Many thanks to Kym Masera Taborn from XMR for the transcript
The Official Magazine Xena Warrior Princess
Being 'the peaceful one' on Xena: Warrior Princess brings new challenges to actress Reneé O'Connor. But, as a veteran of the Mickey Mouse Club, she should be able to handle it.Interview by Ian Spelling. "This season, Rob [Tapert, the executive producer] put my character on this spiritual path of non-violence." Renee O'Connor mulls over the changes in Gabrielle's nature over the last year. "She only wants to help people be peaceful and loving." And this is the Gabrielle who's cheered Xena's asswhupping for going on for five years now? Apparently so.
"What I love is that they're still experimenting with the characters. We tried the whole idea of Xena trying to fight for good, and now Gabrielle doesn't believe in violence anymore, so they've created a bit of a rift between the characters. Now," O'Connor continues, "we're moving away from that and, for [season five] we're going to try to create a loyal friendship where these two people - despite having different ideals - create a balance between them."
These 'different ideals' came about during season four ofXena Warrior Princess, when Xena and Gabriellejourneyed to the land of India and discovered a great deal about themselves and their relationship. While in the company of the healer Eli during the episode The Way), Gabrielle realized that her true spiritual path - her 'Way' - was one of love. Xena's, meanwhile, was the Way of the warrior. "So Gabrielle will be the intellect and the pacifist," O'Connor clarifies, "whereas Xena will be the might and the strength behind the pair. That's where we're going. Rob is always changing things around; he's always being inspired by what he sees what books he reads. He always wants to change things and surprise the audience, and that's great for everybody...
"I miss my staff," she sighs. "As part of Gabrielle's growth, she discarded her staff to move on to this non-violent way. I've only recently desired to pick it up again, and have a couple of good fight scenes. They've come up with what they've called 'weapons of peace' that Gabrielle keeps in her little knapsack. But they're not as physical as the staff was."
But surely, playing a character so enamoured with peace is a tricky job in a high-kicking, fast-moving show like Xena? "As an actor, I find [Gabrielle's pacifism] so idealistic that it's almost unreal. So, I'm trying to find a dichotomy in the character, where maybe she's a little more complicated than that. Just the challenge of making her believable is keeping me going. Hopefully, the writers will always throw us different things that will keep us going."
And that's not the only thing that keeps O'Connor interested in the show after more than four years. There's her inimitable co-star, too. "Lucy and I have a great time. She's so great," O'Connor enthuses. Great or not, has the long time spent on the show taken its toll on O'Connor and Lawless? "At times it does feel like four seasons," O'Connor admits.
"Lucy and I were just talking about going to the Mardi Gras over in Sydney [an Australian big hoe-down]. This time last year she was asked to participate in their parade, and we had one of those moments where we realized that a year had flown by, when it felt like a couple of months... Lucy and I took a moment and said, 'This is all going to be over before we know it'... But we're still having fun.
"We're at the point where certain crewmembers are starting to leave," she continues, "and that's always disheartening. They were a part of the family that was here from the beginning, and they're moving on to pursue other goals. So that's kind of sad. That makes you feel that maybe it's the beginning of the end. Lucy and I get a bit sentimental about the whole thing, and we just try to appreciate seeing everyone every day."
O'Connor seems particularly appreciative of her comradeship with Lucy Lawless, especially during her recent stint as a director onXena (see boxout). "Lucy was wonderful when I was directing, and it gave me a whole new appreciation of her, on a different level.
As a friend, she was so supportive of me trying to do something she knew I wanted to do, that I was excited to try. She'd listen and support me, and be very enthusiastic. Then, Lucy the actress was just so easy to work with. She was the easiest of all the actors to deal with.
"Lucy would just let me point her in one direction and [she would] do what I wanted her to do to get the job done. There was no pride, no ego, there. I'd noticed from playing her sidekick for so long that she always did that for other directors, and I'd always thought that was generous of her. Now, in directing her, I really appreciated it. Directors are so stretched for time that having someone be so easy to work with was amazing."
Dèjá Vu All Over Again was her first time in the director's chair, but it's been O'Connor's long-held ambition to slip behind the camera for a change. "I've wanted to direct Xena since our second season. Actually, I've had an interest in directing for a long time - it probably goes back to my high school years and to my acting classes, where they would teach you to approach a scene from a director's point of view. So it wasn't a matter of not wanting to direct," she explains of the time it's taken her to get around to it, "it was a matter of having the audacity to ask! I didn't have that audacity until our last hiatus [in filming], when I approached Rob. I said, 'Would you mind if I shadowed one of our directors?' The opportunity came up for me to follow T. J. Scott around. He did a two-patter [Adventures in the
Sin Trade, the opening two-part story from season four] and I took notes the whole time, which was about two weeks. That sort of gave me the confidence to say, 'I can at last approach the task.' That was it. And then I just had to wait until a slot became available."
And the thrill of directing was everything she'd hoped for:"When I finished [Dèjá Vu.], I vowed to myself that I would never do it again!" Or maybe not. "Now that I can look back at it all, I definitely would love to do it again. I don't know if they'll let me direct another Xena. You can tell that a first-time director did the show," she admits. "I think it looks amateurish in some regards. But I've been inspired to direct more. Hopefully, I'll get to do more Xenas, but I want to pursue my own projects. I definitely want to continue on into a career in directing."
That career began in earnest when O'Connor landed a job presenting The Mickey Mouse Club, a kids' show that was broadcast on the Disney Channel. Her other television work includes roles in the TV movies Follow the River and The Rockford Files: A Blessing in Disguise, a guest spot on NYPD Blue, and a role in the feature film The Adventures of Huck Finn. O'Connor's first visit to the world of Xena came before the show had even began: she played the young Deianeiara in the Hercules TV movie Hercules and the Lost Kingdom.
