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Sister Mary Prostitute The Cyborg Warrior Princess or The Career of Lucy Lawless.

Sirens of Cinema

Volume 2 Number 14
January 2009

Scans by LB / Transcribed by MaryD

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If there's a patron saint of genre feminism, it may very well be Lucy Lawless. Throughout the '90s, she portrayed the title character in Xena: Warrior Princess and proved to legions of women, young and old, that action heroes need not be male. It can also be said Xena, the character, and her sidekick Gabrielle (played by Renee O'Connor) also contributed, directly or indirectly, to a lesbian revolution that first manifested in mass Xena screenings and conventions and brought many same-sex genre fans out of the closet and into the light of day. An argument can be made, too, that the ambiguous but very loving relationship between Xena and Gabrielle ultimately paved the way for Buffy the Vampire Slayer's most famous lesbian couple, Willow and Tara. Most importantly, though, Xena proved to studio and television execs that strong women who stood up for what they believed in—with either a punch, a sword or a stirring speech—were sexy and profitable. Suddenly, the airwaves filled with the likes of female-centered shows like the aforementioned Buffy, Dark Angel and Tru Calling. And on the male-driven shows, the women weren't just the girlfriends or the sidekicks, they were kicking ass right alongside the men.

Lawless, on the other hand, doesn't think much about the impact Xena made on the cultural Zeitgeist. "I can't take responsibility for them having gotten something good any more than I can [be blamed] if they've gotten something bad or nothing out of it. I guess you do things for your own egocentric reasons, but I don't feel that it has anything to do with me, really," she says. "In fact, I was just saying this to a friend—because from where I sit, being an actress can sometimes be very dispiriting— [complaining] 'Oh my god, what am I doing? It's completely pointless.' And she said 'you forget how much what you did meant to so many.' And I wrote back, 'I forget about the unintended and magical thing that somebody else derived from my job'."


She doesn't dwell in the past. She doesn't have to. "Plus I have a whole rich family life. We've got snakes, now we're having a sleepover... so I'm not really musing about my importance much. I know I'm important because I have to get up at 6am to get the kids ready for school. You know what I mean? But in terms of jobs I've had, it's a very remote concept. But thank you, because I'm grateful to be reminded that what I did was of some use to the planet."

Lawless took the time out from her very busy schedule of being mom and superhero (as we all know from The Simpsons, maybe Xena can't fly but Lucy Lawless isn't Xena) to speak to Sirens about her past and current work and we start with a movie on a lot of minds right now: Bitch Slap.

As reported last issue, Bitch Slap is the brainchild of longtime Xena collaborators, Rick Jacobson and Eric Gruendemann, involving three women, the mob, a mysterious cop, a lot of money and a cast of bizarre characters played by familiar faces. In Bitch Slap, Lawless is reunited with O'Connor in a scene in which a novice nun visits her Mother Superior with some... concerns.

"I'm playing Mother Superior," Lawless explains. "Renee plays a novice nun and she's discovering some primal urges that my character has long since beaten into submission and doesn't understand [proper voice] 'what she's going on about!' I guess I was channeling Sister Geraldine, who was my Standard Four teacher. And having had a really good relationship with nuns over the years, I was really happy I wasn't some horrible, abusive, pornographic lesbian nun, as some have stereotyped. Because that was never my experience and I wouldn't have played it like that. I just got to play a very kooky—what's the word—a woman who lives in complete denial of human nature."

While Lawless and O'Connor are friends off-screen, Bitch Slap provided a reunion for them for the first time since Xena concluded in 2001. "Oh, she and I, yeah—it was a friendship forged in battle. It was like growing up together. [The movie's] got a bit of momentum behind it. I'm so proud of Eric Gruendemann and Rick Jacobson for making it happen. It's so authentic to them and in particular to Eric, who I've known for 13-14 years. He's always been into the kitch and the off-kilter. And he was a constant creative force all through Xena in the day-to-day runnings. A lot of the quirkiness came from Eric. They really put it all on the line to make something true to their kitchy, kooky interests. I think that's what people are responding to."

