Steppin' Out

January 1999

Super Sexy Warrior Princess Xena
LUCY LAWLESS
(Cover)

Interview by ChauncÚ Hayden

Xena star talks about fame & fortunate - Lucy Lawless

Never before has television seen anyone quite like her -- a woman as smart, strong, courageous, and committed as any male hero.

Named by People magazine as one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world and 25 most intriguing people of the year, Lucy Lawless, 31, has enthralled audiences around the globe in her starring role as the fierce and fearless Xena: Warrior Princess.

A native of Mt. Albert, Auckland, New Zealand, Lawless first caught the imagination of television viewers with her portrayal of the statuesque, leather-clad Xena in several episodes of "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys." Before that she had guest-starred on "Hercules" as Lyla, Deric the Centaur's courageous young bride, and appeared as the menacing Amazon enforcer Lysia in the two-hour action-packed telefilm "Hercules and the Amazon Women." Almost six feet tall, with jet-black hair and piercing blue eyes, Lawless is the fifth of seven children and older of two girls in her family. Until the age of eight she was very much a tomboy, following in the footsteps of her four older brothers. She was educated primarily in convent schools, where she developed an early interest in acting and appeared in numerous musicals and plays.

Following high-school graduation, Lawless headed for Europe to travel through Germany and Switzerland; when her money ran out she made tracks for Australia, signing on with a gold-mining company in Kalgoorlie, a small town in the outback about 500 miles from Perth. She was relocated to a tiny mining camp two hours farther away from civilization. One of very few women miners, she did the same grueling work as the men-digging, mapping, driving trucks.

Lucy got married in Australia, then returned to Auckland shortly thereafter, where her now-ten-year-old daughter, Daisy, was born. With renewed career determination, Lawless began doing television commercials before, at 20, landing her first real acting job, with a comedy troupe on television called Funny Business. After dozens of small roles and a gig hosting a travel-magazine TV show, she landed that part in "Hercules and he Amazon Women."

Last year the multilingual actress starred for a period as Rizzo in the Broadway production of Grease.

Though she had practiced yoga for some time, Lawless had no special training in martial arts, swordplay, or stunt work when she won the role of Xena. She did have some experience with horses as a teenager. Blessed with a natural aptitude for the difficult physical challenges of the role, she has since trained with martial-arts master Douglas Wong.

Lawless recently married Rob Tapert, the executive producer of "Xena." They spend most of their time in Auckland, where the series is filmed. I spoke to her earlier this year, and subsequently sold the interview to Penthouse.

There's so much to talk about Let's start with the obvious: "Xena." Do you ever get tired of telling the "How I got the part" story?

I never really think about it, to be honest. If it comes up in conversation, I'll talk about it. But besides that I don't really talk about it much.

So how did you get the part in "Xena "?

[Yells] I'm not telling you! I'm sick of telling that story! [Laughs] Actually, I got it because another actress got sick. Xena was initially a character in "Hercules," which at the time was an unknown series, and a whole lot of actresses turned down the role. So the production company said, "What about this local girl named Lucy Lawless? We think she can do it, and besides that, she lives there." But [other people] said, "No, what are you, crazy?! We just had her on the last episode of 'Hercules.' " So they looked at a list of five other actresses in L.A., but none of them would do it because it was pilot season and they were all working on other projects. So eventually the job fell to me. Two days later I was having my hair dyed black.

And the rest is history.

Yeah. The show became a series.

How lucky to be starring in a hit television series that is also filmed in your hometown of Auckland, of all places.

Yeah, I know. It's just luck. The producer, Rob Tapert, who's also now my husband, was walking across the parking lot at Universal Studios one day when he met an old friend who told him he was filming down in New Zealand. When Rob said he was thinking about filming a series in South Africa, his friend told him he should first check out New Zealand. So Rob sent somebody down there to scout locations, and they loved it. So that's how "Hercules" came to be filmed there. It's all been a staggering set of coincidences that brought me to the part.

Do you believe in fate?

Yes. I think our fate is already written.

Really?

In a sense. I believe you have to have your eyes open in order to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. So it may feel like we're creating our own destiny, but I'm sure it's already written for us.