"Just so that people would get a laugh," O'Connor says of her previous career, "I'd have people see my work on The Mickey Mouse Club. I don't think anybody would be blown away by my acting abilities if they saw it, but they'd get a chuckle. The Kiwis here [in New Zealand] get a kick out of seeing the show, because it's so classically American.
"Actually, the [Xena] crew played a trick on me one day... They called me over to watch a playback of a scene I'd just done, to show me the mistakes I'd made and so I could see how to correct them. And they turned on this tape of me singing The Mickey Mouse Club theme. Everyone thought it was just so funny."
Still, if the crew really gets on her nerves, she's got the training to take them on. "I started weight-lifting at one point, because I thought it would be good for the character. It really did change my body type, though. And then I learnt that when you're working on television, it's better to be smaller. So I adapted to that and changed my routine. I've [taken] up yoga, exercises and walks - that's for a general sense of well-being, and not so much for the show. The long hours that we have in just a typical day are exhausting enough, really. I think it's important to have a bit of a self-conscious attitude, in that other people look up to you: they look to see a healthy person on television. In that respect, I try to look the best I can."
The fact that people look up to O'Connor as Gabrielle has a bearing on more than just the way she looks. She is aware that she is a role model to some fans, in some way a small part of their life, but her working situation makes it "funny... I spend most of the year in New Zealand, making the show, so I have this detached sense of my role in relation to the show and the fans. I hardly ever come across people who are true, die-hard fans. Except for receiving fan mail, I feel like an ordinary person who has a 14 hour-a-day job... But I know what you're getting at. 'Lucy, in particular, has got letters from very sick kids whose last wish is to meet or speak to her... That's when it hits home, but I'm one of these people who don't see celebrities as being all that important - unless you're doing something socially worthwhile. For me, the less recognition and the less attention I get, the better."
Her modest attitude notwithstanding, O'Connor does admit that "for some people, Xena is quite inspiring". None more so, perhaps, than for the world's gay and lesbian communities. Very early on in the show's run, a section of the programme's audience began to pick up on something subtle and gentle in the subtext of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. "At first, we were surprised by the recognition and support we got from the gay community," says O'Connor. "Then we decided to absolutely nurture it. We have fun playing with the subtext on the show. Then it became almost a stereotype that Lucy and I dealt with. I'm sure no gay couple would want to be stereotyped as a gay couple - they're two human beings first. In that respect, Lucy and I decided to pull back on the whole thing and nurture the friendship between these two characters. That's where we're at at the moment: these are two soul mates who are meant to be together forever."
O'Connor's popularity with her fans is obvious. "People actually hug me when they approach me," she says. "That's always surprising to me. I assume that the fans feel they know me as a friend. I think people on the whole think I'm going to be quite nice and sentimental, like Gabrielle, and I believe that I'm a little more detached and a little more private as a person than she is. I'm much more shy than Lucy, and that probably doesn't come out on the show as much as it does in real life."
For O'Connor, part of her 'real life' is her family and friends back in her hometown of Katy, Texas. "I miss my home maybe every nine months or so. I get the urge to go back and get a dose of my family. I like to go home, sit with my family for a bit, catch up on all the gossip. But I'm happy to be in New Zealand. It's such a beautiful country.
"I definitely feel at home [here]. The crew is like a second family to me. I just celebrated my fourth birthday here, and I was so moved by the fact that I've been growing up with these people. I think your twenties are such an important part of your life: it's a time when you continue to change and grow and find out who you are, and I've been doing it with all of these people here, in New Zealand." Since she feels so at home there, the prospect of spending another couple of years
on Xena doesn't really daunt O'Connor. The fifth season is about to start transmission in the US, "and [there will] maybe be a sixth season too," O'Connor suggests. "That sounds about right to me. After that, even though I've said I don't miss home too much, I will be ready to get back home. I'd like to work there, act and direct. Right now, though, I think we still have some more Xena to do. There are a lot of stories left to tell."
So what was it that initially made her want to get into the story-telling business in the first place? "It was the whole idea of playing in a fantasy land, in the world of make-believe" O'Connor explains of her childhood dreams of acting. "Working on a show like Xena has definitely captured the whole aspect of what drew me into acting. I'm putting on costumes, dancing around elaborate sets, pretending to be in a different era. I love the theatre, even though I don't have a
lot of stage experience. But I love going to plays where there's a great sense of creative energy, where you can really see the energy that went into the set design, the costumes, the performances. That's what I appreciate about entertainment. So, to be an actor is being a part of all that, and that's why I want to pursue directing. For me, it's just another avenue for being even more involved in the whole process."
But the 'whole process' for Xena has involved more that its fair share of reality-check moments. "I saw my mug on a framed alabaster plaque. One of my friends put it up on her wall and I was mortified. I was like, 'Take that down! Are you crazy?' It's just embarrassing. Half of me says, 'Come on, I'm just a character on a television show,' but the other half of me says, 'Well, if it's going to make an eight-year-old girl happy to have that picture in her room, then fine, go for it!'"
As thoughts turn to childhood, O'Connor reminisces about her own. 'I have an older brother, so we always used to play fight and have pretend wars in the backyard. In that respect, I was a bit of a tomboy. But I could never have prepared myself for the kind of action we do on Xena! To me, all the fight scenes are like a dance, where it's all choreographed and you have to move your body the right way in relation to the stuntman. That's comfortable for me because I took a lot of dance lessons. It's just a ball really, to get up there and have a yell, toss a stick around and throw up a kick or two.
"It's almost like being a kid again. Sometimes we look around and say, 'We're getting paid for this?" she smiles. "It's crazy."
Return to The AXIP News Archive