to try movies, but she also needed a break; Buffy had sucked her dry. She wanted to spend more time with Prinze, whom she had met while making I Know What You Did Last Summer in 1997 and wed in 2002. She craved fresh, expanding life experiences. ”I was young. I was newly married. And I had worked like a dog,” she says. ”I just wanted to live and travel.” She fulfilled a long-held dream of living in Tokyo while shooting the horror smash The Grudge, and traveled the globe to promote it. Some less successful creepshows (The Grudge 2) and arty indies followed, most notably the critically drubbed Southland Tales and one of Gellar’s personal faves, The Air I Breathe, starring Forest Whitaker and Andy Garcia.

Eventually, the nomadic lifestyle that goes with making movies lost its appeal. Gellar was also growing disenchanted with the quality of parts coming her way. ”That was a bit of a letdown for me after Buffy,” says Gellar. At first, she explains, ”I thought, The [movie] roles are going to be just like Buffy. You’re not going to get stuck playing ‘the girlfriend’ or ‘the wife,’ you’re going to get these three-dimensional characters. But truthfully, those roles are very rare. It’s a better time for actresses on TV than on film.”

And so Gellar decided to return to television — but not with Ringer. In the spring of 2009, the actress shot an HBO pilot called The Wonderful Maladys, a dramedy about brainy, screwed-up adult siblings set in New York City created by screenwriter Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs). Gellar, who likens the project to HBO’s In Treatment in terms of its erudition and rarefied appeal, says the show wasn’t the right fit for her, and vice versa. ”Charles Randolph is an amazing writer. In the beginning, it was great fun to say the dialogue I would normally never get to say, to be that esoteric and literate. But ultimately we realized that we speak to two different worlds, and it was hard to mix those two different worlds,” says Gellar. ”Maladys spoke to a very, very small demographic. I think I can do something that reaches a broader audience.”

Then came a (baby) bump in the comeback road, though daughter Charlotte was more than welcome. Gellar — who shot the Maladys pilot while pregnant — says it was always her plan to go back to work after six months. When Charlotte arrived, Gellar realized she wanted more time with her little lady. ”I got to see the first step, hear the first word,” she says. ”Most people — and certainly many working moms — are not lucky enough to get that. I wanted to appreciate the fact that I had worked so hard all my life to be able to have those moments. I don’t regret anything about making that choice.”

One of those non-regrets turned out to be Ringer itself. Just after Charlotte was born in the fall of 2009, Gellar received the pilot script for Ringer by the writing team of Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder (Supernatural), whom she knew well. A decade earlier, Gellar had been interested in their (still unproduced) movie script Pampered, about a rich-witchy Paris Hilton type who gets pregnant and has to keep the baby to receive her inheritance. She loved Ringer, but passed due to new motherhood. She got another chance one year later when CBS acquired the project and approached her anew. While she was ready to resume her career, Gellar needed assurances from CBS that Ringer‘s shooting schedule would be organized around her family life instead of the other way around. (For example: weekends off, as much as possible. The actress credits a conversation with another Hollywood mom, The Good Wife star Julianna Margulies, for counsel on how to juggle the demands of parenthood with starring on a TV show.) Just days after Team Ringer finished the pilot, CBS execs notified Gellar and the producers that the show no longer fit into their plans for the new season and asked them to consider a slot on CBS’ sister network, The CW. Everyone, including Gellar, saw the wisdom in the switch. On The CW, Ringer wouldn’t have to generate CSI-like ratings to be a success. On The CW, Gellar’s star power would have more impact. ”CBS is the police-procedural network,” says Ringer exec producer Pam Veasey, who also serves as showrunner for CSI: NY. ”They knew they had a good pilot, but [they] also felt Sarah would just get lost in the CBS world.”

Gellar — who could have walked away — says she took a few days to think through the idea, but didn’t need much convincing. ”Everyone thought I was going to melt down or something over the move,” she says. ”But honestly, we always knew this wasn’t a CBS show. The CW is a better fit. There’s less pressure to do big numbers. And we can do crazy things. I mean, Gossip Girl, they do some craaazy stuff! It just made sense.” And according to The CW’s Mark Pedowitz, Ringer will be free to be as edgy — and adult — as it wants to be. ”It’s a bit darker compared to our other shows. More film noir,” he says. ”The CW is perceived as being a very young network, but we see Ringer broadening our reach within the 18-to-34 niche. My marching orders here were ‘Do not try to change it. Embrace it for what it is.”’

Gellar says she’s settling nicely into her new TV home — especially since it looks a lot like her old one. As one of Ringer‘s coexec producers, she was able to staff the show with crew she knew from Buffy — the camera operator, the costume designer, the hair and makeup team, even the craft services guy. (”It’s all about the coffee and food for me,” she says.) She also wants the set to be a child-friendly zone. Many in the production have young kids; she’s hoping to set up a playroom that all can use. ”She amassed a group of people that have given this show an atmosphere of family that has made it so much easier to hit the ground running,” says Gellar’s costar and onscreen husband Ioan Gruffudd. ”When I first met her, I was tongue-tied. She’s a star, a bloody superstar. Buffy! But she’s so comfortable in her own skin, and that trickles down to everyone here.”

Being Buffy has its benefits, and Gellar and every member of her new TV family are clearly hoping it will bring one more: a big audience willing to give Ringer a chance. Alas, there is one thing Gellar won’t ever be able to bring to Ringer: comfortable footwear. ”Everything is great on this show — except the shoes,” laments the actress. ”Due to the lack of fight scenes, the fancy footwear comes out. It’s really beautiful. But you know, fancy footwear is a pain!” Well, she managed to save the world from the Hellmouth; we’re sure she can manage a pair of stilettos.

Who’s Who on Ringer
A guide to the twisty (and twisted) characters

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Bridget Kelly
The redemption-driven former stripper, prostitute, and addict is on the run from a mobster (Zahn McClarnon) she was set to testify against.

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Siobhan Martin
The socialite stepmom who’s duped Bridget into thinking she’s dead is now lying low in Paris. A mysterious incident drove the twins apart six years ago.

Kristoffer Polaha as Henry Butler
A writer married to Siobhan’s best friend, Gemma (Tara Summers), he was also having an affair with Siobhan. Will Bridget-as-Siobhan fall for him too?

Nestor Carbonell as Victor Machado
The FBI agent is desperate to find Bridget so she can testify against the crime boss. He suspects Siobhan (actually Bridget) is hiding something.

Ioan Gruffudd as Andrew Martin
Siobhan’s wealthy, unhappy hubby brought an unhappy daughter into the marriage. He also has dark secrets (mistress? Biz problems?) of his own.

Mike Colter as Malcolm Ward
Bridget can’t let go of her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor (and possible lover), an egghead whose addiction ruined a promising career.