Xena is such a strong character with millions of fans. Are you concerned that you 'll never be able to escape the connection between you and "Xena"?

I'm not, and I don't allow that to be a part of my focus. I think that would be very defeatist. I don't allow that to enter my way of thinking. Additionally, when people meet me I'm very different from the person they expect to walk in the door. It turns their prejudice on its head. I know my agent finds it a lot of fun to pitch me for things because he likes to say to people, "Whatever you think she is, whatever you read, she'll surprise you when she walks in because she's completely different." [Laughs] So I hope I don't let my agent down.

Last year you starred on Broadway in Grease as Rizzo. Did you take the role mainly to show Hollywood you're much more than just a warrior princess?

Actually, the whole idea of starring on Broadway was such a momentous occasion for me. I really loved it. I was so glad I did that. And I made some lifelong friends out of it. It was just something I always wanted to do. That was really the only reason I did it, to be honest.

Life seems to be fitting into place very nicely for you.

Yeah, it is. But I work hard to make sure it stays like that.

Besides one divorce, have you had any angst in your life worth mentioning?

Sure. Nobody gets out of here unscathed. Are you kidding?

From where I'm sitting your life looks pretty unscathed.

Yeah, so far it is. But keep in mind I have selective amnesia. I seem to be able to wrap up and get closure on all my bad experiences so that they don't haunt me for too many years. I don't drag my old problems to new relationships. And yes, of course I have problems. I watch VH1's "What Happened to Teen Idols" series, and it just brings it home to me that nobody gets out of life unscathed. Life ain't easy for anyone. You see people like Tom Hanks, Uma Thurman, and all the rest of those people having what looks like a wonderful life, but trust me, they've all got their own problems. I mean, would you really want to swap places with any of them, even though you love, admire, and respect them?

Um ... yes.

You would? Really?!

Of course. But look who you're asking, Lucy.

You really would swap places? But think about all the people in your life you wouldn't know anymore.

I think I can speak for the average person when I say...

I'm an average person too.

You may consider yourself average, but the rest of the world considers you a superstar who enjoys fame and fortune.

But I'm not here to experience that. That may be an American experience, but I'm not here to work on my profile. I live in a very egalitarian society. But! But fame does not keep you warm at night. Fame is a double-edged sword.

You mentioned how you were moved by the VH1 teen-idol documentaries. When you saw them did you fear that maybe that could be you one day?

[Laughs] Yeah. "Whatever happened to that girl Lucy Lawless?" I'll tell you what, though, when I leave this business it will be my choice. I doubt I will end up like those people. In quieter moments I have stopped and wondered what would I rather be doing.

Why? Aren't you happy?

The effort of show business is extremely wearing. So I have thought about what I would rather be doing, but I can't think of anything else that I'm good at, besides being a mother.

You were once a decent gold miner.

[Laughs] Yeah, I've got all the credentials for that line of work.

Let's stay on the subject of fame. You were voted one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world, and one of the 25 most intriguing, by People magazine. How does that affect the way you see yourself?

It doesn't.

It has no effect on you whatsoever?

Well, I think it's neat, because it's a part of the business. But I'm not "Xena" or "Lucy Lawless the actress" in my own living room. If I'm not at work trudging about in mud, I'm home in my own living room or I'm on the treadmill doing exercise. And as we see from VH1, just because everybody else is telling you you're great doesn't mean you feel it. So all that self-worth has to be generated from within. I've really sought out help on that scale. During the beginning of the fourth season, which we're just finishing up now, I found it very difficult reconciling my job with my life. I didn't know why I was doing it anymore. I went through a really difficult period, and I got some self-help tapes from the television, and I'll tell you, that Tony Robbins is a genius.

So you went and ordered Tony Robbins tapes via an infomercial, and it worked?

Yes. Tony Robbins is amazing. I mean, when you first order his tapes you feel like a fool. I mean, you might as well be ordering Ginsu steak knives thrown in for free. But I had nothing to lose.

It was that bad?

Yeah. It wasn't anything you could tell on the outside -- it was all inside of me.

Why not go to a shrink rather than order tapes from television?

