Lucy Lawless Still Fighting To Help Others
As Xena the Warrior Princess she inspired women to be strong, now she still champions LGBTI rights.
Lucy Lawless, winner of the Australian LGBTI Awards Ally of the Year
Fearless is the word that comes to my mind when I think of Lucy Lawless. Her surname fits her so well, but it could just as well be Lucy Fearless, or even Lucy Badass, because she is all of these things. It was my absolute pleasure to speak with Lucy via Skype recently where we chatted about her win as Ally of the Year in the recent Australian LGBTI Awards; the impact of Xena from Xena: Warrior Princess—still her most famous role; and her passion for making the world a better place.
SF: Thanks so much for your time today. I have so many things I want to talk to you about, but let us start with the Australian LGBTI awards. What did winning the Ally of the Year Award mean to you?
LL: I loved it! I felt it was a bit retrospective because of the effect of Xena, but I was really grateful for many reasons because the LGBT community was the first to put Xena on the map. They have been so good to me and I want to be good to them in return. Even from a career point of view, I want to be good to them because my family, my friends, my colleagues are all shades of the rainbow and it is about justice. I want my kids—and I want other people’s kids to do as well as my kids—to feel safe, psychologically safe, and to know that we are all secretly different on the inside.
SF: So here you are a New Zealander, who has spent a lot of time living in the USA, winning an Australian award—how does that work?
LL: I know I love it! I was always really grateful because the Australians always loved that show more than New Zealanders. Honestly, New Zealanders were embarrassed about it all, I think, because I had this American accent, I think it was a bit of a tall poppy thing? New Zealanders were like… pfft fuck you… who do you think you are Lucy Lawless? Whereas the Aussies just embraced it and it blew my mind.
SF: Aussies might be the same with our own too. We are pretty good with the Tall Poppy Syndrome.
LL: Oh my god! This might be the only time that being a Kiwi is an advantage in Australia!
(Credit Matt Sayles) Lucy Lawless
SF: I was actually going to leave Xena until the end because I figured she is always the first thing you are asked about.
LL: Oh, she is very hard to get away from!
SF: But we are in it now, so we will keep going! Who is Xena? You have gone on record saying Xena was most likely a lesbian? Do you think if the show were written now, the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle would be portrayed differently not just as BFFs, looking after each other until their dying moments?
LL: I do not know. Yes it probably would be, but how do you keep the tension? I know plenty of lesbian couples with children living out in the valley of Los Angeles, and their lives are not that exciting!
SF: I can attest to that!
LL: So where do you get the sexual tension? I think Xena was a little bit omnivorous. She went through a bit of a boy phase, didn’t she? Maybe it was just experimentation; maybe she was just being a little bit wild.
SF: Like she would grow out of that phase!
LL: So yeah, you would have to keep the tension in it somehow. Maybe she would have had a roving eye. Or maybe Gabrielle would be the little slut! No sorry—not slut... Gabrielle would be the liberated sexually assertive one and I do not think Xena would stop her. She would be like ‘girlfriend…’ and I think that’s how I would be. I would be like “if you don’t want to be in this relationship, then I don’t want you to be in this relationship. Bye, bye.”
SF: Xena had such a profound impact on people all over the world, not just for lesbians, or young girls questioning their sexuality, but for girls and women who saw Xena as a representation of women’s empowerment.
LL: It was unbelievable. It is a little terrifying when you realise how important it was to some people. I am so glad to have been a part of it. Sometimes I feel like I am incidental to it, which I know is not really the truth. It was also something to do with how I was raised, and genetics, or whatever the hell made that role happen. It could have been anyone else who got the job. The whole thing was such incredible synchronicity and serendipity and so far out of my control that I am breathless that it happened at all. I mean that role was written before I was cast, so the fact it was me who got to play the role is not just staggering, and it is not humbling (that is a bullshit word ‘humbling’)—it is a huge honour that was undeserved, and I am really happy.
At the time we just thought we were making a fun show; it was a fun gig. But then it had this really profound impact on many people’s lives, and I am thinking “phew, thank God that went all right” because you would hate to hurt people; you would hate to have not been there.
