The ''Buffy'' alum talks about his upcoming arc on ''Without a Trace,'' acting alongside Oscar winners Hilary Swank and Kathy Bates, and if we'll ever see him as Spike again

By Vanessa Juarez
Updated August 27, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
James Marsters: Steve Ross / Capital Pictures / Retna

James Marsters has a theory about showbiz: ”I keep meeting people that are really, really good and they keep being really cool. If you can’t get along with people, is it possible to get up to the top echelons?” In other words, if you’re socially inept, you ain’t getting anywhere in Hollywood. And Marsters, who’s best known for playing the immortal Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel, should be in the know, considering he’s been getting around quite a bit himself lately: The 45-year-old has a five-episode arc on Without a Trace coming up, a role in Richard LaGravenese’s dramedy P.S. I Love You (out Dec. 21), and a new solo record he’s working on. We caught up with Marsters to talk about those projects — and to ask if there’s any chance he’d revisit the bleached-blond look to play Spike again.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you? I hear it’s your birthday.
You want to sing me a song? Just kidding.

You want to sing me a song? Mine was yesterday.
Well… [Sings] Happy birthday to you… Happy birthday to you… Happy birthday, Vanessa… Happy birthday to you. Okay, my turn.

[Singing] Happy Birthday to you… Happy Birthday to you… Happy Birthday, deaaaar…

…Jaaaaames. I couldn’t decide on whether to go with your last name or not.
[Laughs] Right on.

So I wanted to talk to you about life and things that are going on in your career, specifically Without a Trace. How’d that come about?
It was an audition like many others. Interestingly, I met Nick Brendon [who played Xander on Buffy] in the waiting room for the audition and we caught up. I’m sure he was both happy and not happy that I got the role. There’s been 100 roles that I’ve auditioned for that I didn’t get, but I didn’t see Nick. The one that I meet Nick on, I beat him out of the role. So I think he’s probably in the process of forgiving me for that.

What’s your character like?
I play Detective Mars. He’s from Baltimore and he has been working on a case for a good while and hasn’t been able to crack it. The FBI in New York [on] that same case call him in to help. And then, in dramatic fashion, they stumble into something bigger than they expected.

You’ve been pretty busy since Buffy. What have these various experiences been like?
It was a love fest over on [TNT’s Holly Hunter series] Saving Grace — I walked into a Woodstock. Everyone was coming off of having filmed a fabulous pilot and being very proud of that and really loving the experience. You have to check when they’re on episode 20, see how they’re doing, if they’re still feeling the love. I’ve had some difficult ends of seasons for sure. I was in luck, I got on [for the] first episode.

What was the cast like?
I was totally outclassed by Holly Hunter. I have gotten used to being one of the older actors in a young cast. [She’s] probably younger than I am, but just better. [Laughs] So effortlessly herself. I hopefully took some notes. That was a rude eye-opening but also a wonderful thing, you know: ”Keep walking, brother, you’re not quite there yet.”

Any chance you’ll be back?
Well, [my character] killed somebody, so unless…

I haven’t actually seen the episode, to tell you the truth.
I played a character named Dudley, man. And if you’re in a cop show and your name is Dudley, you have one episode. You can’t count on more than that.

You also have a role in Richard LaGravenese’s P.S., I Love You, with Gerard Butler and Hillary Swank.
Yeah, Hilary… Again — outclassed, man. Hilary is…just no filter at all. She really is that nice. I play the best friend of Hilary’s husband [Butler], who dies of cancer but finds a way to help his wife get through the mourning process even though he’s dead. Not a large role, but a nice little role, actually. And the entire cast was just outrageous.

Anyone stand out?
Kathy Bates. Really fabulous and so incredibly good it makes me nervous. [They] were filming…a very emotional scene for like 11 hours, and then they finally turned around to us and it was 2 o’clock in the morning. Kathy is sick — she’s got like a fever — and she turns around to us and goes, ”Okay, guys, this is what separates the men from the boys… You ready?? She said it like a drill sergeant. I was in heaven because that’s what I’ve been saying to younger actors for years. When times get tough, I go, ”All right, we’re going to find out who can act — ready?” I [thought], ”I’ll follow you to the end of the Earth.” And she liked my videogame when I let her play my PSP. It was a car race game, Need for Speed. She has a quality that all of my favorite people have: There is a child still left in her and it’s very well protected by an adult in her as well. You wouldn’t want to mess with her at all. But there’s something about her that can have fun very easily, and that’s just gold.

