She's a woman with a devil on her shoulder, or that's how I first imagined her," explains Lucy Lawless, describing her character Xena, the warrior princess, in the popular syndicated fantasy/action-adventure series. "I try to keep a lid on the character so that the audience doesn't know too much about her and she maintains a mystique. She's the dark, mean chick."
The New Zealand actress is now well into her second season starring in Xena: Warrior Princess as the titular mythic heroine with a dark past. The character was introduced in a three-episode arc of Hercules The Legendary Journeys, as the leader of a conquering army who sets out to kill Hercules. When a last-minute act of compassion causes Xena to re-examine her life, she becomes Hercules' unlikely ally, before setting off on a journey of redemption. Now accompanied by a brash young storyteller named Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor), she travels the countryside fighting for good, but still battling the demons of her past.
While Lawless admits she has invested part of her own personality into Xena, the character is most definitely not her. "It's parts of me taken to an extreme, and she never pops out unintentionally, but she is there. In order to play a character who moves people, it must be grounded in your own history, and then you flesh it out with your own experience. So, she's definitely part of me. You don't invent a character based on what other people have experienced."
With more than three dozen episodes Xena now under her belt, Lawless (previously profiled in STARLOG #222) has learned a great deal, not only about her character, but also about dealing with the rigors of a weekly TV series. "I've learned a bit of balance, to tell the truth. When I started, I was working a 14-hour day and then running off to the gym five times a week, but I had to stop that. My back gave out, and I realized the way I was living was not supporting the work. I've now learned how to pace myself, and since I stopped running off to the gymI just exercise at home nowI'm so much happier, and a much more relaxed human being."
"The reason I've always been resistant to it is because Xena is a composite character of many people's work. It's a little bit of a problem, except I guess the separation [between Lawless and Xena] does take place, because I don't really look like Xena when you meet me. People aren't disappointed when they meet me in the flesh'Oh God. you are just flesh and blood, I can touch you; you're only slightly taller than I am!'so they do manage to make that separation. but it's kind of uncomfortable for me, because I feel they're disappointed in me. I've never had any negative first-hand experiences with fans, so that's great."
Needless to say, the notion of fame changed somewhat when the series began airing on Lawless' own back doorstep. "When it came to New Zealand, that was different," she concedes, remembering her first surprising exposure to Xena. "I was driving along, and I saw the very unflattering posters they chose, and that did make my jaw drop. At least in your home town, particularly in New Zealand and Australia, you have to keep a low profile as far as your own sense of self-importance. Now I am stared at, mostly in a discreet manner. People are generally very nice; they're positive about the show and I don't get hassled much."
As for getting injured, "It's par for the course," insists the actress who was hurt not while she was doing the series, but promoting it (breaking her hip while rehearsing for a Tonight Show appearance). "It's the same for the other actors or anybody who does stunt fighting: you get whiplash, black eyes or loose teeth. I'm constantly bruised!"
"It's very easy in my positionwhere you're always at work with the same big family of peopleto get lost in it. I'm in the curious position of finding myself a slight misfit on the outside'What, feed myself? Are you out of your mind?' When you literally have people to tie your shoes for you, if you're not careful, you can forget your place in the world as a human being."
Lawless first developed her interest in acting while being educated in convent schools around Auckland, where she began appearing in numerous musicals and plays. She attended Auckland University for a short time before her passion for adventure took to Europe, and eventually to Australia, where she worked for a gold mining company. "I know some people have a romantic image of carrying a canary in a gold mine, but it's simply not true. They detonate miles of Outback. and we used to run through the Outback, marking it and taking samples. These days, they assay gold in parts per billion, so you could take four kilos of dirt and they would find some molecule of gold and say, 'Yeah, that's worth open cast mining.' I was living in the Outback with a cat called kangaroos and emus. I wouldn't see at a time."
