In the Eye of the Storm

Lucy Lawless reflects on the new season

By Robert Weisbrot

Hercules & Xena Yearbook

Official Collector's Edition

Lucy Lawless often gently reminds people, "I'm not Xena," though she'll add only half in jest, "Except when I'm tired." By late July 1998 Lawless was, by her own admission, exhausted, "simply at the end of my tether" after shooting "four extremely grueling episodes" in a row. And her always candid comments gained added force and urgency as she reflected on a growing "crisis of faith":

"I have become aware that I'm changing, I'm becoming a different sort of actress. I'm not a method actress by any stretch of the imagination but the nature of the episodes that we've been doing, in which Xena is very torn and very much in pain, has been wearing on me, has been telling on me in my personal life, in my free time. And that never happened before."

Of course, Xena from her first appearance in 1995 has been a character in turmoil "but," Lawless said, "I never felt anything afterwards. I'd just go back to laughing and mucking around with my mates. It was never a problem, but it's become a problem." Lawless laughingly denied that she was becoming Xena, then added, "But you carry over the emotion. You know, you can't dredge up that kind of emotion from thin air. I guess before, it always felt like that, but nowadays it comes out of somewhere in me and it doesn't [simply] vanish back into thin air. It leaves a scar in my chi -- my energy is dissipated for quite some time afterwards."

Was Lawless feeling more vulnerable because her character is moving into new emotional realms? "Yes and no," she replied. "I think I am. I have fewer defenses than ever before. And somewhere in me, I'm wiped out in a way I never have felt before. But curiously I think that may make my acting better. Because there is no bravado, so perhaps my acting will be more raw, more interesting. And to improve is the whole point of life, isn't it? To improve in every way?"

In the opening episodes of this season's Xena: Warrior Princess, an obsessed Xena invades the Amazon world of the dead to rescue Gabrielle from oblivion.
Lawless may have been reacting at least in part to the deepening angst, moral ambiguity, and sheer horror that have gripped Xena: Warrior Princess since early in the third season. Even a selective roll call of that season's traumatic conflicts reveals a withering of the show's hopeful tone: Gabrielle's loss of "blood innocence" by killing a woman, her violation by the god Dahak's fiery spirit, and her delivery of a demon daughter, Hope; Xena's attempt to kill Gabrielle in revenge for Hope's murder of her son Solan; and Gabrielle's harshly penitent bid to kill her own daughter, through poison and later by plunging with her into an abyss The wrenching legacies of these and other grim acts will extend into the new season.

Lawless at first disclaimed any larger vision of the direction of the series, saying, "I'm too close to it, indeed I'm within it. I'm at the heart of the story and it ain't calm, nobody can tell me the eye of the storm is a calm place to be! I'm handed a script and I go, 'Oh. my God!' How do I make these lines work?!'" But while Lawless seldom reads more than a few scripts ahead, she acknowledged having picked up something of the upcoming storylines from "having heard interviews with Rob," referring to her husband and executive producer Rob Tapert. "The 'official blurb' for the new season," she said, "is that Gabrielle and Xena travel to India, Mesopotamia, and many other lands, searching for the meaning of life -- Gabrielle actively Xena slightly more passively, because she is a more instinctual operator."

Although death has claimed countless soldiers and villagers in Xena, its hold over recurring characters once again proves more porous than permanent. Despite Gabrielle's apparent demise last season, "she of course returns," Lawless said, though only after Xena spends several episodes searching for her. Also "Hope comes back, and she's bigger and 'better' than ever before." But Callisto, having been stabbed by Xena with a knife dipped in hind's blood, is not likely to return, according to Lawless. Callisto of course has cheated death before, escaping entombments by rock slides, lava flows, and "vortexes" between parallel universes. But, said Lawless, "I don't think the writers feel there is much more they can do with her [dramatically]. Callisto absolutely has been the most effective foe but I think she may have run her course."

Lao Ma, Xena's wondrous but ill-fated guardian and tutor in last season's riveting two-part story, "The Debt," is gone but not forgotten. "I've seen her name mentioned in the scripts recently," Lawless explained, "but you'll see in a flashback in the [new] season opener that Xena went right on being rotten after that. She saw what Lao Ma had and she's looking for it, but in all the wrong places. She's getting a lot of gurus to try to conjure up that [spiritual] force in her life again but she doesn't find gurus who have an uplifting message -- she finds some 'baddies.'" Lawless said that she'd love to work again with the "lovely, fabulous actress" who played Lao Ma, Jacqueline Kim, adding, "Lao Ma should be an angel for Xena the rest of her life."

Although Xena and Gabrielle rediscover each other, Lawless said, "the rift between the friends actually hardens a little. The friendship will always be under threat. And as often happens after someone goes away and comes back, one says, 'Aw, terrific, let's carry on just as we did before!' But the other person has undergone such a change that she can't reconcile her old life with her new self. And it's very difficult for the [first] person to digest that.

"Gabrielle has been through such a time of personal and emotional turmoil, just a huge spiritual crisis, that she is forever changed. It's almost imperceptible but she knows it's there. And she's grown up in some ways. You know, every now and again in life, the scales fall from your eyes and you are a sadder but wiser person, and you still laugh, but yon laugh in a different way after that. And Gabrielle's disappearance and all her experiences with Hope have matured her. While Xena thinks that everything's hunky-dory, she's got her friend back, she doesn't realize that her friend isn't the little buddy that she left. So they're going to travel on [together], but Gabrielle has evolved quite substantially in the last season. They're more equal than ever, as women."

Lawless recognizes that the past season tried to challenge rather than comfort viewers. She explained, "l think that's because Rob [Tapert], the iconoclast that he is, has been going through a phase of 'deconstructing' the heroes, deconstructing [the relationship between] the best friends." Lawless marveled not only at the harsh events surrounding the rift between Xena and Gabrielle, but also at the rift this has caused with some long-time fans: "Wow, yeah, the two [characters] have really gone through a lot! And it wasn't so popular, was it? It wasn't a popular move to deconstruct the relationship."

While Lawless commiserated with viewers who felt alienated by the horrors befalling Xena, Gabrielle, and their once inviolate bond, she insisted that the show's change in direction was inevitable.

"[Some people] want the show to be friendly, the show they can depend on for friendship. They might well be the "Angel" crowd [a wry reference to the spiritually upbeat TV series Touched by an Angel]. But you've just got to keep your show evolving so that everybody that makes it stays fresh and interested, the writers in particular. Otherwise it becomes too formulaic. This show will [dare to] lose its heart. it will lose its center. just to keep moving, keep changing, keep the conflict going." Asked whether Xena was like a shark that must forever swim or sink, Lawless replied. "Yeah, this particular shark [if it stops moving] will give up the ghost altogether."

Joxer the Mighty (Ted Raimi) will be back again on Xena, lightening up the grequently dark series with his customary antics. Below, a funny scene from "Key to the Kingdom."
Lawless offered a parting wish for viewers who recoiled from the shocks and iconoclasm of the last season. "What I hope for them is that what we're doing in the next season brings them back. I hope they feel comforted. And in another way, too, Rob and I realize the cyclic nature of the world. It's the nature of the beast that the first few years [interest] will grow at a fever pitch, and there has to be some sort of drop away in enthusiasm. And then, with any luck, people will come back stronger. And I hope it's the same with me. I'm very committed to the show but I've got to slow down!"

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