Big Man on Campus
After two seasons in the background, Danny Strong finally took the spotlight in his senior year at Sunnydale High
It's about time.
Buffy fans have probably noticed Jonathon 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 Jonathon'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 became the envy of the entire Sunnydale High male population when Cordelia turned to him for consolation in the wake of the evil Mayor's detruction.
:She Jumped into my arm," says Danny Strong, the actor behind the strong, silent Jonathon. "She knows. She knows who's gonna protect her. None of this Buffy s***. Jonathon's the man."
It's a good thing Strong doesn't share the relucant demeanor of his Buffy alter ego, or it would have made for a short interview. Instead, he views Jonathon's recurring role on the show with a healthy dose of self-depriciating humor. "I sorta describe him as the Kenny of Buffy," he jokes, refering 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 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 call back, finally recieved it. It obviously wasn't for Xander, but for a bit part in the show's pilot. Though we first saw Jonathon in "Inca Mummy Girl," his humble 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 that they've been very clever about Jonathon," says Strong. "I know there have been certain episodes where it wasn't even Jonathon. It was just a random student doing something, and they'll have Jonathon do it, to keep the continuity of the world. For them to have turned it into an 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 Jonathon to take on a more active role on Buffy, becoming a centeral part of the show's plotline instead of merely being a witty footnote. He got his wish in "Earshot", where four years of pent up anxienty 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 things to however they're written. Whatever the writing is, that's what the character becomes, as opposed to me trying to force something on to 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 escalading number of parts in other projects, including a second reacurring 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 to slurp 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 expalins. "They don't have to use me if I'm not on hold. Then the sooner it gets, there's always a period of 'are they gonna book me, or not?' There's was only one time so far that they didn't book me, so everytime they've called, they've booked me."
His work on Buffy has also earned him his own small but thriving faction among the Buffy fan populace. As you might expect, there are a few websites devoted to Jonathon, some of them never even mentioning Strong's name but instead devoted solely to the character himself. When Strong appeared in a Los Angeles theater production, a group of Jonathon-philes held a Buffy night and attended the show en masse before joining Strong afterward for some Cokes and a conversation. He's even been approached on the street a few times. As an ardent Twin Peaks devotee, Strong understands the fans' enthusiams. ("I'll meet Mel Gibson and I won't really care, but oh, ther's the Log Lady, and I can't believe it.") In spite of his own acceptance of it, their reaction still occasionally 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 even going to know me, I was so 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 just be a case of fans latching onto a minor character of one of their favorite shows. Or maybe Jonathon is such a captivating figure because he's so mysterious, "a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma," as Strong quips. Then again, fans might just enjoy seeing Jonathon at Sunnydale High, because deep down, they understand the heart of the character too well.
"I think everyone is sorta like Jonathon," theorized Strong. "Either they're like Jonathon, or they're just trying to cover up their Jonathon qualities. Either they're too awkward and shy, or they're doing everything they can not to appear awkward and shy. I'm not really very shy, but I certainly can be awkward sometimes."
After his prominent role in desroying the Mayor and his subsquent liaison with Cordy, it looks like Jonathon might be growing out of his shy awkward stage. Since he was one of the Sunnydale High students to survive graduation day, it's possible that we'll have the chance to find out just how much Jonathon has matured since high school.
:I was told at the wrap party that I was definitely going to college and I was specifically not killed off because of that," say 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, Jonathon has earned the respect 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.
- Matt Springer (Official BtVS magazine)
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is property of the WB, Mutant Enemy and 20th Century Fox.
I am not in any way connected to any of the cast, crew, or management.