It had amazing resonance in countries with rigid religious structures and rigid societal structures because it spoke about the difference of the individual. It was not just about sexuality: I have been told that African-American women took strength from it because they feel like Xena; because they need to be that strong.
These ideas of sexuality and the ideological resistance to them is cruel and really dangerous. It is really dangerous for children. We stay that child; we stay that injured, frightened child on the inside, even as adults. I know this from fandom. When people come up to me that have just come out who used to be fans of Xena. They are vulnerable in that moment; they are the same kid who used to watch the show years ago.
SF: It was over twenty years ago that Xena appeared in her own right on our screens. For something that was supposed to be a ‘fun show’ as you said, why do you think it had such resonance?
LL: People like to see themselves; they want to see themselves on screen. They want to see people that they relate to, which is why I think Xena punched above its weight at the time. A lot of gay women were saying that they never saw themselves on TV, and then there were a lot more examples, so that was good. But there are still other minorities that are severely under-represented, of course!
Xena with her chakram, her signature weapon
SF: Absolutely, look at the #OscarsSoWhite campaign from a couple of years ago, and now we have a film with a black, gay man as the lead character winning Best Film. There is progress, but there are still so many minorities who just do not have the representation that the general straight, white, middle-class population does, so anything that broadens that diverse representation is a good thing.
LL: Yes, and also it brings everything into the norm. This is what the fight is really about: expanding —the generally held parameters of normal, because we are all tip-toeing and tap-dancing like crazy to appear “normal”!We struggle to stay between the lines; it is not just gay people or other minorities, but also straight, white people who worry: ”Far out who would love me if they knew who I really am? If I really told my wife how I feel or what I want, would she leave me?”
SF: Would she still love me?
LL: Yes. Would my children reject me? We’re living lives of quiet desperation. It is just the human experience; we are afraid of being kicked out and rejected by the tribe because in olden times it would mean that some lion would eat you so we have to maintain our normalcy.
SF: The box is very small that we are all trying to fit into.
LL: Yes! The box is a bit too bloody small for any of us!
SF: You were very supportive of the LGBT community and had a very high profile in the marriage equality fight in California a few years ago. What was behind that?
LL: The thing I loved best was the No H8 campaign. There was a huge march in downtown Los Angeles and it was most exciting because I got the train to the march and it was like getting on board the soul train. I gave a speech andI was just carried by the mood of it and it became the best speech I have ever given. It was completely rousing and being part of it was magnificent.
When we come together and protest one of the things we get out of it is that you realise you are not alone. To be a friend to, and part of the LGBT family, whether you are gay yourself or not, you have got to show up to show your solidarity. Take your body there, do not just say it, walk it. I loved that.
The sexual tension between Xena (Lawless) and Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor) was always ratcheted up to the maximum
Standing there you could feel the enmity coming from some of the cars because there is a very large, very conservative population. There is a lot of religious resistance, you get a lot of negativity, and I have never experienced that anywhere quite so much as I did that day in Los Angeles. That is why resistance and showing up is necessary; to show a counter-strength that we are normal and that we love and we deserve to be here. We have always been here.
SF: I hate to bring it back to a point of difference because it is about the collective and coming together, but was there any questioning why someone ‘not Californian’ was addressing the crowd?
LL: No, not at all, because Xena is so much bigger than my personal identity. Maybe even to ME! You are a being on this planet—a citizen of the planet—is how I always saw myself. I see myself more as a Kiwi now, funnily enough, because I have been here for a few years now, but for the longest time I did not feel that way at all. That is why it did not matter that I am a New Zealander, it did not matter that I am not gay—because you are me, I am part of the river, you are part of the river, and the river is me. And I am very taken with justice and I relate to the underdog, whether that is a childish notion or not, I do not know. And that must be genetic; it is a very strong thing in me.
SF: I do not know whether it is a nature versus nurture thing; I think a lot of the time it is born inside you, and it is an individual thing.
LL: My mother is certainly more liberal than my father. During the controversial Springbok Rugby Tour to New Zealand in 1981 she was marching with the anti-apartheid activists, and my father was the mayor of the city where they were touring and he was also on the side of rugby: “it’s only rugby, it’s not politics”. I fell more on my mother’s side. I have become more of an activist.
