January 1997 Issue
Women love Lucy Lawless' character Xena, the Warrior Princess, for her strength. Men love her tiny leather outfits. Right now, Lucy's fame probably outshines Pamela Anderson's -- the incident involving a horse falling on her resulted in a fractured pelvis and, more importantly, masses of free publicity for her sky-rocketing career. So how did a single mother from Auckland with little acting experience land a plum job on American Television?
Twenty-eight-year-old Lucy Lawless has been on a "wild ride" for the past year and a half. After her marriage fell apart, she had to cope with being a single mother, and find a new place for herself and her eight-year-old daughter Daisy to live. About the same time, she was being propelled into international stardom as the darkly sexy title character of the American-produced TV series "Xena: Warrior Princess." Then she fell in love again. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, the rarely-interviewed Kiwi megastar decided it was time to tell her story.
Cleo: There is a new man in your life?
Lucy: I have been in a relationship for just over a year and am terrifically happy. We do not live together because of the long working days on the series -- in fact, we're a hemisphere apart. He likes to come down and visit me every month, but we'll see how that works out.
Cleo: Who is he?
Lucy: I'm not telling. I'm not getting into details, but he's an American and the finest man I've ever met. I consider myself a very very lucky person.
Cleo: Have you had offers for other television and film projects?
Lucy: Yes, my lawyer and I have looked at other offers. But I don't want to star in anything else, because it would not support my show, which is my franchise. It would leave me too tired to do things right when I returned to Xena.
Cleo: Why did you leave your nice, cushy job as the co-host of "Air New Zealand Holiday" after two seasons to concentrate on the unstable craft of acting?
Lucy: Well, it paid okay, was fun and took me to some thrilling locations -- particularly Israel -- but you often couldn't tell the whole truth. You'd really want to say, "Wow" Don't go here. It's crappy!" But I knew in my heart that it wasn't what I was meant to do. I was either going to become a big fish in a small pond or risk it all. So I gave it up, even though there was nothing in sight. When a part in the two-hour television film "Hercules and the Amazon Women" [as Lysia, a vicious Amazon enforcer] came along, I knew that I had made absolutely the right decision. Going on as a presenter would have made me heartsick.
Cleo: How much acting experience did you have at the time?
Lucy: Very little. I had done a couple of seasons with Funny Business and some bit parts here and there, then spent eight months in Canada studying drama at the William Davis Centre for Actors Studies in Vancouver. By the time I cam home in 1992, I felt like I had received some very fine training that will always sustain me. It's stuff that works and I don't hesitate passing it on to others. I'll always be grateful to them.
Cleo: Why did you look for work in American television productions?
Lucy: They were the kind of jobs I tended to get in New Zealand. I don't have a typical New Zealand look, I suppose. I cannot fathom why. I was never fingered for success -- I would never get the New Zealand drama jobs. Did I not look right? I'm perplexed. It was painful at times, but something has come out of it. I'm not sorry about every job I didn't get, but I discovered my direction from the types of jobs I did get. Therefore, I developed the American accent.
Cleo: How did you get that accent right?
Lucy: Just hard work and a natural talent for languages. I can get along in German, French and Italian.
Cleo: How did you wind up as the star of "Xena: Warrior Princess?"
Lucy: From "Hercules and the Amazon Women" I went on to do three episodes on "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" as Lyla, Deric the Centaur's new bride. When the producers of Hercules decided on the spin-off series, the actress originally cast as Xena pulled out. They had a list of five other actresses for the part and they all turned it down -- God bless 'em. So they got down to Lucy Lawless, who was in country and available.
Cleo: How does your daughter Daisy feel about her mother's new-found celebrity?
Lucy: She is a bit quiet about how she feels. She says she doesn't like the fact that kids are always asking her, "Is you mum Xena? Is your mum Xena?" when the kids know perfectly well that I am. A part of her is quite proud of it, but to a point she doesn't want any part of it. Daisy also keeps telling me that I don't know anything. She keeps me sane and my feet on the ground. Fortunately, she doesn't want to become a performer. She isn't out there, a show-off kid, like me.
Cleo: You were a rather precocious kid?
Lucy: I think so. I always had this kind of bug to perform, but always tempered by the Tall Poppy Syndrome. You have to be a very quiet achiever in New Zealand -- they get behind you once you have succeeded, but nobody wants to hear about it on the way up -- so, that's what I did.
Cleo: Who is Xena, Warrior Princess, in your mind?
Lucy: She's a working woman in a tough environment. Although she isn't a particularly gods-fearing chick, she is atoning for past sins by doing good deeds. Xena's comeback line is, "I have many skills" -- some are acquired, some natural. The characters are parodies on all the people the writers and the actors have ever met. Every now and then a line that my father recognizes well will come out of Xena's mouth.
Cleo: Is "Xena: Warrior Princess" making a political statement?
Lucy: This show is absolutely not to be taken seriously. It was never my intention that the show should make any such statements. It wasn't the plan, although people see what they want to see and read what they want to read into each story and character. However, we do try to come up with some thought-provoking stories and try to push the envelope a little, because it makes life more interesting for us. Like the biracial relationship where Xena's lover was black.
