Volume 14 - August 1996
Savage Sword of Xena
by Joe Nazzaro
See below transcript for full size scans
With a dark past & a deadly blade, Lucy Lawless battles on as a Warrior Princess
Playing Xena, syndicated television's hottest new action heroine, is no easy task, and Lucy Lawless has plenty of bruises to prove it. The sword-wielding New Zealand actress, who's currently sharing a weekly double bill
with the legendary strongman Hercules, insists that wounds, welts, scrapes and scars are all just part of the job.
"I've actually gotten much better about that," Lawless happily announces from the Auckland studio where much of Xena is shot. "I just got five bruises today, and I don't even know how they happened. When the camera
rolls, you don't even think about it, and your reflexes get sharper after you've been hit a few times!"
Lawless is quick to point out that her fighting skills have improved considerably since her first appearance as an amazon warrior in one of the two-hour Hercules movies. "I've never thought of myself as a very physical
person," she insists. "I was never a sports freak or anything like that. My nickname was 'Unco,' or 'Uncoordinated' at school, so it was a big shock to me to be doing this sort of thing. They've been giving me a lot of
training, which has helped a lot. Unlike Kevin Sorbo, who is a sportsman from way back, I need to get my skills up and keep them up, because it doesn't come naturally to me.'
Xena: Warrior Princess is a spin-off of last season's surprise adventure-fantasy hit, Hercules The Legendary Journeys, starring Sorbo as the mythological demigod. Xena first appeared in three top-rated episodes of that
series as a merciless warrior chief out to eliminate Hercules. She eventually renounces her warlike ways and teams up with Herc to battle her former compatriots. The warrior princess turned out to be so popular that MCA
TV greenlighted a Xena spin-off series featuring the same combination of mythology, action-adventure and stunning New Zealand scenery that made Hercules so successful.
The new series began with Xena determined to make amends for the sins of her past,and setting out to battle the forces of evil. She's joined by Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor), a feisty, fast-talking young woman who's looking
for a little excitement in her life. As Gabrielle quickly discovers, hanging out with Xena means all the excitement she can handle - and then some!
Carrying the weight of a weekly action-adventure series on one's leather-clad shoulders would probably be a daunting prospect for even the most seasoned of actresses. For Lawless, it really hasn't been a problem, and she
credits the crew of Xena for making her job that much easier. "I don't really feel that pressure, because I'm surrounded by so many people who are giving their all as well. Everybody‹from the people who lay out the cups,
to the generator operator, to the makeup people‹everybody is working so hard that it's not really my show. There's a really good feeling. We saw the first episode the other day, and it just galvanized everyone."
While Lawless has already shot almost half of the first season's 22 episodes, she doesn't have a firm idea yet of what her character is all about. "I'm still looking for it, and it doesn't matter what's on paper. After
your first rehearsal for the first episode, you know what the history is, and that acts as fuel, but because Xena's always a character in transition and she's on this journey, you never quite know what she's about. I
just have a feeling, and the rest of it happens organically and continues to grow, or at least I hope it does."
One trait that has begun to emerge is Xena's surprisingly wry sense of humor, usually sparked by exchanges with the idealistic and outspoken Gabrielle. Lawless says the character is considerably less dark than in her
early appearances, and while Xena will probably never be a barrel of laughs, she's obviously picking up some of the actress' own infectious good humor.
"You haven't seen anything yet!" Lawless promises half-threateningly. "I don't think Xena ever thinks she's funny. She isn't the knee-slapping, thigh-slapping, rib-tickling sort, but as you'll see, there's a wry humor to
her. I'm also sorry to tell you this, but Gabrielle never entirely gets the better of her."
The actress goes on to say that the give-and-take relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is key to the series, and "it's getting better and better the more we get to know each other. I have huge respect for Renee as a
person. She's easy to listen to in film acting terms, and that's the magic: if you're actually listening and taking in somebody's face. That's real acting."
Looking back at her own real-life expenences, Lawless would probably say they mirror those of the brash young Gabnelie more than the seasoned warrior woman Xena. After attending Auckland University for a short time, the
young Lawless contracted a serious case of wanderlust and left for Europe to go grape-picking on the Rhine. When the money began to run out, she moved to Australia, where she signed on with a gold mining company
operating in the Outback. Relocated to a small mining camp even farther from civilization, Lawless found herself doing the same work as her male peers: digging, mapping and driving trucks. After getting married in
Australia, Lawless moved back to Auckland with her husband, determined to pursue a career in acting. She landed her first real acting job at age 20, with the TV comedy troupe Funny Business, and after a string of
guest-starring TV roles, I she moved to Vancouver for eight months to s study drama at the William Davis Center for Actor's Study.
In 1992, Lawless returned to New Zealand, where she accepted a job as co-host for Air New Zealand Holiday, a travel show which took her around the world. A second season followed, and then a role in the two hour Hercules
TV movie Hercules and the Amazon Women. As Lawless admits, she didn't think, "not in a million years" that the character would one day help her land the role of Xena.
