Put a mountain in front of Renee O'Connor and she'll climb it. Whether it's Mount Kilimanjaro or directing an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, O'Connor will accept the challenge and rise to the occasion. But not without great preparation, and maybe a little trepidation. "I have all my old notes on directing out," the novice director says, "and wow, did I really do all that?! "I've mostly enjoyed the directing for the moment. It has been the single most challenging experience for me on this show," O'Connor reveals. "I love playing Gabrielle, but this is something I didn't think I would be able to accomplish and I managed to get through it. "I would love to do it again. I didn't think I would. At the episode's end, I said "That's it! I'll never do that again," she laughs. " Lucy Lawless likened it to when she's singing because she's absolutely terrified when she walks out on stage. She knows it will be the most humbling experience of that day. And she's right. Directing for me was a situation where you can't succeed. You can't do it right but you had to just do the best you can. It brings out the spirit in you." "Deja Vu All Over Again", which aired last month, was the "ideal episode to shoot,"
O'Connor says. "Lucy definitely rose to the occasion. The cast was Lucy, Ted Raimi, Robert Trebor, Kevin Smith and me. The whole idea behind 'Deja Vu' is that this woman Lucy plays realizes she was Xena in a past life. So she goes to a past-life counselor to find out if it's true and all these different characters discover who they were in a past life. It's Rob Tapert and R.J. Stewart's idea of yet another clip show with a new twist; a very freakly but wonderful concept. We need one clip show a year to meet our schedule and usually it's shot in five days. This clip show was shot in four." Anyone who deals with deadlines can appreciate the ability to bring things in on time. However, O'Connor admits, "I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought four days was good; I would get a small learning curve for myself and a taste of what it's like. It turns out to be such a difficult schedule that they should have had a more experienced director in order to complete all the days. "I started off the first day, and just because I had no experience behind the camera, the director of photography and the cameraman were guiding me along, going through the shot list telling me what was technically impossible to do," she laughs.
"So, I was learning as I went the first day, which put me behind schedule to begin with because I was slower than any other director. The problem with that is the first day of shooting is supposed to be the easiest to complete because we didn't have as much to cover. So, not only didn't I finish my easiest day, I moved things from it to the next day. So, this mountain became the Southern Alps. Every day, I just had more work [pushed back] that I was supposed to get done and it became an impossible task. It became comedic. "I would start the day with such a high; a huge adrenaline rush that I had this challenge in front of me and to encourage the crew to work as hard as they possibly could and they did it," she says. "On my third day, I made an announcement to the crew: 'I really dug myself into a hole here from my lack of experience, so we have to try and complete the biggest day we've ever done yet on the series,' and that only pertains to actual minutes on screen. It was very simple work because we were in one set; just a matter of telling the story as basically as possible. We typically shoot six minutes per day, but we had to shoot 10 minutes that day.
We normally have 25 camera set-ups in a day and they actually managed to complete 49 camera set-ups on my last day. That gives you an idea of how hard everyone worked. And it was so hot, the air was so stagnant, but the crew really pulled through for me. "I've learned a great deal from that experience, but I would have to have so much more behind me in order to have educated opinions to offer the team. That comes with experience. Everyone was so supportive, it's like they were trying to help out their kid sister. At the very last day, after I've bulldozed through everyone's creative energy in order to finish on schedule, they brought me flowers and champagne and congratulated me. Everyone was in high spirits considering what they had to work with; me," she says. "It's funny. The producers were quite good to give me my first episode, but the true test is after it's all said and done: Do they give me a second one? I'm so thankful and lucky for this opportunity." One thing that made directing such a pleasant (if stressful) experience for O'Connor was the on-set camaraderie. "There truly is a family feeling on Xena,"
O'Connor observes, confirming reports from other cast members. "I can't imagine starting off on what I call my virgin episode with anyone besides a family. It was a little more intimidating with my meetings at the production office because, although I know all the people there, I don't work with them daily. So I was much more nervous going to the production meetings and guiding them through the script. That was a challenge in itself. "I had a meeting with Ngila Dickson, our costume designer. She just looks at the characters and finds out everything about them; why they wear their pajamas, why they choose that color. She has a reason for everything she puts on a costume. Four our first meeting, she asked me most of the questions and I hadn't gone to that great a depth with the characters at that point, so I was completely blown away by her thorough questioning of the characters' histories.
