Lucy Lawless is not Xena.
On some level, we all know this; I interview actors all the time, so I definitely know they’re not the parts they play.
But when I interviewed Lucy at the Television Critics Association conference in Pasadena last July, I honestly wasn’t prepared for just how much she isn’t Xena.
Xena is somber, down-to-earth, and practical, haunted by her famous “dark” past; Lucy is cheeky, irreverent, and impish, always looking for an opportunity to cut it up.
But they have things in common as well: they’re both fiercely intelligent and very kind-hearted. And of course, they’re both statuesque and stunningly beautiful. At 41, Lucy looks sensational.
With Spartacus: Blood and Sand, a high-profile CGI-intensive retelling of the story of the ancient Roman slave that debuts next Friday on Starz, Lucy is showing the world yet another example of her considerable acting abilities.
She not the “star” of the show, but rather, a major supporting player. Lucretia, the wife of the owner of the training camp where Spartacus trains as a slave, is also very different from Xena: she’s flighty and superficial, at least at first, but also cunning and scheming. And as Lucy herself noted in our interview, she’s not particularly powerful, at least not at the beginning of the series.
Oh, and Lucretia is also often naked. The show includes some of the most graphic sex and violence ever to be seen in series television. One of the most-talked about scenes of the first few episodes will surely be the one where Lucretia and her husband have a conversation while both are being sexually serviced by slaves.
Does it ruin my professional credibility to say that it was a thrill to meet Lucy in person? Even better, despite my sky-high expectations, she did not disappoint:
TheTorchOnline: How is Lucretia different from Xena?
Lucy Lawless: The part is challenging for me, because I tend to go in a comedic direction. Just naturally, I want to make everything just [crazy noise]. I just want to party all the time.
[But] there’s really no room for that in this show. It has to be very minimal and very naturalistic to sell this world, to be really super believable, because in the show all the people take for granted things that today are very taboo.
TTO: Are you worried that your fans will be expecting Xena?
LL: No. I have a loyal bunch, and they’ve seen me do many, many things: some good, and some bad. I think they see me as Lucy and not as Xena. They’re not confused.
TTO: Unlike Xena, you don’t have a lot of action scenes.
LL: No. Woo!
TTO: So that’s a good thing?
TTO: Does that mean you don’t have to go to the gym as much?
LL: I do have to go to the gym! I have to be naked on screen. I’m terrified. I hate it. But if it’s right to fulfill a scene, and it’s what a character would do, you gotta go there, because that part, I’m an artist. No matter what my pathetic middle-class morals, I want to be truthful more than I want to protect myself.
TTO: I read you said that one of the things that attracted you to the role, and the show in general, was that it had complicated female characters, in a distant past when they didn’t have an opportunity to have overt power. What do you think about the female characters in the show?
LL: Well, women could still be major players [in Ancient Rome]. They could own land and that sort of thing. They couldn’t get a job in the Senate, but as with all politics, the people who exert the greatest influence are not always the people in the seat.
TTO: And that’s what’s going on here?
LL: It’s what’s going on everywhere.
TTO: Good point. You said she sees herself as the power behind the throne?
LL: I think she will come to see herself as that. It doesn’t start off like that. I didn’t want people to go, “Oh, there’s Xena in a different frock.” I didn’t want her to powerful, yet. She’s confident of her role, but I did not want her to come out of the starting block with the audience knowing what kind of animal she was. That would be an insult.
[But] she becomes more Machiavellian as things go against her and her husband. She thinks she’s right all the time. She’s forced to do these terrible things. She knows they’re not okay, but she doesn’t have any choice. If someone does something to upset the family business, her husband and the gladiator thing, then somebody has to die for it. She’s going to enable and cover and carry it off. She really shores up her husband no matter what. She’s survival of the fittest. And she loves her husband. The fact that they’re so damn dysfunctional is just adds a twist to the drama.
TTO: You told me earlier that you thought modern audiences might perceive her as a villain. That says to me that you’ve really gotten into the heart and head of the character — that you yourself don’t necessarily see her as a “villain,” you’re seeing the character from her point-of-view. How did you get to that place in her head?
