The Universe Interview: Lucy Lawless
By Gabrielle Stanton & Harry Werksman
So, what's so intriguing about Xena? What's not intriguing? Let's face it, it's intriguing, downright amazing, that the series, Xena: Warrior Princess, ever got on the air at all. Who would have guessed that an action/adventure series set in the mythic past with a female protagonist who fights her own battles, with nary a knight in shining armor in sight, would become such an international success?
Few have ever tread where Lucy Lawless and her alter-ego Xena are now taking television audiences. Sure, there was The Bionic Woman, but she was created in a laboratory lull of white, male scientists and had all of modern technology, not to mention Oscar Goldman, at her disposal.
Then there was Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman. Perhaps a truer precursor to Xena, Diana was an Amazon princess but ended up more guardian angel than vigilante. The network saw to it that she spent most of her time bailing that loser, Steve Trevor, out of his trouble du jour.
So, now it's the 90s, we've got Xena, and television will never be the same. Lucy Lawless and her character, Xena, have single-handedly raised the bar for all women on television. But a television series, even a syndicated one, does not live by politically correct viewers alone. Xena's fans are almost as intriguing as the character of Xena herself: Adults, teens, men, women, heterosexuals and homosexuals have all found a hero. Her fan base is as wide and varied as the fanciful landscape Xena travels through each week. So, why are we all so damned intrigued?
The character of Xena first appeared in Renaissance Pictures syndicated series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Xena was the evil leader of a rampaging army out to kill Hercules. By the end of the episode, she is made to see the mistakes she has made and the humanity she has lost. She becomes Hercules' ally and leaves her army to begin a journey of self-discovery.
Her story might have ended there, but Robert Tapert had other ideas. Tapert and Sam Raimi, the filmmakers who brought you the wickedly funny Evil Dead trilogy and the eerie, but short lived, CBS series American Gothic, sold MCA on the idea, giving Xena her own show. Xena: Warrior Princess premiered in September of 1995, and delightfully, they didn't dilute her complex character one iota. They did, however, give her a sidekick: the once naive, now not so much, bard-to-be Gabrielle. Throughout the series, Xena wrestles with her dark past, trying not to slip back into her former evil ways and always struggling for some kind of redemption.
The series is set in a universe (now known as the "Xena-verse") that takes great liberties with history. A land where Xena might just as easily encounter Mongol hordes, Odysseus, Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ or a tribe of Jews protecting the Ark of the Covenant. A place where Xena's male counterparts don't find the notion of a female warrior that unusual, where Amazons battle Centaurs and Aphrodite is a "valley girl."
We spoke to Lucy Lawless about Xena's past and future, her fans, her action figures and the woman inside the leather corset. Along the way, we found out that the woman who plays Xena is just as intriguing as Xena herself. Twenty-nine-year-old Lucy Lawless was born the fifth of seven children in Mount Albert, a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand. She studied languages and opera at Auckland University for a year before beginning a Xena-esque walkabout of her own. She traveled through Germany, Switzerland and Greece, even dug for gold in Australia, before ending up back in New Zealand in 1987, married to her high school sweetheart and pregnant with daughter Daisy, now eight. She began acting and, in 1994, came to the attention of the producers of Hercules.
Intriguing Fact #1: Lucy Lawless was not the original choice to play Xena.
We connected with Lucy at 9 a.m. New Zealand time. She apologized for having the remnants of a bad head cold, and we could hear her daughter, Daisy, playing in the background. Lucy's soft-spoken New Zealand accent comes as something of a surprise, and we were also struck by how genuinely nice and unaffected she seems by her new cult icon status. So, we jumped right in, wondering how Lawless is dealing with Xena's international success, and cult status.
"I'm a million miles away, so when you say that [about being a cult figure], it makes me laugh," says Lawless. "I'm sitting here, a soft gray rain is falling, my daughter's playing with her Xena action figure at the table, I'm reading the paper and making a cup of tea. There's no razzamatazz down here."
Shooting the series half a world away in New Zealand helps keep Lucy out of the spotlight, and thus far, she has managed to keep her personal life, well, personal. So what makes her such an intriguing character?
"Mystery," suggests the actress. "People don't know me. I'm not generally hanging around at the parties [or] on the magazines pages over there, usually, unless something weird happens. And Xena's rather mysterious because she's an unknown quantity, multilayered."
Lucy describes her character as a "...bad ass kickass, preMycenaean girl who traverses the time lines." With her heroic stature, the ability to snag arrows out of midair and hurl men through the air like rag dolls, she is definitely a woman not to be trifled with.
Intriguing Fact #2: A role model is defined by Webster's Dictionary as, "a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others."
