20 Questions - Lucy Lawless
Lucy and the dollie

What do you say to a woman with jet-black hair and piercing baby blues who also wears a leather battle dress, twirls a sword and gives you a saucy don't-fuck-with-me smile? We don't think it's "spank me," even if you've done something very wrong. Better to back up quickly. That's what most foes do weekly on "Xena: Warrior Princess," starring New Zealand actress Lucy Lawless. Spun off from "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," "X: WP" quickly became a top syndicated show. According to "Ms." magazine, it's mythical heroine is a role model for women of all ages, everywhere. There's also plenty in "X: WP" for guys who appreciate a postmodern kick-ass warrior gal from across the sea of time. Lawless, 29, plays Xena with grit and style, doing many of her own stunts. Plus, she gets to love and loathe gods, battle tyrants and Cyclopes and ride the classical world while her trusty sidekick Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) walks. The show is funny, too. And using the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, it doesn't mind playing with your fantasies, either. We asked Contributing Editor David Rensin, who never misses the show, to meet with Lawless. She was recuperating from the pelvis-fracturing fall she took last October while filming a skit for "The Tonight Show." Says Rensin, "Lucy may have an American accent on the show, but in person she speaks flawless New Zealand English. She glided to the front door in a wheelchair and welcomed me with hearty good cheer. Then she asked me to get her a rolling office chair, switched seats and prepared a delicious brunch of garlic and tomato on toasted shepherd's bread. I kept my eyes peeled for the sword, though."


PLAYBOY: How much fun can you have with a name like yours?

LAWLESS: I did toy with Rita Reckless for a time, but that's not as good as Lucy Lawless. Lawless is my ex-husband's name. The implications never occurred to me until after I got married. I recall holding my head in my hands, sobbing, "Oh no, people will never take me seriously with a name like this!" I got over it. It's actually a good name. In fact, I believe that I couldn't have thought up a better name for somebody who plays a warrior princess.


PLAYBOY: Xena's costume is not only aesthetically compelling, it's also a marvel of structural engineering. Were other styles tried? What's more flattering, a Wonderbra or a breastplate?

LAWLESS: The first time Xena appeared on the Hercules series, her costume was black and malevolent. It had big claw-like epaulets and a cape. The producers thought it was too evil for a hero, so we changed it to brown and made it a little more audience-friendly. However, I miss the original outfit because it was sexy! I also miss it because it was more comfortable. The current costume has a longer bodice, and it feels like my whole abdomen is in a straitjacket. The first left me more free to move. The Wonderbra and the breastplate work together just fine. You can't have one without the other. In fact, Xena has only one costume. She's a minimalist. Besides, you just can't buy these things off the rack, now or in ancient times.


PLAYBOY: What idd you have to do to land the role that made you so famous? Were the gods looking out for you?

LAWLESS: I didn't even know about Xena. The role fell to me. Everyone the producers tried to give it to got sick or pulled out. I got it because I was there and had done a couple of non-Xena parts in the Hercules TV movies. When the call came I was on holiday, fighting the flu, trying to give my daughter the camping experience. We were in some Podunk town. They had shut down the paper for three days, and in the last edition were the other three days' horoscopes. We were reading these things and laughing our heads off. Mine said: "Fame and fortune await you. Overseas travel. This could be the big one. You'll get a call from overseas." I got the call to be Xena that day.


PLAYBOY: Do you now regularly consult the stars?

LAWLESS: I'm loath to believe in New Age mumbo jumbo. It wouldn't occur to me to consult my horoscope unless it came across my gaze as I was flipping to the comics. But these things do happen. When I was in Turkey during our last hiatus, we were told that a young girl--the cousin of the wife of our guide--had a prodigious talent for telling fortunes from coffee grounds. You drink thick Turkish coffee from small cups, leaving the sludge. You put a saucer on top and flip it all over and leave it to cool. Then the fortune-teller lifts the cup, and the more the suction, the stronger the fortune inside or the more potent the news. My cup would hardly come off. She said, "You'll do well for yourself and make a bunch of money," and all sorts of stuff, things about people dying and other things I had no interest in believing. But later, after the accident on The Tonight Show, my traveling companion came to see me in the hospital and said, "How about that fortune-teller?" I said, "Well, she talked a lot of crap, didn't she?" He said, "But remember how she said there would be a man with a big chin or a long face [Jay Leno] and that pain would be involved?" I said, "Oh my God!"


