Inside Joss Whedon’s ‘Cutting’ and ‘Toxic’ World of ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was set at a California high school beset by vampires, demons and toxic mean girls, but it turns out its real-life big bad was the show’s creator, Joss Whedon.

Then in his early 30s, Whedon — who built “Buffy” into one of the most beloved and influential shows of the past 25 years and went on to write and direct 2012’s “The Avengers,” which launched the biggest movie franchise of all time — was heralded for his witty dialogue and wrenching plot twists. But he also scarred his cast of young actors with biting, inappropriate comments that stayed with them for decades.

Interviews that Variety conducted with 11 individuals who worked directly on “Buffy” or “Angel,” or were closely familiar with the productions during their runs on The WB and UPN, painted a portrait of Whedon as a talented, collaborative writer-producer with a pattern of inappropriate, imperious and disparaging behavior toward those who worked for him. Whedon created a “cult of personality” around himself, according to these sources. Those on the inside of Whedon’s circle basked in his attention, praise and friendship; those on the outside got the opposite: scorn, derision and callousness. (Everyone Variety spoke with did so on condition of anonymity, either so they could speak freely or out of concern for their careers.)

Variety also reached out to 40 other actors, writers, producers and directors from “Buffy” and “Angel” — including Sarah Michelle Gellar, Michelle Trachtenberg, Amber Benson, Eliza Dushku, David Boreanaz and Alyson Hannigan — all of whom declined to participate in this story.

Whedon’s tenure on “Buffy” and “Angel” came under scrutiny on Feb. 10 after Charisma Carpenter, who played reformed mean girl Cordelia Chase for three seasons on “Buffy” and four seasons on its spinoff, “Angel,” posted a lengthy statement to social media in which she alleged that Whedon “abused his power on numerous occasions” with her while working on the shows. Carpenter called Whedon “casually cruel” and alleged that after Whedon learned she was pregnant while making “Angel,” he asked her in a closed-door meeting “if I was ‘going to keep it,’ and manipulatively weaponized my womanhood and faith against me. He proceeded to attack my character, mock my religious beliefs, accuse me of sabotaging the show, and then unceremoniously fired me following the season once I gave birth.”

A source who worked with Carpenter when she was on “Buffy” and “Angel” corroborated her story with Variety, saying that Carpenter would often discuss the mistreatment at the time, characterizing it as “very, very bad,” “mean-spirited” and “verbal abuse.”

Whedon declined to comment on Carpenter’s allegations when she first made them, and declined to comment when contacted by Variety for this story.

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Charisma Carpenter and Sarah Michelle Gellar in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Carpenter’s post launched a domino effect of similar allegations against Whedon, establishing an apparent pattern of behavior on the shows. Neither Whedon nor his representatives have responded to any of the social media claims.

Numerous actors and writers from Whedon’s series “Buffy,” “Angel” and “Dollhouse” expressed their support for Carpenter on social media, including stars Gellar, Boreanaz and Dushku, and executive producer Marti Noxon. Benson, who played the shy Wiccan Tara on “Buffy” for three seasons, was one of the first to respond. She posted that the show was a “toxic environment and it starts from the top,” and that “there was a lot of damage done during that time and many of us are still processing it twenty plus years later.” Nicholas Brendon, best known for playing the wisecracking Xander Harris on “Buffy” from 1997 to 2003, was awaiting spinal surgery when he weighed in from his hospital bed, sharing on Facebook that he had experienced “transgressions” with Whedon. “There’s a lot of kindness, but also a lot of not,” Brendon said.

The most troubling statement came from Trachtenberg, who played Buffy’s younger sister, Dawn, on three seasons of the show, starting when she was 15. In an Instagram post, Trachtenberg characterized Whedon’s behavior as “not appropriate.” In a later update to the caption, she alleged there was a “rule” on the set that Whedon was forbidden to be alone in a room with her.

While several high-placed sources who worked on “Buffy” say they were not aware of this rule, a person with direct knowledge of the production at the time confirms to Variety that an effort was made by those around Trachtenberg to ensure the young actor was never alone with Whedon. According to this person, it was due to an improper verbal exchange between Whedon and Trachtenberg.

A representative for Trachtenberg declined to comment.

No one doubts Whedon’s manifest talents as a storyteller, nor his commitment to centering complexly rendered women on his shows when few others were. But as the industry continues to reckon with entrenched power structures that have enabled — and normalized — rampant misconduct, it makes sense that the story of how Whedon treated those around him is resurfacing now.