That set a precedent for me going into the whole pre-production schedule of what I had to live up to. "You're obviously limited by the amount of time that you have to accomplish anything, so you may have a grand scheme in mind of what you would like to manifest on film, but much of that just isn't possible because of the restraints," she explains. "It takes time to make costumes for the cast and stunt doubles. Here in New Zealand, Ngila had difficulty trying to find modern clothing. They make all their own costumes for Xena and Hercules, so they use material that's more easily obtainable compared to modern fabrics. She found it difficult trying to find something that looked contemporary and yet funky, so that was a setback. But we managed. That's the deal, you end up being satisfied with what you have."
Xena can be difficult or really difficult to shoot, depending on the elements. As O'Connor notes, "Filming in the wind and cold, those are the days that most exhaust crew and cast. You come home tired and you climb into bed and try to get as much sleep as possible before your call the next morning. The body creates an endurance level that you didn't realize you had before you started 12-hour days. You become stronger than you originally thought you could ever be. There is sitting around but it's a matter of trying to learn when you should save your energy for other moments.
"To climb Mount Kilimanjaro," explains O'Connor, who made the expedition during a Xena production hiatus, "I was working out an hour every day. I was the strongest physically I had ever been, because I wanted to accomplish the goal of climbing that mountain. I've stopped working out to that extent right now because I've realized it's not exactly flattering on camera. I'm much weaker than I used to be. A lot of climbing is sheer determination, because it's not so much that there's a steep incline to the mountain as a lack of oxygen. Your body has to use what little oxygen is available at the moment. I did it just from being stubborn, I think," she laughs.
Fans saw a somewhat different Gabrielle in the fourth season. The star was shorn. "I've been wanting to cut my fair for a long time," O'Connor admits. "Lucy's body double had passed this magazine picture around the makeup department. Everyone 'oohed' and 'aahed' and then it became the topic of conversation: 'Wouldn't it be great if Gabrielle could have a haircut like that?' I just thought, 'Don't I wish!' and dropped the idea. Then, Rob came to me and asked, 'Hey Renee, what do you think about cutting of all your hair?' And I jumped on it immediately.
Of course, there were many people within the production who protested the idea of Gabrielle losing her golden fleece, but I thought it was a bold move. Fans protest, but only after the fact. Once the hair is gone, there's no going back. "Yesterday, we did a flashback scene and I had to put on my old outfit, with the little green top and they put me in a wig with long hair. And whenever I was on the set, there was silence. I didn't look real at all anymore.
I looked like a doll. It's really interesting because my character had grown up so quickly during the whole India story arc, that no one would believe how different I was in my old Gabrielle uniform. Everyone commented on how it wasn't right for me anymore. They didn't miss it." Gabrielle tends to get into trouble while trying to find her way. She looks for the good side of things, but often finds the bad. "Gabrielle is the flawed character," O'Connor explains. "She reacts with her soul, her heart. That gets her in trouble because she never thinks before she acts, whereas Xena is the pragmatic warrior.
It's necessary for the show that you always have one person to create the conflict and jeopardy, and many times it has to be from Gabrielle's lack of vision. Gabrielle is learning, but she's a bit slow in that department. "I think that Gabrielle has grown inasmuch as I've grown through my twenties, as I've come to realize who I am as a person, and that has rubbed off on the character as well. I've started to see the essence of the character in a new way. From the very beginning, Gabrielle was this young girl who desperately wanted to see the world with Xena; just a wide-eyed, naive girl looking for adventures.
In that way, I was very similar. I was coming to a new country meeting all new people and starting a whole new career. "Then in the second season, Gabrielle went through this transformation where they played with torturing her soul, and it was, 'How much could Gabrielle take and still survive with her integrity intact?' That's how I saw her in the second and third seasons. Gabrielle in the third season went through a reflective time when she saw who she was as a person and discovered she could stand up to Xena in her own right. Gabrielle became more of an individual: thinking for herself and standing up to the person she respects, which is quite a feat.