I would have, except I didn't have the time for that. My hours are too long. Plus I knew that the problem was something I could take care of myself.

It's fascinating that someone like yourself with beauty, fame, money, a loving husband and daughter -- could feel depressed or unhappy. Actually it's frightening. If you feel that way, the rest of us should be jumping off a bridge.

Why am I so miserable? I have the man of my dreams and a fantastic healthy daughter, I'm healthy, and I have a great job. I don't at the moment have to worry about my bank account, and I live in my dream house. It's a stunning house! So why am I not blissfully happy? I think I'm one of the more successful human beings in this business, because by and large I live in a state of joy. I really experience wonderful things. What I mean is, the sky is blue and I'm digging it. I don't take things for granted.

Yet despite all of those wonderful things you just mentioned, you still are unhappy. Why?

You think that by obtaining all these things you're going to get a certain feeling. You think because people respect you that you're going to feel good about yourself, Well, it doesn't work that way. You can't be looking at external factors to shore up your own soul. That just doesn't happen-it all comes from within. But thanks to Tony Robbins, I developed skills to work it out. I'm ready for the next 30 years of my life now.

Well, it's good to hear you're feeling better

Thanks.

More so than for any other actress in Hollywood, your fans are the most ... enthusiastic.

[Laughs]

Weren't you recently mobbed outside Rockefeller Center in New York after taping "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," to the point where it became dangerous for you?

Yes, that's true.

Has the experience made you leery about going out in public?

No. In fact I never even think about it. In Los Angeles people are very cool and wouldn't approach me anyway. Even when people there recognize you, they just don't react that way In New York they always do. People in New York are always brash, but at the same time charming. Plus I'm much more recognized in New York than anywhere else. Or so it would seem -- aside from New Zealand, of course. But no, the Rosie O'Donnell experience hasn't made me reclusive, because I understand it. It's just part of the phenomenon of the show.

If one of your most obsessed fans got the opportunity to spend an entire day with you, would that fan still be obsessed by the end of the day?

Possibly. Because, and only because, the sort of person who would be obsessed probably isn't coming from a position of strength in themselves. They're probably just looking at that external thing, and because I feel comfortable in my own skin and in control of my life to a large degree, they might still be obsessed at the end of the day.

George Clooney has often spoken out against the tabloid press. How do you feel about the tabloids?

I don't know. So far they've been pretty good to me. I really don't know. When you buy one of those things, you know what you're getting. Don't expect a weasel not to act like a weasel, and don't expect a gossip columnist not to act like a gossip columnist. That's just the nature of the beast. Why bother fighting it? In the case of the stalkerazzi though, that's a whole different thing. That's a violation of human rights. But at this stage I don't really have any feeling for the tabloid press at all.

What's the most bizarre thing you've ever read about yourself?

[Long pause] Um ... [Laughs] There's so much stuff that is silly I don't know, really. You see, I don't get those clippings sent to me, so I really wouldn't know what they're writing. Plus I have a buffer zone of about 5,000 miles between me and the gossip columns. In my dealings with photographers I've always understood that it's kind of a two-way street. You do your poses and you move on. I realize that they are a part of the job. You can work with them to a certain extent without becoming a puppet. But I really shouldn't say anything because I really don't know anything about that world.

It's impossible to do an interview with you without discussing your lesbian fans. Has the lesbian mania toward you calmed down or increased, as far as you can tell?

Um ... I don't know if there's so much mania attached. It seems rather that they look at "Xena" as an icon of some sort. Rather than me, they seem to be more interested in the Warrior Princess character.

Would you agree that the writers of "Xena" know that they have a built-in audience if they play up the sexual tension between Renee O'Connor [Gabrielle] and yourself?

Not anymore. We did that a lot in the beginning, and it's not that we don't play it up at times, but it's not for the lesbians who watch the show. We really do it for ourselves, because it just makes the scene a bit more funny to throw in some nuances. There's nobody, like in The Wizard of 0z, behind a curtain pulling strings and twiddling his fingers in a benevolent kind of way. It's not really about audience manipulation. I guarantee that our attitude is that we're just trying to make the best possible show that we can come up with. We try to please ourselves more than anyone else. Because when you start trying to please specific factions of your audience, then you end up with what we in New Zealand call blanc mange, which is something that is white, pasty, and tasteless. So you can't design by committee.

