Lucy Lawless won international fame in 1995 with Xena: Warrior Princess, a spin-off from Kiwi-made stablemate Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. A rare female hero on television, Xena was hailed as both a feminist and gay icon, and appeared on the covers of feminist trailblazer Ms, men's magazine Maxim, and Rolling Stone. Since shooting the last scene of Xena in New Zealand in 2001, Lawless has worked mainly in the United States, combining acting roles with a burgeoning singing career.
Lucy F Lawless grew up in the Auckland suburb of Mount Albert, as Lucy Francis Ryan. Her family of seven was mainly made up of brothers; her father was longtime Mt Albert Mayor Frank Ryan. She appeared in her first musical at the age of ten, and considered becoming a singer. But university studies in opera and languages were abandoned after she decided that opera would mean compromising her own mantra of being the best she could at everything she tried.
At the age of 18 she set off to Europe on her OE, picking grapes in Germany and working as a goldminer in the Australian Outback. While in Australia she became pregnant, returning with partner Garth Lawless to New Zealand.
In 1987 Lawless was invited to join the cast of sketch comedy series Funny Business. She stayed with the show for two and a half seasons, then later moved to Vancouver, where she spent eight months studying drama. The next five years saw Lawless appearing in a run of small roles in Kiwi television, film and advertisements: she played a genetically-engineered assassin on mini-series Typhons' People, and a member of the Greenpeace crew in The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. There were also appearances in Kiwi classic The End of the Golden Weather, and episodes of Marlin Bay, Ray Bradbury Theatre, and 90s police show Shark in the Park. Shortland Street though was not to be: Lawless failed to win a part on the longrunning soap.
The jump from struggling actor to international star involved good timing and a bad dose of the flu. In 1993 American producer Rob Tapert came to New Zealand to work on Pacific Renaissance series Hercules, the first of a series of Renaissance shows written and completed in the United States, but filmed in and around Auckland.
Twenty-five-year-old Lawless auditioned for the role of the Amazon Queen in debut Hercules tele-feature, Hercules and the Amazon Women, while working as a co-presenter on travel show Air New Zealand Holiday. Though impressed, the producing team were reluctant to cast a New Zealander in such a key role. Instead Lawless contributed solid work in a smaller, but still Amazonian part. Later she was invited back to act in Hercules episode As Darkness Falls.
Tapert had hoped that the Hercules series would merge American fight scenes with acrobatic Asian-style martial arts. In the end, that idea was transferred to a new character: Xena, a female warrior who would debut over a three episode arc of Hercules. British actor Vanessa Angel was set to play Xena, until she caught the flu, two weeks before the scheduled filming date. After a number of American actresses proved unwilling to take the role, frantic calls were made to locate Lawless.
Soon Tapert proposed abandoning the plan to kill off Xena in the third episode, and reactivated the idea of a Xena television series, this time with Lawless in the main role. But there were worries about basing a series around a heroine with a dark past. "Xena was a very tough sell to the syndicators," Tapert has said. "Everyone believed there was no market for a woman superhero."
The new show would be faster, grungier and darker in tone than its parent, swapping the clearcut morality of Hercules for a flawed, brooding character, inspired partly by the female superheroes of Hong Kong cinema.
Debuting in the US in 1994, Xena quickly became the highest rating new syndicated series on air. The show inspired a fervent fan following, its own action figures, and an exhaustively researched book by Robert Weisbrot. Women especially embraced the strong female character, in a television landscape largely lacking in them. The at times deliberately ambiguous nature of Xena's relationship with Gabrielle also helped bring the show a strong gay audience.
In 1996 Ms magazine described Xena as a feminist icon for the 90s. Lawless was initially resistant at being turned into a role model, but later reminded herself what she had always known: Xena and Lucy Lawless were very different beings.
After six successful seasons — seasons which ranged in locale from ancient Troy to World War 2 Macedonia, and which mixed drama, comedy and even a musical episode — Xena:Warrior Princess was cancelled in 2001. Lawless married Xena producer Rob Tapert in 1998, and they now have two children.
Since the demise of Xena, Lawless has worked mainly in America. She guest-starred as another genetically-engineered being on X Files, played Tarzan's Aunt in an ill-fated TV update, and had cameos in the big-budget Spiderman (as a punk) and low-budget Kiwi romp I'll Make You Happy.
2005 alone saw Lawless headlining in two TV-movies, Locusts and Vampire Bats, and playing addled mothers in The Darkroom and Kiwi-filmed horror Boogeyman (produced by Tapert). She also began occasional guest slots on the acclaimed update of Battlestar Galactica, playing one of the cylons — including on key double episode 'Exodus', in the show's third season.
Lawless has also been heard increasingly behind the microphone. In 1997 she spent time on Broadway as bad girl Rizzo in Grease, and later toured New Zealand with Dave Dobbyn. After time as a guest judge on New Zealand Idol, Lawless was runner-up on America's Celebrity Duets (2006), winning over many doubters after a duet with Smokey Robinson. The same year, she visited Bangladesh for World Vision documentary Lucy Lawless: Five Days in Bangladesh.
Lawless returned to comedy in 2008's Bedtime Stories, playing a woman on a mission to destroy Adam Sandler's love life, and co-starred with Xena stuntwoman Zoe Bell in American-made web series Angel of Death.
Lawless had an ongoing role on locally-shot, adult-themed series Spartacus, playing "bad girl" Lucretia, wife of Batiatus (John Hannah). She guest-starred as the pregnant wife of cult character Ron Swanson on American comedy Parks and Recreation, and had a small role as a recent widow in part Jane Campion-directed TV drama Top of the Lake. In 2015 Lawless took on the role of Ruby in cable series Ash vs Evil Dead, a sequel to the Sam Raimi directed horror classic Evil Dead.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Cesar Miguel Escano, 'Lucy Lawless: Warrior Woman'(Interview). Business World Online website. Loaded 27 March 2004. Accessed 24 November 2008
Philip Matthews, 'Badass, kickass gal' (Interview) - The Listener, 17 August 1996, page 26
Donna Minkowitz, ''Xena' - She's Big, Tall, Strong - and Popular' - Ms. magazine, July 1996, page 74 (Volume 7, No 1)
Laura Prudom, ''Ash vs Evil Dead': Lucy Lawless Reunites with Bruce Campbell on Starz' - Variety website. Loaded 9 March 2015. Accessed 9 June 2015
Robert Weisbrot, Xena Warrior Princess - The Official Guide to the Xenaverse (New York: Doubleday, 1998)
Bianca Zander, 'The Artist formerly known as Xena' (Interview) - The Listener, 9 February 2002