Gellar received widespread recognition for her portrayal of Buffy Summers on the WB series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), which earned her five Teen Choice Awards, a Saturn Award and a Golden Globe Award nomination. The character was widely popular during the airing of the show and became recognized as one of the greatest female characters in U.S. television. Gellar also gained significant attention for her appearances in the slasher movies I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Scream 2 (1997), and for her portrayal of Kathryn Merteuil in Cruel Intentions (1999). She appeared as Daphne Blake in Scooby-Doo (2002), her biggest live action commercial success.
In 2015, Gellar co-founded Foodstirs alongside Galit Laibow and Greg Fleishman. It is a food crafting brand and e-commerce startup selling baking kits for children.
Gellar was born on Long Island. She is the only child of Rosellen (née Greenfield), a nursery school teacher, and Arthur Gellar, a garment worker. Both of her parents were Jewish, though Gellar's family also had a Christmas tree during her childhood. In 1984, when she was seven, her parents divorced and she was raised by her mother on the city's Upper East Side. While growing up with her mother, she lost contact with her father, from whom she remained estranged until his death in 2001; she once described him as "non-existent", and in the early 2000s, she stated: "My father, you can just say, is not in the picture. I'm not being deliberately evasive about him, it's just that there's so little to say." Besides being a working child at the time, Gellar was a competitive figure skater, finishing in third place at a New York State regional competition. She also placed fourth at a Tae Kwon Do competition at Madison Square Garden (she was a black belt).
Gellar was given a partial scholarship to study at the Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School, as her mother was not able to pay full tuition, for which she was constantly bullied. She said in an interview with The Independent: "I was different and that's the one thing you can't be at school, because you're ostracised. I didn't have the money these kids had". Gellar was not present in class for most of the time at the school as she had to work in several acting projects simultaneously, recalling that she "had more absences in the first month than you're supposed to have for an entire year. I was telling them that I had back problems and had to go to the doctor the whole time". Gellar then briefly attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, but dropped out due to acting obligations; the teachers threatened to fail her because of her constant absence from classes as she was busy going to auditions, despite earning good grades. Gellar graduated from the Professional Children's School, in 1994 as a "straight A" student with a 4.0 grade average. As Gellar spent significant time working on All My Children while "trying to graduate", the majority of her senior year was completed through guided study.
At the age of four, she was spotted by an agent in a restaurant in Upper Manhattan. Two weeks later, she auditioned for a part in the television film An Invasion of Privacy, with Valerie Harper, Carol Kane and Jeff Daniels. At the audition, Gellar read both her own lines and those of Harper, impressing the directors enough to cast her in the role. The film aired on CBS in January 1983. She subsequently appeared in a controversial television commercial for Burger King, in which her character criticized McDonald's and claimed to eat only at Burger King. The ad led to a lawsuit by McDonald's, naming Gellar and banning her from eating at the food chain; she recalled in a 2004 interview: "I wasn’t allowed to eat there. It was tough because, when you’re a little kid, McDonald’s is where all your friends have their birthday parties, so I missed out on a lot of apple pies." While growing up, Gellar also worked as a model for Wilhemina and acted in numerous television commercials.
During the 1980s, Gellar played minor roles in the films Over the Brooklyn Bridge (1984), Funny Farm (1988) and High Stakes (1989), and also guest starred in various television series, such as Spenser: For Hire and Crossbow. At the age of nine, she appeared alongside Matthew Broderick and Eric Stoltz in the Broadway production The Widow Claire. She served briefly as a co-host of the teen girl talk show Girl Talk, which aired in 1989.
In 1991, she was cast as a young Jacqueline Bouvier in A Woman Named Jackie, starring Roma Downey. The miniseries won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited Series. She next took on the leading role in the 1992 syndicated teen serial Swans Crossing, which chronicled the lives of a group of wealthy teenagers. The series ran for one season and earned Gellar two Young Artist Award nominations, for Best Young Actress in a New Television Series and for Best Young Actress in an Off-Primetime Series.