Are you surprised that members of the lesbian community are such big fans of "Xena"?

No, not at all. Although it did surprise me in the beginning. I was just naive. We never clicked on to it until it was brought to my attention through clippings from New York.

What was your reaction when you first found out that you're very popular with gay women?

I found it very amusing. So of course we started to play up to it with lots of double entendres.

So come clean once and for all-is Xena a lesbian, or at the very least bisexual?

Well ... we kind of let the audience make up their own minds when it comes to that. We don't even think about it, I kid you not. We let the [viewers] make up their minds. If you go to Texas, they'll tell you they don't even know that there's a lesbian subtext issue associated with "Xena." Which is great! [Laughs] They can take what they want from the show, and the Village Voice and The Advocate can take what they want from the show, I must say, however, that I've always been grateful to the lesbian community for helping to make the show a successful hit series.

Ms. Magazine once called you a feminist icon. What does it feel like to be an icon?

I feel that "Xena" is an icon. But when that article first came out, I sort of freaked out. I had no idea at the time the impact we were making. It shocked me. I thought that they were trying to hold me up as some sort of Barbie doll for big chicks. I was very uncomfortable with being objectified like that. So I took a defensive posture toward that article.

Speaking of objectifying, what would you say is your greatest physical attribute?

[Long pause] Um ... I'm thinking about my feet, my legs, my toes. [Laughs] Well, my pelvis got shattered in an accident a couple of years back.

You're referring to the fall you took while riding a horse in the NBC parking lot during a pre-taped segment for the Jay Leno show?

Yes. While I was in the hospital I had a few modifications done to my pelvis. So now I have this bionic pelvis. And boy it really goes! You should see it.

That's more information than I need to know. Second thought ...

[Laughs] Just jivin' ya!

Did turning 30 scare you?

Actually, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Why do you say that?

Because it forced a lot of changes. I mean, you can't carry on as you did in your twenties forever. You'll wear your knees out, and you'll lose brain cells at an alarming rate. Being 30 is good. You realize that you're grown up. You're as grown up as you're ever going to be or feel. And nobody can ever pull the wool over your eyes anymore.

Even though you're not an American citizen, do you have any interest in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal?

Yes. I think the mess with President Clinton being dragged out as long as it was was really bad for America. I understand why they felt compelled to do it, but it seems that everybody knew the outcome before they even got there. There seems to be a certain amount of posturing by the Republicans to really bring shame on the presidency. I mean, if he could be impeached for idiocy, he would have been out yesterday. But nobody thought he was going to get impeached, so it seems they were just going through the motions. I must say, though, that it's astounding how President Clinton has all these things just slide off him. I guess that's why they call him Slick Willie. But I wonder if things really do just slide off him. Like I said before, nobody gets out of here unscathed. The whole thing that has happened to him has got to hurt. It must be very painful to his family.

Yeah, but women still love him.

There are lot of people around the world who are looking at themselves and thinking, "Well, I don't think I've been a model person all my life either" You know what I mean? Infidelity goes back a long way, and women are just as likely to do it as men, so perhaps that's why people are thinking that they shouldn't throw stones. And it seems like they had a devil of a time coming up with a Republican with a completely clean slate themselves. I mean, who's ever going to want to run for president next year? [Laughs] I mean, really, who's going to want to do it? Everyone is scared of Larry Flynt, and rightfully so.

Maybe you should run for president Offhand I can think of a couple million lesbians who might toss their votes your way.

Thanks! If they can just overlook the not-being-an-American thing! [Laughs]

Well, we've proved that we can overlook a lot of things, so I don't see why that would be a problem.

[Laughs] This is true.

Last question. Why is Xena spelled with an " X " instead of a " Z "?

Irving Shapiro told my husband that if you write it with an "X," the kids will understand it. And it's true. It's more of a symbol, like a cross. It's like a strong icon. Visually it means more to the kids.

Thanks for the chat, and I hope never see you on VH1.

I don't think you will. Fame happened to me late enough in life so I'm not jazzed by it. It's all good.