THEY'RE NOT YOUR AVERAGE MOMS. AFTER ALL, HOW many mothers have their own action figures and flay evil foes all in a day's work? But underneath those form-fitting costumes beat the hearts of women who battle the same guilt and worries over their children as all parents do.

Lucy Lawless, who plays the title role in the syndicated hit Xena: Warrior Princess, and Jeri Ryan, Seven of Nine on UPN's Star Trek: Voyager, may seem worlds apart – one's a passionate warrior princess from ancient times, the other a brainy Borg from the 24th century – but they have more in common than their bodacious, butt-kicking characters suggest. They're both 31, juggle motherhood and work, and are strong yet sexy role models. What better way to celebrate mother's Day than to check in with two of television's greatest?

Because of a hectic Xena schedule that frequently has her shooting on location in the hinterlands of New Zealand, Lawless usually sees her 10-year-old daughter, Daisy, only on weekends. The star's ex-husband, Auckland computer specialist Garth Lawless, whom she divorced three years ago, has custody of Daisy Mondays through Fridays. "He's a very hands-on, excellent father," says the actress. "The arrangement is sometimes emotionally hard on us all, but considering the circumstances, it works out well. When I'm in America for an extended tim, Daisy either comes with me, or – if she's in school – we meet halfway in Hawaii for little vacations. She's a real water baby."

Though Lawless, married since March 1998 to Xena co-creator and executive producer Rob Tapert, intends to pursue movie roles when Xena ends its run, she says, "Career is not as important as having a long, successful marriage and having more kids." Sooner than she thought, as it turns out. Last month, lawless discovered she was pregnant with the couple's first child, due in October during the show's hiatus. As for disguising the un-superhero-like condition, Lawless said, "I rather fancy Xena wheeling a little baby carriage across the savannah." But seriously, folks, "We could film Xena standing behind a bush, peeking around the trunk of a tree, or standing in water up to her neck." Not your usual pillow-file-folder-refrigerator-door tricks, but it would certainly work for a warrior.

Star Trek: Voyager's Jeri Ryan says her recent divorce from Chicago-based banker Jack Ryan "has been quite rough, especially with the tabloids printing every single aspect of it." But the split has simplified matters: For the first year and a half of her Voyager run, the actress made exhaustive, twice-weekly commutes from her home in Chicago to the set in Los Angeles.

"Just walking into an airport still puts me in a foul mood," claims Ryan, who now shares permanent Los Angeles digs with her four-year-old son, Alex. But the boy is struggling with his mom's popularity. "The older he gets, the more it affects him," says Ryan. "He used to be all right about my being recognized in public, but now when somebody wants an autograph, he says, ‘No, you're Mommy! You're Mommy!’ and he will pull me along. That's very hard."

Ryan, born in Germany to a U.S. Army sergeant and his housekeeping wife, says, "I've got a lot of guilt going on here. My own mom didn't go to work until I was 13, and I know I benefited so much from that."

The two stars ponder their popularity and influence.

Q: You two have scored tremendous popularity playing smart, fierce, powerful action figures, so why don't we see a slew of Xena and Seven imitators?

Jeri Ryan: Who knows? I'm theory-free. Somebody is always ripping off Friends or ER or Ally McBeal, but this is the one thing they've missed.

Lucy Lawless: Hey, maybe it's not that easy finding good-looking chicks who are also smart.

Ryan: And can do action.

Lawless: And are good actresses. Maybe we've just caught the wave of grrrl power. It's very hard to analyze any of this. I mean, 40 years of feminism has culminated with the Spice Girls.

Ryan: If you'll notice, the film industry hasn't exactly capitalized on the success of action women, either. There was Sigourney Weaver. And Linda Hamilton. And... well, that's about it.

Lawless: It's a shame that we're such standouts. But who needs the competition? I like it that so few women can do action.

Q: You both came to success in different ways. Xena sort of snuck up on people, but fans were already buzzing about Seven before her first episode.

Ryan: Exactly! I was getting hate mail before I hit the air. People saw the early photos of my cat suit and thought I was dragging Star Trek into the gutter. Now those people are my strongest supporters. Seven has become a very positive role model for women.

