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Lucy Lawless
Beauty, Blood and Sand

Venice Magazine
February 2010

Scanned by Lori Boyles

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Lucy Lawless is a very different kind of beautiful. Her power is front and center, with her broad smile and straight talk cutting to the chase and giving the distinct impression that she doesn’t suffer fools. The sultry star has earned a singular place in the public eye as an image of strength, whose characters focus a piercing fire toward such ends as kindness, justice, and vicious retribution. As Lucretia, the fair lady of the house of Batiatus on the Starz original series, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” Lawless stops at nothing to regain the former wealth of her husband’s ludus, where gladiators are trained to kill and die in the arena. Set in ancient Rome, “Spartacus” sees Lawless’s seductive matriarch use everyone within reach to ingratiate herself and her husband, Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah), with those of higher station. Her performance is a sly study in greed, betrayal, and ruthless pursuit of socio-financial ascension.

Before she embarked on this reimagined tale of Spartacus [played by Andy Whitfield], the enslaved gladiator who dares to challenge the Roman supremacy, Lawless achieved stardom as the title character on “Xena: Warrior Princess” (1995-2001). The sword-wielding heroine on the first-run syndicated series quickly developed a devoted following of admirers, who reveled in Lawless’ portrayal of kick-ass, hack-’n’-slash fearlessness, which guarded a tender core of warmth and femininity. With her faithful companion, Gabrielle (Renée O’Connor), at her side, and her knife-edged “chakram” disc always at the ready, Xena took her place among the pantheon of indelible television heroes. And while tearing through the adventure, which was shot in her native New Zealand, Lawless also found herself a family — as she married Rob Tapert, co-creator of the fantasy saga, and they have two children together. Tapert currently co-produces “Spartacus,” along with Sam Raimi, Josh Donen, and Steven S. DeKnight.

Amid the priorities of motherhood, which included dedication to her first daughter, Daisy, from a previous marriage, Lawless found time for numerous post-“Xena” projects. The statuesque thespian appeared on “The X-Files,” “Veronica Mars,” “Burn Notice,” and “CSI: Miami,” as well as in Spider-Man (2002) and a hilariously deviant vignette in Eurotrip (2004). She also offered her voice talent to the animated releases, Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight as Goldmoon, and Justice League: The New Frontier as Wonder Woman. And after lending her pipes to the FOX reality show, “Celebrity Duets,” in 2006, she took to the road for a series of sold-out live performances in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and London. As her first long-term project in some time, Lawless recently took on the role of D’Anna Biers, a reporter with a wicked secret on “Battlestar Galactica.” And in a playful turn, the vivacious Kiwi showed up as the Prime Minister’s assistant on HBO’s New Zealand-spawned hit comedy, “Flight of the Conchords.” The actor-chanteuse, who grew up with six siblings in the Auckland suburb of Mount Albert, where her father was mayor, also enjoyed a stint on Broadway in 1997, as the rough-and tumble Rizzo in “Grease.”

We meet with Lawless for brunch at Pane e Vino on Beverly Boulevard. The renowned performer proves a consummate conversationalist, who eschews the trivial and rolls herm eyes when you call her an icon. Here’s what transpired:

Venice: I’m really liking “Spartacus.”

Lucy Lawless: “Sparty-Pants,” yes, it’s good!

You have a great line in one of the first episodes, “‘Proper’ is a word used by men, who would seek to enslave us with it.” It seemed to typify a lot of the work that you’ve done.

I think she’s lying, by the way. It’s complete manipulation! She’s a great liar. Men are not the enemy. Society — men and women — try to enslave one another, or exclude one another with certain manners, and fashion, and you name it. They’re all misused to exclude, or have some false sense of inclusion. So even though she says this great line, I think it’s reaching too far, perhaps. I don’t think she’s being wise. She’s manipulating the person in front of her.

Tell us more about the character you’re playing, Lucretia.

She’s just a really great liar. Viva [Bianca] and I decided — our characters are “best frenemies” — that we wanted our characters to be the kind of people that we would want to watch. We wouldn’t want to know, necessarily, what they’re thinking, so that’s why our acting relationship, our characters, are so complex and, I think, really powerful. Because they’re such good liars that they’re almost secrets to themselves, those girls. And they’re struggling for survival all the time.

Your character, and her husband, are going through something that’s apropos of the times we’re in now. Their financial troubles are really relatable to what’s going on in our current economy. They’re trying to get back on top after falling down.

It’s almost like sci-fi, in that you have the distance between the graphic nature of the show, and then the distance of time, where you go, “Oh, it’s a historical drama, therefore all bets are off!” But we still can’t help relating to those people, can we? So that’s what makes it fascinating. It’s such an alien environment, yet, put yourself in their shoes, and it’s a scary place to be.

