Like the meta icon she is, one known as “Xena” to this day, Lucy Lawless stepped into the august foyer of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, elegant but casual in a tailored tweed jacket and knee-high flat leather boots, her wavy hair streaked pink on top and bundled up in the back. Instantly, she commanded the room — imposing, taller than anyone around her, but exuding a disarming charm.
She had arranged to meet in this English Gothic landmark in Manhattan, site of independent and ecumenical thought, where, it turned out, she would later sit in on a small seminar, a rarely granted privilege. It was clear that the Union’s staff was familiar with her, eagerly doing her bidding. A staff member led us down labyrinthine back passages and stairways to a room reserved for us. Someone had forgotten to unlock it, so we proceeded to the Social Hall, a cavernous room for performances and receptions. The place was empty, dark, window shades shutting out the bright sun of a November midday.
What was Lucy Lawless, Xena, Warrior Princess, lesbian role model and mythical hero, doing here?
She was in town to promote the TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead, a do-over of the 30-year-old horror movie Evil Dead, produced by her husband, Robert Tapert, and starring Bruce Campbell as Ash and herself as a revenge-obsessed killer. She’s flown from her home in New Zealand to Los Angeles and New York and back several times, making a splash with a new hair-do at the show’s premiere in Los Angeles, and hitting the New York morning and night talk shows — Today, Colbert — and celebrity blogs.
But with the apparent revival of Xena in the wings, fans and media want to know, will she return as the legendary character she brought to life two decades ago?
Over the next 70 minutes, nestled in a leather sofa, her legs stretched out, she spoke out about the secretive Xena reboot plans and opened up about the storied Xena-and-Gabrielle relationship, the aftershocks of success, the age factor, her dream role and hunger for life, and the fancy crowd. The first time I interviewed her, 18 years ago, she had a tight-lipped smile and was a bit guarded in the hands of publicists. She was in the early flush of fame, on her way to a Broadway debut in Grease and dealing with a divorce and a new relationship (with Tapert). Now she has grown a carapace, an easy way with fans and media. She’s self-possessed, controlled, stubbornly individualistic, tossing off the trappings of celebrity, coming at questions head on, and aware of the impact she has on people.
Keen interest in Xena — which has been kept alive on Netflix streaming and DVD — comes at a time when there’s a crowded field of female superheroes and fantasy epics on television and film, and when lesbian couples seem the new normal (Carol, Orange Is the New Black, Grey’s Anatomy). It comes, too, as Hollywood royals like Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett and Reese Witherspoon are striking out against gender gaps in pay and roles, and over-30-year-old female stars are up in arms about getting secondary, maternal parts or no parts at all. The poster girl for this is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who earlier this year was told by a producer that she was too old to play a role opposite a 55-year-old man. She was 37.
So the question of Lucy Lawless’s age, 47, is central to the Xena reboot, raising obvious retorts: Harrison Ford, 73, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 68, and Bruce Campbell, 57, are all reprising action hero roles they played in their youth without any criticism or complaints being raised about their age.
Lawless won’t go on a rant about it. She shrugs it off, half kidding: “They’ll give the Xena role to a 27-year-old.’’
It’s been 20 years since Xena: Warrior Princess was launched and became the top-rated syndicated TV program in the United States and a highly popular franchise across 108 countries. The character of Xena emerges from a dark past to defend the oppressed, fighting gods, warlords and kings, and living outside the conventional definitions of masculine and feminine. The series ended after six years, in 2001, with the brutal death of Xena, her head cut off, her body turned to ashes. Outraged fans have since cried out for a resurrection and, obliging, NBC plans to reboot Xena and has tapped Rob Tapert to re-develop it.
Problem is, Lawless knows nothing about it. She was blindsided when the news about a Xena revival leaked. A woman with The Hollywood Reporter asked her about the reboot plans, but Lawless denied it. “I thought she was misinformed,’’ she says now. “It was I who was misinformed.’’
“The only person that I can ask is in the middle of the Indian Ocean.” She was referring to Tapert, who was incommunicado, fishing. “But as far as NBC, nobody tells me anything, it’s nothing to do with me. And it’s too early to say whether I would be involved anyway. What if they did some cheeseball remake? Then I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I mean, who knows what the tone of it would be. I don’t own the role. I don’t own the franchise. They can do whatever they wish with it.”
“I do feel a lot of care and love for that role, and for the Gabrielle character, and that relationship. So, for example if they put a lot of T&A into a Xena reboot, I wouldn’t go there because that breaks what I call the covenant with the fans.”
Days before we met I had received an email from an industry source. I read it to her but didn’t disclose who sent it. “Rob Tapert is working with a writer and developing the show,” the source said, confirming the news reports. “No word on whether Lucy might or might not have a role.”
She wanted me to read it again. Listening intently, she nodded, taking it in, narrowing her eyes. “I must put in a call and say to somebody in NBC that talking to my husband is not the same thing as talking to me,’’ she said, an edge in her voice. “We are not joined at the brain. We are very independent people.”
“But you know what? I don’t beg to be involved in people’s projects. If they don’t want me, bye-bye. I take no for an answer. And if they did want me, and I didn’t approve, then I wouldn’t be part of it either. But I wouldn’t stymie it. I wouldn’t be in the way. Because sometimes you have to hand it to a new generation. I think the characters of Xena and Gabrielle, that friendship, needs to go on. They [the studio, the producers] don’t need my permission. But I’m sure they don’t want me pooping on their idea, either.’’