She made her debut in the soap opera All My Children in 1993, playing Kendall Hart, the long-lost daughter of character Erica Kane (Susan Lucci). As she got the role, Gellar was complimented as having the acting talent and the "forceful personality" needed to go up against Lucci's experience; Kendall was supposed to be like a younger version of Erica. Her stint on the show was successful as "longtime fans of the soap saw her as the second coming of Erica". Writers showcased her more after her initial reception and she became a household name to the soap opera medium. In 1995, at the age of eighteen, she won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Younger Actress in a Drama Series for the role. The same year, Gellar left the show to pursue other acting opportunities.
Gellar moved to Los Angeles following her departure from All My Children, and in 1996, she read the script for Joss Whedon's television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which follows Buffy Summers, a teenager burdened with the responsibility of fighting occult foes and supernatural occurrences. She screen tested several times originally for the role of Cordelia Chase, but after approaching Whedon and producers about playing Buffy Summers, she auditioned again and was eventually cast in the title role. The show premiered in March 1997, to widespread critical and popular acclaim, and Gellar's Buffy, created to subvert the stereotypical female horror movie victim, went on to become recognized as one of the 100 greatest female characters in U.S. television. Buffy ran for seven seasons (144 episodes), and during its broadcast, earned Gellar five Teen Choice Awards, the Saturn Award for Best Genre Television Actress and a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actress – Television Series Drama. She sang during the series' musical episode "Once More, with Feeling", which spawned an original cast album, released in 2002.
During the early airing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she made her first major movie appearance in the slasher–thriller I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), co-starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ryan Phillippe and Freddie Prinze, Jr. The film, loosely based on the 1973 novel of the same name, centers on four friends who are being stalked by a killer, one year after covering up a car accident in which they were involved. She was cast as Helen Shiver, an aspiring beauty actress. Budgeted at US$17 million, the movie made an impressive US$125 million globally while it received mixed reviews. Washington Post found the cast to be "solid", in what San Francisco Chronicle described as a "competent but uninspired" film. For her part, Gellar earned a Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Supporting Actress – Horror and a MTV Movie Award nomination for Best Breakthrough Performance.
The same year, Gellar was cast in the slasher film Scream 2, as Casey "Cici" Cooper, a Sorority sister and one of the victims of a killer using the guise of Ghostface. She filmed her scenes in-between shots of Buffy and had only recently finished work on I Know What You Did Last Summer. Despite the hectic scheduling, she admitted in an interview that she agreed to perform in Scream 2 without having read the script, on the basis of the success of the first film. The sequel gained critical acclaim and earned US$172 million worldwide. The following year, she hosted for the first time Saturday Night Live, and provided the voice of the Gwendy Doll in Small Soldiers, a moderate commercial success. Gellar also had her first appearance on the 'Most Beautiful' list by People magazine, which cemented her "It girl" status at the time.
In 1999, she had a cameo appearance in the sleeper hit She's All That, and took on the lead role of a struggling restaurant owner in the romantic comedy Simply Irresistible, opposite Sean Patrick Flanery. The film was largely panned by critics and bombed at the box office. Roger Ebert in an otherwise positive review, found Gellar to be "lovely" in what he described as an "old-fashioned" comedy. On her role in the movie, she stated during an interview with Entertainment Weekly, "Simply Irresistible was [just] a bad choice—and for that it was a great learning experience. I wasn't ready to make that movie. I was too young. The script was not ready. I knew in my heart before I left [to make it] that I should back out.
