6 - 13 February 1999
Title of article: A Lawless World
Lucy Lawless, who makes Xena, the warrior princess come alive on the small screen every week, talks about feminism, action figures and Xenamania.
So, what's so intriguing about Xena? What's not intriguing? Let's face it, it's intriguing, downright amazing, that the series Xena:Warrior Princess, ever got on the air at all. Who would have guessed that an action/adventure series set in the mythical past with a female protagonist who fights her own battles would become such an international success?
Few have ever gone where Lucy Lawless and her alter-ego Xena are now taking TV audiences. Sure, there was The Bionic Woman, but she was created in a laboratory full of white, male scientists and had all of modern technology at her disposal. Then there was Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman. Like Xena, Diana was an Amazon princess but ended up more guardian angel than vigilante who spent most of her time bailing that loser, Steve Trevor, out of his trouble du jour.
So, now, it's the 90's... we've got Xena, and television will never be the same again. Lucy Lawless and her character have single-handedly raised the bar for all women on television. But a TV series does not live by politically correct viewers alone: adults, teens, men, women, heterosexuals and homosexuals have all found a hero. Her fan base is as wide and varied as the fanciful landscape Xena travels through each week. So, why are we all so damned intrigued?
The character of Xena first appeared in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Xena was the evil leader of a rampaging army out to kill Hercules. By the end of the episoe, she is made to see the mistakes she has made and the humanity she has lost. She becomes Hercules' ally and leaves her army to begin a journey of self-discovery. Her story might have ended there, but creator and husband Robert Tapert had other ideas. Xena: Warrior Princess premiered in September 1995, and delightfully, they didn't dilute her complex character one iota. They did, however, give her a sidekick: the once naive, now not so much, Gabrielle. Throughout the series, Xena wrestles with her dark past, trying not to slip back into her former evil ways and always struggling for some kind of redemption.
The series is set in a universe (now known as the "Xenaverse") that takes great liberties with history. A land where Xena might just as easily encounter Mongol hordes, Odysseus, Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ or a tribe of Jews protecting the Ark of the Covenant.
So who's the woman inside the leather corset, and what doe Lucy Lawless feel about her alter-ego?
Lucy Lawless, who turns 31 on Mar 29, was born the fifth of seven children in a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand. She studied languages and opera at Auckland University for a year before beginning a Xena-esque walkabout of her own. She travelled through Germany, Switzerland and Greece, even dug gold in Australia, before ending up back in New Zealand in 1987, married to her high-school sweetheart and pregnant with daughter Daisy, now nine. She began acting and, in 1994, came to the attention of he producers of Hercules.
Intriguing Fact #1: Lucy Lawless was not the original choice to play Xena. That year, Lawless was cast as a renegade Amazon lieutenant on Hercules. She then made a second appearance on the show as a villainess who seduces him. When the role of Xena was cast, Vanessa Angel (Of Weird Science fame... or infamy) got the nod but fell sick at the last moment and in stepped Lucy. Her ash-blonde air was dyed black, hair extensions from Spain were added, some body bronzer to darken her fair skin, and quicker than her chakram can slice your head off, Xena was born.
So, how is Lawless dealing with Xena's international success and cult status? "I'm a million miles away, so when you say that (about being a cult figure), it makes me laugh," says Lawless. "I'm sitting here, a soft grey rain is falling, my daughter's playing with her Xena (action figure) at the table, I'm reading the paper and making a cup of tea. There's no razzmatazz down here." Shooting the series half a world away in New Zealand helps keep Lucy out of the spotlight, and thus far, she has managed to keep her personal life, well, personal. So what makes her such an intriguing character? "Mystery," suggests the actress. "People don't know me. I'm not generally hanging around at the parties (or) on the magazine pages over there, usually, unless something weird happens. And Xena's rather mysterious because she's an unknown entity, multi-layered."
Lucy describes her character as a "...bad ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl who traverses the time lines."
Intriguing Fact #2: A role model is defined by Webster's dictionary as "a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others." Ms Magazine calle Xena a role model for women everywhere. So just how does a person respond to that? "I'm only really aware of it when I'm out in public," she says. "The only way it really impacts on me personally is that I have to behave. I really do. I mean, I don't smoke, full stop, and this is part of the reason. I don't want to be seen that way. I'm cognizant of the fact that people, in particular young people, are looking at me. But I don't think anybody really wants to be Xena."
