Lucy Lawless battles locusts in CBS' latest disaster film
Lucy Lawless has already defeated dragons, giants and multi-headed monsters.
Surely, a few insects wouldn't bother her.
Then again a few million might. Welcome to "Locusts," airing 9 p.m. EDT Sunday (April 24) on CBS.
"I'm standing out there with locusts glued to my head," says Lawless, the former "Xena: Warrior Princess" star. "That's a new experience."
She says it as if it were a good experience. She assures us "it's a fun movie."
In real life, locusts are no fun. A lone one, a variation on the grasshopper, is about two inches long and unimposing; a swarm can blot out the sun and devour crops.
During biblical times, locusts swarmed over Egypt. In the 1870s, locusts caused millions of dollars in damage to Mississippi Valley crops. In the 1930s, they attacked the Pacific Coast and the Southwest. More recently they're creating disasters in Africa.
In Hollywood, however, disasters are considered great fun.
They create "safe mayhem," NBC programmer Jeff Gaspin recently told Variety, the trade paper. "You get to experience these awful things, but you're in your home and you know you're going to be OK."
Lawless' role is to be seriously frightened. "Even though it's done with a nudge and a wink, you play it straight," says the woman who on "Xena" battled much worse.
In "Locusts" she plays Dr. Maddy Rierdon, an expert on insects who is studying a locust invasion. She learns that a colleague's experiment has bioengineered a super locust, three times longer than usual and reproducing 10 times faster.
CBS hopes disaster flicks will draw more viewers.
"We wanted to shake it up," Bela Bajaria, CBS' senior vice president for movies and miniseries, told Variety. "We wanted to be more competitive on Sunday. ... These have to be fun but they also have to be good movies."
Doing both may not be easy. CBS' "Spring Break Shark Attack" and its "Category Six: Day of Destruction" miniseries had damning reviews, but good ratings.
Lawless knows the drill. Her own show was mocked by some critics and savored by fans.
"Lucy, as 'Xena: Warrior Princess,' was a female hero and she wasn't afraid to kick (tail) and take names," co-star Bruce Campbell wrote in "If Chins Could Kill" (L.A. Weekly Books, $29.95). "It ... inspired a loyal following."
The Xena character was first created for three episodes of "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," which was filmed in New Zealand. When another actress dropped out, someone was needed quickly. Lawless, best known for a local travel show, stepped in.
In some ways it was a stretch for Lawless. "Xena couldn't be further from this unassuming Kiwi," Campbell wrote.
Lawless sort of agrees. "I'm not a very athletic person," she says. "I'm physical, but I'm not athletic."
The physical part is impressive. Lawless says she's 5-foot-9-and-a-half (some sources nudge her closer to 5-11) and 140 pounds. People magazine put her on its "50 Most Beautiful" list in 1997.
She also sparked a trend. "Xena" came in 1995 -- two years before "Buffy," six years before "Alias" and "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider." Roles featuring female superheroes flourished in her wake.
Lawless, 37, has missed some of that. She and her husband, "Xena" producer Robert Tapert, have two young children, ages 2 and 5. (She also has a 15-year-old daughter from her first marriage.) The Taperts moved to the United States and she slowed her acting career.
"I feel like I've had a break for the past four years," she says. "I'm ready to go."
It was a fairly busy break ranging from two "X-Files" episodes to supporting duty on WB's "Tarzan."
That's mild, though, for someone accustomed to slaying dragons. Now she faces locusts -- but real ones.
"Obviously, you can't start a real biohazard."
If you did, however, it could become a new CBS movie.