LL: When you see all the terrible things, when people get unceremoniously killed in front of her, she doesn’t say, “He was slaughtered, he was murdered.” It’s just like, “Oh.” So that makes you think, “What motivates my character?” She has this relationship with death and bloodshed, but it’s really just like a complete disconnection, that zero empathy thing. She only empathizes with people on or above her station in life. And that’s very interesting to us who are taught to give a damn.
I guess there are a lot of people out there like that still. I’m not sure anything has changed here.
TTO: Is it hard to shake Lucretia when you’re done filming? Can you just walk away from the set or does it mentally affect you?
LL: No, but the sex things I do sometimes find it hard to shake off. There’s nothing like a sex scene to put you off sex. [laughs]
TTO: Is it better on the show that it’s both men and women who are naked?
LL: Yeah. It’s definitely better. If it was just women then I probably wouldn’t be interested in taking it. The fact is, that is truthful. If you’re sitting out there, I think it’s cool to be able to watch the show and fully explore that world at that time.
TTO: Whose idea was it to make it this explicit?
LL: The initial impulse came from [creators] Rob [Tapert] and Sam [Raimi] and Josh [Donen], who desired to make something that went so far. And then you have to find someone to fulfill it like [showrunner] Steven DeKnight, and then stars jump on board and say, “Yes, we have the cohones to make that.” Throw a lot of money at it. So many stations couldn’t, because that’s not their belief. They haven’t got the mandate to do that, they haven’t go the taste for it.
These guys are really very ballsy, and I hope it really puts their future on the map. I’m really so proud of this, so proud of every day’s work.
TTO: How long are the days on the set?
LL: Standard. Fourteen. Well, twelve on the set, maybe longer to get your hair done and stuff. Big hair show. Amazing design show for that.
TTO: At what point did you make the decision, “Okay I’m going to work with your husband Rob [who also created Xena] again. I’m going to commit to it.”
LL: I wanted to do it. And people in Hollywood were like, “Why? Why are you doing that? Spartacus sounds like Xena again. It’s like you’re going backwards.” And I was like, “I don’t know. It’s really good. Really good.” And they’re like, “Yeah. Okay.” They couldn’t know what I know about my husband.
TTO: So you have a lot of trust and faith.
LL: Yes, and I saw who was signed, I knew who was getting on board. The hardest thing now, because everything else is just top-notch, is the effects coming on time and being as good as the rest of the show, because that’s really important. We’ve got the right knowledge and the right technicians, but we’ve got seven or eight hundred effects shot per episode. It’s really painstaking, but we’ve got to get these episodes on the air quick.
TTO: I know you’ve spent the last ten years talking about Xena, but I run a site devoted to fantasy, and I confess, I’m astounded by the online fan base. They’re so enthusiastic, as opposed to a show like Hercules, that I don’t think made that leap. What was it about that Xena that has made it make that leap into iconic status?
LL: I think that friendship [between Xena and Gabrielle] is really pivotal. I think it centers on the friendship. That’s the curse of society. We’ve gotten a bit dispersed and a bit disconnected. We don’t live in small communities anymore. We don’t know our neighbors. Every man has to be a little hero just to get by. I think that touched on a yearning for connection and love, and for the everyday hero.
TTO: Did you have a sense when you were doing it that it would have the life that it’s had?
LL: I think I was so naïve I thought every show became a hit. [laughs]
But it’s gone beyond that now, Xena fans banded together and do “Feel the Love” Week. It’s the second week in October, October 8th. They go out and do something in their communities. They used to send stuff to my charity, and I got uncomfortable with that, so I said, “Look, do something, whatever it is, go out in your own communities and enrich that.” And they take that and practice it.
A doctor in Brazil performed, for a week, free palate surgery, to somebody put up a rail for the lady next door who was in a wheelchair, to I painted somebody’s nursery. Stuff that’s a force for good, and I think that’s really humbling. They’ve taken something which for me was just a great gig and mucking around in leather for six years, and made it something that has spiritual payoffs in their own communities.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand airs January 22nd at 10 PM on the Starz premium cable network.
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