In Cruel Intentions (1999), a modern-day retelling of Les Liaisons dangereuses, Gellar played Kathryn Merteuil, a brunette cocaine addict with an appetite for manipulating people. The film became a commercial success when it was released, grossing US$75 million worldwide on a US$10 million budget. Gellar gained significant attention for her part and received largely positive reviews; Roger Ebert felt that she is "effective as a bright girl who knows exactly how to use her act as a tramp", and in an interview with Chicago Tribune, director Roger Kumble, describing her work in the movie, said: "She unquestionably is the most professional actor I ever worked with". Gellar and co-star Selma Blair obtained the "Best Kiss" award at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards. Around that time, she guest starred in three episodes of Angel and appeared as Debbie in the HBO series Sex and the City episode "Escape from New York".
Gellar was cast in the leading role of a mobster's daughter in James Toback's independent drama Harvard Man, which premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival before receiving a limited theatrical release the following year. It rated average with reviewers, but some pointed out the sexual nature of her character, comparing it with that of Kathryn Merteuil in Cruel Intentions; Variety remarked that Gellar was "fun to watch in the adorable, devious bitch mode she test-drove" in her portrayal of Kathryn, and similarly, DVD Talk wrote that Gellar's "self-serving Mafia Maiden echoes her bitchy turn" in the 1999 film. Her sexual performance in Harvard Man, along with Cruel Intentions, helped her shed her good girl image.
Gellar then appeared as Daphne Blake in the live action–comedy Scooby-Doo, directed by Raja Gosnell and co-starring Freddie Prinze, Jr., Linda Cardellini and Matthew Lillard. The movie revolves around Mystery Inc. reuniting after a two-year disbandment to investigate a popular horror resort in a remote island. Scooby-Doo was released on June 14, 2002 in the US, receiving generally negative reviews, but was a major commercial success with a worldwide gross of over US$275 million, becoming the highest-grossing movie of Gellar's career to date. She won the Teen Choice Award in the category of Choice Movie Actress – Comedy for her part in the picture. Alongside Jack Black, she hosted the 2002 MTV Movie Awards, which attracted 7.1 million viewers on its June 6 broadcast, achieving the show's highest rating ever at the time.
During her growing film career, Gellar continued work on the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but she left the show after the seventh season. When asked why, she explained, "This isn't about leaving for a career in movies, or in theater – it's more of a personal decision. I need a rest." Shortly after the show's end, Gellar stated that she had no interest in appearing in a Buffy feature film, but that she will consider it if the script is good enough. She did not appear in the final season of Angel, causing the intended episode ("You're Welcome") to be rewritten for the character of Cordelia Chase. Gellar has said that she was willing to appear in the episode, but scheduling conflicts and family problems prevented it. In her feature in Esquire magazine Gellar expressed her pride for her work on Buffy, "I truly believe that it is one of the greatest shows of all time and it will go down in history as that. And I don't feel that that is a cocky statement. We changed the way that people looked at television."
After the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gellar provided her voice for the character Gina Vendetti in The Simpsons episode "The Wandering Juvie" that aired in March 2004. Her next film was the sequel Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, where she reprised the role of Daphne. Like the original, the movie received negative reviews, but the review in Slant remarked that she and co-star Prinze "are engaging in their willingness to send up their own teen-idol status", and on a similar note, IGN stated that both Gellar and Prinze "exhibit marked improvements over their work in the original". Scooby Doo 2 was a commercial success, grossing US$181,466,833 around the globe.
She subsequently appeared in the horror remake The Grudge as Karen Davis, an exchange student living and working in Tokyo who becomes exposed to a mysterious supernatural curse. The film, released in October 2004, was a major box office hit, grossing more than US$110 million in the US, and US$187 million worldwide. Reviews for the film and Gellar's performance were largely mixed; Rob Blackwelder wrote that she "played her part well, and her fear and disorientation are terrifically enhanced by the decision to keep the [original] setting in this remake". However, James Berardinelli felt that Gellar played an "unfortunately wooden performance" and commented that the actress, who "has shown a lot more energy in other outings, exhibits only two expressions here: petulance and bewilderment". She received a MTV Movie Award nomination for Best Frightened Performance as well as a nomination for the Teen Choice Award for Choice Movie Actress – Thriller for her role. Since 2005, she has voiced several characters in 14 episodes of the animated television series Robot Chicken, as of 2014.
