Life after Xena
She may have left the Warrior Princess behind, but actress Lucy Lawless can't escape action heroines that easily. This month, she presents a series on Warrior Women for the Discovery Channel.
GILLIAN RODGERSON met her.
She's tall, but not as tall as I expected. The trademark black hair is gone, replaced by her natural dark-blonde colour, but I would know those blue eyes anywhere. Lucy Lawless isn't Xena any more, but there's still a hint of the Warrior Princess in the laid-back New Zealand actress and mother-of-three.
Lucy is visiting London from her home in Los Angeles to do publicity for Warrior Women, a new series she's presenting on the Discovery Channel. Spanning 2000 years, the programme examine the lives of five very different women: our own Boudicca; Wang Cong'er, a kung fu warrior who led a rebellion against the Chinese emperor, Joan of Arc; the Irish pirate, Grace O'Malley; Lozen, an Apache warrior who fought alongside Geronimo.
She describes all the women as "amazing characters, awesome women; women that I truly think I would love and respect" although she questions whether Joan of Arc should be called a warrior woman.
"Joan of Arc was really a girl," she says. "In the context of the times, she was a fully-grown woman - most of them would have had several kids by the time they were 19 - but, to me, she never really got the chance to become a woman. She didn't even live into her 20s. How can she really be a woman?"
Her favourite character is Grace O'Malley. She tells a story in which Grace was in labour in the hold of her ship when a skirmish broke out with an enemy ship. The sailors came down and told her they couldn't hold them off any more. Grace, apparently, went on deck, finished the fight, and then went below and gave birth. She was such an inspirational figure to her men," says Lucy. "At the time, women were second-class citizens, but she was sexually liberated. She was a tough woman. Grace really had resonance with me."
She describes Grace as "a real-life Xena", and I ask if she misses her most famous character. "No, I don't," she says. "She doesn't miss me, either. She and Gabriclle are off doing whatever they do."
She still sees her former co-star, Renee O'Connor", and others from the programme but she's moved on- "I don'i miss the lifestyle at all," she says, which is why, in spite of offers, she wouldn't commit to another television series. "It's my kids. That's the main reason why it's not worth it to me. All three of them would feel the loss of mummy."
So now she takes on only short-term work. When we met, she was two weeks into a five-week filming and promotional tour and, although she was enjoying the time to herself, she admitted, " By the time I've done this, I'll be dying to get back to them."
As well has having her third child ("My proudest achievement in recent months!" she laughs), Lucy has toured with a rock show and done The Vagina Monologue. "I get a lot of lesbian roles." she says laughing again, explaining that her character gives a very graphic description of lesbian sex. "We just kicked back; it wasn't drama, it was pure pom. The reason it was theatre was because it left the audience squirming with discomfort. It's quite hardcore, but my proudest moment when I did that was that I came out, and there was my dad. My good old Catholic dad, and he's so proud of me. He so loves me that he was going to support me 100 per cent, no matter what I do. It was one of the best moments of my life, actually, and it can't have been comfortable for him..."
She gives me a sample of the dialogue: "I take my fingers out of her cunt... and more!"
I mention another lesbian role of hers, in the film Peach. "] wasn't very good in that," she says. "I was so young. Only my first lesbian role!" I observe that she was a little overshadowed by the big truck her character drives.
I have to ask: does Lucy think Xena and Gabrielle were lovers? She does think they loved each other, but it's a little more complicated than saying 'Xena is a lesbian'.
"I didn't care," she says. "It was so irrelevant. It was quite fun to have that kind of sub-text with another, straighter read on top, because children don't need to know whether it's heterosexual or lesbian. It was quite fun to have that layer always bubbling around underneath. It didn't bother me, one way or the other. She did have three boyfriends that I can count.
"[The writers] never planned it from ihe beginning; it just kind of seemed like a good idea. But by the end, ] think it was quite clear, she is."
Lucy did get a lot of fan letters, some "terrific" and some "untoward" ones from stalkers, but she "long ago stopped reading them".
"A lot of them are terribly sad, and I'm an empathiser by nature," she explains. "T just go through the day wearing other people's pain. I couldn't do that."
Xena gave Lucy "everything", from "quicker reflexes" to her second husband, producer Rob Tapert, but she now wants to move on. "At some point, it'll have to stop," she says. "I'm conscious of milking it." Her fans have been very generous with contributions to charities she supports, but she wants to encourage them to take action in their own communities rather than sending money to New Zealand. "I'm keenly aware that people watch what I do, and make efforts to help out, so I have to be responsible. It's quite humbling, actually."
Her next project is a million miles from the action heroine. She's writing a screenplay, tentatively titled Anatomy of a Marriage, that she hopes will eventually be produced. But her old alter-ego doesn't let go that easily. When we finish our conversation, she's off to pose with a sword...
• Warrior Women is broadcast on Discovery Network Europe, beginning with Joan of Arc on 15 October. 9pm,