In the usual degrees of Hollywood separation, Bitch Slap also features actress and stuntwoman Debbie Lee Carrington who appears in another upcoming project involving Lawless. But because of the nature of the shoot, with much of Bitch Slap shot greenscreen, the actors didn't work together in the film. In fact—"[Debbie plays] 'Hot Pocket' and I didn't know she was in Bitch Slap until I saw the posters! But we became very good friends on Bedtime Stories. She and I just hit it off and became fast friends. I'm proud to be in Bitch Slap with all sorts of wonderful people. I think that's testament to the kinds of friendships that Eric and Rick have formed. People who just want to help out and want to be part of the project because they've been so good to us over the years. It wasn't even a question—'No, I'd love to help you'."

The New Zealand set of Xena was famous for its family atmosphere. Created by longtime friends and collaborators Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man), Lawless and O'Connor worked with many Indie fan favorites like Ted Raimi (SeaQuest, Evil Dead IT), Bruce Campbell (Army of Darkness, Burn Notice), producer Scott Spiegel (Hostel), Josh Becker (Running Time) and multiple others. So it's only natural, now that the show has been in syndication for the last few years, that she should miss that atmosphere, the show, etc.

"No," she says, deflating the hypothesis, "but I don't have the 'missing' gene—the gene for missing things. I don't miss the show, I don't miss New Zealand, when I'm away from home I don't miss—I may miss my kids, but no, wherever I am, wherever I lay my head is my home. Also, these people continue to be my friends so... my life's not lacking anything because I'm not working on a TV series. I have to remind myself of that sometimes. When I'm a bit bored—[moaning] 'Oh, what happened to my career?'"

Bemoaning a career that has taken her to Broadway in Grease, to films like Boogeyman and the upcoming Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler, back to television with Battlestar Galactica. We should all have such worries. But it's "Xena" that will forever be associated with her. "Yeah, I'm all over the place. But Xena will always be a big one on people's minds," she says. "It's an iconic look and an iconic name and really, in the scheme of problems you can have in the world that's a good one to have, being identified strongly with something you've done in the past."

More recently, SF fans have been taken with another Lawless role, that of D'Anna Biers, aka the Cylon Number Three, on the Sci-Fi Channel's relaunchof Battlestar Galactica. There are definite parallels between the Warrior Princess and the Cylon—both are morally conflicted, occasional anti-heroes. But while the producers kept Xena's sexuality ambiguous, Number Three is shown in a sexual congress with male and female characters, due to the nature of Cylon love knowing no gender. (Playing a lesbian comes easier to her now, by the way, though longtime fans know all about her first cameo in the lesbian-themed short film Peach.

"Oh my god, I was so bad in that. I didn't know how to do it. 1 didn't know how to act. I didn't know how to be a lesbian in those days. I've kind of learned. I just did something on The L Word the other day. No sex, but she was definitely a lezzie at heart.") These complexities would make the character interesting to any actor, but Lawless cites other reasons that drew her to playing D'Anna.

"It was the 'God' aspect," she says. "D'Anna was questioning the nature of life and death and she had a religious... mysticism about her that I found very interesting. And I wanted to explore that. I'd just gotten done reading The Golden Compass series [by Philip Pullman, which deals with the question of the nature of God and religion] and it was quite... heretical, the way they handled the idea of God and angels and that sort of thing. [The book depicts] God as a paper-thin angel, almost like a desiccated butterfly that they were keeping alive in a glass coffin, like Snow White. It was a little bit like that and it was so bizarre—I'd never seen that in fiction before. And it filled my head with all sorts of ideas. Now, you obviously have to fulfill the writing. It's not like I get to [explore everything I want to in a role]... it ain't all about me, my personal interests in that art. But that's what drew me to that role."

