The Herald Sun
16 November 2003
Transcript/Scans by MaryD
Lucy in the Sky
She was the all-conquering hero of the small screen, then she disappeared.
Neala Johnson meets a Lucy Lawless on the comeback trail
XENA: Warrior Princess made a superstar out of Lucy Lawless. Over six seasons, the TV show about gods and demons took this struggling New Zealand actor to great heights: she was a feminist icon, a lesbian icon, a model mum, one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.
Fame wasn't the only thing Xena bestowed upon Lawless. In 1998 she married the show's executive producer, American Rob Tapert. Still, for all the good fortune it brought her, by the time the last episode of Xena aired in June 2001, Lawless was ready to disappear.
She'd had enough of the fight scenes, the horse riding and, yes, the glare of the spotlight. A break, Lawless hoped, "would let people forget me". Her relationship with Tapert was another key factor — already a mother to Daisy (born in 1989 to her first husband, Garth Lawless), and Julius (born a year after her marriage to Tapert), Lawless was ready to add to her family.
In May 2002, she and Tapert welcomed their second son, Judah. Judah made his showbiz debut at the age of three months, when Lawless came out of hiding to pose for a New Zealand ad campaign promoting the benefits of breastfeeding.
But the supermum tag wasn't her speed. These days, Lawless says, "I try never to even talk about that. "There did come a time when I went, 'Oh, bugger this, I'm sick of being Mrs Role Modely Mother, it's not really me'. You do the best you can, but I'd hope we're all a little more flawed than that."
With her family her new focus, Lawless left the Xena routine behind, quickly putting behind her the need to look "built".
"Oh mate, I've never run so hard and fast as I ran from the muscle routine," she groans. "But I was never built. I was a lot stronger and more defined than I am now, but I'm not as tall and big as people think."
With the muscles went Xena's long, locks and blunt fringe; Lawless now sports a lighter, shorter, more modern look that suits her fresh take on life.
"For the last couple of years I've just" been doing things that are fascinating for me, and stretch me a little bit."
These things included cameos in TV series The X Files, The Bernie Mac Show, Just Shoot Me! and The Simpsons; roles Lawless calls "those little scene-stealing parts that don't put any particular pressure on you".
"Except there is pressure, because if you get the scene-stealing little part, you have to live up to it, and I'm a little out of practice," she laughs.
NOW, with 21/2 years' distance between herself and Xena, the Lucy Lawless comeback is about to kick into high gear — if, of course, the 35-year-old Lawless can convince Hollywood she's still worth the trouble.
"I don't think anyone's going to say, 'Oh here's a lead role', because it's all about heat. And I've made choices that perhaps were a little antithetical to keeping the heat going.
"There was a time when they came to me about doing X-Men, but I couldn't... for personal reasons and also I was working so hard on Xena. And the girl boxer movie (Girlfight) — couldn't do it.
"Now, I've just been off the market too long. But I'm not sorry," she says.
"I've done things that are really important to me. If I hadn't gone off and had kids, at 80 I'd be kicking myself. So now I'm just gonna go hard, see what happens."
The first stage of the comeback was a cameo in blockbuster Spider-Man. From there, it was on to another movie bit-part, in the comedy The Ugly Americans. In the film, due next year, Lawless plays (in her own words) "a Dutch madam who lures one of the young leads into her den of iniquity and rogers him senseless with the help of ugly Men in rubber suits".
Then, mid-year, a project of her husband's drew Lawless back to Auckland. Tapert and his friend, Spider-Man Producer Sam Raimi, had founded a film production company to specifically produce horror movies. To save money, their first production, Boogeyman, starring 7th Heaven's Barry Watson, would be filmed in New Zealand.
Lawless came on board to play mum to Watson's character: "the drag-addled mother who gave up custody of her son and set him up for a lifetime of psychosis and bitterness".
"That was attractive to me," she says, "to play the antithesis of what I try to be in my real life."
Tapert didn't immediately push his wife for the Boogeyman role, but eventually, the cards fell into place. "The director turned to me and said, 'Lucy would be perfect for this part'," Tapert recalls.
"I went, 'I kinda think she would too'. I called and said, 'Luce, do you wanna do this part?' She read it and said, 'I'm not certain it's good'. And I said, 'Well, you can make it good'.
"I'm not afraid to ask Lucy to do anything," Tapert adds.
"We did so many wacky things over 130-something episodes of Xena, that I feel comfortable. Still, I know better than to ask her to do nude scenes," he laughs.
The Ugly Americans and Boogeyman may not be lead roles, but for Lawless, they have brushed away the acting cobwebs and reminded her of her love for the craft.
"I've had this overwhelming feeling of ; coming home," she says of her time on the sets in Prague and Auckland.
"Being on a film set is the same everywhere in the world. It was just like 'Oh, thank God" because I'd been traveling around Europe doing this series (Warrior Women) for Discovery, being blown off the side of mountains, and I was sick to death of bloody wet cold castles; by the time I got to Ireland I was outta my head. So to be on a movie set for me is just like ..."
SHE pauses for dramatic effect, then sighs, "I feel like a fish back in water."
In August, on the set of Boogeyman, Lawless wasn't sure what the next step in her resurgent career might be. She wasn't a natural at the action scenes Xena required, yet "that's all anybody wants me to do any more — kung fu and horses".
After regularly working long and braising days on the cult series, the relaxed pace of feature films was attractive. "I've had a taste of this film business and I sure like it," she grins.
"Anybody who says that film acting is harder than serial television is on crack."
But her connections — producers Lawless had worked with on Spider-Man and Boogeyman — have ultimately led her back to the fast-paced world of American serial TV, where she's certain she'll have to work "18 hours a day, no trouble".
Lawless has signed a deal with US . network The WB (home to Charmed and The Gilmore Girls) that will see her star in ; the new series Tarzan, alongside Australian Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel.
In return for providing a little star power as a sassy newspaper publisher in the first season of the adventure/crime drama, Lawless will be given the chance to develop her own show for the network in the 2004/2005 season.
Tarzan also means another change of address for Lawless. She and Tapert were splitting their time between Los Angeles and Auckland; now she will be tripping between LA and the series' base, Toronto. She's nervous — as she has been along every step of this "comeback".
But like any good actor, she'll use the fear to her advantage. And who knows, maybe six or seven years from now she'll be desperate to escape another cult character she's brought to the living rooms of the world.
"I think it's good to be scared, 'cos then you're 100 per cent, but you're not complacent; you're not acting by numbers," Lawless says.
"If you're a little scared, you can move people a little more."
Boogeyman will be released In 2004. Tarzan is expected to screen on Channel Nine in 2004.