On New Year’s Eve, 1994, Lucy Lawless was camping with her husband and daughter in New Zealand’s rugged terrain.
“We had read our horoscopes for like the first, second and third [of January],” the actress recounts, “and mine said ‘fame and fortune’ and all that kind of stuff. We were like, ‘Oh, what nonsense.’”
But her life would take a fortuitous turn when, less than a week later, Lawless was cast in a supporting role on the popular TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, starring Kevin Sorbo. “It was the biggest deal ever for me,” Lawless says.
Lawless would give a commanding performance as a warrior slated to die within three episodes. But six months later — in fall 1995 — she would go on to star in a syndicated spinoff series, Xena: Warrior Princess. That show would run for six seasons, turn the actress into a star recognized worldwide and spawn a legion of fans who follow her career to this day.
As a child growing up in a large Irish-Catholic family — her father was the mayor of Mount Albert, the Auckland suburb where she was raised — Lucille Frances Ryan found that she had a knack for making people laugh. “When I was eight and I was sitting in class,” she has said, “I realized that if I acted really stupid, I could get away with a lot of stuff. And it would diffuse a lot of tension.”
While her childhood nickname, Unco, was short for uncoordinated, Lawless was anything but. She studied several languages in college, trained to be an opera singer and at one point envisioned a career as a singer. At 21, she won the country’s Mrs. New Zealand competition.
Since Xena, Lawless has starred in several series, including Starz’s Spartacus and, most recently, WGN’s Salem, set in 17th-century Massachusetts. Executive producer Brannon Braga cast her as Countess Palatine Ingrid von Marburg, one of the last survivors of a line of legendary German witches.
In the season-two premiere that aired in April, it was clear that Lawless’s performances on Salem would be as provocative as they were on Xena. The countess is seen taking a bath, then she stands unabashedly to hear a report from an aide.
“She’s so charming and so witty and so cultured, and she is unbelievably inhumanly savage,” Lawless told the New York Times shortly before the premiere. “I always like to put that duality into characters — as destructive as they are, they’re also constructive.”
Lawless was interviewed by Nancy Harrington in 2013 for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television The following is an edited excerpt of that discussion; the entire interview may be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/archive.
Q: How did you get your start in the business?
A: I had a child when I was 19. The minute I popped out this baby [Daisy, from her first marriage to Garth Lawless], I started writing all this material, and I produced a video [audition reel] two weeks after I gave birth.
I was extremely shapely then, because I was 40 pounds overweight. [In the video] I was wearing this leotard with pantyhose and these basketball boots — just ridiculous stuff. But on the strength of that, I got cast in some ads. That’s how I made my money in voiceovers, which eventually led to a television career in New Zealand.
Q: How did your first appearance in the movie Hercules and the Amazon Women come about?
A: They were talking about me playing the Amazon queen, but Roma Downey got that role, which made sense. I was her lieutenant. I think that was quite good casting, really. I got to rape Anthony Quinn, which is one of the highlights of my career, and then the next week his marriage broke up. That’s the motif in my career, by the way. If you kiss me, your marriage will break up.
Q: Then Hercules: The Legendary Journeys went to series. How did you get cast as Xena?
A: Xena initially was a warrior princess, a foil for Hercules in a three-episode arc. It was due to shoot in January of ’95. They scouted a lot of actresses in Los Angeles, but because it was pilot season, they were not leaving L.A. They cast Vanessa Angel in the role — she’d been training for it, but she pulled out at the last moment.
Q: So, what happened?
A: My brother happened to be at my family’s house when the casting agent rang. They were asking, “Where’s Lucy? We’re trying to find her.” He was like, “Oh, she’s off camping somewhere.”
He rang someone who found out where my in-laws lived, and finally we got this call. It must have been the second or third of January and within a couple of days, I was up in Auckland getting my hair dyed, and freaking out.
It was the biggest deal ever for me. At first they thought I would go blonde, but Gabriela Sabatini was the big noise in tennis. I was like, “What about being like her? She’s big and bronze and dark-haired.”
Fortunately they went that way, because my hair would have fallen out if we tried to keep it blonde.
Q: What was Xena like in those early episodes of Hercules?
A: She was a warlord. She was worse than any of the creeps that worked for her. I think a lot of the good men — namely, Hercules — made her see the light. Then she didn’t want to kill people any more, mate. She wanted to love people instead.
