The Daily News
(New Zealand)

12 June 1999

Entertainment Section

Lucy looks beyond Xena `Since I'm expecting a baby, any thoughts about my career have sort of melted into the distance'

`I wasn't enjoying it so I knew there was something wrong with me'

Lucy Lawless -- on television also known as Xena: Warrior Princess -- was in Nelson recently for the Suter Art Gallery's 100th birthday party. DAVID MANNING of the Nelson Evening Mail took the opportunity to speak to her about a career that has brought her fame, fortune . . . and fatigue

AFEW minutes before 6am, Lucy Lawless rises to start another typical working day -- the grind most people don't see behind the glamour of being the star of a hit television series.

The night before, she has laid out her clothes so that in minutes she can be on her way for the day's shooting of Xena: Warrior Princess.

An hour in make-up and wardrobe begins 12 hours of work on the show.

At the end of the day she catches up with her daughter, Daisy, and, if she's extremely lucky, has dinner with her husband. Then she lays out her clothes for the next day and retires for the evening.

So goes her work routine day-in, day-out. And in between working on the show, there are promotional demands on her time or requests for personal appearances.

"A lot of people ask me to do things, and I would like to, but they don't realise how busy I am, and tired, so tired," she says.

Her lifestyle can be exacting and exhausting. She recalls how last year it became overwhelming. It was her first week in her new home in Auckland and her gruelling schedule for the Xena series had left her feeling drained.

"Every time I had a break, I had to buzz off to do some five-day trip to Los Angeles, do some show, go to Vegas, do some show, to Florida and come back and start work the next day. I was so incredibly burnt out."

Lucy has previously recalled that time as being on the brink, physically and emotionally, of "something kind of serious" and she needed a break.

"I was just out in the rain and the cold and was really sick of it. I knew I needed some fresh skills for dealing with it because it wouldn' t go away and I couldn't just quit. And despite having everything in the world, I wasn't enjoying it, so I knew there was something wrong with me."

She took a week's break and began a recovery programme to enjoying life. "It was what I needed at the time and the best thing I ever did."

The sensational success of Xena has also brought other pressures. Xena (and by extension Lucy) has become a role-model for women, a feminist hero, a counter to Barbie doll and bimbo babes, and a Wonder Woman for the late 1990s.

The glossy British lifestyle magazine Diva even described her as a lesbian icon -- and then posed this question as an answer to how she might have earned such status: "Could the answer be as simple as this: by standing 1.8m (5ft 11in) in her thigh-high boots, having been poured into a tooled leather bustier and smashing seven kinds of crap out of grubby bearded men?"

The magazine said Xena presented a positive role model to young women and girls.

"Xena has amply filled the C-cup of honour, virtue and rectitude. And luckily for those drooling lesbian viewers, that C-cup spills over."

Initially, Lucy says, she was freaked out by such role-model status being thrust on her, comparing it to a yoke and wondering how she would bear such responsibility. Now she doesn't find she's expected to be anything other than who she is. "So, no, I don't wear that burden heavily now; in fact, it's no burden at all."

The popularity of Xena surfaces in numerous other ways. A US poll in 1997 by an ice cream company put Xena third on the list of people American kids most wanted to have at their birthday party (Chelsea Clinton was first, golfer Tiger Woods second).

The American travel book Let's Go New Zealand 1999 cited her as a national icon; Who and People magazines recently gave her a Fake It award for mastering an American accent.

People want to know who her own heroes are ("Susan Sarandon," she says, "or Judge Judy . . . or anyone with an alliterative name").

Then there's her frenzied Internet following, called the Xenaverse, a cartoon Xena spin-off and massive merchandising. There's even a New York lesbian bar called Meow Mix, that has a monthly Xena night.

News items tell how Lucy suffered from bulimia for a while as a teenager and how she urges her fans to battle body-image obsessions. And that Lucy is anti-nuclear, following US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright' s visit to New Zealand and her suggestion that Lucy wasn't.

Does Lucy smoke? (No.) Is she a vegetarian? (No.) Is she -- wait for it -- a footwear fan? (Yes.)

Although Lucy says that Xena "only exists when the film is running" , in the eyes of many fans she is still only Xena, not Lucy Lawless who plays Xena. So who is Lucy Lawless?

THE raven-haired beauty with ice-blue eyes who became Xena was born in 1968 and raised in Mt Albert, Auckland, in a large, close-knit Catholic family. Her father, Frank Ryan, was a former mayor of Mt Albert and her mother, Juliet, was "a tireless community worker".

