Kick! Slam! Role of Xena is hit for New Zealander
Actress captures fancy of TV viewers, especially females, as Warrior Princess.
By Jennifer Weiner
You do not want to mess with Xena, Warrior Princess. She would clean your clock.
She'd bash you with her sword, leap into the air to deliver a few swift kicks to your head, do a standing somersault onto a 10-foot-high scaffold, slam you with a cudgel, vault down again, blow flaming liquor into your face, whack you with her flying metal Frisbee, then tie you up, slap you down, deliver a few choice words in her trademark tight-lipped sneer, and ride off into the sunset.
And that's if she was having a good day.
Xena, Warrior Princess, of the syndicated TV show that bears her name, is 6 feet of Amazonian bad attitude, black hair and brass breastplate, portrayed by New Zealand actress Lucy Lawless. A ''mighty princess forged in the heat of battle,'' Xena sprang fully formed from the heads of filmmakers Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi (''Darkman,'' ''American Gothic'').
She began life last year in a trio of episodes on the highly acclaimed, ultraviolent and ultracampy ''Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.'' Back then, Xena was a villain. But oh, was she popular. And Universal Studios had been asking for a companion piece to ''Herc.'' ''So we said, 'What about a woman warrior?' '' Tapert says.
The studio took some convincing. The last woman warrior to ride the small screen had carried a magic lasso and sported bulletproof wristbands. Tapert and company promised them something different from ''Wonder Woman'' -- smarter, edgier, hipper. Go for it, the studio said.
And so, before you could say ''Holy Zeus,'' Xena had a change of heart, renounced her wicked ways, vowed to do only good, etc., etc., and landed a series all her own. Now Xena roams the countryside in what the show's PR machine identifies as ''the golden age of myth.''
With her faithful sidekick Gabrielle in tow, Xena conquers men, women, villages and the occasional entire army wherever she sees wrong being done.
Women love her. In a world where TV superheroes abound but females mostly play the girlfriend, the mother or the wife, they say that Xena and Gabrielle are welcome anomalies. ''She's strong,'' said Karen Wood, who works at Harvard University. ''She's not a wasp-waisted beauty, like on 'Baywatch.' She's intelligent -- not just an accomplice to a man. And she's got a female accomplice.''
If you've watched any ''Hercules'' episodes, you'll feel right at home in Xena's world. Lots of violence but very little blood. A healthy amount of double-entendre and well-toned warrior flesh but very little lovemaking. A little dose of morality at the end of each episode, but no deep-thoughts philosophizing.
There's the snappy dialogue, delivered in modern American idiom.
Xena to vanquished Cyclops: ''You should get a new line of work.''
Cyclops to Xena: ''Like what? I'm a blind Cyclops, for heaven's sake!''
Since its September premiere, the show has every indication of being a Hercules-size hit. Xena appears in 196 markets nationwide. She's been featured in the Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly. A fan club and a Xena action figure are in the works, an official Web page is up and running (http://www.mca.com/tv/xena), and there's a lively Xena chat room where fans with handles such as Artemis and Malinda compare favorite episodes, favorite fights and favorite parts of Xena's anatomy.
Lawless (yes, that's her real name) is trying to catch her breath. ''Xena'' isn't available in her homeland, so no one there knows what a star Lawless has become. So she labors for 13-hour days, plus workouts, five or even six days a week, wearing mercilessly tight corsets and breastplates and itsy-bitsy fringed leather skirts, on a show that no one she knows has seen.
Still, she sounds happy, even by phone at 7:45 a.m., as she tells, for the umpteenth time, the story of how a former klutz blossomed into a warrior princess.
Lawless grew up in New Zealand, the fifth of seven children. She performed in plays and musicals through high school. She graduated, did a brief hitch at Auckland University, then headed to Europe, then to Australia where she worked at -- no kidding -- a gold mine.
She was married in Australia, moved back to New Zealand, found work in TV commercials, then with a comedy troupe. She studied drama in Vancouver, British Columbia, moved back to New Zealand, did guest shots on TV, was briefly a co-host for a New Zealand travel show, then landed her first guest shot on ''Hercules,'' which, as luck would have it, was looking around for a star for the trio of Xena episodes.
''When another actress fell through -- someone who'd been training for a month -- the producers said, 'Why don't we just cast Lucy? She's handy.' ''
Forget it, said the studio. We just used her. (Lawless had played a centaur's bride on an earlier ''Hercules'' episode -- and at nearly 6 feet, with striking blue eyes and cheekbones to die for, she's not someone you'd forget.) So the producers asked five other actresses. All five declined. ''I don't blame them,'' Lawless said, ''Who'd want to give up a part to come down to New Zealand to do that, just for three episodes?''
Meanwhile Lawless, who's now divorced, was off on a camping trip with her 7-year-old daughter, Daisy -- ''absolutely incommunicado . . . blissfully unaware.'' Producers finally tracked her down and gave her the good news. ''I went to a bus that morning and just burst into tears,'' Lawless recalled. ''I thought, 'I'm not ready for this!' ''
Lawless says that she loves the character she plays, although Xena strikes most viewers as something of a grump. ''I think she's a loner,'' the actress said thoughtfully. ''And I think she's really funny. They say she has no sense of humor . . . but I think we'll get to see more of that side of her in coming episodes.''
And what will the future hold? Tapert promises only that Xena will not be transformed into a perky, happy heroine. ''Xena will remain dysfunctional. That, I can say for sure.''