L for Leather
As a new series of Xena reaches our screens we talk to Lucy Lawless about playing the legendary warrior princess.
She 's brave, she independent, she's beautiful - and she's been known to thrash Star Trek in the ratings. Xena: Warrior Princess is one of the Cult TV sensations of the Nineties, and it has elevated leading lady Lucy Lawless from jobbing actress to international celebrity.
Xena made her first appearance in an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, The Warrior Princess, in which she was portrayed as a power-crazed and deadly aggressor. Viewer reaction to the character was positive, so much so that she returned for two further installments - The Gauntlet and The Unchained Heart - although her attitude had softened radically. Even with this change of heart, Xena was still popular - so much so that she was considered ripe for a spin-off series of her own.
Set in 'the Golden Age of myth, long before ancient Greece or Rome', Xena: Warrior Princess finds Xena planning to make amends for her past. Accompanied by her best friend, the feisty Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor), Xena plans to help the oppressed fight back against tyranny and injustice.
"She's somebody, who struggles to do right thing," says Lawless, when asked to describe the character. "She's a woman as strong as any man or woman has ever been, who lives by her own wits, but is also a fighter. She's a very human hero, who knows all about the darker side of human nature since she must battle it within herself every day. I don't think she thinks of herself as a good person - she doesn't even think in those terms at all. She's not introspective unless she has to be."
The actress believes that Xena's incredible popularity can be attributed to the fact that there is no one else like her on television.
"Nobody dared to do a full-on female heroine in episodic television for many years," she explains. "There's never been a woman without a male sidekick. Xena's flawed and I think everybody can relate to her on some level. She's also, I like to think, the kind of woman a man can have a beer with; she doesn't go in for small talk. She's a 'hunting, shooting and fishing' type woman!"
Meeting Lawless is an interesting experience: she's tall (nearly six feet high), with piercing blue eyes and engaging character. Yet she's nothing like her on-screen counterpart - the aggression and determination are substituted for a gentle wit and appealing grace.
"People imagine I'm going to be a lot scarier than I am," she clarifies, adding that this has its advantages - particularly when she wants to stave off unwanted attention. "I'm very seldom approached by men, unless they're drunk."
With its inventive stories laced with high quotients of action and humor, Xena has managed to appeal to everyone. Women like the action heroine, men like the action and titillation, while kids are engrossed by the fantasy and action sequences. The show even has a substantial following among lesbians - although one gets the impression that this is something the Xena publicists wish to play down, for fear of marginalizing the series.
"We have every demographic - it's really quite startling," enthuses Lawless. "That's a credit to the producers and the writers. And Renee O'Connor, who plays my sidekick, is truly my best friend on set. At the weekends we don't hang together that much - I have a child and she has a really interesting life outside of work - but on set she's absolutely my ally."
While television has seen female action heroes before - from Wonderwoman and The Bionic Woman's Jaime Sommers to triumvirate of Charlie's Angels - none of them have proved as physical as Xena. The warrior is skilled in martial arts and acrobatics, and uses a whole range of weapons - including a razor-sharp discus known as the chakram.
Yet ask Lawless if she too possesses such skills, and she reluctantly admits that, before she came to the show, she had no experience of martial arts. But she will reveal that as a child she was something of a tomboy…
"I was not skilled in sports at all," she divulges. "I grew up in a very rough and tumble family environment, with a lot of brothers, which was just great fun. So I learned to be tough but not physically dextrous."
Just to ensure that Xena's fighting skills are as honed as possible, Lawless recently spent a short time in Los Angeles, training with renowned martial arts master Douglas Wong, learning swordplay and the basic moves of kung fu. However, Xena's skills at horseriding have come quite naturally.
"My godfather had bought me a funny little pony when I was 10, and I learned to ride until I was 15, and then got interested in boys. Of course, the pony always loses that war! I rode this fat and, looking back on it, rather nasty little pony for about five years, so I'm quite difficult to get off a horse. It was a bit of a surprise last October when I came off during Tonight with Jay Leno. I don't even like to think of it - I'm fully healed, and philosophically a lot of good stuff came out of that period. The horse just slipped on concrete as we pivoted."
A native of Auckland, New Zealand, lawless is the oldest girl in a family of seven children. Her interest in acting came to the surface while at convent school, when she appeared in numerous musicals and plays. After graduating Lawless traveled the world, taking in Europe and Australia, until she ran out of money and was forced to sign on with a gold-mining company in the outback town of Calgary. Living miles away from civilization, Lawless earned a living from digging, mapping and driving trucks.
After marrying bar manager Garth Lawless (the couple later divorced in 1995) she returned to Auckland. She gave birth to her daughter Daisy (who is now seven years old) and then focused her attention on a career in acting. After securing work in commercials and guest roles in episodic television shows, she moved on Vancouver for eight months to study her craft at the William Davis Center. When lawless returned to New Zealand, the work was more forthcoming: she became co-host of a travel show, before winning the one-off role of Lysia in Hercules and the Amazon women.