Intriguing Fact #3: Actually Lucy, they do. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on a survey in which children were asked who they most wished they could be. First daughter Chelsea Clinton was number one, and Tiger Woods second, followed by Xena, Darth Vader and Michael Jordan. So, why does the character of Xena and the show appeal to so many different and divergent groups of people? "I think there's something in it (the series) for everyone," speculates Lawless. "We try to appeal to the highest common denominator, not the lowest. The physical aspect of the show is there, and we don't apologise for it. I think the show appeals to people on a visceral level. I think it has caught a wave, a need of some kind for a stronger female hero." Xena's appeal isn't limited to the United States either. "Last year, I passed through London, and now they really want us back because the show's really taking off there as well. Xena's a huge hit in Turkey. It even shows in Iran. One of the writers came back and said in Iran, they blow it up - every image - so you only get close-ups of the faces, and no cleavage or costumes. It's very bizarre."
Intriguing Fact #4: It's well-known that TV execs believe women will watch a show about men, but men won't watch one about women. But what's truly amazing about the series is that both children and adults watch the show. "I'm very aware that the demographic is incredibly wide. The audience I'm most pleased about i young boys and young men. Because, whether they know it or not, they are getting to see women in a different role that they haven't before."
And what about seeing yourself as a plastic, 10-inch Xena action figure? "Who would ever think that one would be an action figure?" (Was that giggling we heard?) "Seriously, I gave one to my daughter." There's a brief pause, as Lucy turns away from the phone to ask Daisy what she thinks of 'the action doll'.
"Which action doll?" Daisy wonders.
"The Xena one."
Daisy's replies is muffled, but Lucy returns to the phone laughing. "Daisy says'yeah it's okay, but it needs to be browner.' She's very pragmatic. Oh, and the chakram needs to be smaller." What is so appealing about the series is that each episode, on a certain level, has a heart, a moral centre, hiding within the bone-breaking action. "My character is allowed to be wrong, (but) she is not allowed to be stupid. That's my only maxim. She has a dark past, which opens up a lot of possibilities; it gives her character more depth. The audience knows that the devil is right there on her shoulder."
This struggle between her past and present lives gives Xena a compelling internal dynamic. Each week the audience watches as Xena wrestles with her need for redemption while her very palpable fear and hatred remain only nominally in check.
Intriguing Fact #5: Typecasting is a reality. Certain actors once cast in a successful role can never break free of it. As Leonard Nimoy once succinctly put it, "I am not Spock." But come on, deep down, we all know he really is. So is Lawless concerned about typecasting? "The more people ask, the more I say, 'should I be afraid of this?' But who knows, Maybe after Xena, I'll pack it all in and go off somewhere and have kids." Maybe, but she doesn't seem ready to slow down just yet. "There really isn't any room for other projects. The smartest thing for me to do would be to have a small but pivotal, juicy part in someone's blockbuster because I don't want to work all the way through my hiatus. It's too tiring, I want to spend time with my girl and relax a bit."
As for Xena, viewers can expect some 'horrifying' developments. "I can tell you this. Xena makes a decision coming from a wrong spot. She decides to battle an old foe, rather than bring help, and as a result, Gabrielle gets in trouble," reveals Lawless. "Gabrielle lies to Xena about something extremely important, and it costs Xena dearly. At the same time, Xena tells a lie to Gabrielle, and in order to keep all these lies intact, they have to spin an ever increasing web of dishonesty. We're going to challenge the bonds between the two lead characters, then there's a reconciliation. We're tryin some real-life drama."
But wait, this is all well and good, but this article is about Xena, the woman, the intriguing woman. It's only fair she gets the last word, so we asked her, how does Lucy Lawless (known in fan circles as Flawless) sum up the intriguing appeal of Xena, the Warrior Princess?
"Our show has a lot of fun and a lot of irony, and people like to escape," she explains. "We try not to be didactic, we try not to shove some moral down people's throats through our stories. We don't want to preach to them about all manner of subjects. Our show is kind of low maintenance, and it doesn't demand a moral imperative. It's bloody straight-out fun."
Cool, we can live with that.
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