Some would say that Xena's catchphrase is the distinctive battle cry. But of late, it appears that grease is the word…
New Zealand Native Lucy Lawless is riding on a personal high and loving every minute of it. A natural optimist, the 30 year old star of Universal Television's cult phenomenon, Xena: Warrior Princess has experienced more peaks and troughs than your average roller coaster ride. In a year which has seen her married to the show's Executive Producer Robert Tapert; overcome the trauma of shattered pelvis - the result of an accident with a horse, yet still managed to take a Broadway musical by storm during a two month hiatus from her television show. Currently enjoying pottering around her new home in Auckland, an exhilarated rather than exhausted Lawless proclaims, "I've never been happier." Never one to let the grass grow under her feet, this determined young woman has her sights set on even further goals. "I'd like to continue making Xena for a couple more years, make more movies, have more children…" Nothing too ambitious for your above average super heroine then.
When the character of Xena was first introduced in a three episode arc of Hercules, the Legendary Journeys, no one least of all the actress herself, could have foreseen that the scantily clad warrior woman would become a cult figure in her own right. However, by the end of it's first 22 episodes, Xena: Warrior Princess was being hailed as one of the jewels in the Renaissance Pictures crown. Winning rave reviews from television pundits for its fanciful retelling of ancient history and mythological tales; it's Hong Kong-style action and broadly tounge-incheek humor, this hour long Fantasy drama also captured the hearts of legion of fans across the length and breadth of the Earth and Cyberspace.
Within tha past three years the programme has become so popular that every kind of prouct from action figures to trading cards from fanzines to soundtracks are available for Xena-philes hungry for a bigger slice of the action. The first official Xena convention was held in January 1997 in the US with many other fan fests springing up all pver the world. The Albacon Sci-Fi convention in Glasgow, Schotland saw a fair few Xena camp followers in September this year. So how does the raven-haired star feel about being so famous? For her it's all part of life's rich pageant. "My life has changed in every conceivable way but it's all fun and part of the game… I've gotten to the point now where I love it." Surprised that the series has even launched college classes for women entitled 'Xena 101' she is nevertheless "honoured" to be considered such a positive role model.
Acknowledging that the character she portrays is heralded as both a feminist icon and sex symbol by women and men alike Lawless is no doubt as to the reasons why. "I think the show's popularity among women steams from the fact that Xena carries the message 'Yes, I can' in both her actions and her demeanor… 'Yes, I can - alone, with no visible means of male support, whilst I think men regard her as a woman they'd like to sit and have a beer with. She's huntin' shootin' fishin' typr." Hmm! The corsetted leather basque might have something to do with it too. Protesting that "There's no other outfit as well designed for high kicks," she laughs that "It's perfect for fighting… and it has to leather so it doesn't drive the sound department crazy by jingling and jangling."
Although she started out as a 'baddie' circumstances soon forced our heroine to do a major re-think and revert from a human embodiment of Evil into the Champion we all know and love. "throughout the series, Xena has battled with her own inner demons as much as those which beset her from the outside." A factor which Lawless feels contributes to the show's universal appeal.
From the prmiere episode in Season Three when a frighteningly demented Xena is tortured by the aptly named Furies -three terrifying clones of Scary Spice, through to the intricate twist and turns of The Deliverer which sees her saving the life of a lowly Brit in order to better an old adversary, Xena's personality undergoes an impressive array of conflicting emotions. Deep and meaningful aside, the latest season is as memorable for its humorous content as for the philosophical. Been There, Done That, an hilarious takeoff of the classic film Groundhog Day has our intrepid heroes repeating the same day over and over again, plus The Quill is Mightier - a story highlighting the sillier side of female jealousy are among the actress's favorites.
This season sees several episodes offer the recurring characters the opportunity to flex their artistic muscles too. Tsunami gives Bruce Campbell, otherwise knows as Autolycus his chance to shine, whilst The King of Assassins allows the inept Joxer (Ted Raimi) sufficient rein to show off his serious and his comedic acting skills. However it is Xena's closest friend and confidante who is given most scope to develop her talents.
Not totally alone in her monumental struggle to make amends for past sins, Xena is ably assisted by her plucky and loyal companion Gabrielle, played by Texan actress Renee O'Connor. "She is the woman I most love to work with in the world," quotes Lawless. Over the years the duo forge a friendship so strong that almost nothing but death can intervene. Week after week they risk their lives for one another as they fight against gods, banshees, tyrants and monsters, in fact anything and everything which threatens the harmony of the world. Well, they do until certain momentous events in Season Three wreak havoc on all that they hold dear. In a remarkably dramatic story arc involving motherhood, envy, persecution and betrayal Xena's relationship with Gabrielle is put to the extreme test with Maternal Instincts and The Bitter Suite -two of the most powerful if unusual examples.
The season sees the audience challenged "as they've never been before" with the main characters questioning a lot of their own taboos and being sent to Hell by the writers in more ways than one. The concluding episodes, Sacrifice I and II in particular come perilously close to throwing the once inseparable pair back into the abyss once more. Avid viewers will have to wait a while longer to see if either woman can find her way back out with shooting not yet resumed on the eagerly awaited Season Four, lawless is confident that the writers will be able to resolve at least some of the strife. "What is so great is they [the writers] know that no matter what, Renee and I are always looking for love in a scene. Our two characters are able to hold desperate moral stances without losing their honour of humanity because of it."
Much has been made about the lesbian overtones in the characters' relationship but it isn't an issue that bothers either performer. With a good-natured shrug, Lawless claims that "We could make a big deal out of it and announce 'Oh yes, they are' or 'God, no they aren't' but we don't have a mind to do that. In fact, I'm incredibly thankful to the New York lesbian community because they were among the first to draw attention to the cult aspects of the show."
Ms Lawless has more than one reason to be indebted to New Yorkers as a whole. During the hiatus between the last two seasons she spent a memorable Summer playing Rizzo in the Broadway production of Grease, an experience which she and the audience which packed the theatre to capacity enjoyed immensely and which she's keen to repeat. Considering that she studied opera for several years a musical slant to her career seems a distinct possibility. The operatic training could also account for the ease with which she delivers the famous Xena battle cry.
A natural aptitude for all things physical greatly enhances the actress's portrayal of the Amazonian warrior. Equal to a dozen men in hand-to-hand combat her formidable cunning and fighting skills have no peers among mortals. It's one of the things which puts her at the top of the Heroes League. A recent convert to the fold confides that the main reason he watches the show is "because it's refreshing to watch a woman kick ass so much." Lawless puts her ability down to the fact that during time spent travelling the world whilst still a student, she worked as a miner doing the same gruelling work as the men, digging, loading, driving the trucks, the lot. Although she had no special training in martial arts, sword play or stunt work until she landed the role of Xena, she has since trained with martial arts supremo Douglas Wong (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) learning basic kung-fu moves and fighting techniques. "I've now reached a stage where I feel fitter and a lot more at home with the physical demands of the role… I do all the fights unless we don't have time or it's considered too dangerous."
With Season Four just around the corner (initial reports suggest that Sky will begin broadcasting in January 1999) there's a wee bit of reluctance to reveal what's in store for her character or anyone else's but what Lawless can promise is that the new season will offer even more in the way of daring adventure. "The producers and writers are constantly throwing new fireballs at me and I thrive on that." The regular team will be back with a few tantalizing surprises. Rumour has it that a novel on-going villain with either the scene but nothing is confirmed as yet. What is certain is that Xena's star, already on the ascendant, is set to go on rising way beyond those above Mount Olympus.