In Amazon Women, Lawless portrayed Lysia, lieutenant to Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (played by Roma Downey). Looking back on the first of her many Hercules guest appearances, the actress admits that her memory is a
bit blurred, particularly of the battle sequences. "You know, I don't even remember doing fight scenes when I was in that," she says with mock surprise. "Were there really fight scenes?
"I have to say, I've surprised myself by the physicality of it all, because it's obviously some sort of natural aggression that shines through. It's something that I never recognized before, but I think growing up in a
house with seven kids probably helped in that regard. I have five brothers, so it was pretty much the law of the jungle. It was a very loving home and everything, but it was still very rowdy. I could really relate to
that running-the-gauntlet scene in the second Xena episode."
On the other hand, the actress has no trouble remembering the scenes with the legendary Anthony Quinn, who played Zeus in the five two-hour movies. "He was great; I was really surprised. Some people were a little nervous
about having him around, but because I had not, to my everlasting shame, ever seen an Anthony Quinn movie, it didn't bother me. I knew his name and that he was somebody, but you treat everybody the same until you find
out they're an idiot.
"He seemed to like me because I didn't kowtow to him or whatever, but he was a superstar and I could see that. I felt really privileged to meet him, because there aren't many of them left. There are only a few of his
caliber from that era, and I know he's working still, which only makes him greater. He was a real gentleman."
Lawless also enjoyed working with leading man Sorbo (STARLOG #211), who was still far from being a household name in those early days. 'Kevin really hasn't changed very much: he's a nice guy and good to work with. This
has, in a funny way, become Kevin's home, and I think he's looking at buying a place because he has been down here for two years. He has a lot of friends here, and it's quite enriching, living in another country for a
period of time. He seems to be handling it fine, and because he's here, he doesn't have people hounding him every two seconds. It's like a beach holiday."
When Hercules was picked up as a weekIy series the following season, Lawless invited back, but this time in a different role. In "When Darkness Falls," she played thc scheming Lyla, who tries to help her centaur friends
by drugging Hercules at a local wedding festival. While Lawless was happy return to the series, she's not quite sure whyshe was asked back as a different character. "I don't know, that's a producer's question, so you
would have to ask Eric Grundemann that. Hey, Eric!" she jokingly yells to tbe Hercules producer working in a nearby office. "Eric would know, or [exec producer] Rob Tapert, but I couldn't tell you."
What Lawless can say is she had no difficulty with the complicated visual FX required to create the realistic-looking centaurs in that episode. "I don't have any trouble with special FX. If you have an active
imagination, you just use it and it's not difficult at all. I actually find it easier than working off actors. It never even occurred to me that this might be a difficulty; it was just normal acting."
When Lawless was asked to return a few weeks later to play Xena in a three-episode story arc that closed Hercules' first season, it was almost literally a case of being in the right place at the right time. The original
actress hired to play Xena got sick at the last minute, and the producers had to find a replacement over the New Year's weekend.
"I had just been in the previous episode, so I think the execs were saying, 'Oh no, we can't use her because we just used her. Here's a list of five other actresses you should try,' and every one of them pulled out for
some reason. Pilot season was coming up, so they decided, 'Oh no, we don't want to go down to the bottom of the world in pilot season and do a three-week stint that will come to nothing, when we could stay here in LA and
do a pilot that could possibly become a series,' so thanks girls, thank you very much!
"I flew up there two days before and had my hair changed. They made the costume up for me and then I was shooting. I had been on a camping holiday just before that, so they had to move heaven and Earth to find me. It was
a huge twist of fate or good luck, or whatever you want to call it, but here I am."
Xena's debut came in "The Warrior Princess," in which she seduces Hercules' friend Iolaus, driving a wedge between the two longtime comrades. For Michael Hurst, who has played Iolaus since the two-hour movies, working
with Lawless was a pleasure. "Like Kevin, there's no selfishness about her," he notes. "She has a lot of generosity and we had a ball making those episodes. Both Lucy and I were really in our element, being picked up for
the series, dressing in the most amazing way and doing scenes together. It was fantastic for both of us, and we both had a good time."
According to Hurst, one of the most uncomfortable moments in "The Warrior Princess" was the scene in which Xena disrobes and joins Iolaus for a bath. The reason for that discomfort? Not the one you might think. "Let me
tell you, that water was lukewarm, and we had a lot of little pieces of styrofoam, which they use to create the look of stone, floating around, it looked like soup. As anybody would tell you, the last thing in your mind
is any sense of eroticism! It was really businesslike, and we actually lost it sometimes. We just couldn't help but start laughing at the whole ridiculous situation: shooting this scene in a warehouse in the middle of
Auckland City. It was very funny."