With a renewed determination to pursue an acting career, Lawless began doing TV commercials which led eventually to co-hosting Air New Zealand Holiday, a travel magazine show. She was cast in the Hercules and the Amazon Women TV movie and later played another character in a Hercules episode. When the actress originally intended to play Xena was ill and unavailable, Lawless stepped in for that pivotal Hercules guest shot at the instigation of executive producers Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi. "Happily, the producers managed to find me. I was on an incommunicado camping trip around New Zealand, and a casting agent managed to track down my then-in-laws, who knew to try my cousin. Two days later, I was on a plane, dyeing my hair and in part, and that spun off into the series."
"That was my one contribution to physical aspects, and the rest is the brilliance of our designers and makeup artists, but the character must be rooted in the actor, otherwise it's just a two-dimensional cardboard cutout that doesn't make an audience feel anything in return. Our aim is to move the audience. Just about everything I ever learned has come to this role; the horse riding, the singing lessons, survival skills in a large Irish-Catholic rough-and-tumble existence; everything has come in handy for Xena."
Looking back at some of the episodes of Xena to date. Lawless points to a few personal highlights, including the controversial "Is There a Doctor in the House?" which nearly didn't make it to the small screen. "It was too bloody and intense for some sponsor who said, 'I don't know, we're a bit worried about this one!' So we had to cut things where you could see some of the operations happening. It was really thrilling, even though we had to cut a lot of it, but fortunately, Joe LoDuca, the composer, being the damn genius he is, managed to glue everything together with music.
"Actually, Rob and I would have paid out of our own money to make the episode the way we wanted it, but it didn't turn out too bad, and believe me. a large part of that credit goes to Joe. I saw the rough cuts, and I was so worried about how it would come out with all the things excised, but then I saw the final edition with the music. which brought it all together. I'm so aggrieved about that because I was really proud I had given everything that I had. Even if it was going to be buried, we gave it a bloody good shot. That's what I got into this business for, to make people feel.
"That one is a real classic, and the other one is 'Warrior...Princess...Tramp' [in which Lawless plays three versions of the same character]. That was the very first episode in this block of filming in the second season. That's the one in which I had the most to do, because I like to be really busy all the time. The more pressure, the happier I am, and that's when I do my best work."
Being part of a successful action-adventure series may have its advantages, but it also carries a price, usually to one's personal life. "I do more interviews as a result of it being a success, but in the past year, my life style has changed an awful lot. I've had to pare down my social life to nothing to see my family. These are my priorities in my spare time: it goes daughter, mother, and after that, there's hardly time for anybody else."
With the popularity of Xena: Warrior Princess, it would be easy for Lawless to cash in on her reputation as an action heroine and star in a big-budget feature, but again, that would come with a price. "I could have done a Xena movie last summer." she reveals. "I don't think they could pay me enough at the moment to work through my hiatus. To tell you the truth, I would be depressed. If I worked 18 months' solid at the rate we work, a million dollars just isn't enough to pay for my sanity, and my enjoyment of life. At this point, to star in something is madness for me, and I have a kid too. Kevin [Sorbo, who plays Hercules, and shot Kull the Conqueror during his hiatus] is in a whole different situationhe plays golf; that's his baby."
"The absolute truth isand I have not talked to anybody about this, not even Robis it occurs to me that I would like to see Xena go a bit darker. We have to maintain a humility and a humanity in her, but I don't think people will be turned off if we want to push the edge a bit, if only for the reason that it's boring for me to play a non-evolving character.
"As an actor, I want to be bad. I want to give things a little more of a spin, but you've got to be careful, because it's a hero show, and the one thing with Xena is that she cannot be thick, she can't be stupid. She can be wrong, which is unusual for her, and I like to I play that; it's very uncomfortable because you feel like you're losing your grip on the whole hero thing, because the audience may not like that, and then you're dead. But in this series, we're dead if we pander to our audience."
Whatever changes may be in store for Xena: Warrior Princess, Lucy Lawless is looking forward to discovering them in the months to come. "I'm a very lucky woman to have this role,' she enthuses, "because it's so challenging. I do absolute farce, very intense drama, action; I'm in a very enviable position. There are few women in America who do action, and I'm also stretched in every other direction as an actress."