I, Xena

By Mary Anne Cassata & Ian Spelling

Starlog's Legendary Heroes

Newsweek called Lucy Lawless "a formidable natural resource," and while the National Park Service might not agree, her legion of worldwide followers certainly would. "It seems that the world is ready to accept a strong female character," explains Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess enters a new season of adventure. "I'm pleased with that. It's the first time there has been a female action hero with any level of complexity in quite a while. That's the appeal, perhaps. People were just ready for it. And it's campy, it's fun and it has cool effects.

"I hope our audience sees the humor on the show," notes this lovely, dark-haired, New Zealand-based actress with blue eyes and sweet Auckland accent. "There's a lot of satire and irony on Xena. Everything about the show is sexy, too. Xena can be a lot of fun when she wants to be. It's a way of taking people out of the humdrum."

Hercules and Xena fan conventions are popping up all over the U.S., and there are numerous websites and fan clubs devoted to both shows, not to mention comic books, trading cards, an official magazine, paperback novels, action figures, etc. Unquestionably, this Warrior Princess has struck a deep chord with audiences, particularly women.

Model Legends

What does Lawless think about being an influential role model to women of all ages? "In the beginning, it frightened me," she recalls. "I just wasn't ready for that kind of responsibility. But I guess it was meant to happen sooner or later. It was just a bit sooner than I had expected. Women also seem to be inspired by the great friendship Xena and Gabrielle have. When I first heard about the show making a statement about political feminism, I couldn't believe it. Here we were just a bunch of people trying to put on a TV show that we liked each week. I don t have a problem with feminism. I never expected such a positive response.

After some initial hesitation, Lucy Lawless has become accustomed to being a role model as Xena: Warrior Princess.
Now after a few years of slaying mythical creatures, evil gods and bad guys, Lawless says she has a handle on the role-model thing. "I don't find it a burden, really," she offers. "I mean if people are genuinely helped by watching the show, or if some women feel the urge to chase their dreams, then I say, 'So be it.' Xena is a positive thing, and that's all that matters."

This "positive thing" has exploded to phenomenal heights. Xena: Warrior Princess, along with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, recently sprang to life as a multimillion-dollar interactive "live" attraction at Florida's Universal Studios. Wizards of the Screen utilizes state-of-the-art FX and stunt performers to give studio patrons the chance to fight alongside Xena and Hercules.

Lawless is excited that her larger-than life character has been thus immortalized. "Our viewers who love the world of fantasy and adventure can now live it with this attraction," she says "Xena is a big hit. It happened in a way I never thought it would. I feel honored to be admired by so many people. Now with the attraction, people can really be involved with the show."

Lawless, who stands nearly six feet tall, was born in Auckland, New Zealand to Frank Banker and Julie Ryan. Growing up with five brothers and one sister gave her ample training to survive the hard knocks of show business. "Coming from a big family, I had to learn how to wheedle and manipulate to get what I wanted," Lawless says. "I had to learn how to keep coming back from the knocks and falls. Actually, I was a bit of a tomboy. In fact, my mom told me I didn't know I was a girl until I was eight years old." Interestingly, none of her other relatives ever pursued acting. "There hasn't been a performer in my family since my great-grandmother. They're all politicians and lawyers, but I was just born with this knowledge of what I wanted to do."

Being part of a large, competitive family, though, was perhaps the best preparation one could have to become a performer. "As an actress, you have to face rejection all the time," she notes. "Facing rejection made me a real fighter. There were many times I lost out in auditions. But I didn't give up."

Being a fighter was just the beginning. In her teen years, Lawless learned how to sing (a talent demonstrated on Hercules & Xena: The Battle for Olympus animated video as well as in a planned Broadway stint as Grease's Rizzo). She attended Auckland University, learning how to speak and write in several different languages, including French and Italian. Following a year of college life, Lawless decided it was time to take to the road­wandering gypsy-style. She managed to find odd jobs traveling across Europe, including picking grapes in the vineyards of Germany's Rhine River. Later, she moved to the Australian Outback with her high school sweetheart Garth Lawless, and got married. Australia, in fact, was where her daughter, Daisy, now eight, was born. But road fever hit again and this time the couple moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where Lawless studied acting while her husband managed a local bar.

One of the series' strengths lies in the relationship between Xena and her warrior sidekick Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor).
However, it wasn't long before the gypsy spirit in her beckoned the aspiring actress to move back to her homeland in New Zealand, where acting opportunities seemed to be on the rise. Lawless soon appeared in the sitcom Funny Business. Later, she did a stint as host of a popular travel show Air New Zealand, which paved the way for Xena.

Lawless was asked to audition for Hercules and that guest star role led to the international stardom she experiences today. But just what did Hercules' producers see in Lawless? "At the time, I think the producers were looking for a new face," she says. "I suppose I was the rough diamond they were looking for."