Last year a cover article in MS Magazine called Xena a role model for women everywhere. Pretty heavy-duty, and we would think, a bit intimidating. So just how does a person respond to that, we wondered? "I'm only really aware of it when I'm out in public," she says. The only way it really impacts on me personally is that I have to behave. I really do. I mean, I don't smoke full stop, and this is part of the reason. I don't want to be seen that way. I'm cognizant of fact that people are looking at me and in particular young people. But I don't think anybody really wants to be Xena."
Intriguing Fact #3: Actually Lucy, they do. The San Francisco Chronicle reported recently on a survey in which children were asked who they most wished they could be. First daughter Chelsea Clinton was number one, and Tiger Woods second, followed by Xena, Darth Vader and Michael Jordan.
So, why does the character of Xena and the show appeal to so many different and divergent groups of people? "I think there's something in it [the series] for everyone," speculates Lawless. "We try to appeal to the highest common denominator, not the lowest. The physical aspect of the show is there, and we don't apologize for it, if you can call that the lowest [common denominator]. What the writers, producers, crew and cast aim for is for people to feel something. I think the show appeals to people on a visceral level. I hope it does become the next great TV phenomena. I think it has caught a wave, a need of some kind for a stronger female hero."
Xena's appeal isn't limited to the United States either. It appears that Xena is poised for world conquest, and you won't believe where she's landed already. "Last year, I passed through London, and now they really want us back because the show's really taking off there as well. Xena's a huge hit in Turkey. It even shows in Iran. One of the writers came back and said in Iran, they blow it up, every image, so you only get close-ups of the faces and don't get any cleavage or costumes. It's very bizarre." Iran, huh? Boy, they don't know what they're missing!
Intriguing Fact #4: It is a well-known that TV executives believe women will watch a show about men, but men won't watch one about women.
But what's truly amazing about the series is that both children and adults watch the show. We wondered who Lucy felt the show spoke to the most? "I am very aware that the demographic is incredibly wide. Men of 60 are writing in, women of all ages and kids too. The audience I'm most pleased about is young boys and young men. Because, whether they know it or not, they are getting to see women in a different role that they haven't before, [this is] apart from any conditioning they're growing up around. They haven't got a history oi living through the 50s when women had a certain, prescribed role. They're more open and they're seeing women in a new way, in a new role, which is a really positive one for both men and women. Even though most of the people Xena beats up are male, she's not a male basher. It's simply defense for her." Getting some of the more philosophical questions out of the way, we moved on to the subject of fans. Most actors want them. She's got 'em. But what does she think about them?
Having just bought a ten-inch Xena action figure (impossible to find in a regular toy store and heavily marked up at specialty stores, but that's a different article), we had to know what it was like to see yourself in plastic. (Harry wanted to ask if she ever played with herself, but I reminded him this was a family magazine.)
"Who would ever think that one would be an action figure?"
(Was that giggling we heard?) "Seriously, I gave one to my daughter."
There's a brief pause, as Lucy turns away from the phone to ask Daisy what she thinks of "the action doll."
"Which action doll?" Daisy wonders.
"The Xena one."
Daisy's reply is muffled, but Lucy returns to the phone laughing.
"Daisy says, 'yeah it's okay, but it needs to be browner. She's very pragmatic. Oh, and the chakram needs to be smaller."
What is so appealing about the series is that each episode, on a certain level, has a heart, a moral center, hiding within the bone-breaking action. Is this a mandate of the series we wondered or just a happy side effect.
"I'm not in the creative process at the level that they are [the writers and producers] at. If the writers write something, I'm only going to see it on the level of my character, from my characters point of view and that might not necessarily be from the moral standpoint. My character might be wrong. My character is allowed to be wrong, she is not allowed to be stupid. That's my only maxim. She has a dark past, which opens up a lot of possibilities; it gives her character a lot of depth. The audience knows that the devil is right there on her shoulder."
This struggle between her past and present lives gives Xena a compelling internal dynamic. Each week the audience watches as Xena wrestles with her need for redemption and healing while her very palpable fear and hatred remains only nominally in check. Executive producer and creator of Xena, Rob Tapert, says that hope is the common bond of the series and adds, "This year we're really going to challenge the characters, and it's going to come down to hope and love. And not in a very touchy-feely way, though." Daisy had her own ideas about the upcoming season. She thinks, "Xena should fly a UFO." We say, why not?
Intriguing Fact #5: Typecasting is a reality. Certain actors once cast in a successful role can never break free of it. As Leonard Nimoy once succinctly put it, "I am not Spock." But come on, deep down, we all know he really is.