Q: Is there pressure in that?

Lawless: At first it felt like a burden – like a yoke I couldn't carry. But I eventually came to see that it can be really pleasant, that people aren't expecting more of me – just that I be human, be kind.

Q: Your characters are also similar and rather unusual in the TV landscape in that their primary relationships are with other women – Xena with Gabrielle [Reneé O'Connor], Seven with Captain Janeway [Kate Mulgrew].

Lawless: Oooh, female buddies! [Raises an eyebrow and flashes a mock erotic glance toward Ryan.] That topic again.

Ryan: Wink, wink, nudge, nudge! But, seriously, why is it perceived as odd? Women can be strong and self-sufficient but still want female bonding.

Lawless: That's life! Why don't we see more of that? All my best friends are women.

Q: Both of you have major lesbian followings.

Lawless: And I'll be eternally grateful for that. The lesbians were our first fans, especially the lesbian community in New York City. They're the ones who started the underground buzz about us. They really gave Xena a groove.

Q: So they're not imagining a lesbian subtext in your show?

Lawless: Well, that supposed "subtext" came as a surprise to me. At first, I kind of laughed and said, "Oh, isn't that silly!" It struck us all as very amusing. But then, because there's always a large lesbian contingent on the crews in New Zealand, we started playing up to it on the set. We'd drop a few jokes into the scenes here and there. They weren't in the script, just impromptu lesbian high jinks on the day of filming. But we've moved on. I mean, how long can you keep that going?

Ryan: There was a big petition on the Internet to habe Seven be the first lesbian [regular] on Star Trek. Then somebody issued a fake press release announcing it was going to happen. Then all the fans got disappointed when it didn't. Well, not everyone. I don't know that mainstream America is ready for it. But who knows? My character is exploring all aspects of humanity – and sexuality is certainly one of those aspects – so it wouldn't surprise me if lesbianism is touched on. Seven would be the obvious character to explore it with. Our show is about acceptance and shedding prejudice.

Q: Does playing tough ever get too tough?

Lawless: Last season we had a long stretch of episodes that were very emotionally charged and physically demanding, and we were in snow and rain and cold for months. I was in so much discomfort that I just lost it. Oh, the tears! The drama! I started to have what is called a neural association, where you associate work with pain. It got to the point where I could not even speak about work at home. So then, by association, home became a bad thing. I was a mess. But thanks to some Tony Robbins tapes, I nipped it in the bud before I lost everything, including the respect of my colleagues and possibly my marriage.

Ryan: I had a similar experiance. I was sick with something almost every day of my first season – colds, sinus infections, bronchitis – and getting only four hours of sleep a night because of the schedule, so by the time we got to this really gruelling, complicated two-parter set in World War II, I was totally wiped. It all came to a head during an exterior night shot when El Niño moved in, and it started to tain on us – pouring rain – and I completely broke down. I couldn't function. I just sat down for a long time crying and trying to figure out if being on the show was worth it, because at that point if didn't seem like it was.

Q: Don't tears on the job set back the cause of feminism?

Ryan: Hey, anybody would buckle under those circumstances. Anyway, I tend to cry rather than scream at people or hit walls or throw things. You know, like guys do.

Q: Despite the role models you provide, let's face it, neither of you is June Cleaver. Sex is still the driving force of your characters.

Lawless: On Xena, we link everything to secuality. Listen, we're not doing Law & Order. I'm totally comfortable with the quotient of eye candy on our show. We try to make a smart show that pretends it's secy and dopey.

Ryan: I have no problem with it, either. I knew exactly what I was in for when I had my first costume fitting. Clearly my character was added to the show for sex appeal, which remains the one way to get attention very quickly. I don't think it's the only way to get viewers to watch strong women, but it worked. The reason they stuck around wasn't because she's wearing Saran Wrap, but because she is written beautiffuly, intelligently, courageously.

Article appeared in:
TV WEEK Magazine
MAY 8 to 14, 1999

Article written by Michael Logan
cover photograph: © Studios USA, Paramount Pictures; Image manipulation: Rick Butler

Return to Xena Articles Index