But she’d done such terrible things in her past — she knew she was irredeemable. She was a flawed hero.
I remember discussing with the executive producer [Robert Tapert], whom I’m married to today, that Hercules is the hero you hope is out there somewhere, and Xena is the hero within every man — the flawed hero — which is a cool thing to be. It’s very interesting to play a character that is not all good.
Q: Xena was supposed to die at the end of the story arc, but the writers didn’t kill her off. Do you know why?
A: [Universal president] Sid Sheinberg sat in on a meeting at the time, and when they were discussing what shows would go forward, he picked up an eight-by-ten picture of me as Xena and said, “I like her.” Magically, they greenlit the series.
Q: How did Xena’s character evolve in Xena: Warrior Princess?
A: The love of Hercules turned her around. But when her own men turned on her, she had to walk the gauntlet and survive a severe beating — that was to elicit the audience’s sympathy. She had to pay for her road to redemption.
Then she met Gabrielle [Renée O’Connor] in the first episode. Now she had a sidekick, a buddy who would draw out information and be a counterpoint. I think Gabrielle was everyman.
You needed to have that, like in comedy — if you don’t have the straight man, something’s not funny. You can’t be a big sister without a little sister. Gabrielle made Xena make sense.
Q: When you appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, you rode in on a horse, but the horse slipped and you fell and broke your pelvis. How did that affect production?
A: Not too much. Rob is one of the most resilient producers out there. They basically said, “Well, let’s come up with a plan B.” So they wrote an episode with somebody else in my body.
When a pelvis breaks, it’s like pushing a thumb into meringue, so it will crunch in. There was just massive bone indentation — I don’t even know how to describe it. It healed pretty well and I was at work again after a few weeks, but I wasn’t doing anything fancy.
Q: Describe Xena's world to us….
A: Very colorful and very cosmopolitan. We got to bring in a lot of extras who were African immigrants and of different ethnicities. Xena had an African love interest, Marcus, played by Bobby Hosea, who is a fantastic actor.
That was all pretty new stuff to television at that time — interracial couplings and potentially a lesbian relationship between her and Gabrielle, which was a surprise to Renée and me.
It was like the eighth episode in when we saw something from The Village Voice about the lesbian relationship between our characters. We were like, “Are they crazy?” Of course Rob and [producer] Liz Friedman totally knew what they were doing. That's what makes groundbreaking television.
Q: What was Xena’s relationship with Gabrielle?
A: I think Gabrielle was seen as a home — not a physical home, but they were family. That relationship is one of the major draws for the audience. The relationship was all-important, because it is something that people crave in their own lives, to have a real buddy. I guess it pointed to something that's missing in our society.
Q: Ms. magazine once described you as a feminist icon. Was there a lot of pressure on you to be a role model?
A: There were lots of letters from people who wanted me to actually be Xena, to do something for them. That was very stressful at first. Then I came to realize that I'm not Xena, I'm not a savior. I'm just one woman. If some people choose to make that character into a hero, that's their business, but I wasn't confusing myself with their dream.
Q: After six seasons Xena came to a rather brutal end….
A: I guess Universal was ready to move on to other things. The time was right, but I do regret that we cut Xena's head off. It meant the two were never going to live happily ever after. Gabrielle was going to roam the earth with this little bloody urn of ashes — it took away everything that we set up.
At the time we thought it was a really strong storyline, but it really pained our audience. I think it was a terrible thing to do to them, actually.
Q: There have been reports of a possible reimagining of Xena. What do you think about that?
A: My dream for a revival — because it's far too good of a brand and a relationship and a story to leave buried — is that they bring back Gabrielle and Xena and [her good friend] Joxer [Ted Raimi]. Never mind that we cremated Xena — that was somebody else.
She's on the ground, stick her head back on, and then they go off on a quest, which effectively introduces a new warrior princess. Hand it over to another generation! I would love to give the fans back what we took away.
Q: The show had really ardent fans….
A: What's very interesting about the Xena fan base is they are extremely altruistic. They've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Twice a year they do random acts of kindness. I never ask them to support my charities. It's about them doing something in their own community — that's the spirit of the thing, that you make your own place richer. They'll build a ramp for a neighbor; a doctor in Brazil did palate operations for a week. I think they're amazing.