Gellar was cast opposite Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, and Justin Timberlake in Richard Kelly's comedy-thriller Southland Tales, where she appeared as Krysta Now, an adult film star working on creating a reality television show. The film, set in 2008 as part of an alternate history, is a portrait of Los Angeles, and a satire on the military–industrial complex and the entertainment industry. Gellar had met with Kelly and was drawn to the original ideas for the movie, accepting the role before she even read the script. It opened at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and was released in November 2007 in selected theaters, receiving mediocre reviews. However, J. Hoberman for Village Voice remarked that the director "contrives two memorable comic performances" by Gellar and Johnson.
Gellar appeared in The Grudge 2, released in October 2006, briefly reprising her role from the first film. The sequel was panned by critics and made a modest US$70 million worldwide. Gellar next starred in the psychological thriller The Return, released the following month, in which she played a businesswoman haunted by memories of her childhood and the mysterious death of a young woman. The film earned negative reviews and was a commercial failure, grossing US$11 million from a production budget of US$15 million. The New York Times called her participation in the movie a "career stagnation". The next year, Gellar voiced Ella in the poorly received animated film Happily N'Ever After, and also played April O'Neil in a voice-over role in TMNT, which was a commercial success, grossing over US$95 million.
She starred in the romantic comedy Suburban Girl and the drama The Air I Breathe, both of which were screened at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. In Suburban Girl, co-starring Alec Baldwin, she took the role of Brett Eisenberg, a New York City editor and the love interest of a much older influential man (Baldwin). The movie, described as a "blend of Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada" and a "pseudo-sophisticated romantic comedy" by Variety magazine, was released direct-to-video in January 2008. Despite a mixed reception, her on-screen chemistry with Baldwin was praised, with Eye For Film commenting that the film "works best when Baldwin and Gellar are together".
In The Air I Breathe, Gellar appeared with Forest Whitaker, Brendan Fraser and Kevin Bacon, portraying an up-and-coming pop singer with the stage name "Trista". The movie is based on an ancient Chinese proverb that breaks life down into four emotional cornerstones – happiness, pleasure, sorrow and love – and each of the four protagonists represents one of the four emotions. It received a limited theatrical release in January 2008, to a poor overall reception. The New York Times called it a "gangster movie with delusions of grandeur", while DVD Talk noted that "her character here has the deepest emotional arc, and she hits all the right notes."
Both of Gellar's films in 2009—Possession and Veronika Decides to Die—failed to find a proper theatrical release in the US. The psychological thriller Possession saw Gellar play Jessica, a lawyer whose life is thrown into chaos after a car accident sends her husband (Michael Landes) and brother-in-law (Lee Pace) into comas. The film was made in 2006, but due to financial problems at Yari Film Group, had a delayed US release date and ultimately received a direct-to-video premiere in March 2010, going largely ignored by critics and audiences. In the film adaptation Veronika Decides to Die, Gellar starred as a young depressed woman who rediscovers the joy in life when she finds out that she only has days to live following a suicide attempt. Filmed in 2008 in New York City, the film was released in theaters abroad in 2009, and did not receive an US premiere until 2015. As with Gellar's previous few projects, it was dismissed by critics and flopped at the box office. Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter found the actress to be "reasonably compelling" in what he called a "ponderous and silly misfire".