PLAYBOY: What's your best advice for anyone who has to deal with the gods? Does pantheism make for a more interesting life than monotheism?

LAWLESS: If you piss off the gods, you have to have a good escape route. They're an argumentative bunch, and if you're smart, you can turn them on one another instead of on yourself. Monotheism is a lot simpler. You have only one god to bother with. But pantheism has its advantages because people can blame lots of other influences for their own behavior. Personally I'm still dealing with this god concept. I am a recovering Catholic. Still, I don't want to have a lot of gods. Imagine having to assuage all those egos. One is more than I can handle.


PLAYBOY: You are fair-skinned. How come Xena is so tan?

LAWLESS: It's partly my fault. In the beginning I pushed for her to look busty and sexy and dark, like those statues in Madrid--big and curvaceous and bronzed, with a mane of hair. I imagined something Gabriela Sabatini-esque, but with brains. So they paint on the tan with a sponge and it takes about five minutes. It takes a lot longer to get it off. My bathroom is a mess, and I hate cleaning tile grout.


PLAYBOY: Xena has to sleep on the ground. Do you recommend it?

LAWLESS: The woman's mad. I like the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago, the ancient mythological equivalent of which would be some bum boy following you around laying his cape over puddles.


PLAYBOY: During the show's first season, Ms. suggested that Xena was a feminist icon for our times. In this postfeminist era, what does feminism mean to you?

LAWLESS: The maturing of women, who are 51 percent of the society. There will come a day when women will say, "What do you mean, subjugated?" When I came here and was hit with all this "You're an icon, we need you," I was taken aback because it had never really been an issue in my life. People may find it hard to believe, but I am blessed to be the recipient of nearly a hundred years of suffrage in New Zealand. Women in New Zealand had the vote before women anywhere else in the world. My mother is an influential woman in the community. I'm not saying that women in New Zealand are treated better than they are anywhere else. But I am saying that we're pretty strong because it was a hard land to colonize. We've retained that get-on-with-it attitude.


PLAYBOY: If Xena were to marry Hercules, what labors would she require him to do around the house?

LAWLESS: He would be very handy for picking up that centaur poop. However, no one's yet written that episode because it's so, well, unattractive. She'd have him in a French maid's outfit. She'd subjugate him, make him wear a collar. Actually I doubt the wisdom of a match between Xena and Hercules. He's innately good-natured, and her pendulum swings violently. It would just be a vortex of misery. Xena would be whining to Gabrielle, "He's not passionate enough! He's so nice." I see a match made in hell.


PLAYBOY: Clearly the show likes to provoke its audience. For instance, in some women's prisons, inmates reportedly enjoy Xena nights. Even though Xena and her trusty sidekick Gabrielle have male lovers, their relationship seems intentionally ambiguous. Is it?

LAWLESS: Xena nights in prisons? Good lord. Although we're happy to have every constituency under the sun, we never pander to any particular section of our audience. We simply want to make a show that we, the twisted individuals who make it, want to watch. We like to shock, but not too hard. We don't want to alienate. We don't have to be moralistic, either. We're not trying to change the world, we just want to entertain. We take delight in twisting it just a little when the audience is getting comfortable. We want to shake them up. For instance, the first couple of episodes this season were gentle, emotional, heartstring pullers. And then we wrote a fast-paced, almost rock-video-girlie-vampires-on-the-moon Halloween episode in which Gabrielle bites Xena on the neck. We shot in slow motion, close up. We laughed so much when we did that.


PLAYBOY: Gabrielle is a great friend, almost a sister, perhaps more. She and Xena will defend each other to the death. But can she borrow your cloak?

LAWLESS: No. She can get up on my horse, but she can't touch my weapons. She has to keep her hands off the chakram. She's allowed to rub my shoulders, but she's not allowed to play with my hair. She can't use my toothbrush. That's reserved for the fourth season.