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Joss Whedon speaks onstage at San Diego Comic-Con in 2018. Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

“Buffy” and “Angel” aired in the late 1990s and early 2000s, long before the #MeToo movement, when the industry more freely abetted on-set misconduct in order to keep top talent happy and working. Hollywood still has a long way to go in ensuring safe and equitable workplaces, but what makes the allegations by the “Buffy” and “Angel” actors especially troubling is that they come on the heels of recent, mounting claims of misbehavior by Whedon. In July 2020, “Justice League” actor Ray Fisher alleged that Whedon acted in a “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” manner on the set of the 2017 superhero movie, comments that were publicly supported by Fisher’s A-list co-stars Gal Gadot (“Wonder Woman”) and Jason Momoa (“Aquaman”). In the middle of WarnerMedia’s investigation into Fisher’s claims, Whedon abruptly departed the sci-fi fantasy series “The Nevers,” which he created and executive produced for HBO. (WarnerMedia, which launched the “Justice League” investigation, is the parent company of HBO.)

Multiple high-placed sources say if there were any complaints about Whedon on the sets of “Buffy” or “Angel,” they never rose to the studio level or became an official matter with human resources. Nor did those who spoke with Variety have knowledge of any payouts or settlements regarding Whedon’s alleged behavior while “Buffy” was in production.

20th Television, the studio behind “Buffy” and “Angel,” declined to comment.

According to sources, after Whedon created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in 1997, he was largely left alone, operating on a tight budget with little oversight, thanks to a steady stream of strong media buzz and rich key-demo ratings. The show shot at a relatively remote location on soundstages in Santa Monica where executives were not regularly roaming around, and the production operated much like an indie film. Insiders say the combination of Whedon’s lack of experience running a television show, the financial pressures of delivering an action-and-effects-heavy hourlong dramedy, a cast largely populated with young and eager actors, and the absence of regular supervision contributed to an environment ripe for a chaotic, highly competitive, toxic workplace. Many people who spoke with Variety described the set as operating like high school, with Whedon making everyone aware of who was in and who was out.

Another major factor contributing to the messy nature of the “Buffy” set: Stories of Whedon engaging in affairs with women working on the show quickly spread, according to three independent sources. As the executive producer and showrunner, Whedon was the boss, including of the women with whom he engaged in relationships. The alleged behavior contributed to a toxic workplace and heightened competition on set, blurring the lines between personal and professional demeanor for the cast — dynamics that continued long after Whedon’s purported affairs ended.

These sources echo allegations made by Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, who in August 2017 wrote in The Wrap that Whedon had engaged in multiple affairs with his actors and co-workers, starting when he was making “Buffy.” According to Cole, Whedon admitted the affairs to her in writing and wrote to her, “I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.” At the time, a spokesperson for Whedon said Cole’s account “includes inaccuracies and misrepresentations.”

“Buffy” and “Angel” had grueling schedules, shooting 22 episodes a season, often at night. Actors requiring elaborate makeup could end up clocking 21-hour days, and shoots sometimes did not wrap until 4 a.m. It was common for production on a Friday to bleed into Saturday morning, wiping out any chance for the cast and crew to enjoy a full weekend off. The practice even had a name: Fraterdays.

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Michelle Trachtenberg, Joss Whedon, and Amber Benson at a launch event for the “Buffy” musical episode cast recording, in 2002. Albert L. Ortega/WireImage/Getty

In that high-pressure production environment, the “Buffy” set was often aggressively adult, with inappropriate and cutting jokes flying behind the scenes. One source with detailed knowledge of the production recalls Trachtenberg’s mother expressing frustration because the set atmosphere was inappropriate for a young teenager.

Whedon was “both feared and idolized” by the actors on the show, says a person who was part of the team overseeing “Buffy” during its run. He could be fulsome with his attention with one of his favorites, and “sharp-tongued” when he was displeased.

For Carpenter, it appears, that dynamic started early. According to an individual who held a top position close to the show in its early years, Whedon was pushed by the network to cast Carpenter on “Buffy,” but he was never a big fan of her work. He’d frequently pick on her, and the source says some writers on the show, following Whedon’s lead, were openly dismissive of Carpenter’s acting skills. Two separate people in high positions related to the show recall internal complaints relating to Carpenter’s tardiness on set that led to production delays and contributed to a general sense of ill feeling for the actor, feelings Whedon weaponized into an environment in which Carpenter wasn’t treated with respect.

The person who worked closely with Carpenter while she starred on “Buffy” and “Angel” recalls the actor frequently describing Whedon as being “mean-spirited” and “verbally abusive” toward her, making it obvious to her that he had favorites — and she was not one of them. “That was his game,” this person says of Whedon. Playing favorites led to simmering animosity among the cast, according to multiple sources, both from the studio and the writers’ room.

One producer says the writers on “Buffy” enjoyed writing for Carpenter’s character. But, the source adds, the attitude around Carpenter grew more hostile after she moved over to “Angel,” where she was ultimately written off the show after her pregnancy.

A spokesperson for Carpenter declined to comment for this story.

Even Whedon’s top star apparently had difficulty with him. Two sources familiar with the production say that fairly early into the show’s run, Gellar had a severed relationship with Whedon, to the extent that she did not want his name spoken around her. That made for awkwardness on set. Although Whedon moved on from being the day-to-day showrunner on “Buffy” in 2001, he was still the overall executive producer, and was writing and directing episodes until the series ended in 2003.

