ImageThe Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) 15 August 2010

Swords, sandals and sex

Lucy Lawless faced an unexpected challenge in her latest role, writes Richard Clune

Lucy Lawless says her exploration of the Roman Empire meant checking her inhibitions at the studio door.

"Mate, you said it. It’s the first time I’ve had to do a sex scene and I just about had a stroke," Lawless, best remembered as Xena: Warrior Princess, says of her role in Spartacus: Blood And Sand.

The build-up for the scene was so stressful, she says, that when it was over, she went straight home to bed and slept, make-up still on, for 11 hours.

"You want to think you’re a modern woman and artistically able - an ‘ac-tor’ - but really you’re a middle-class girl from Mount Albert, New Zealand, who went to Catholic school. It has long tentacles, all that stuff; I’m certainly not the free spirit I think I am."

Lawless is not alone in having to overcome the inyour-face nature of the series.

A bloody ride, full of lithe, naked bodies, Spartacus was criticised in the US for the " gratuitous" nature of its history lesson.

"If you think Spartacus is soft porn, that simply tells me you’ve only watched the first two episodes," says Lawless.

"Even we go back and look at the first two and are like ‘ wow’ . . . but we’ve very quickly moved on from that, and sex scenes should always give up something else; they’re a power play - somebody always wants something."

Shot in New Zealand, Spartacus gave Lawless the chance to return home for the series.

"I was a little nervous about coming home because I felt like I was giving up my Hollywood dream a bit," she admits. " But it was great to have the family under one roof." (She and husband and series producer Robert Tapert have two sons Julius, 10, and Judah, 8, and Lawless has a daughter Daisy, 22.)

Lawless, 42, has worked solidly since her swordwielding Xena days of the late 1990s. She’s been in Battlestar Galactica, TV comedies Flight Of The Conchords and Curb Your Enthusiasm, blockbuster action flick Spider-Man and the Broadway production of Grease — but she still can’t escape her Xena role.

"If you’ve been at primetime for six years and lucky enough to have a character that was burnt into public consciousness, well, I guess it’s awfully hard to move people off that and evolve your career. It has taken me a long time to break that conception.

"But, no, she’s in no way annoying. I certainly can’t grumble because Xena gave me everything."

Spartacus: Blood And Sand begins Wednesday, 9.30pm, on GO