The Sunday Telegraph

12 October 2003

Lucy, the reluctant warrior

A kickboxing former Mrs New Zealand who cleans her teeth with baking soda, Lucy Lawless was the star of the cult television series 'Xena: Warrior Princess'. Now, she tells Sabine Durrant, she's presenting a programme about real heroines

`They came to him now, these forgotten counter-examples, because in the end, when you were falling into water, there was no solid thing to reach for but your children." Lucy Lawless, the actress who played the lead in the television series Xena: Warrior Princess, closes her copy of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and puts it back in her bag. She sits down (she has stood up for the reading).

Her voice when it comes again is croaky. "Family, his children," she says, "you see - that's what matters to the old man in the end." There are tears in her eyes.

Here in the library of a discreet London hotel is the new Lucy Lawless. Not the kickboxing, chakram-wielding Sapphic superhero who became a cult, who spawned a hundred websites and a thousand Xena wannabes, who at the height of her fame got to dine with President Clinton. Not Mrs New Zealand, the former beauty queen, a legend in her own country. No, this is the quiet, considered Lucy Lawless, 34, who abruptly reaches into her bag to read you a passage from a book that has moved her, the actress who has turned presenter of a new series of television documentaries for the Discovery Channel.

They might be about "warrior women" - Joan of Arc, Grace O'Malley, Boadicea - and contain the sort of "re-enactment" that involves a lot of men falling off horses and girls wading barefoot through surf (not a million miles, it is true, from an average episode of Xena), but Lawless herself remains strictly in a narrating role. She gets to say lines such as, "These are much lighter and shorter than other swords that I've used" - which not many narrators can - but otherwise she has put her own warrior days behind her. "Oh yis. Thank God. No more. No more. I'll happily leave that to others," she says in her cool, refined New Zealand accent, curling in her chair at the notion.

She is simply and expensively dressed in Marc Jacobs jeans, a striped T-shirt and a cashmere cardigan tight over her ample bosom. On her feet are a pair of high two-toned trainers like spats, which tip her 5ft 10in height over 6ft. You notice how tall she is even before she stands up, because she sits like a tall person, her shoulders back, her arms and legs out. She says she's "not a hair person", but she flicks her long chestnut locks a lot. Her small teeth are white, white, white.

"Ah thanks," she says. "I rub baking soda on them. I always have. But I thought they were looking a bit grotty this morning. I didn't brush my teeth last night after a cup of tea."

Lawless's career has been a series of accidents. She grew up, a good Roman Catholic girl, one of seven children, in Mount Albert, "middle child, middle class, middle of Auckland." Her father was the town mayor: "I kind of thought we were royalty." She was unconventional at school - wore tracksuit pants and cheap men's moccasins "to piss people off"; was going to study opera at university but dropped out and went travelling around Europe with her boyfriend, Garth Lawless, instead.

In 1987 she discovered she was pregnant so they came back and got married. Garth found a job in a bar and, after the baby, Daisy, was born, Lucy enrolled in acting classes. She got small parts in the television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (which was filmed in New Zealand), until one day in 1995 the American actress who had been cast in the role as Xena fell sick and Lucy took her place. Three episodes later she had smouldered and high-kicked her way into her own series.

She looks back at that six-year run now with some ambivalence. It wasn't just the black eyes and the broken pelvis (she did most of her stunts, "except for the flips") and the strain on her marriage (she and Lawless divorced in 1995). "The show was a bit of a body snatcher," she says. "It owned me. It wasn't the acting. It was the physical nature of it. I never wanted to go into action, never liked sport. I have a very casual and comfortable relationship with exercise. It was like somebody getting up and pretending to be a rugby player every day when they would really rather play Scrabble."

She was also overwhelmed by the extent of the mail she received, from women - mainly "empowered" by the example of Xena to leave their husbands or buy motorbikes - and from men, mainly asking for underwear. The subject still makes her uncomfortable. In fact, at one point, when I ask her if she gets her own groceries, she looks really nervous. "I, um, I don't know. I do the groceries if I have to. There are people who . . . I don't want to talk about it." She looks over her shoulder as if there might even be a stalker lurking there, and whispers: " The trick is not to make yourself too accessible in print. You don' t want to be too approachable, too human.

Otherwise, they think they know you. I've learnt that. I've been coached in it."

Any stress she felt was complicated by the fact that she became emotionally involved with Rob Tapert, the show's producer. At first, they saw each other secretly - "It was very fun, very wild, very exciting. If something happened tomorrow to Rob, I don't think I would ever be able to find a situation that would be more electric than that" - but in 1998 they married.

"There were times," she says, "when it was difficult because it was Rob's show. I couldn't come home and bitch about how much I hated my producers because the person you'd love to hate is the person you love most in the world. So there was that awful dichotomy. But for the most part I surrendered to the demands of the job."

She and Tapert divide their time between New Zealand, where Daisy lives with her father, and Los Angeles, "where they like their ladies with long hair and where they don't like you to cuss like a trooper." They now have two children - Julius, three, and Judah, one.

She refers to them, and to herself as a mother, indirectly but repeatedly. The dinner with Clinton in which Chelsea eyed her, "this buxom brunette" , suspiciously, "until she saw I was, like, eight months pregnant." The offer from Playboy: "But I was pregnant at the time and nothing in the world would compel me to do it." The stint on stage in The Vagina Monologues, "hugely pregnant, like about eight months". "I might not have an Oscar," she says, "but I have a Daisy and a Julius and a Judah and there are plenty of American actresses who would give their right arm to be me."

The filming of Warrior Women has taken her away from her family - to Europe, China, Ireland, the UK. She says she is enjoying the chance to "walk like a woman, not a mother, with a child on her hip and groceries in her hand", to "finish a thought", to "wake up when my body tells me to". She missed Judah's first birthday, but Evil Dead, which Tapert, "a horror man", made, was opening so she went to see that to celebrate. And - she leans forward to emphasise this - she is learning so much.

"I must say European castles are dreadful places to live. Dreadful. They always put them on some barren outcrop. They're so bloody cold and so windy and I just pity the nobles who lived there. Mind you, if you were a peasant, you were getting pillaged all the time, so that was just as bad." China was an eye-opener too. "The Chinese people were so calm and open and generous I felt a real kinship with Asian people. We have quite a lot of Taiwanese etc come to New Zealand, and now, instead of seeing them as `other', I feel completely at home and, you know, get chatting to them."

I ask her if she feels she can ever leave Xena behind. She emits a trill rather than a laugh. Warrior Women aside, she has cameo roles in a couple of films, one by Dreamworks, coming up. "But people always want me to play the female Frank N. Furter part, you know from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Because I have all that camp, bad girl stuff. People think I'm sort of a weird social deviant, and I'm so tedious in real life." She leans forward to straighten the cushion on the chair next to her, and laughs nervously again. "See?" The five-part series Warrior Women begins on October 15 on the Discovery Channel.