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Lawless - A New Role For the Warrior Princess

(New Zealand)

Television: In the name of the law

22 January 2006

Many thanks to Jennifer for the News and Calli for the Scans

Her days battling evil deities are long gone, but as Lucy Lawless tells GRANT SMITHIES, she has a new target in sight - Third World poverty.

Lucy Lawless' documentary Five Days in Bangladesh could have been cheesier than a fondue. You know the kind of thing - a contrived tear-jerker with a soundtrack of pianos plinking sadly as a wealthy and beautiful celeb demonstrates her empathy with those less fortunate, contemplating the horrors of poverty as she travels photogenically - brown hair, blue eyes, 1.78m - through the Third World.

My heart sank even further when I read this line in the publicity blurb: "She's saved lives on screen before, but this time, it's for real".

I pictured Lawless clad in that famous copper-and-leather bustier from Xena, Warrior Princess, but instead of chasing evil deities through cabbage trees, she was racing through destitute villages of Bangladesh on those long lovely legs, thrusting life-saving sandwiches into the hands of starving villagers.

But then I watched an advance copy of the Bangladesh doco and my cynicism crumbled.

"Oh, we love to be cynical, don't we?" says Lawless from her home in Los Angeles. "It's such a cop-out. If we're cynical, then we don't have to do shit. Well, I reject that way of thinking. World Vision approached me to make this documentary and I agreed, because I thought I could do some good, and also because I'm very attracted to seeing the ugly truth about this world. I don't know why, but I'll go to some dark places in my life and in other people's lives just to see what's there."

And what was there? Some grim things. The camera follows Lawless as she meets homeless children who don't know their own names or where they're from, kids dying of malnutrition or severely disabled, very young children forced to carry stacks of bricks on their heads for a dollar a day.

"Mothers will abandon their kids to increase the chance of their own survival, so I saw a lot of children who'd just been put on the roof of a train when they got to about four years old," Lawless says. "The child would end up living in the railway station wherever that train stopped, with nothing to eat, and vulnerable to violence and sexual predation. I saw an eight-year-old kid strung out on heroin. But perhaps the most difficult thing for me as a mother was seeing other mothers that were out of tears, out of love."

The trip to Bangladesh was one of two major events last year for Lawless. She was in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, filming a no-brainer TV horror movie called Vampire Bats. It turned out that giant swarms of bug-eyed, sharp-fanged flying blood-suckers were the least of her worries. When the hurricane swept in, she evacuated with three crew members to Baton Rouge, crawling along at "one mile an hour" among thousands of other panicked people.

"We were there watching everything just turn to anarchy. When it's too hot to move and the music's playing, New Orleans is the Big Easy, but when catastrophe strikes, all the usual conventions totally collapse, just as they did long ago in Bangladesh. It's everyone for themselves. There were hungry people everywhere, families who couldn't find each other, and then gangs of looters, which was amazing, really. Here's this looter up in his apartment, surrounded by 18 huge flat-screen TVs he's stolen, but he's drinking pooey water and can't go anywhere."

Lawless is no stranger to good causes. She has done charity work to support breast cancer research, prevent child abuse and promote breast feeding, and is a board member of the Starship Hospital Foundation.

And yes, she has sponsored a child. She has been a sponsor to a Bangladeshi child, Even Banik, for more than 10 years. She meets him in one of the more optimistic scenes towards the end of the documentary. He's fit, happy, healthy. Hell, he's almost chubby.

"Yes. He's living proof that child sponsorship really does help these people take control of their destinies," she says. "World Vision long ago realised that the way to help children was to assist the entire village they live in. If you give money to one family in a poor community, it breeds resentment in their neighbours. You have to help improve the water supply, the health infrastructure, the antenatal care and so on.

"And it's amazing to the recipients of this money that someone so far away is prepared to do this for them."

Despite this, some critics of such sponsorship programmes say this money merely treats symptoms rather than the cause; that these children and their families are really casualties of the heartlessness of global capitalism.

"I agree," says Lawless, "but I'm not going to wait for George Bush to make a huge donation on my behalf. We have to do what we can, right now."

Safely back in LA, Lawless is guarded in talking about her private life, which is not surprising - she's had Xena obsessives chasing her around over the years. They turn up at her house, rake through her rubbish bins, try to photograph her children, and write lurid fantasies about her on their websites.

What is well known is that Lucy Lawless has been dealt a fairly lucky hand. Born Lucille Frances Ryan in Auckland in 1968, she was one of seven children, the daughter of Julie and Frank Ryan, the former mayor of Mount Albert and more recently an Auckland City councillor. She was head girl of Marist College, studied languages at Auckland University, then dropped out to travel. In 1998 she married first husband Garth Lawless in a registry office in outback Australia, and their daughter Daisy was born soon after. Lawless won the Mrs New Zealand beauty contest in 1989, studied acting in Canada, then had roles in a couple of local films (including The End of the Golden Weather) and co-hosted a TV travel show before landing a role as minor character Lysia in the Hercules/ Xena franchise in 1995, the same year her first marriage ended in divorce.

Soon afterwards she was promoted to head goddess and Xena became a huge hit. The series ran for six years, showed in more than 115 countries, and turned Lawless into a rich woman and a global lesbian icon (she was even cover-girl for America's Lesbian News magazine in 2003.) In 1998 she married Xena producer Rob Tapert in California, had two more children, Judah, three, and Julius, six, and now lives for most of the year in their $2 million dollar house in LA.

"People always assume LA is full of all these really smug, awful people, but a lot of things about this place are terrific," Lawless says. "There's a lot of wise people here as well as buffoons, and you can avoid the buffoons. I guess the difference is that over here you have to have a fully operational shit detector."

When she returns to New Zealand each year, Lawless is picky about what shows she appears in, a blessed contrast to many of our less famous and more desperate celebrities.

"I don't do those kinds of crappy local reality shows because I don't enjoy watching them," she says. "If other people want to do them, that's fine - it's their funeral. I'd rather do things that are socially useful, like this new documentary."

Home here is a $4.5m house at Auckland's Mission Bay, complete with serious security fencing, the inevitable 4WD, and a couple of flash European cars. Lawless is not short of a few bob, in other words, which might prompt a more cynical man to ask - why doesn't she sponsor 10 children, or 100? But I am not that man.

By donating money, time, her name and her famous face to the cause, there's no doubt Lawless is doing what she can.

"I believe there's this fabric that connects all human beings, and when you send some money to someone in need, it just strengthens this fabric."

  • Lucy Lawless: Five Days In Bangladesh screens on TV2, Tuesday, January 31, 7.30pm.