Cleo: Feminists often wonder exactly what Xena's relationship is to Gabrielle, her loyal sidekick.
Lucy: Xena is a woman of many skills...
Cleo: What is it like to run around in the woods only wearing panties and a bustier?
Lucy: Although the North Island is subtropical, the winters can be bloody miserable -- especially when you're wearing nothing but a corset and a whip. It's no fun to walk around in a frost-bitten mini-leather outfit, it doesn't fill me with enthusiasm.
Cleo: There is talk about moving the production of "Xena" to Hollywood or Vancouver. Would that fit into your plans?
Lucy: Not very well. For my needs, the show should stay in New Zealand, because my daughter adores her dad, who lives not very far from me. I would hate to make her choose between the two of us. This is as together as a separated family can be, and it works very well.
Cleo: Of your family members, who is Xena most like?
Lucy: My older brother Tim, the cross-dresser. He wears this little, short dress...I'm joking! I'm joking! He is a goldminer, a driller, in Australia right now, and a lovely man. But he gave me trouble when we were young, because I was the bratty little sister who made his life miserable. He's the one who most resembles Xena and gave me a lot of material to work with.
Cleo: What was it like to grow up in the Auckland suburb of Mount Albert with five brothers and one sister?
Lucy: Chaos, of course. I'm the fifth child, with four older brothers. My one and only sister is studying languages and working as a translator in Amsterdam at the moment. We're very close, but look nothing alike. She has dark hair and I have dyed dark hair. It used to be mousy brown. Another brother is a money manager in London. The rest are fine tradesmen in Auckland, a couple of plumbers and a builder. I love having them around...because I'm remodeling my kitchen and bathroom right now.
Cleo: Is your mother, by some miracle, still alive?
Lucy: Very much so. A lot of traffic for one womb, for sure, but it was quite a standard sort of family in the Catholic parish I grew up in. My father was the mayor of Mount Albert once, before it was absorbed by the city of Auckland. I think they wanted to suck up some of the rates dollars.
Cleo: You left home at 17 to travel in Europe and Australia for two years -- what did you learn on your journey?
Lucy: It's a big, cold world, but there's nothing much to be afraid of, because it's really hard to die despite the fact that you have no money, nothing to eat, and nowhere to sleep.
Cleo: What was the strangest place you visited in Europe?
Lucy: The Players' Park in Prague, a city where they really support the performing arts. I'd go to see free plays there, just rubbish. The worst was by a group of Canadian students whacking each other over the head with big mutton chops and screaming about the plague. I sat there, watched it a while, and decided that I wasn't as miserable as I thought.
Cleo: How did you wind up in Australia?
Lucy: My boyfriend followed me to Europe and when we were almost out of money we came up with a brilliant tactic: go to Australia, earn a bit of money and get back to Europe so we could travel in Russia. We wound up doing very bloody dirty work for a goldmining operation in Kagoorlie. They would lay waste to the landscape with huge explosive charges, then huge machines would sift out microscopic particles of gold. I never saw any gold in the ground there.
Cleo: What is it like to be a woman in a miners' camp?
Lucy: I never had any trouble, though the ratio of women to men must be 1 in 50 out there. It's only an unhappy accident if you get yourself in trouble. You don't want a pack of randy miners on your tail, believe me. I don't put out those kinds of vibes, so I don't attract unwanted attention.
Cleo: Why did you leave Australia after 11 months, going home instead of Russia?
Lucy: I got pregnant, so we decided, "Hey, here's a really cool idea -- let's get married!" We got married in a cement-block building -- I've always hated cement blocks -- in a Registry Office with two witnesses whose children were screaming, "Mummy! Mummy!" [I wore] my sixth-form ball dress. I don't know why I took that to Europe and Australia, but I had it on hand. I was wearing that, but couldn't get it to fit right because I was three months pregnant. It was a kind of sorry exercise...but I mustn't say that because it's not right. It was the way it had to be, and things have worked out for the best.
Cleo: Any regrets about not making it to Russia?
Lucy: No, I was much more pleased with having a baby.
Cleo: When and why did you decide on a showbiz career?
Lucy: I just had some irrepressible urge to perform -- it never left me -- and I simply went out to auditions and doing [acting] classes. I just kept going, supported by my then-husband.
Cleo: What acting jobs did you start off with?
Lucy: Small stuff, a TV commercial here and there. It picked up a bit with the Funny Business group and after my studies in Canada.
Cleo: How dangerous is it to play Xena, besides popping in and out of your leather bustier?
Lucy: Well, we all take cuts and bruises. I have a marvelous stunt double, but there are action scenes calling for the star's face and I'm on. I got a beautiful black eye once, turning my head the wrong way just as an actor took a swing at me. But I've been a lot luckier than Kevin Sorbo [Hercules] who took a nasty cut on the head with a metal sword and had to have 10 stitches.