Q: Was it difficult for you to shake Xena when you went on to other projects?
A: I didn't want to shake Xena. I was grateful for everything the character and the show did for me. You should be so lucky to have the problem of being recognized indefatigably as some character! So, no, I don't have a problem with that.
Q: In 2005 you joined the cast of Battlestar Galactica….
A: [Executive producer] David Eick had been on Hercules in the beginning, so I knew him.
He asked me to play Colonel Tigh's wife at the very beginning of the show — I didn't know anything about the show — and I'm like, "David, I've played people's wives. Can you think of a better description than that?" And he said, "Tigh's wife." So I said no, which was arrogant, wasn't it? It was a great role, and it was beautifully realized by Kate Vernon.
Eventually, the character of D’Anna Biers came up and I was like, “Yeah, I'm up for an adventure. We can go to Vancouver — my boys [Julius and Judah Tapert] will go to school there.” That was a terrific experience, wonderful cast.
Q: In 2010 you were cast in Spartacus. How did that come about?
A: I’m told it came about because once they were well into pre-production, my husband turned to [executive producer] Steven DeKnight and said, “What about Lucy for that role?” And he was like, ”I was embarrassed to ask… should we get your wife in all these egregious scenes?”
So I was offered the role of Lucretia, and I wanted it, though I was nervous about the nudity aspect or potential for it. But I knew it was too good a role to turn down. And I knew that my husband had that look in his eye that said this was going to be groundbreaking.
Q: What was your take on Lucretia?
A: Everybody thinks of her as a villain and a schemer, but I didn’t see her that way. I saw her as being reactive to everything.
She had very little power and very little security in her life. She had to hang very tight to her man and push him up the ladder so that they could advance together. I saw her as a little fish swimming very hard and trying to look like a big fish so she didn’t get eaten.
Q: The show was fairly explicit. Do you recall any issues of censorship?
A: Yes, there was a time in [director] Rick Jacobson’s episode when the studio said, “We want you to go further. It’s got to be more extreme.” And Rick went, “Okay.”
When you shoot, you quickly learn that when you do an orgy scene, you have to get people who are comfortable with that kind of behavior.
There’s a city in New Zealand — and I didn’t know this — that is the porn capital. There’s this agency that has all these people who make those kinds of videos. So there were all these extras who were quite experienced in that world. They were told to pair up however they wanted to pair up, and they were just going to shoot the heck out of it. There was something involving a soup ladle, which finally made the studio go, “Whoa, that’s too much.”
Q: What are your memories of working with Andy Whitfield, who played Spartacus in the first season? How did his illness impact production?
A: It was a very mysterious thing. Andy himself didn’t know [he had developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma], but he was in pain and he thought it was the job. He was getting less and less happy, which was very strange to me.
In hindsight, everything makes sense. I didn’t work with Andy very much — I only had one or two scenes with him the entire time. But, of course, being married to the producer, I heard the concerns.
Andy was finding it very difficult to get out of the makeup chair sometimes. The poor man. He was one of those people who would be described as incandescent in the role, like it was written for him. What a light he had… what a vulnerability. He had two young children, a beautiful wife.
We were about to come back for the second season when we heard about the diagnosis. Of course, they retooled it, [saying] “Let’s give Andy time to go through chemo.” So they wrote the prequel [Gods of the Arena], the six tremendous hours of television with Dustin Clare, who’s a good buddy of mine, with the hope that Andy would come back. Eighteen months from the start of the show, he was gone.
Q: Liam McIntyre replaced him….
A: Only a lion-hearted man like Liam could handle the pressure of doing that. He’s a very courageous man and kind, and he’s a leader as well.
Andy would keep to himself. Artistically he was so busy doing what he was doing, whereas Liam would sort of command the room. Andy, because he was sick, could not be that.
Q: Do you have any advice that you would offer an aspiring actor?
A: It seems to me that a lot of young actors get the gig and then they’re immediately thinking, “How do I springboard onto the next?”
This is the work that will get you something later, so respect it and love the ones you’re with. You’d better be loving the people who are bloody putting on your shoes, or holding an umbrella over your head.
In fact, put your own damn shoes on and hold your own damn umbrella. A huge part of happiness is not wishing you were somewhere else. You’ll get there eventually, but meanwhile you’ve wasted golden time.