Gellar took a two-year hiatus from acting following the birth of her daughter in 2009, and in 2011, she signed to star and work as executive producer for a new drama titled Ringer, in which she played the dual role of twin sisters, one of whom is on the run and manages to hide by assuming the wealthy life of the other. Gellar has stated that part of her decision to return to a television series was because it allowed her to both work and raise her child. The show was originally made for CBS but was later picked up by its sister channel The CW. The show debuted on September 13, 2011, and Gellar garnered largely acclaim from writers; E! Online found her "awesome" and "fantastic", while TV Line felt she "does a fine job" as both characters. The first episode was watched by 2.84 million viewers, described as "solid" by Entertainment Weekly, but after the three-month hiatus over the holiday break, viewership decreased significantly. Ringer had a large fan base, but despite fans' efforts, The CW canceled the series after the first season. For her portrayal of two characters, she received several award nominations, including one for the Teen Choice Award for Choice Television Actress – Drama.
In September 2011, Gellar returned as a guest star on the ABC soap opera All My Children before the show's ending but not as Kendall Hart; she portrayed a patient at Pine Valley Hospital who tells Maria Santos that she is "Erica Kane's daughter", and states that she saw vampires before they became trendy—a reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She played Phyllis in the American Dad! episode "Virtual In-Stanity", which aired on November 20, 2011, and brought in 4.82 million viewers. Her former Buffy co-star Alyson Hannigan also made a voice-over role in the episode, receiving positive reviews. The AV Club called Gellar and Hannigan "effective guest stars" and felt that "both have voices with enough personality to fit their characters". Gellar provided her voice again for the December 6, 2012, episode of the show ("Adventures in Hayleysitting"). On September 30, 2012, she reprised her role of Gina Vendetti in the premiere episode of The Simpsons' season 24.
In February 2013, she signed on to co-star in the CBS series The Crazy Ones with Robin Williams. A fan of Williams for years, once Gellar learned that he was making a television project, she contacted her friend Sarah de Sa Rego, the wife of Williams' best friend, Bobcat Goldthwait, in order to lobby for a co-starring role. The show was a single-camera comedy, about an advertising agency run by a father (Williams) and his daughter. It debuted on September 26, 2013, garnering 15.52 million viewers, which was the highest rated premiere that fall. But as with Ringer, the ratings slipped over the season and its finale was watched by only 5.23 million viewers. On May 10, 2014, CBS announced the show's cancellation. The Crazy Ones earned Gellar the People's Choice Award for Favorite Actress in a New Television Series.
In March 2015, she guest-starred as Cinderella in Whitney Avalon's official YouTube channel video short Princess Rap Battle, and joined the cast of Star Wars Rebels for season two, playing a recurring character known as the Seventh Sister. In early 2016, Gellar filmed for NBC a pilot presentation for a potential television series based on the cult-classic film, Cruel Intentions, reprising her role of Kathryn Merteuil. The pilot was ultimately not picked up to series. The story takes place 15 years after the events of the film, with Gellar's character vying for control of her wealthy family's company and dealing with the emergence of her late step-brother's son.
Gellar has appeared on the covers and photo sessions of numerous magazines during her career. In February 1998, she appeared in Seventeen, and in subsequent years the list has grown to include Nylon, Marie Claire, Vogue, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, FHM, Rolling Stone and Elle among others. In 1999, Gellar signed on to be the face of Maybelline – becoming the company's first celebrity spokeswoman since Lynda Carter in the late 1970s. She was honored with a Woman of The Year Award by Glamour magazine in October 2002, and in the same year, her wax figure by Madame Tussauds, was unveiled as part of the "Trail of Vampires" exhibition.
With her work in Buffy and mainstream movies such as Cruel Intentions, Gellar became a household name and a sex symbol across the globe, status she cemented with being a feature several times in the annual Maxim "Hot 100" list between 2002 and 2008. Wearing a black lace bra, she was on the cover of the December 2007 issue of Maxim and was named the 2009 Woman of the Year by the magazine. She was voted number 1 in FHM's edition of "100 Sexiest Women" of 1999, and was featured in its 2005 list. She had also been in the magazine's German, Dutch, South African, Danish and Romanian editions of the 100 Sexiest Women list every year from 1998 onwards. Topsocialite.com listed her as the 8th Sexiest woman of the 90s along with Alicia Silverstone, Gillian Anderson and Shannen Doherty.