As the fifth of seven children (with five brothers, four of them older, and a younger sister), Lucy had "a fairly rough-and-tumble childhood" and was a self-confessed tomboy. "I had a good kick, could throw a punch and I learned not to cry."

She went to a convent school, appeared in many musicals and plays in high school, then attended Auckland University before leaving for Europe to go grape-picking on the Rhine.

When she ran out of money, she went to Australia and worked for a gold-mining company in the small outback town of Kalgoorlie. She was one of a few female miners, doing the same work as men.

While in Australia, she married Garth Lawless and then returned to Auckland where Daisy, now 10, was born.

She landed her first real acting job alongside Willy De Wit in the comedy television series Funny Business. She then moved to Vancouver, Canada, for eight months to study drama, returning to New Zealand and finding work in television commercials and a job as a co-host for the television travel show Holiday.

But her big breakthrough was getting the role of Xena in the series Hercules, although she had appeared earlier as Lyla, the courageous bride of Deric the Centaur.

Lucy won the Xena role when the actress originally picked to play the part fell ill and had to be replaced. The resulting three-part episode pitting Xena against Kevin Sorbo's Hercules was so successful that it spawned her own fantasy action series, Xena: Warrior Princess.

For five seasons now she has been fighting cruel mythological gods and evil monsters, nasty giants and bloodthirsty warlords.

The name Xena was spelled with an X (instead of a Z) because Rob Tapert, the show's executive producer and co-creator, whom Lucy married last year, was told that kids would understand this.

"He was right," says Lucy. "I remember so clearly being a kid and thinking that Xs were really attractive." Lucy has described the sword- swishing, ululating, fearless Xena as "a woman as strong as any man or woman has ever been, who lives by her wits, but is also a fighter. She's a very human hero, who knows all about the darker side of human nature since she must battle it within herself every day".

Lucy told Rolling Stone magazine that Xena was successful because people liked seeing "chicks kicking butt . . . and it's certainly true that chicks kicking butts rocks".

Lucy has also appeared in Playboy magazine, but with her clothes on, for an interview. She talked about Wonderbras and breast-plates, echoing actress Cameron Diaz with her remark, "Real women wear pads, they don't get plastic surgery".

She also told Playboy she was blessed to be raised in New Zealand where women were granted the vote before any other country and were strong, with a "get-on-with-it" attitude.

She also praised her mother and said it seemed totally natural to her that women were equal but different from men. "I never questioned that it was any other way."

However, Lucy has never done any interviews for women's magazines -- "because I believe if you sup with the devil, you have to have a very long spoon, and if you don't play the game from the start, then they don't expect you to".

So if you do see Lucy Lawless as herself or Xena on the cover of a woman's magazine, be assured the story inside was done without her participation.

Occasionally, she says, she reads things she never said. "Even in quotation marks there is a great deal of things that I've supposedly said and I know I've never said that because I've never thought that."

Generally, though, she isn't sure how one could combat such made-up stories. "Since they haven't done anything particularly scurrilous, you just ignore it. These things are very ephemeral and I've learned to take them with a grain of salt."

TODAY, Lucy is pregnant and due to give birth in October. She has tried to cut down her hours -- so far reducing her 12-hour working day to 11 hours -- and to be careful on the set.

In 1996 Lucy fell from a horse while taping a skit for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and suffered pelvic fractures.

"It took me a long time to learn to walk again," she said after her recovery, "but I've got them good child-bearing hips and I did drink plenty of milk when I was a kid and that prevented me from snapping anything." Now, unless you see her face, it's probably not her playing Xena.

As for the future, Lucy is ready to play Xena in a sixth season of the show if she is wanted. She enjoys the show's mix of slapstick, musical moments and heavy drama. "It can be extremely silly stuff that is corny but are good fun romps."

She knows of no plans to move shooting of Xena from New Zealand.

"We've got such a great system here, the film industry is really efficient, and we've got the best scenery."

She does realise that Xena has an expiry date but isn't worried about typecasting. Ideally, she would like to raise her family here in New Zealand and shoot two movies a year wherever the location is.

"Since I'm expecting a baby, I must say that any thoughts about my career have sort of melted into the distance."

She says her family is her priority, but she has received film offers, though nothing to make her want to give up her free time from her shooting schedule.

She has done a stint on Broadway in New York in the revival of Grease, and has a cameo role as herself in the New Zealand film I'll Make You Happy.

"Broadway was scary, as was doing Saturday Night Live (a US comedy television show) . . . but I like to go for those kind of things."

Spoken like a warrior princess. *

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