Xena and Gabrielle are the heartbeat of Xena, a love story between two women, ambiguous at times, certainly understated, and quietly revolutionary in its way. The series came on in 1995, not exactly the Dark Ages in the gay struggle. The movement was making some strides after the devastation of AIDS, and more and more gays and lesbians were coming out to their families and friends.
Yet when Ellen DeGeneres made her sexuality public, which she did on the cover of Time magazine in 1997, she paid a price.
Featuring a lesbian relationship in a mainstream TV show seemed too bold and risky at that time. But Tapert, who co-created and produced Xena, and his fellow producer Liz Friedman, a lesbian, had an eye on the next big thing and decided to weave in the Xena-Gabrielle love story. Lawless and Renee O’Connor (Gabrielle) had no idea.
“We were oblivious,’’ Lawless told me. “We were shooting episode eight and someone from The Village Voice came out, hailing us as the new icons, and we were like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’’
“Now,’’ she told me, “it would be very obvious to me because I know much more about the lesbian experience than I did at the time.”
Much as she may long to bring back Xena and Gabrielle to finish their job — saving the world for the greater good — and as much as she may want to see Xena and Gabrielle live out their lives together, she can’t escape the years. She may not have the physical stamina for the sort of heavy-duty action scenes that sometimes took five days to film. “It was torture. I never liked action. I don’t have any interest in sports. I walk and I do yoga. I did it because I was young, and hungry — and I gave it all my heart.”
Teasing, she asks, “Do you think I would look ridiculous in that bustier, and that short skirt?”
She recalled the last seasons of Xena. She pushed herself so hard she went to therapy to cope with the job. At the end, she was exhausted and retreated to nurse physical and mental wounds at home in Auckland. She turned down movie and TV offers and gave birth to her second son, with Tapert (she has a 25-year-old daughter with her first husband, Garth Lawless). She took years off, partly to raise her boys and partly to clear her head, but that slowdown took its toll, too.
Did you get depressed? “Yeah, I’ve got to stay moving. Stay moving, all the time.”
These days she’s going all-out on the environment and climate change, joining activists getting arrested for trespassing and preventing an oil-drilling ship from leaving a New Zealand dock. “There are a few things that want me to go full Xena helter-skelter at times and that is climate change, the greed and stupidity which is driving climate change makes me want to go postal.” She also does some theater, sings on tour, writes columns for a New Zealand newspaper (she’s fascinated by courthouses), takes language classes (French, German, Italian) and philosophy courses. “I’m trying to fill my brain with as much good stuff as possible,” she said.
She’s been reading Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal. “It explains the grown-up world to me. So I love Robert Wright because he was the first person who got me thinking about the nuts and bolts of society.” They met on Twitter months ago. He invited her to appear on his podcast and to visit his class at Union Theological Seminary, which she has done twice this fall.
Her acting career has zig-zagged with meaty roles in the TV series Spartacus, which Tapert produced, and Battlestar Galactica, and supporting parts and walk-ons on a string of shows including Parks and Recreation, Salem and Top of the Lake.
She’s been the leading star in none of them. “When you’re known for a 1990s action comedy, there is — I think unfairly — a bit of a cheesy sort of label attached to it,’’ she said. “And sometimes the show was ridiculous and slapstick, and so it had a lot of different facets to it. But you carry that, and sometimes I don’t like that at all. But I have to say, Xena has been very good to me, and Xena has been good to a lot of people. So if that was my destiny, to be part of that, I just say, thank you, destiny. Because I feel like I was at least useful to the world in that time.’’
What’s the next level? “Well, here’s the thing. I am not avaricious. I am not wishing I could play with the fancy crowd. F**k the fancy crowd! I don’t f**king care! They’ve never done anything for me. I’m living my life. I am Irish. I am Irish in my soul, and my people are real and don’t give a s**t about prestige.’’
Then, she blurted out, “I only ever wanted to play Lady Macbeth.’’
“I think that I have something I want to do with the Lady Macbeth role that I haven’t seen before,’’ she went on. “There’s something I want to do, especially, for that role. So I’m putting it out there, and I want to do that. I want to do that here in New York. Wouldn’t that be ideal?’’
She tries to imagine doing Lady Macbeth, how she will play that role. “What state of mind do I have to get to make this okay, because it’s terrible stuff. And my aim is always to make the audience complicit in my crime, that they can’t help liking me, even though I do these terrible things. That’s my mission. I’m going to make you love me.”
She doesn’t know how to make it happen though. “This is a new thought. I’m just having this thought with you, here and now.”
“Eating life has always been very important to me,’’ she said. “That means connection with human beings, a really rich connection with everybody, whether it’s you, or the guy on the bus, or something. That if I am here with you, I’m going to be fully here with you, because it’s my life, and otherwise I’m cheating myself out of the full experience.”
So does “eating life” have to do with wanting to play Lady Macbeth?
“This is why, because I’m hungry, I’m sensational — I live for sensation,’’ she said with obvious passion. “And the excitement of doing something dangerous, and new, and scary appeals to me. It’s what drives me.”
We stepped out to a courtyard and sat on a bench, blinking into the sun. She was talking about her children and living next door to her parents in Mount Albert, the same middle-class Auckland suburb where she was born and grew up, and how she thinks about moving to Los Angeles or New York. Then our time was up. “I’m going to do that Shakespeare thing,’’ she said with a determined grin that reminded me of Xena marching off to battle. “Somehow, I’m going to make that happen. That’s my challenge now.”