What do you enjoy about acting on screen, and on this project, specifically?

It just has to be real to you. That’s what I like. When the buck stops here! [laughs] After everybody’s done the writing, cast it, and done their business. And when it comes down to the filming, it’s really only you and the director and the camera. And when the camera’s rolling, it’s just you. You’re right there on the edge, and that’s where I like to be. Nobody else can talk. Camera’s on. My turn! Then they go and cut you down to size, but for one brief moment, it’s all you, baby! [laughs]

And you’re out there, doing some damage.

Kind of. I tried to do this role really differently, because I never saw myself as... Xena was a real shock to me. I never saw myself getting into syndicated action television. It was an accident. I fell into the role, and then had to sink or swim. I spent two years just being punched in the face until I got good at doing the dreaded action scenes. I realize now that anybody can get really great at that if you are brutalized enough. Your reflexes will pick up, you will become good because you have to. So I fell into this funny world of Hong Kong style action and tongue-in-cheek humor, which is okay, because that’s where I started out, in comedy [on the sketch comedy show,

“Funny Business”]. But that was then and this is now. It’s a completely different role. There’s a completely different tone to this show. I’ve done lots of things in between, but this is my first, I feel, really personal role. I guess because I originated it more than I did on “Battlestar” where I walked into something that was already set up, and I had to fit into the gap that was left — whereas in this ... I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning. None of us did, because we didn’t know what the show was going to be. But it was a strong start, and it just gets better and better. You’ve got to push those boundaries before you find out where they are.

There’s a great dichotomy on the show between the violence, brutality, and the visceral stuff, versus the acting, the story, and the relationships between the characters. Lucretia can’t stand Spartacus! It’s way into the season before you even have a one-on-one with him.

Because he’s immaterial. He’s not really a person to her. He’s a prop that she can’t stand, because of what he signifies to the Romans — and she’s trying to ingratiate herself with them. So it doesn’t matter about his sparkling personality. She’s not interested. He’s only a commodity, and he’s painful to her. Later on, he starts to win, and her attitude toward him changes, because now he’s not only the cash cow, but he’s her way of paying back those little Roman bitches for slighting her. I think, really, Lucretia thought that she was smart enough to compete with the bright young things from Rome. And might just be young enough — if she did her hair just so, and spent enough money on clothes — to be a new friend. And they, at some point, let her know that she is never going to be a bright young thing. “You’re too old. You’re washed up. You have no status, and there’s no way you can dress that mutton up as lamb, thank you very much.” Which goes right to the heart of every woman in our society. When we feel like our best is passed — and who doesn’t feel that every other week! [laughs]

You can tell in the early episodes that whatever kind of friendship Lucretia and Ilithyia are venturing into is going to end badly.

It’s very peculiar, isn’t it! [laughs] And they’re all giving one another these terrible Judas kisses. And you go, “Ugh, that ain’t right!” Whatever they do is jarring on some cellular level. In the same way that you can’t dress up mutton as lamb, you can’t make something so toxic appear beautiful. There’s just no way. Everything about their relationship is toxic.

The little passive-aggressive comments, and each of them looking for a piece of information that they can use later.

And yet, Viva and I tried to keep it, very much, that our characters want to like one another. So that there is some genuine glimmer of something hopeful and pure in them, but it’s stymied by their need and their avarice. The Seven Deadly Sins, basically, are killing some kind of divine spark. They could be good, and they sometimes kind of want to be, but neither of them has the background, the self-love, the generosity of spirit, to realize it. They didn’t grow up with Oprah on the television. [laughs]

“Xena” had a compelling story arc. She started as an evil character, and then did this complete turnaround, deciding to become good and embark on this hero’s journey. I remember watching the finale and thinking, “What a perfect ending. Xena finally found her redemption.”

We thought there would never be any redemption for her. That was the bit of grit in her makeup that kept her searching, and thinking that she was irredeemable. And then we found out why she thought it, and then she achieved redemption. Although the fans were terribly hurt that we would kill one half of this new dynamic duo. They took it very personally, and only recently have people said, “Oh, I kind of like that ending!” A lot of the fan-base were people who felt very disenfranchised, or had been through pretty tough childhoods, and to them, Xena meant more than just a cool hero on an action show. She was some sort of a role model. To be honest, personally, I feel that role models are for kids. In the end, you’ve got to be your own hero. There’s nobody out there any better than you are, essentially. So, basically, they felt like we decapitated their role model, and that really hurt them, personally. Whereas, I thought, “Guess what. Everybody dies.” Get used to it. You’ve got to look for heroes inside yourself, and not outside. And certainly not on television, for crying out loud. But, you know, that was the hardcore fans’ construct, and people will always do that. If you’re not in touch with reality, it’s going to hurt you, eventually. You hurt yourself by doing that.