I pause a moment and return to something she mentioned, asking if she meant that The Golden Compass series was literally 'heretical', if she found the ideas personally shocking. "Shocking to the beliefs that I had grown up with," she says. "But not challenging because 'God' to me was never a mean old man who throws homosexuals and Jews in Hell because they were born that way. 'Hey, you did it, dude!' I've always just felt that was just wrong. I'd never treat a 'lower lifeform' that way, so why is God such a prick? Don't tell me that's God. I can't figure that. I just felt that as a youngster. These people are born that way. How dare you burn them for something you did? That just never scanned for me. And my parents did not teach us to hate. Even though they were very Catholic, they did not teach us to hate. That was our family culture. New Zealanders are not especially religious, to be honest with you."

Which brings us back, briefly, to Bitch Slap's "Mother Superior". "I do not have anything bad to say about being raised Catholic in New Zealand. I had a lot of excellent female role models. Nuns were running schools and educating us and they were good to us. And funny— and brilliant, some of them."

While she cites—and has cited in other interviews—that her mother was her strongest role model growing up, she doesn't necessarily draw from those role models in creating the characters she portrays for one prime reason: "My roles are always a bit twisted and [my mother] was not twisted. Oh, I love playing the twisted characters! I just played a role yesterday on Angel of Death where I played an old hooker."

Angel of Death is a web-based series produced for Sony Pictures' Crackle Studios starring Lawless' longtime friend and stunt double Zoe Bell (see article this issue). Written by comic impresario Ed Brubaker (Criminal), Angel of Death tells the story of an undercover assassin and the people she encounters. "Zoe's doing a project and I just asked to play a role in it. I automatically said yes—I didn't even know, 'Is this a film, is this...?' I play this woman named 'Vera' who was supposed to be an ex-high class hooker and I said 'Oh, no—let's stankify her.' We covered my legs with big bruises, I wore a hickey, I made the clothes just horrible. This woman doesn't even go out of the house! She's the neighbor of Zoe's character. That was really fun. 'Stankify'—that's what they call it in the Blues, when you put the stank on it. Just heavier and more soulful, down and dirty, you know? The minute I get something you just feel where it wants to be. When the role is right for you—you feel it in a certain way. Fortunately, the director Paul Etheredge and everyone were good enough to allow me to go in that direction. She thinks that Eve—Zoe's character—is a prostitute too because she owns a lot of wigs and costumes. She says to her 'Oh, I see you've been doing some rough trade.' And she's like 'What?'And 'Oh, yeah, I learned that too the hard way.' You just know that this woman, with the bruises and the hickey, is no former high class prostitute, she's just an old ho. And you wanna know how she got there. There's still a lot of humanity left in her but she's also a secret kleptomaniac—there's just so much, they gave me so much to work with. It was really fun. And even though I did the role there's a lot I want to revisit. I'll do that somewhere sometime. Those guys were talking about doing a prequel, but there's talk and there's actually doing it and sometimes those things can be a long way apart. I don't hold them to it. So, yeah, I play everything from nuns to hookers. And everything in between!"

I ask the almost obvious question— because of her tendency towards damaged fictional people, which of the characters she's played has stuck with her over the years.

"Well, Xena [sticks with me], of course. That's just what I spent most of my professional life doing. Eventually the character just sort of melts into you a little bit so that you don't even think about it any more. You know what, the roles that I've played since then haven't been as fully explored. They've mostly been an adjunct to the 'A' storyline. So it's hard to get so excited about them. I will say that this character, Vera, that I just played—now that's something I'd like to explore further. That's a woman with a real past. I guess I'm getting old enough now to play people with a big past. So that's kind of exciting.

"I love to go in those directions of people who are broken down, emotionally and physically they're just impoverished. People who see them as degenerate but I see them as impoverished. And it's an interesting journey seeing people going that way. So even though these roles are small they're really fascinating to me, to feel what that feels like. And you draw on maybe minimal experiences of such things in your own life and you just go a little further in the role. And I'm a glutton for that kind of experience, yeah. Oh yeah, lesbians, nuns, old hos. Done it all. I missed 'alcoholic abused woman'. I finally did that one in a movie called Dark Room. I thought I could do it, I wasn't sure, but I was really pleased with the results. I liked seeing myself like that. It was interesting; I thought I did good work. Exactly—nobody would ever cast me like that. Nobody would normally cast me as a woman who was unable to protect her child because she was abused. Except for these guys. The director's name was also Michael Hurst—no relation to. I put the outfit on. I thought about it, thought about the scenes. But these things are mostly on the day for me. When I get the hair and the costume, something pops out. That's where the real alchemy happens. I didn't think I was method, but I am."