SF: Your activism does not stop with the LGBTI community. You have been arrested as part of the Save the Artic campaign to stop oil drilling, you are a Greenpeace ambassador and are very vocal about climate change. It is something that is obviously ingrained deep within the person that you are, to lend yourself and to be part of all of these movements.
LL: It is just ice and and, more specifically, it is justice for children—all of it. If you boiled them all down, it is about fairness to children. Somewhere there is a gay kid who is terrified, or there is a little kid who feels they are in the wrong body—what horrible secrets to have to keep from parents who donot understand or who will not accept you. That is not cool. It is cruelty to children. Even if the child is now 50 years old and has never been able to express it, it is cruel.
I also think climate change is inter-generational child abuse. We are handing them a volatile, unsafe planet where resources are stretched and, as a result, up goes aggression. We are going to see the loss of statehood. We are going to see millions and millions, of climate refugees. I worry very much about Australia, the hottest, driest continent, getting another three-plus degrees hotter.
Not much questioning here as Xena and Gabrielle share a kiss
SF: And many countries, including Australia, seem to have very little compassion for others who may need refuge. It is scary how things could change and what could happen here.
LL: I see that becoming more the norm, where countries are going to start hunkering down and trying to save their resources for themselves and not sharing or being willing to take less for the greater good. There is a Xena thought: “for the greater good”. I’m not sure we are going to see a lot of that.
SF: You have spent quite a lot of time in Italy. Is that something like you’d like to do more often?
LL: Oh yes! I would like to, but it is a long way from New Zealand and I am quite employed and committed for the next year so I am not sure I will get there, which I am sad about. However, it remains this lovely dream and it it is good to have a dream.
SF: You are talking about Ash v Evil Dead? It is in its third season now?
LL: Yes, we have just started filming a third season. Iam really excited about it actually! My role has become something so wild—it is the wildest Lucy you have seen yet. Xena fans tend to be a little underwhelmed because she is not out there fighting for the common good! But this character of mine, this Ruby, what a mad woman she is! It is really exciting because I get to be my ugliest, my worst—she is truly the worst character I have ever played.
SF: It must be fun!
LL: Yes it is really fun, really perverse and really wrong, and it is my secret worst self!
SF: You played a bisexual character in Battle star Galactica?
LL: Oh yes, every character I play turns gay or bisexual by the end. It is the ABC of hiring Lucy.
SF: Tick off that she has to make out with a girl at least once.
LL: Get her half naked, put her in a bath of blood and make her kiss a girl.
Maybe this look is why Lawless regularly gets cast as a lady-lover
SF: If you do it well, you may as well play to your strengths!
LL: Sorry, what was the actual question?
SF: I don’t think I had asked it yet. I guess it was about the whole thing of being cast in those kinds of roles where you do eventually end up being with another woman.
LL: Yes, what is it about that? What is it about me that makes people go… “yeah, totally! There is definitely tension there, now let’s throw a girl at her”. There is something about me that makes producers think, “that’s a good idea” and I don’t think it is just a hangover from some other character I played.
SF: I don’t know. There is definitely something.
LL: Yes, there is something. I do not want to be cynical and say they are trading on the Xena fan base, but I do not know it just happens… A LOT!
SF: There are stereotypes about what certain groups should or should not look like, and it is crazy because the variety in the LGBTI community is as broad and as wide as it is in the straight community. Maybe it is your strength of character and your height, your broader shoulders.
LL: Right, right. Maybe I look like someone who stereotypically should be gay, or bisexual. Awesome! It’s better than playing the Anne Archer, the wife role.
SF: Oh yes, absolutely.
LL: I always turn down the wife role. If that is all she is is a wife, it is like “bugger that”, I get enough of playing the wife in my own life.
And she laughs a deep, hearty laugh that says she is so much more than that. Winner of the Australian LGBTI Ally of the Year award, actor, activist, wife, mother, role model, passionate, fearless, badass. These are all Lucy Lawless.