"It's a complete miracle," says Lawless of her inauguration into the world of myths and legends. "I always knew my appeal was in North America, and those were the kind of jobs I would get, but Hollywood came to me when someone else pulled out of the job. It's a classic Hollywood story."
Nevertheless, for the role of Xena the actress was required to lose her native accent, and fake a North American pronunciation. This proved no problem for an individual who has a natural talent for languages, and can speak English, German, French and Italian.
"When the camera is rolling I do an American accent, and the minute they say 'cut' I'm back to my regular self," she offers. "I guess I never even think about it. It seems these days that whenever I perform I use American accent. It took a little bit of work - they way we speak in my country, generally we have a linguistically lazy way of using our mouths. It did take a little practice, but I guess you just absorb whatever's around."
These days the former Mrs. New Zealand (she was crowned in 1989) has become one of her country's best known exports. Yet she admits that at first she was uncomfortable with the prospect of fame, reluctant to take on the responsibilities of a role model for the masses.
"I felt that would be a very heavy yoke to carry," she reveals. "I didn't want people to copy me - they should be autonomous for God's sake and get a life. As it's turned out it's not a burden after all. I'm really honored to be part of this - it's had such a positive influence on people, on women in particular. That's evident. I suppose I'm just as pleased that young men are tuning in, and young men are getting a view of a new kind of woman who is self-determining and not ashamed to be a woman and is 100 per cent woman."
It's ironic that former beauty queen should now be a symbol for women's liberation. It's possible that this paradox also amused the producers of Xena, who actually included an episode, Here she Comes, Miss Amphipolis, in which the character enters a beauty pageant in an effort to prevent a war.
"It wasn't really a hard hitting expose, I'll tell you that much!" grimaced Lawless. "Everything you've ever heard about them is absolutely true. They're absolute nonsense. You can't blame the young women for doing that, because frankly you're 19 and stupid. Believe me in another 10 years they're going to go, 'I was stupid', I can imagine that they do not pick a Miss America who is unintelligent, because that's not a good show pony - and think quite often you're not as able to make informed choices when you're 19 as you are when you're 30 or 40."
Harsh words indeed - but does she worry about offending people with such criticisms.
"I just speak my mind," she responds. "I know how to lie, but life's too short and I'm not inclined to do that anymore. Those days are over."
While Lawless is contracted to Xena: Warrior Princess until at least the year 2000, she is keen to explore other avenues in the breaks between seasons. Most recently she created quite a star on Broadway, playing Rizzo in the box office smash Grease.
The job offer came as a complete surprise, after she had a guest appearance on The Rosie O'Donnell Show.
"The producers happened to be watching and the offer came through and I jumped at it," she recalls. "Even though I'm not a seasoned theatre performer - it was just something fresh and new. To do a film would not be as filling personally for me.
"They wouldn't cast me as the good girl. For some reason that I can't fathom they want me to play the bad girl, so I had a lot fun with that. The audience and the company gave me such a warm welcome."
Nevertheless, Lawless will admit to some first night nerves.
"I was absolutely petrified, especially with the dancing aspect of performance. I'm not a dancer by any stretch of imagination and that had me terrified, so much so that my acting went down the tubes. I was trying to think of what was the next piece of choreography coming up.
"I did sing as a teenager, and I think I picked up some fairly bad technique, and it really shut down my voice. Whenever I would get stressed my throat would close up, so I did it partly as a way for me to overcome that phobia of singing. I'm so glad I did."
These days Lawless is back in New Zealand, continuing work on the third season of Xena: Warrior Princess, which gets it UK premiere on Sky 1 this month (earlier episodes of the show can be seen on Channel 5).
When asked to reveal something of what the future has in store for the action heroine, Lawless shrugs. "I don't know. I just get to work each day and they put some script in front of me and I go, 'Oh My God, now I'm going to India - terrific!' 'Now I'm going to be covered in mud and freezing on a snowy mountaintop - terrific!"
"All sorts of good stuff is coming up. It's a little more adult. People might want to screen the show this year for their kids - it's a little scary in parts."
We're also promised more of the actress in different roles. After the success of the episode Warrior…Princes…Tramp, in which Lawless played Xena, her look-alike Princess Diana and the tramp meg, there is a new character on the horizon.
"I love that tramp role - Meg is just an out of control type of girl! This year we've added a priestess who can't say her r's properly, so she's a pwiestess'! Those ones are always good fun to shoot - I love comedies. I'm constantly challenged."
Xena has fought her way to the top of the syndicated ratings in the US - even brushing aside screen cousin Hercules on the way. One can't help feeling that Lawless really deserves this success - she's certainly worked hard enough to get there, and even now she can still see through the glitz of Hollywood. "Nothing can last forever," she muses. "But I'm loving it and trying to appreciate every moment I have."