By David Martindale
Yancy Butler, the leading lady of Witchblade often claims she is NOT the star of the show. "I'm in most of the scenes," she concedes, "only because the real star happens to be worn on my wrist." That's a good, self-effacing line from an actress who's a lot funnier than the characters she tends to play. But who's kidding whom? The Witchblade -- a bracelet that morphs into a metal claw and allows its wearer to combat evil -- is just a prop. A really cool prop, that's true. But it's no match for star power of the woman who wields it. Butler is in her second season as Sara Pezzini, an NYPD detective who, thanks to the Witchblade, has become a dark, modern-day Wonder Woman. Last year, Witchblade built a devoted cult following, drawing more than 35 million viewers during its 11-week run on TNT. And even though Butler might beg to differ, she deserves much of the credit.
"Yancy is particularly well-suited for this role," executive producer Ralph Hemecker says, "not only because she is a truly gifted and beautiful actress, but also because she's very athletic and physical. She manages to portray a strength and toughness and, at the same time, a real vulnerability, which is at the core of Sara."
That isn't to say that Butler, 32, is the spitting image of the Sara Pezzini who first appeared in Witchblade comic books, the source material for this series. The comic-book Sara, Butler notes, is a ridiculously proportioned female -- "which I am not, thank God!" But the New York-born actress has everything else it takes to be believable as a tough cop and sexy superhero. It's partly that smoky voice of hers, which "makes everything I say, even if I have no clue, sound like a voice of authority." But mostly it's Butler's full-on commitment to making Sara seem "real" and relatable in the midst of far-out plots, over-the-top action and splashy special effects. "The feedback from fans has been amazing, which I can say with an exhale of relief," Butler says. "I was worried how these die-hard fans, who have been living with (the comic book) Sara Pezzini for three or four years, would react. But the response has been one of excitement."
Before she auditioned in 1999, Butler had never seen the Witchblade comic books. But sometimes, she says, ignorance is an asset. "I went in to test for the role and THEN checked out the comic book for the first time," she says. "And when I saw the character, my reaction was, 'Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into?'" But when production for the two-hour series pilot got under way, it quickly became apparent, to Butler's joy, that it would have a less "cartoony" look. "It's not very realistic to have an NYPD homicide detective running down the street in a metal bra," Butler jokes. "If somebody were anatomically built like the girl we see in the comic, she would just somersault down the street, because she's so top-heavy."
It's worth noting that many sci-fi fans were familiar with Butler before Witchblade, thanks to her starring role in a futuristic cop show called Mann & Machine (1992). In that, her first series, she played Eve Edison, a beautiful cyborg detective paired with a technophobic human partner. "As nervous as I was about playing Sara Pezzini," Butler recalls, "I was even more self-conscious about Eve. Because here I was trying to embody everyone's idea of the perfect woman. And let me tell you, when you start from a place like that, you can't go anywhere but down." The show was short-lived, but she has had a contingent of loyal "M&M" heads ever since. She subsequently starred in South Beach, a 1993 crime drama, and Brooklyn South, a 1997-98 cop drama. In feature films, she starred opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target (1993) and with Wesley Snipes in Drop Zone (1994). The best role she failed to get, she says, was in Jurassic Park -- "but I was too young for it at the time."
Of all of these projects, she says Witchblade is easily her favorite. "We're working 16-hour days and it's hard getting up at 4:30, but it's not quite as hard when you're doing work that you love," Butler says. "And it's such a great show. It really is. I feel I've hit my personal best with this. I'm having the time of my life."
David Martindale is a columnist and contributing editor for Biography magazine.