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There's life after 'Dexter' for Julie Benz

It's a good thing Julie Benz is a self-described workaholic. In addition to recently completing two independent films, the Pittsburgh-born actress is in the middle of a four-episode arc on "Desperate Housewives" and has "Uncorked," a sunny romantic comedy on Hallmark Channel, on tap for March 6. Not bad for someone whose popular character on Showtime's "Dexter" was snuffed by a serial killer in December.

Then again, on-screen death never has stopped Benz, who made her first big-time splash as a dramatic actress playing Darla, a va-va-voom vampire on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel."

She isn't allowed to reveal much about Robin, the stripper whom Susan Delfino (Teri Hatcher) takes under her wing on "Housewives" (Sunday at 9 p.m., ABC/7), but says working on the hit series had her feeling a little star-struck herself.

"I had a moment recently where I was working with the whole cast, and I got so engrossed in watching Teri Hatcher and James Denton work and thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, I can't believe I'm here!' that I completely forgot to come in for my cue. It was like I was home watching them on TV."

She completed "Uncorked," in which she plays a high-powered executive named Johnny, who falls for a handsome widower (Scott Elrod), during her last hiatus from "Dexter." She made "Uncorked" in a calculated move to do something more lighthearted and family-oriented than the dark Showtime drama.

"I wanted to do this so badly because I had worked with Hallmark before, and I knew first of all it was going to be something that everyone in my family could see. Not all of them can sit down and watch 'Dexter.' Either they can't stomach it, or they don't have Showtime, or it's just too adult for them.

"Johnny is very similar to me in that we are both workaholics, so I relate to her on many levels," she says of the driven character she plays in the TV movie. "I love to work. Home for me is working. That's where I thrive, so I can understand a character loving work as much as she does. Unlike her, I have a family that keeps me balanced, so that's why she loses herself in her work."

Benz couldn't have known it at the time, but her day job on "Dexter" had a nasty surprise waiting for her in season four: Her loving but emotionally fragile character, Rita Morgan - wife of the title character, played by Michael C. Hall - was murdered by the Trinity Killer (guest star John Lithgow) in the gut-wrenching season finale.

Benz and her castmates - including Hall and his on-camera sister / off-camera wife, Jennifer Carpenter - weren't told that Rita would die until a couple of days before the final scenes were shot. Benz still sounds a little shaky when she talks about that on-camera demise.

"No one was expecting it. I loved working on that show, and I just didn't see it coming," she says. "After I got over the shock of, you know, just losing my job and looked at it from a storytelling perspective, it's quite a great story. It was shocking, and it definitely had the impact they wanted. No one else they could have killed on the show would have had that impact.

"Rita was the vessel through which the audience could love Dexter. By killing that, it's a risky choice. Obviously they have Debra [Carpenter's character], and the audience can love Dexter through her as well, but Rita really gave the audience permission to fall in love with Dexter. That's why it was so [gutsy] for them to do that."

And she knows acting careers sometimes take unexpected, yet happy, zigzags. She credits "Buffy" and "Angel" creator Joss Whedon with reinventing her as a dramatic actress when he plucked her from relative obscurity on sitcoms to play Darla, who "sired" the soulful, bloodsucking character played by David Boreanaz.

"Joss Whedon's belief that I was talented enough to play Darla really gave me the shot at being a dramatic actress that no one else was giving me . . . during that point in my career," she says. "It sparked a whole different interest in me as an actor."

Partly because of her happy experiences with "Desperate Housewives" and "Uncorked," Benz hopes to get back into comedy, she says.

"That's something that really interests me, so I'm looking at a lot of comedies right now," she says. "The right show will come along. I am totally Zen about that. I'm just reading a lot of scripts, but I'm a lot pickier now. It's like the second time you get married. You know what you want."

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