PLAYBOY: Let's talk about interspecies mating. In one of your early Hercules TV movies--before you were Xena--you played the bride of a centaur. What are the wifely duties when your husband is half man, half horse? What do you do when he's feeling his oats? Does neigh really mean nay to a centaur?

LAWLESS: First, you've got to carry around a spade. It's like owning a dog in Los Angeles. You also have to pick stuff out of their feet and keep laing down new straw. When he feels his oats you sow them, but neigh really does mean nay, even in ancient times.


PLAYBOY: What sort of ancient decor do you have in your home?

LAWLESS: I have some breakaway Grecian urns for smashing people over the head. And I always keep a sword from the show in the back of my car. It's rubber-covered metal and quite weighty. I need to practice a lot.


PLAYBOY: Have you ever been invited to lecture to university classics departments?

LAWLESS: No. [Smiles] I get letters from professors, but none with university logos on them.


PLAYBOY: Name three things that start with x, not including xylophone, Xerox or X ray.

LAWLESS: A good question, but not quite fair. Let's see, xenophobia, Xavier... oh, what's another one? I'll kick myself. I don't know. But I'll tell you this story: The reason Xena is spelled with an X is that Rob Tapert, the show's executive producer and co-creator, learned it from Dino De Laurentiis. De Laurentiis said that if you spell the word with an X, "kids will understand." And he's right. I remember so clearly being a kid and thinking that Xs were really attractive. They're not used much, and they're a cool symbol. It has kid appeal, and everybody has a kid inside somewhere.

Besides, what does a Z mean? It means sleep. Zzzzz. Snoring.


PLAYBOY: As a princess of sorts, what's your advice to other royals? Should Diana and Fergie get real jobs? Should they go out and fight evil?

LAWLESS: Should they lop off their ex-husband's heads? Knocking of royals is part of a proud tradition. Yeah, definitely, get a bloody job. Keep out of the tabloids. Learn a bit of discretion. Or, they could just abolish the monarch.


PLAYBOY: Even though New Zealanders and Americans technically speak the same language, there are probably words that are innocent in one country and faux pass in the other. What should the American traveler not say?

LAWLESS: Fanny pack. We say bum bag, because fannies in New Zealand are not located at the back. They're at the, uh, other side, round the front. [Laughs] Also, knickers are underpants. And all my life I've heard people say, "Oh, bugger off" or "Well, bugger me!" In my country no one thinks about what that really means. It's just an expression like "Blow me down with a feather." But in a America it's a different story. We also say "Good on ya" a lot. It's like a blessing--"Good for you," a word of encouragement. One American producer thought we were saying, "Get on ya," and he'd reply, "Well, get on me then!" He would laugh and we'd try to be polite and go "Ha-ha--what the hell is he laughing at?" It took us a year and a half to figure that out. Also, people down under don't understand the generosity of the American spirit. In America, if you catch somebody's eye you'll say "How are ya?" If you do that in New Zealand--and I've seen this time and time again with Americans who come down--people turn away quickly. They're embarrassed. Eye contact with strangers is impolite.


PLAYBOY: What would a shrink tell Xena?

LAWLESS: "Lighten up!" The devil's in her gut and the angel's in her heart, and her head has to get the two together. Her gut reaction is fight, not flight. I think she realizes she has to change. No, she realizes there's a need for redemption, but she doesn't recognize that she has to change. I like the way the audience thinks it knows her better than she does. The audience feels closer to her than she does to herself. She's a good person who doesn't think she is. I love her just as she is. I'm astounded when people say she's moody or grim. The shrink just better hope she doesn't bring her sword to the office. One mention of Prozac and she'd take him out.


PLAYBOY: How did you come up with Xena's battle cry?

LAWLESS: It's a really good sound. You don't want to do it in a small space. Our executive producers wanted the Arabic warble--the tongue goes from side to side and then up--but it's a different movement that I couldn't master. But this one came easily and I can do it loud and prolonged without ruining my throat. It seems useful. Some people hated it at first, but it's like Tarzan: You need these gimmicks. Same reason Xena does acrobatic flips when she could walk. More gimmicks. Let's face it.


PLAYBOY: What's Xena's vacation fantasy?

LAWLESS: A biennial sailing trip to Lesbos.

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