"We did develop a really good rapport early on," agrees Lawlass. "I don't think it had anything to do with the fact that he's an established New Zealand actor, because we were only barely acquainted before that, but we
really hit off. Most women love talking to Michael. I think he gets a lot of mail already, but he's a pretty good guy, and would never get uptight about it. He and his wife drafted out some replies, but at this stage, I
think the load is already getting too heavy and they just won't be able to keep doing that. He's such a busy man, directing plays and all sorts of things."
Xena returned in "The Gauntlet," and this time, the warrior princess was beginning to tire of her warlike ways. Unfortunately, leaving that life behind meant having to endure a trial by combat with her former comrades.
Lawless feels that although the episode may have been a bit too intense, it also signaled the beginning of Xena's evolution into a dramatically different character. "That first episode was directed by Bruce Seth Green,
and then Jack Perez did the next one, which was a much darker show. It was written dark, and shot dark. Xena is a very different character now. Before, she had no honor, but this Xena is very different. It's part of her
life changing transition, and now she does have her own warped code of honor."
It was during the shooting of "The Gauntlet" that Lawless remembers hearing the first hint of a possible spin-off series featuring Xena. "I was sitting in the second AD's bus, and I was trying to be all cool about it,
saying. 'Yeah, yeah, we'll believe it when it happens, and I'll talk to you later. thank you, Mr. Tapert.' I went away and had lunch on my own, and tried to pretend I hadn't heard what I heard. Anyway, the upshot is four
months from that day, it was happening. It seems like forever ago, but it was really only January, and now we're already up to our ninth episode."
In order to prepare their lead actress for the new series. the producers of Xena sent Lawless to train with martial arts master Douglas (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) Wong, who taught her basic kung fu moves, as well as
fighting techniques with staffs and swords. "It was like the old studio system; they took me to LA for training in dialogue, kung fu, personal training and film technique It was just wonderful and really kick started me
again. After I left acting school four years ago I had kind of plateaued. It took me four years to understand everything I had been taught, and then to think, 'Holy guacamole, where do I go from here?'"
If there's anything more difficult than battling mythological monsters and barbarian warriors, it's trying to maintain a happy domestic life. With the long hours she has to spend on the Xena set, Lawless concedes it
isn't always easy to find time to spend with her husband and seven-year-old daughter Daisy. "It is difficult sometimes, but we're managing. My daughter comes down to the set after school some days, and I know she's
well-looked-after because she's with her father, and she couldn't have a better father, so she's fine."
And what does Daisy think of Mom's new job? "She thinks it's pretty cool. She likes to have the posters and things, but she hasn't actually seen any of these new episodes yet."
That brings up an interesting point: whether or not the action-oriented Xena is suitable viewing for small children. "I might have had a question mark over that one before," says Lawless, considering whether she would
let her own daughter watch the series, "but now I think yes, I would, because all the sound FX and speed ramping make the fights cartoonish.
"I think she could see Xena: she has seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and we're a bit less inhibited about those things here. We just had a festival which is like Mardi Gras. and I was surprised at how shocked our
American friends were at all the naked breasts walking around on the main street, but that's New Zealand."
It may be too early to discuss some of the highlights of Xena's first season, but Lawless says there are plenty of moments where everything seems to click. 'You get that once or twice a day. You might see the playback,
and you see somebody slug you on the head with a foam thing. They came nowhere near you, but it just looks fantastic because you dropped at precisely the right moment.
"I've got to say, although initially they were never my favorite thing to do, watching the fight scenes is really rewarding. In fact, seeing them once the sound FX have been put in, I get the biggest kick out of them."
The actress also wants Xena fans to know that she's doing a lot more of her own fighting these days. "They still use a double sometimes, because some of the things are not only difficult but dangerous, with the flips and
so forth. I have wonderful acrobatic doubles and a stunt double and a horse riding double. These women do the most amazing things, and beautifully, too. That's what I mean when I talk about this not being just my show.
They all help to enrich the character, so it's really a huge team effort and I'm grateful to all of them for their hard work."
With Xena and Hercules both shooting in the same Auckland studios, one might think there was a little good-natured rivalry between the parent series and its spin-off. "Not really," says Lawless, "because we screen at
different times, so there's no point in being in competition. We don't really compete because the flavors of the two shows are so distinct from one another. There are things that happen on Hercules that will never happen
on Xena, and vice versa. There's no point in competing. I also think we're working way too hard to be looking at each other's shows."
Nonetheless, the two characters meet again in an episode of Xena. "We just shot it, and I think it has turned out great. It was so nice to work with Kevin again. It's really like an ensemble cast, because everybody knows
their characters and you're not mucking around trying to find something in a scene, so filming went much faster."
Should Xena: Warrior Princess turn out to be the same unexpected success as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys last season, it's entirely possible that Lucy Lawless could be battling the forces of evil for many years to
come. The actress considers that possibility for a moment. "If you're going to play a character for a couple of years." she finally reflects, "then I can't think of a better character to play. She has such duality and
complexity that I should consider myself a very lucky actor if I do."
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