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Sarah Michelle Gellar and Joss Whedon on the set of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” with the cast in the background. Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

After Carpenter’s allegations of Whedon’s cruelty, Gellar made a statement on Instagram that read, in part, “While I am proud to have my name associated with Buffy Summers, I don’t want to be forever associated with the name Joss Whedon.” She continued, “I stand with all survivors of abuse and am proud of them for speaking out.”

A representative for Gellar did not respond to Variety‘s request for comment on this story.

A common refrain about Whedon is that his idea of a good joke entailed being biting and downright nasty. “It was not fun to be on the butt end of his humor,” says one source.

Nell Scovell, creator of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” experienced Whedon’s inappropriate humor early during “Buffy’s” run. In 1998, when she was pregnant and two weeks from her due date, she met with Whedon and “Buffy” executive producer David Greenwalt for a possible writing job. As Scovell relates in her 2018 memoir, “Buffy” was her favorite television show, so she took the meeting. She writes that Joss “took one look at me and said, ‘Boy, are you fat.’ I laughed so hard, I thought I was going to have the baby. David Greenwalt followed up by asking, ‘Should I put down a tarp?'” Scovell did not get the job. (Greenwalt did not respond to a request for comment.)

“‘Casually cruel’ is a perfect way of describing Joss,” Jose Molina, who was a writer on Whedon’s short-lived, much-loved sci-fi series “Firefly” in 2002 and 2003, posted on Twitter on Feb. 12. “He thought being mean was funny. Making female writers cry during a notes session was especially hysterical. He actually liked to boast about the time he made one writer cry twice in one meeting.”

Scovell and Molina both declined Variety‘s requests to comment further.

While those working under Whedon weathered his mercurial behavior, the powers that be above him viewed him as a collaborative employee — a charming producer who understood budgets and never complained about doing press to promote his shows. There is a general sense among those who spoke with Variety that Whedon knew how to “manage up,” and acted differently toward those he worked for versus those who worked for him. All of the sources were emphatic that they believe the women and men who have come forward.

The allegations against Whedon are especially troubling given his public persona as an outspoken feminist. “He created this girl-power character with Buffy Summers that women rallied around,” says a person who worked on “Buffy.” “Finally, we got to see a woman kicking ass. It was a great role model for women and girls. That was the space that he was proud to occupy and really pioneered. The idea that he had this darker side is creepy and upsetting — and hard to square with, given his work.”

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Whedon in 2014 on the set of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” with Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner. Disney/Courtesy Everett Collection

When “The Avengers” debuted in 2012 with the highest opening weekend of all time, Whedon’s career hit its highest peak, and he began working with a new echelon of actors — Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo among them — whose clout far exceeded his own. After Whedon wrote and directed 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which was also a monster hit, Warner Bros. essentially poached him to make a Batgirl movie, then enlisted him to save what the studio believed to be the troubled production of its own superhero team-up movie, “Justice League.”

That was the beginning of a steep career downturn from which Whedon has never really recovered. He took the reins of “Justice League” from Zack Snyder, who, after effectively shooting most of the film, left the production due to creative differences with the studio and to cope with a family tragedy. Whedon reportedly rewrote and re-shot roughly 75% of Snyder’s work; the resulting film was panned by critics and underperformed (given its budget and marketing costs) at the box office, losing many millions for the studio. In Feb. 2018, he announced he was no longer making “Batgirl.”

Then, in the summer of 2020, Fisher’s allegations hit.

While Whedon has stayed quiet about what happened on “Justice League,” its stars have not. Gadot recently confirmed to Variety that she had been interviewed for the WarnerMedia investigation. In another interview with the Los Angeles Times, the “Wonder Woman” star said she endured her own “experience” with Whedon, which she said “wasn’t the best”; while she didn’t elaborate further, she said she brought the issue to high-ranking executives at the studio.

A representative for Gadot was not available for further comment.

In her post in February, Carpenter said she also spoke to the “Justice League” investigators and decided to finally come forward about her experiences with Whedon in order to support Fisher.

In December, WarnerMedia announced the investigation had concluded and that “remedial action has been taken.” A month earlier, Whedon announced he was leaving “The Nevers,” which is set to premiere in April without his involvement. Whedon cited the pressures of production during the pandemic as the reason for his departure; HBO executives have said “no complaints” were made about Whedon before his exit.

Fisher, however, claimed on social media that Whedon’s departure was “undoubtedly” due to the investigation.

WarnerMedia has not commented on the nature of the “remedial action,” and Fisher has not made the details of his allegations about Whedon’s on-set behavior public.

Whedon, meanwhile, has no announced projects. His agency, CAA, declined to comment.

To date, Whedon has said nothing about the proliferating allegations against him. Several people who spoke with Variety expressed a keen interest in how Whedon will respond. And more importantly, how those who have been hurt by him will heal.

Kate Aurthur and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.