Houstonian Renee O'Connor Makes a Splash with New Zealand's Warrior Princess
By Diane Holloway
Xena's Sidekick Gabrielle Kicks Back at Threadgill's
It's a long way from the mythical world of "Xena: Warrior Princess," the popular action-adventure series produced in New Zealand, to the wooden tables and mouth-watering smells of Threadgill's Restaurant in Austin.
Renee O'Connor, the refreshingly unspoiled Texan who plays Xena's feisty sidekick, recently made the trek to pick up her mother, Sandra Wilson, who's married to Threadgill's owner Eddie Wilson. The plan is to whisk her off, in a couple of weeks, on an exotic vacation that promises to be almost as action-packed as a typical episode of "Xena."
"We're heading for Africa-- to float down the Nile, see the Pyramids, climb Mount Kilimanjaro and go on safari in Kenya," said O'Connor.
The close mother and daughter are leaving Wilson at home. O'Connor has flown her mother to New Zealand three times since "Xena" debuted last year. Now on a 10-week hiatus, O'Connor and her mother plan to spend some offbeat quality time together on a grand adventure.
Which is not to say O'Connor doesn't get along fine with her stepfather, who's been a member of the family for five years.
"I like him," she said. "I think he'll keep me around for a while."
Wilson served ice cream at a recent autograph-signing event in Austin for his stepdaughter. As fans gathered around O'Connor, Wilson scooped and smiled.
"It's long been known that I'm the luckiest man in town," Wilson said, pulling up a chair near his wife and stepdaughter during a recent interview at Threadgill's.
Wilson brags about O'Connor and the show whenever he gets the chance. "I'll tell everybody it's a medieval 'Gunsmoke' for girls," he said. "It's a little morality play. And the good guys don't just win, they kick butt."
A spinoff of Kevin Sorbo's popular series "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," "Xena" (Saturdays at 9 p.m. on KNVA Channel 54) was last season's highest-rated new syndicated series and is attracting a worldwide following. The show mixes mythology, action, contemporary language, moral messages and humor.
Actress Gives Comic Relief
Statuesque New Zealand actor Lucy Lawless stars as the fierce warrior heroine with a dark past. O'Connor's character, the fast-talking Gabrielle, provides much of the comic relief.
"They actually wanted someone younger," said O'Connor, who is 25 but looks like a teen-ager.
O'Connor, who was born in Houston and caught the acting bug studying at the Alley Theatre, made her professional debut in 1989 in the serial "Teen Angel," a regular feature on the Disney Channel's "Mickey Mouse Club." She turned 18 on the set in Arizona, where the serial was filmed, and then headed for Los Angeles.
"It was exciting," O'Connor said. "It's actually similar to Houston-- a big city with lots of driving. I sort of kept to myself. I don't think I have a single friend who's an actor. It's very easy to fall into that Hollywood club scene, and I did't want to do that. I wanted to stay close to my roots. I knew I had to stay focused to succeed."
Among O'Connor's credits are the movie "The Adventures of Huck Finn" and TV movies such as ABC's "Follow the River" with Ellen Burstyn, NBC's "Danielle Steel's Changes, " "The Flood" and James Garner's second " Rockford Files" reunion movie.
O'Connor came to the attention of executive producers Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi when she auditioned for and won the role of Deianeira in "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom," the TV movie that inspired the series.
"Gabrielle started off spunky, spirited, wanting to be like Xena," O'Connor said. " I just made her more of a storyteller, the opposit of Xena. She's more sentimental and poetic now. That's the direction I took her. Occasionally there's some soul-searching, but mostly it's action and fun."
Playing an over-the-top, cartoon-type character might seem confining to some actors, but O'Connor likes it.
"I actually have more freedom," she said. "There are no boundaries to what people expect."
Because the cast and crew work nine months a year, 14 hours a day, on the other side of the world, O'Connor was unaware of the show's popularity until recently.
"It just started airing in New Zealand, so there's been no reaction there," O'Connor said. "We hear feedback from the production company in Los Angeles, and that's exciting. I've been curious to see what the spin is on the audience."
Perhaps surprisingly, the audience is mostly young women, ranging in age from 14 and younger to 20's and 30's. The audience for Sorbo's "Hercules" is overwhelmingly female, many of whom are ardent, letter-writing, poster-buying fans. Apparently the well-toned Xena, whose warrior outfits are pretty skimpy, doesn't have a lot of opposite sex appeal.
"Our audience is such a bizarre mix," O'Connor said. "Lucy and I have talked about it. I find it inspiring that the audience is women. I'd rather have women watching than men drooling."
When the series is in production, O'Connor lives in an apartment in Auckland and has picked up a bit of an accent.
Bona Fide Kiwi
"I guess I'm a bona fide Kiwi," she said, referring to the nickname for New Zealanders.
Although she has a stunt double for dangerous scenes, O'Connor enjoys the action part of her job.
"I love stunts, anything physical," said O'Connor, who runs and recently took up boxing and martial arts. "You have to have a certain amount of endurance to keep up with the show."
As for the future, O'Connor has a seven-year contract for "Xena" and then hopes to move behind the camera. Seven years, a long way from home.
"So far, so good. I like the people I'm working with," she said. "I hope to go into the production side of the business. I'd really like to direct. There aren't many women who can direct action films. I think it'd be a shame not to use what I've learned."