Everyone behind the counter smiles and waves when Alyson Hannigan walks into a Brentwood teahouse. A regular, she orders without much looking at the menu, though she does confer briefly on the right number of tapioca balls for her mint drink.
It is easy to imagine smiles following almost everywhere the refreshingly at-ease Hannigan goes. This past spring saw the series finale of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the popular television show on which she appeared for its entire seven seasons, and she is now at work promoting the third and (everyone says) final film in the successful “American Pie” comedies. In her work on both projects she has created characters that are quirky, funny and, perhaps most of all, as seemingly likable and relatable as people audiences might actually know. Additionally, both characters -- Willow on “Buffy” and Michelle in the “American Pie” trilogy -- have undergone transformations from geeky outcasts to centered, self-aware young women, changes that seem in no small part inspired by Hannigan’s own personal development.
Having been on “Buffy” since she was 22, the now 29-year-old Hannigan has gone through the identity struggles of the young adult years on-camera and has emerged with a newfound well of confidence and inner strength.
“I definitely feel it,” she says, having settled into a back booth to sip on her drink. “This past press junket -- and what a strange way to realize how I’ve progressed -- but this junket really showed me how different I am now, how much more OK I am with myself and that I’m just hitting my stride.
“I’ve just gotten to a better place with myself. It’s a gradual process. And I’m going to start to sound like a hippie in a second, but I just hit my groove with that sort of spiritual work, as it were. And it’s the work I’m doing personally that’s now coming through in my professional life.”
Apart from the vitality she exudes in person, it’s also difficult not to discuss Hannigan’s off-screen life in that while promoting her on-screen role as a bride in “American Wedding” she is engaged to actor Alexis Denisof, a cast member on “Angel,” another series in creator Joss Whedon’s “Buffyverse.”
Besides the frequent shouts from photographers at press events to flash her engagement ring, Hannigan says there isn’t much crossover between the two nuptials, as she didn’t borrow many ideas from “Wedding.”
“I’ve never really wanted a big, traditional wedding. I’m excited to have been a part of one for the movie and go through it that way, but I want a more natural, fun, not-black-tie kind of thing. It’s going to express who we are as a couple; it’s going to be unique and wonderful.”
Though reluctant to give any indication of exactly when she’ll be heading down the aisle, Hannigan does allow, “We are in the midst of planning. And, man, is it stressful. I can clearly see a fork in the road, of you can just eat, sleep and drink wedding from here until then and be consumed by it. Two times I woke up in the middle of the night with some panicked thought, and I’ve realized I do not want to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about my wedding -- although I’m very excited about the cake tasting. I can’t wait for that. I love cake.
“But really it’s not the wedding I’m excited about; it’s the marriage. The wedding, obviously, is the ceremony and the celebration of the marriage, so we are excited, but I don’t want to put all my eggs into the wedding basket. It would be like Christmas when you’re done opening all your presents.”
All three of the “American Pie” films were shot while Hannigan was simultaneously in production on “Buffy.” Although she says it was never difficult to keep the characters straight, the days could nevertheless be long, and she credits the production teams behind both projects with making the back-and-forth possible.
“The hardest day was during the second movie. We shot the trumpet scene” -- that would be the one where Hannigan’s character and her male partner make, um, sweet music together -- “on a Sunday night, and we worked all though the night, and I drove straight to the ‘Buffy’ set. I slept in my trailer for a couple hours before going to hair and makeup and then shooting a 15-hour day. By the end of it, I’d had a 27-hour day.”
In person Hannigan’s features seem softer, more rounded, than they do on screen, but with her bright, expressive eyes and habit of curling the side of her mouth back in a halting half-grin, there is no mistaking who she is.
One can only imagine, given the intensity of the fan base for both her best-known efforts, that she gets recognized often. Is there a difference between “Buffy” fans and “American Pie” fans?
“It’s usually easy to see just in the way they approach me,” she responds. “ ‘Buffy’ fans know my name and are really sincere and articulate in how they talk about the show. You can feel the work has touched them in some way or that my character has helped them in their life. You walk away from a fan experience like that and just feel so proud to have been a part of something that could have been such a part of people’s lives.
“And with ‘American Pie’ it’s more, ‘Where’s your flute?’ ” she says, alluding to the infamous one-liner that revealed the sexual being behind her character’s band-geek exterior. “So it’s not as meaningful. It’s just, ‘Hey, band camp’ and obnoxious. And it always comes in waves. The ‘Buffy’ fans are a constant, but ‘American Pie’ has more to do with when a movie is coming out, or it’s there but not as abundantly every day.”
Having wrapped up such a significant, career-defining hunk of work in recent months, Hannigan sees herself at something of a crossroads, as her next steps will go far in determining her identity away from the projects she has long been associated with. Describing her professional life at the moment, she says, “I’m taking a bunch of meetings, and I’m being particularly cautious. It is important for me to do something right now that I’m passionate about, and I am paying more attention to this part of the process than I have before. There’s more strategy involved than I ever realized.
“When I was doing the show, there were only 2 1/2 months of vacation, and if I wanted to do a movie, I had to fit it in, unless both parties could work around each other. It’s easy to get into a panic situation and end up in a [bad] movie you later regret doing. I don’t want to do that anymore.”
“With this movie coming out, I feel I have a safety net where I won’t just immediately disappear into oblivion.”