Renée O’Connor, who played Gabrielle, was great. I really loved the dynamic between you two, and her character development as she found her own heroism.

Yes, that’s what you learn in the end. That’s whose journey it really was.

She inherits the Chakram.

And she’ll carry the torch. That’s kind of beautiful. I’m glad you pointed it out to me! [laughs]

A group effort! I actually think Gabrielle’s journey is quite role-modelly. In the beginning, she says, “I want to be different from everyone I grew up with.”

“I’m not the little girl they wanted me to be!” Which is a classic lesbian line, by the way. All the lesbians went, “[Gasp!]” They saw themselves in that line.

And she runs away to figure out how to be a hero, on her own initiative, while helping your character learn how this whole “being-a-good-person” thing works.

Yeah, boring! [laughs] Yes, how to be a fully operational human being.

I enjoyed your “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode.

Thank you. I didn’t do much, but I really enjoyed hanging with that crowd. [Larry David] is so lovely. And working with somebody whose talent you love, that’s what we all crave, isn’t it? We all want to work with somebody whose talent we have long admired.

You live in Auckland now?

We film “Spartacus” in Auckland, minutes from my house. I love that! Less than 20 minutes, maybe 25 when it’s rush hour. I left Hollywood, and my career happened. It’s typical, isn’t it? Life got 800-percent better, at least, when I moved back to New Zealand. Because I’d been living here [in Los Angeles] for a long time, or I’d be in Vancouver, or New Orleans, with the kids always with me. And Rob would be in another country, working, so there was never any family around. And you can’t pay somebody to be ... You know, a nanny is not a father. So I went home, and my husband and I are under one roof, my parents live nearby, and all my girlfriends from grade-school. There are a few people I miss here, but in every other way, life’s just much better. I’ve got dogs, and chickens coming. And we live right in the city! But climate change, though...

What’s it like over there, in that regard?

It’s just disastrous. Our emissions are appalling. We got slammed in the run-up to the World Summit on Climate Change by critics saying New Zealand’s “clean green” image is basically a sham and that our government doesn’t want to commit to an emissions trading scheme that is meaningful, because agriculture produces so much methane, and it really powers our economy. It’s a really significant challenge for us to find ways to keep farming going, and address the issue. And it’s all of us. Every time we fly — I mean, I’m cringing at my own bloody footprint. It’s ghastly. If the average car creates, let’s say eight tons of CO2 per year, what does eight tons of CO2 look like, sitting on your driveway? It’s a shit-load of dry ice. And when I look at my own life, I’m horrified — as much as I try to keep the impact down. Just flying here puts me way over an allowable, sustainable limit for one human being. It was part of a campaign in New Zealand, to get our Prime Minister to go to the Copenhagen World Summit. He did go, but there was no legally binding agreement. It was a big copout. Anyway, the work goes on.

You went on tour as a singer for a while. How did you decide to put that together?

I knew some people who could put together some musicians, and you knock it out in two days flat, and it’s rough and ready and full of energy. It’s something you should do because you’re alive! If you can, then do, no matter what it is! If God gave you any talent at all ... In fact, you don’t even have to have talent. You can see that in any karaoke bar in the world, that it’s more about the doing than the result. People’s spirits are really set free by singing in public, for some reason. And it really doesn’t matter how good you are. It feels so good, that you might as well be bloody Barbra Streisand. Some of the caterwauling that comes out of those places! [laughs] But it’s awesome; I love the phenomenon of it. You just do it because you can. It’s so funny that these things are almost taboos, like dancing or singing in public — or crying. Any of these things that are so human and so harmless, that people look funny at you for doing them. Like, “Who do you think you are?” Like we ought to squish this thing that is harmless and beautiful and liberating to the performer! “Get thee to the karaoke bar,” I say! [laughs] It’s really important. Just free yourself.

I was watching an interview, where you said that you were tired of acting, and you were really happy as a singer now.

They had me [when I was] tired. I had been tired of acting, and then you get back into it, and go, “This is my new favorite thing!” I’m like that. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, it’s my new favorite thing. I never miss stuff. People say all the time, “Do you ever miss Xena?” I’m like, “Hell, no!” I’m so happy doing whatever I’m doing now. [“Xena”] was wonderful. It was rewarding at the time, and now what I’m doing is rewarding. I’m just blessed. I’m totally happy with whatever’s going on, for the most part.

It seems like you really go with serendipity when it arises.