What are you watching on TV right now?
I like the Science Channel, the Discovery Channel, I like Discovery Times, which is a fabulous hybrid of the New York Times and Discovery Channel. Maybe I’m just an old man, but I like to watch that stuff. I think truth is weirder than fiction. As far as fiction, not so much, which is really ridiculous because that’s what I’m trying to make my money in.

Well, you have to have a reprieve from what’s going on in your career.
Yeah, but my manager gets really frustrated sometimes.

NEXT PAGE: Marsters on why he thinks Joss Whedon ”never really got into” Spike — and the cast he McDreams about joining

There have been rumors about a Spike spin-off. What can you tell us about that?
Joss came to me as Angel was coming down and asked me if I would be interested in that, and I said, ”Heck yeah, I’d love to work with you anytime, call me — I’ll come across the Earth for you.” But to do Spike, let’s do him [before] seven years [go by], because otherwise, I’m going to get too old and vampires don’t age. Frankly, I think I’m looking a little better than I thought I would, and with a decent screen test we could find out if it was still possible. It has to be believable.

[But] I don’t think the character of Spike really sparked Joss’ imagination. I think that he was designed to be a throwaway character that got popular with the fans. Personally, he never really got into him. Every character on the show was a version of Joss, but Joss didn’t see Spike that way. Spike was the other guy. He was the guy who might mess up the show, actually, because vampires are supposed to be ugly and hated.

What about Angel?
Angel was an exception too, but Angel wasn’t Joss’ idea and I think by the time I came on, he was afraid that these good-looking vampires were going to take over the theme. So whenever Joss would write an episode, Spike would have, like, five lines. [Laughs] That’s fine. I mean, the man gave me a job and he’s a great guy and everything. What Joss has said is that he’s done with television.

Any chance he’d take any of the Buffy characters to the big screen?
I think the only thing he wants to take to the big screen would be Buffy herself, and I don’t think Sarah [Michelle Gellar] is interested. But you know, I can’t talk for her. As far as Spike, there was some interest about a year and a half ago, but it fell apart right away.

So what’s after Without a Trace — is there anything else you’d like to be in?
What’s the show that my good friend, Marti Noxon, who used to head up Buffy, is heading up this year? Oh God, it’s such a popular show. You know, with Dr. Dreamy…

Grey’s Anatomy?
Yeah, Grey’s Anatomy! They called me in to talk to me last year, so I went down to the Television Academy and watched five episodes, and that was so great. I would love to do that show. I think that show has a wit and a sparkle that just bubbles from underneath. I’d love to do House. I think everybody would like to do House right now.

Is your band Ghost of the Robot still together?
No, you know, we just got a little tiny bit famous. But some of the people…were probably too young for that experience.

What was your sound?
The thing I loved about that band is that we had a sound that I hadn’t heard before. We had a pop-rock sound [that] was kind of like Jimmy Eat World but with more complex chord progressions. So the band broke up while we were recording our second album. We did very well. We sold like 60,000 copies of the first album, we toured all around the world, sold out everywhere we went.

Who were you guys signed with?
We weren’t signed with anybody — we sold all of our records over the Internet and kept all of that money, which is nice. There were a couple of record companies that came to us, but the kind of contracts they were putting in front of us were just ridiculous. So I went solo after that. And it was just me and my guitar going out on the road, which was very scary in the beginning. I just got back [from] playing Jersey and Wales. I’ve toured all through England, and I’m working on another album right now. I’ve got 20 songs [that] I’m paring down to 12.

So, for the short-term: What are you doing for your birthday?
I’m shooting a fabulous TV show called Without a Trace. [Laughs] I’m going to try and save the world from horrible people, and I’m going to draw my gun manfully.

Hopefully you’ll get a cake, at least.
I hope not. It’s so funny when they do the cake thing on the set because they don’t have time for cake. The EP doesn’t get a cake on his birthday.