So, is Lawless concerned about typecasting after Xena? "The more people ask, the more I say, 'should I be afraid of this?' But I'm not. I get to play an awful lot of roles on the show. But who knows? Maybe after Xena I'll pack it all in and go off somewhere and have kids."
Maybe, but she doesn't seem ready to slow down just yet. We asked her how she spends her all too brief hiatus (9 1/2 weeks), and we were exhausted just listening to her. "I'm going off to do this Broadway thing that's going to be a broadening [experience]. I was invited to play Rizzo in Grease. You know how they wheel in the latest celebrity? And I thought why the heck not? This will be a new kind of experience. My daughter is coming over to New York with me, so I'll be living in New York for a while. There isn't really any room for other projects. The smartest thing for me to do would be to have a small but pivotal, juicy part in someone's blockbuster because I don't want to work all the way through my hiatus. It's too tiring, I want to spend time with my girl and relax a bit."
And even with her hectic life, Lawless has few regrets. "No, I'm totally fulfilled every week with what I do. In fact, there is some really grueling stuff coming up. Emotionally, it's going to really shake up her world somewhat. We have to do it when you get a great idea, it's a risky idea, but we're going to roll with it and hope the audience hangs in there. It's going to be a bumpy night. Really horrifying."
She couldn't tell us anything more, but we were frantic. How could she leave us hanging like that? We needed answers, and if there is a man behind the woman, that man would have to be Rob Tapert.
As executive producer of both Hercules and Xena, he knows exactly how the universe he helped create operates. We went to Rob for his take on the Xena phenomena and for some dirt on what we can expect new season. For instance, are there a dos and don'ts list for the series.
"Every 'never' you ever say eventually gets violated," says Tapert. "Something we are good at in both Hercules and Xena is protecting our heroes and making them look good. They don't do stupid things, they solve problems themselves and don't rely on other people to help them solve their problems. Hercules is never wrong, and Xena this year is going to be a little wrong at times but for the wrong reason. It makes the studio a bit nervous, but it has the writing staff giggling."
Intriguing Fact #6: Star Trek, in one form or another, has been king of the syndicated drama for the past ten years. But this year Xena changed all that, dethroning the formidable Star Trek.
The king is dead! Long live the Warrior Princess! But why? How did Xena manage this Herculean task! Lucy was pretty straightforward about the issue, she had no idea because, "I never, ever watch Star Trek." Well, maybe the producer knows.
"Star Trek is a very good show and has excellent writers but has over 30 years of tradition," says Tapert. "There's been so many imitators over the years that it lacks a fresh and new feeling. Hercules first and then Xena had a very different , look and feel as you went channel surfing. There was nothing else like it on TV at that time and so people sampled it, and because we were telling, when we do it right, interesting stories, people grew to like it. Hercules and Xena are different from any other show on the air, in that they are true single hero shows. They have their sidekicks, but they are really sidekicks. I think most other shows are much more ensembles. Ours are single-hero driven stories, and that's a plus."
Xena has something else going for it that Star Trek seems to lack: a master plan. Each week Xena takes another step along her path toward redemption. But will she ever find the redemption she seeks? Suggests Lawless, "Yes, but you'll have to watch. It will all be fulfilled in the last episode. There is a master plan. The master is at work."
But in the interim, according to both Tapert and Lawless, viewers can expect some "horrifying" developments this coming season. "I can tell you this. Xena makes a decision coming from a wrong spot. She decides to battle an old foe rather than bring help, and as a result, Gabrielle gets in trouble," reveals Tapert. "Gabrielle lies to Xena about something extremely important, and it costs Xena dearly. At the same time, Xena tells a lie to Gabrielle, and in order to keep all these lies intact, they have to spin an ever increasing web of dishonesty. We're going to challenge the bonds between the two lead characters over [the course of] six episodes, then there's a reconciliation. We're trying some real-life drama. We're also playing something on Xena that's not really on Hercules. This is a time of the decline of the Greek gods; How is that void filled?"
But wait, this is all well and good, but this article is about Xena, the woman, the intriguing woman. It's only fair she gets the last word, so we asked her, how does Lucy Lawless (known in fan circles as Flawless) sum up the intriguing appeal of Xena, the Warrior Princess?
"Our show has a lot of fun and a lot of irony, and people like to escape," she explains. "We try not to be didactic, we try not to shove some moral down people's throats through our stories. Our characters are always making moral, ethical judgments, and we try to let our audience see that and decide for themselves. We don't want to preach to them about all manner of subjects. Our show is kind of low maintenance, and it doesn't demand a moral imperative. It's bloody straight out fun."
Cool, we can live with that.