It’s about having your eyes open, and being willing to go with serendipity, instead of being fear-bound — probably with somebody else’s ideas, like your parents, or the teacher, or whatever. With serendipity, I think you have to be open to it, because that makes you deserving of its gifts. It’s not going to happen if you’re bound up with fears, or if you’re on somebody else’s flight path.

Are you finished shooting “Spartacus” for now?

Yes, it sounds like they’re going to push back shooting the next season until May, and we’re in talks for me to be in the second season — because I wasn’t supposed to be. It could all fall apart. I might not be in it; I don’t know! We’ll see.

You have a man on the inside!

Right, but I’m not dealing with [Rob]. My deal is never made with him. He and I manage to keep our careers and marriage very, very separate. Very compartmentalized.

That’s amazing, considering how you met on “Xena.”

Yes, but you see, our marriage would have fallen apart if I expected him to cast me in everything, for me to be in everything that he did. Our marriage would not have survived. So long ago, I made a choice that, basically, I was not going to be in any of his stuff, so the pressure would be off him. I don’t even ask him about work very much. And often, people want to come to me with their ideas for something that I’d be perfect to play in — but what they really want is my husband to come and produce it. For us to come as a team, and to take on their project as our project,and I have to routinely say to people, “I understand that you want this so very badly, but Rob has his own project in mind — and I don’t even get to be part of them most of the time.” [laughs] You cannot sweet-talk your way, via me, into my husband’s life. Our relationship is not a business enterprise. We have a real, oldfashioned, love relationship that we’ve worked hard to maintainand spruce up. And we didn’t “literally” meet on “Xena,” because he wasn’t in New Zealand. But I think he saw me in the casting tapes, and went, “I’ll cast you as my wife!” [laughs] And 15 years later, we’re still together and it’s great!

And it’s important to you to maintain a traditional family environment.

My family is my everything. I get the biggest, most jubilant hugs from my kids every time I come home. And from my husband. You’re a star to them. Maybe not in their minds, but you’re a star in their hearts. [laughs]

Parenting is a lot of work.

Now that my kids have reached a certain age, all of a sudden, I’ve found myself with more energy, and I’m going right back to basics in my career. The things that excited me so long ago, like Meisner and Stella Adler. I’m revisiting everything, and now it’s my time to invest in film, and all the things that, for the last 15 years, I’ve been too paralyzed by my role as a mother to attend to. It’s a huge indulgence for me, because being a mother has taken all the brainpower I have — which wasn’t much to start with [laughs] — and now I’m free to go back into it all. So it’s thrilling; now I’m going to go see some films!

What are your thoughts on being considered an icon?

It’s not the reality of my life, obviously. I don’t think you can live up to being an icon; you’d have to live down to being an icon. You have to screen out everything that you are, to be that little, two-dimensional image. An icon is like a business logo. It has nothing to do with the organization! It’s just something that you can grab at a glance. So Xena was iconic, in that you could grab her at a glance, and go, “Oh, I know that show. I know that person. And, by extension, I know that actor.” But it has nothing to do with what you are, or what you’ll ever be. I learned early on that nobody is that lacking in complexity as to be able to live up to that. Nobody is so damn simple as to be merely a concept. So I think the whole thing is a little silly. But if they’re going to turn you into something, it might as well be something positive, like representing a different shape of woman out there, who’s tough, and strong, and able, and unafraid.

Your “Battlestar Galactica” character was very interesting. As a Cylon, her design wouldn’t be reproduced because she was too strong-willed.

She didn’t toe the line. [laughs] Her fatal flaw is her curiosity. And I am a little bit the same as that, because I’m very attracted to things that scare me, like challenges. They’ve thrown me out of planes, and done all this stuff; I don’t find that stuff scary at all. I mean, a little bit. It’s physically frightening, but mentally, spiritually, it has no challenge whatsoever. It’s a complete bloody waste of time, as far as I’m concerned. But performing — going out live and risking failing on a magnificent, colossal scale, that’s where I’m happiest. Because nothing can touch you there, man! You are so far out over it. You’re in complete freefall, and there’s nothing to live up to, nothing to live down, and for that time while you’re in freefall, nothing can compare. I get such a thrill out of doing it, that I really don’t mind too much what other people make of it, because that’s their business. The scarier the gig, the better I like it. Anything you do live — theater, singing on national television... Things that are out of your comfort zone — that’s where I want to live. And the uglier the character. Oh, I love that stuff, because I’ll go there! And damn the torpedoes. I’ll get therapy for it later. So far, I haven’t been anywhere, professionally, that I couldn’t get myself back from quite safely. But one day that challenge will come. Bring it!

Watch new episodes of "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" on Fridays at 10pm on Starz. Episodes replay throughout the week, and on Starz on Demand. All six seasons of “Xena: Warrior Princess” are available on DVD

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