Sarah Michelle Gellar kicks off her big return to acting with "Do Revenge"

In her first sizable role since Robin Williams' death, Gellar gives a wink to "BTVS" and "Cruel Intentions"

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published September 22, 2022 6:00PM (EDT)

Sarah Michelle Gellar as ‘The Headmaster’ in "Do Revenge" (Kim Simms/Netflix)
Sarah Michelle Gellar as ‘The Headmaster’ in "Do Revenge" (Kim Simms/Netflix)

Early in the pandemic, we went through the entire run of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" at home, my child and partner having their first-ever experience with the series. 

While watching "Do Revenge," the new Netflix film which features the vampire slayer herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, along with the charismatic Maya Hawke of "Stranger Things," Camila Mendes of "Riverdale" and an all too-brief appearance by Sophie Turner, my tween walked into the room. Taking the opportunity to call-back to our Buffy binge, I told him that the star of "Buffy" is in this film about high schoolers. Scanning the screen eagerly he asked, "Which student is she?"

Nope. She's the Headmaster. Gellar is back in school but this time, she's in charge.

Buffy is forever. Kind of. As more and more revelations about the alleged abusive behavior of the TV adaptation's creator, Joss Whedon, have been made public, it's hard to view the show in exactly the same way. But its central character, reluctant tamer of dark forces and avid wearer of leather pants, Buffy Summers, is timeless.

It's hard to get out of Sunnydale. It's harder to avoid typecasting.

Except time moves on. And it did without Gellar. Despite early roles in successful films like "Cruel Intentions," "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "The Grudge," some of Gellar's movies did not do so well. Remember "The Return" or "Simply Irresistible"? Maybe not. Most of her parts, even in "Scooby-Doo," were horror-tinged or scary-adjacent, further and forever linking her with the Hellmouth. It's hard to get out of Sunnydale. It's harder to avoid typecasting. 

In 2013, 10 years after the series finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Gellar starred alongside Robin Williams in a David E. Kelly series called "The Crazy Ones." That series was canceled after only a year. It would be the great Williams' last role. In August 2014, Williams, who it was later revealed had Lewy Body Dementia, died by suicide. And everything changed for Gellar. She told People, "I just said, 'I need to take a break' . . . I need to be here for these early formative years of my kids' life . . . I needed that break to be the parent that I wanted to be."

Do RevengeCamila Mendes as Drea and Sarah Michelle Gellar as 'The Headmaster' in "Do Revenge" (Kim Simms/Netflix)Eight years have gone by, and Gellar is back. And importantly, she's back in a role that is different enough from her previous ones as to make it feel fresh; but similar in ways that hearken back to her role as the slayer in "Buffy" and Kathryn Merteuil in "Cruel Intentions."

"Do Revenge" seems like the clear heir to Amy Heckerling's "Clueless," though it was apparently based more on Alfred Hitchcock's film "Strangers on a Train" with Patricia Highsmith's original novel thrown in for seasoning ("The Price of Salt," get it?). In "Do Revenge," high schoolers at a tony, private school, Drea (Mendes) and Eleanor (Hawke) become unlikely allies when they swear a pact to get revenge on each other's enemies. It's a difficult movie to summarize because it's actually much more twisty than that. 

"Channel that anger into getting what you want," she advises, like a girlboss cross stitch.

What isn't complicated is Gellar's role. As the Headmaster at Rosehill Country Day School, Gellar's character goes only by her title. In her first appearance, she spins around and takes a beat as if to say, yeah we know. We know this entrance is a stunner. We know Gellar looks fantastic in the Headmaster's pure white power suits, understated jewelry and neutral heels. Her office wouldn't be out of place in "Emily in Paris" with its elaborate, gold curlicued desk and bone-colored couches. She has a bar cart in her office with a china tea service on top and what appears pretty much to be whisky on the lower shelf. Her fresh flowers are white. 

TV Tropes describes this monochromatic touch as "The Rich Have White Stuff," playing upon the archaic idea that only the very wealthy could afford to keep their clothes and possessions pristine. Having briefly taught high school, I can't think of a worse color for school furniture, but in a world where the uniforms look like sherbet-colored outfits from "Madeline," why not? 

Do RevengeMaya Hawke as Eleanor in "Do Revenge" (Kim Simms/Netflix)And no one would dare mess up this Headmaster's couch or her suit. She doesn't have a hair or jewel out of place when she strides into the kitchen of a school function in a satin pantsuit with a bowed train on the back like a unicorn tail, or shines a flashlight into a greenhouse, "X-Files"-style. She prunes her bonsai tree when she's "especially vexed." She hates being wrong. 

The Headmaster manages to be an authority figure who commands not only respect, but adoration. She's aloof but still aspirational, more glamorous than Miss Minchin or my personal favorite, Katherine Brooke of "Anne of Green Gables." She makes school administration look cool. Sexy. And easy. 

The Headmaster only directly talks with scholarship student Drea, both reprimanding, advising and showing her grudging admiration for the girl. Although the Headmaster's background is not delved into, it is clear that they have both survived. "Channel that anger into getting what you want," she advises, like a girlboss cross stitch.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, "Do Revenge" director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson says she wrote Gellar's Headmaster role with her previous one as Kathryn in "Cruel Intentions" very much in mind.

"I just heard her and sat there and literally thought about Kathryn from 'Cruel Intentions,'" Robinson said to EW. "Like, if she was the headmaster of the school, what advice would she give?" 

Gellar does a lot with very little, the part (created for her with her input) more cameo than character. But what a cameo it is. And the film, which gives us phrases certain to live on in campy history like "revenge mommy," also gives dark humor to the Headmaster. She muses on her gift for nurturing young talent: "Well, maybe not directly nurture, but, you know, I can see it, and then I delegate the nurturing."

Gellar was always the strongest in offbeat comedy like this, flashes of humor that made her Buffy role one for the ages, no matter what Whedon did or does. Perhaps this will herald a new era for her; she has a lead role on the Paramount+ show "Wolf Pack," where she will also executive produce, something she has learned to do with her projects in order to have more control. Perhaps she will speak openly about the past (or perhaps not; as she told The New York Times: "I don't win by telling my stories, emotionally, for me. I look at people that tell their stories, and I'm so impressed. But in this world where people get torn apart, and victim blaming and shaming, I just keep my stories in here."). But Gellar is here in our high school again, battle-hardened, grown.

"We all have hard truths to contend with," the Headmaster counsels Drea, and Gellar could be advising her younger self too.

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

MORE FROM Alison Stine

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Do Revenge Film Netflix Sarah Michelle Gellar Streaming