She was featured in Google's Top 10 Women Searches of 2002 and 2003, coming in at No. 8, and was included in UK Channel 4's 100 Greatest Sex Symbols in 2007, ranking at No. 16. Other appearances and listings include: Entertainment Weekly ranked her in its Top 100 TV Icons in 2007, and placed her No. 3 in its Top 12 Entertainers of the Year in 1998, and Glamour ranked her in its 50 Best Dressed Women in the World 2004 and 2005 at Nos. 17 and 24, respectively. BuddyTV ranked her No. 27 on TV's 100 Sexiest Women of 2011 list, as well.
She has appeared in "Got Milk?" ads as well as in the Stone Temple Pilots music video "Sour Girl" and Marcy Playground's "Comin' Up From Behind". Gellar graced the cover of Gotham and was featured as their main story in the March 2008 issue, in which she spoke about how her style has evolved since she passed 30. Gellar said: "It sounds clichéd, but when women turn 30, they find themselves. You become more comfortable in your own skin. Last night on Letterman, I wore this skintight Herve Leger dress. Two years ago, three years ago? I would never have worn it."
Gellar is an active advocate for various charities, including breast cancer research, Project Angel Food, Habitat for Humanity and CARE. Of her charitable pursuits, she says, "I started because my mother taught me a long time ago that even when you have nothing, there's ways to give back. And what you get in return for that is tenfold. But it was always hard because I couldn't do a lot. I couldn't do much more than just donate money when I was on [Buffy] because there wasn't time. And now that I have the time, it's amazing."
In 1999, she went to the Dominican Republic to help Habitat for Humanity's project of building homes for the residents; Gellar recalled in an interview she had worked with the cause a lot, explaining: "You actually get to physically do something, where you get to go and build these houses. I like working with things where you can directly affect someone in particular". With Project Angel Food, she delivered healthy meals to people infected with AIDS, and through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, she granted sick children's wishes of meeting her while working on Buffy. In 2007, Gellar was featured in Vaseline's "Skin Is Amazing" campaign, with other actors such as Hilary Duff, Amanda Bynes and John Leguizamo. She agreed to auction nude-posed photos of herself on eBay, to raise money for the Coalition of Skin Diseases, an organization which supports clinical research, fosters physician and patient education.
In May 2011, Gellar joined "The Nestlé Share the Joy of Reading Program", which promotes reading to young children to encourage them to read during the summer break. The following year, she was presented with the Tom Mankiewicz Leadership Award during the Beastly Ball at the Los Angeles Zoo. The honor recognizes members of the entertainment community who have excelled in establishing meaningful and lasting programs that contribute to the welfare of the world's natural and civic environment. In 2014 and 2015, Gellar hosted two fundraisers for Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA.
In October 2015, Gellar co-founded Foodstirs, a food crafting brand and e-commerce startup selling easy to make and organic baking kits for children and families.
Gellar released a cook book titled Stirring up Fun with Food on April 18, 2017. The book was co-authored by Gia Russo, and features numerous food crafting ideas.
Gellar met her future husband Freddie Prinze, Jr., while they were filming the 1997 teen horror film I Know What You Did Last Summer, but the two did not begin dating until 2000. They were engaged in April 2001 and married in Mexico on September 1, 2002, in a ceremony officiated by Adam Shankman, a director and choreographer with whom Gellar had worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Prinze and Gellar have worked together several times; they played each other's respective love interests as Fred and Daphne in the 2002 film Scooby-Doo and its sequel, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, and both provided their voices for the animated feature Happily N'Ever After (2007) and the animated series Star Wars Rebels. In 2007, in honor of their fifth year of marriage, Gellar legally changed her name to Sarah Michelle Prinze.
Together, Gellar and Prinze have two children, a daughter (Charlotte) born in 2009 and a son (Rocky) born in 2012. The family lives in Los Angeles.