To prepare, I ask, did she have husband Robert Tapert smack her around. I get a laugh. "I had to beg, but finally he gave me a shiner, yeah. I'm kind of hungry to do more of these kinds of interesting character roles. I really fear stagnation and boredom more than anything. Just don't take it all too seriously, boy. Hollywood is a place of delusion. Hope and delusion go hand-in-hand. It's a real trap."

'Tough' comes more natural to her, obviously. Again, she points to her upbringing for this skill. "I was raised with lots of boys, so you've got to be tough. My mother said she heard me muttering at eight, 'Got to be a strong girl, got to be a strong girl!' Because if you cry, they're going to bloody laugh at you or pummel you. Being tough is a defence mechanism for a lot of people."

There's no such thing as an 'easy job', not fundamentally, and certainly never for Lawless, who puts her all into even a cameo as a punk in Spider-Man. The nice thing, at least from the outside point-of-view of hard-core film freaks and Raimi-ites, is that she often gets to work with her friends. She's quick to correct me. "But you can't always work with your friends. Rob and I certainly don't put that kind of pressure on each other. The day's coming where we might work together again. But until now we've been very hands-off with each others' work. I don't want him to have that pressure of 'Oh, I have to hire my wife'. We don't do charity [in that way] for each other. That's crap, man. I've only done it really on Xena and sometimes it was really hard.

There's just no getting away from it, man. There was no one I could complain to. Or he'd have to hear his star complaining. It was very constant—we both felt very responsible all the time for everyone and everything. There was never any let up. I guess it made us very strong, but it was jolly hard work. Really hard work. We had to feel responsible about the crew and what they ate and what we ate and normally stars don't worry about those things. They're usually busy worrying about themselves. And 'poor me, poor me. I'm working so many hours and making so much more money than those poor people who are also working the same hours'. But I never got to delude myself in that way. You know all the machinations of the show on every level and you feel responsible for the morale on set."

As she mentioned, since Xena, Lawless left "star" behind to focus on "mom", preferring to only go after the roles that interest her. You can take all of the above for good reasons—getting older, different life priorities, the agony of Hollywood, etc. But another reason might have to do with the fact that Lawless is as larger-than-life as the Warrior Princess and Cylon infiltrator. Or the "old ho". "Sometimes I make really bold choices and it can freak [producers] out. It doesn't always work. Which is why you don't see me in a supporting role very much because... [laughs] I don't really fade into the background.

"I went recently for an audition for a supporting role for what's going to be a great cop show. It was a supporting role and I didn't think I was going to be right for it. It was for a little fighty Chicano-kind of girl, a Rozie Perez kind of character. I didn't see myself as the right age, the right anything. But they wanted to see me, then they wanted to see me again. So I thought, 'okay'. So I went in wearing a tank top and I had this huge fake tattoo of "Jesus Saves" across my back. Almost like a big gang patch. It just amused the hell out of me, that this character—it's just what I was feeling about it at the time. And I never referenced it. And it was like, ah, somebody said the other day, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, [laughs] And, I don't know. They ultimately decided that I wasn't right for a supporting role. And I was like, 'No shit.' But I was kind of proud of myself for just—you might as well amuse yourself, you know? If you're not going to amuse anyone else you might as well amuse yourself. That's what I mean about strong choices. Back in the day I remember wearing... for an advertisment for cough syrup or something. I went in character—this ridiculous flower dress and cat-eye glasses, and shoes with big springs on my feet. You remember those stupid shoes? I don't even know where I got them. But I totally got the job; they asked me to wear the whole rig from the audition. I know that I'm not going to get less kooky as I get older. I'm getting less inhibited all the time and I think that's going to present problems later on, but I'd much rather have an interesting life than a dull one."

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