Acting Amazons

Her childhood experiences and early wanderlust years were all the training that Lawless needed to play Xena­but times change. The best part of portraying the character now, Lawless related, is that she is only 20 minutes away from work; and as a mother of a young child, that gives her plenty of comfort. "It's marvelous! It's unbelievable! My daughter goes to school, so it's nice not to have any interruption to her day, And my parents still live in Mt. Albert." During the week, Daisy lives with her father­but she spends the weekends with Lawless, who doesn't take motherhood lightly. "Being a mother and actress are equally important to me. I'm happy living in New Zealand. I can do both things without having to choose one over the other. I'm very lucky."

And does Daisy appreciate, or even recognize, that her mother is the greatest female action hero of the decade? "She does. But she comes on the set a lot, and she's not terribly drawn to all the acting stuff. She absolutely loves my costume. Because few people in New Zealand know about Xena, it's not a phenomenon&sht;it's just something that mummy goes to work in town for, and then comes home from."

"Xena can be a lot of fun when she wants to be," Lawless allows.
Pausing reflectively, Lawless adds, "Never did l think I would someday become a female superhero. Never did I think this would happen. I always thought I would be this Shakespearean kind of actress. I want to be a fine actress someday. I can't imagine doing anything else with my life but acting. Acting was always the most important thing to me. I have such a passion for it." It's that same passion that gets her through the strenuous 14 to 16 hour work days, six days a week­not to mention having to wear those mercilessly constraining corsets and breastplates and the teeny fringed leather skirts she flaunts on the show. "It's a hellish costume to wear," she says. "It's very heavy and constricting. I wish it was made of caftan. But you really can't high-kick someone in caftan."

But high-kicking isn't all Xena does. This legendary heroine is tough, and Lawless comments on the difficult physical requirements for the role, particularly how it meshes with the development of the Xena persona. "I'm still struggling with the balance between the growth of my character and the physicality of the part. As far as characterization and acting goes, that's evolving all the time. I get better and more comfortable with the role. But the physicality of it­whoa! I've exercised all my life, but this is just something else! I've got to train after work, just to keep up. I've had to excise certain portions of my life, like a social life. It is gone. There is only time for work and training and my family and there is nothing else."

Lawless meets her animated alter-ego. The actress is also delighted by the new Universal Studios Tour attraction.
Lawless is delighted with the character she plays, even though the intense and somber Xena seems to be misunderstood by some of her newer viewers. "Xena is a loner ­ but she's really funny, too," Lawless relates. "She has changed immeasurably. When I watched some of the old episodes with the crew, we were just shocked to see how this supposedly or assumedly liberal character made such a turn around. She has come a long way. The character has evolved. As the writers become more familiar with me, with Xena, it just seems to happen. It's just this big organic thing that grows on, and grows in some new place. There are a few specific things that we're heading toward, but I can't tell you what they are. Her relationship with Gabrielle has changed. We're now mates, friends ­ I mean mates in the usual sense of the word!" she laughs. "They're better friends and Gabrielle is not such a hindrance.

"Xena has more of a sense of humor now. There's a duality about her. She's an assertive woman and yet honorable at the same time, though there are times when it may not always be in Xena's nature to act honorably. Xena's on a mission to find some sense of peace. She has a well-honed kind of mechanism."

It's amazing, with all the hype in America, that so little is heard elsewhere particularly in New Zealand. "If it's a huge hit," the actress says, "we almost aren't aware of it. We hear from the producers that it's doing really well but you can't really know in New Zealand, because you don't get any immediate feedback from the people here. But we're thrilled it's a hit. We're not too surprised, because we worked hard. We're all very proud of what we've made."

"Never did I think I would someday become a female superhero," says Lawless ­ who's also mighty handy with a weapon.
"Nobody ever hears about it [in New Zealand] because we don't do any publicity. I can walk down the street in my costume and people just think I'm an idiot. So I tell them I'm a dancer."

With both series successful, are there any plans for Xena and Hercules to tangle once again? "I don't know. We are under the gun to finish, and shooting wildly. There is almost no time when Hercules and Xena overlap, and when Kevin Sorbo goes on hiatus, he really needs it, as I've learned from my own show. You really need your holiday; you don't need to go do something else on somebody else's show. But we would love to have him."

And though Xena isn't going anywhere soon, Lucy Lawless does admit she has other aspirations for her career. " I don't want to be 50 and walking around in my leather skirt, saying, 'Hey, remember me?'" she notes. "I would like to go out on a high. So, we'll just go until it feels right. We don't want to disappoint people.

"I would like to start [other projects], she says, "but I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it, because I don't know how I'm going to feel after 23 more episodes. I'm looking at a couple of [movie] scripts, but nothing that has excited me enough. I could not be working any more than I am at the moment, so when would I have time to do another damn thing? Here, I'm surrounded by fantastic people, really creative people. I love the Xena experience."
And what does the animated Xena look like in action? Catch her stylized heroism in the direct-to-video Hercules & Xena: The Battle for Olympus.            "Xena is a positive thing and that's all that matters," Lawless announces. Inset caption: Will Hercules (Kevin Sorbo) return to guest star once again on Xena? "We would sure love to have him," Lawless says.

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