"This year," O'Connor continues, "it's more thorough. She knows who she is, she has chosen her own path and life, and it's the adverse path to Xena's. It creates another conflict between the two. They're yin and yang, and yet they want to be together so badly because they are soulmates." Recently, Gabrielle has become more of a pacifistic character, a dove among the hawks. "I think the whole story arc with Gabrielle traveling the way of peace is an interesting way to go," O'Connor agrees, "because it's the direct opposite of what Xena is and what the show is about. It was a huge risk for the producers. But it is just another development in the character and we'll probably move on from there.
Actually, yes, Gabrielle does move on. We've played with the idea and Gabrielle realizes she isn't strong enough to live as Christ would where it's all about love and peace and never defending yourself in a physical way. That's not a realistic approach to the world these days. In one sense, Gabrielle becomes a bit cynical, not that she'll act cynical, but that she realizes sometimes she must fight and that might mean killing someone. That's part of life and traveling with Xena. She will probably become the strongest friend Xena will ever have.
It's the strongest Gabrielle has been throughout the series. Next year, Gabrielle will be more like Xena; the emotional side of Xena which, I'm sure, will always happen because that is the essence of Gabrielle. "I'm actually quite pleased with the way they're going with Gabrielle at the moment, where she'll be the most reliable and loyal friend to Xena possible, more than she has in the past," Renee O'Connor enthuses. "That's a nice interaction between these two women, absolute trust and absolute dependability."
PICTURES & CAPTIONS:
The Cover Page is a head and shoulders picture of Gab from "The Play's the Thing"...the beginning scene, where she has a wreath of flowers on her head and short hair. The title captioning and author's name is on this page.
Page 2 is a split picture in the upper left of the page. The top picture has Gabrielle and Xena together and looks like a picture from "A Necessary Evil". Caption reads, "Warriors at work. Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor bring warmth and humor to their TV lives as Xena and Gabrielle." Bottom half is a picture of Ted & Lucy as Harry & Annie in "Deja Vu". Caption reads, "What she really wants to do is direct-and O'Connor did, helming the clip show "Deja Vu All Over Again" in four frenetic days. A heading at the bottom of the page (like a "bite" from the interview) reads, "Next year, Gabrielle will be more like Xena."
Page 3 has a small picture at the top with Renee dressed as Mattie from "Deja Vu". Caption reads, "Who were these characters in past lives? Better dressers perhaps? Costume designer Ngila Dickson had to find "funky" fabrics in New Zealand for O'Connor's directorial debut."
Bottom picture is of Gab in her India garb, complete with Mendhi (not really a picture in an episode). Caption reads, "Once the hair is gone, there's no going back," O'Connor quips, delighted with her short cut." Page 4's a small picture in the upper left corner of Gab in her familiar, amazon travelling garb (once again, not really a picture from an episode). Caption reads, "Tress for success. Now O'Connor thinks yesterday's long-fleeced Gabrielle looks "like a doll."
Bottom right picture is Renee & Ted from "If the Shoe Fits"; Ted in the Prince costume, Renee in the fairy godsister outfit. Caption reads, "Ted Raimi's an entertainer," O'Connor enthuses of her recurring co-star. "He constantly makes Lucy and me laugh."
Finally, top of page 5 has a bite quote from the article, stating, "Im much weaker than I used to be." The picure of Xena and Gab together, doing the mendi meditation thing in a field. Think this is from the beginning of "Play's the Thing". Caption reads, "At play in the fields of heroism. The "soulmates" will become closer next season." Bottom picture is of Renee totally out of costume. A head and shoulders shot when her hair was longer and red. The picture is on Ryath21's Gab Tech University website. Caption reads, "Off-screen, O'Connor enjoys the routine of daily life, doing little things like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Really."
the AUSXIP XenaMedia Archive
AUSXIP - Australian Xena Information Page
AUSXIP Renee O'Connor Files | AUSXIP Lucy Lawless Files