The first thing you notice when you meet Lucy Lawless -- even if you consider yourself 100% gay and completely immune to the charms of the opposite sex -- is how ridiculously, supernaturally gorgeous she is. The second thing you notice is how tall she is. And the third thing you notice (if you're not too captivated by the first two) is how easy and graceful her presence is. It's as if you could plunk her down anywhere -- a cocktail party, a Congressional hearing, Taco Bell -- and in five minutes she'd have the entire room under her spell.
Earlier this week the New Zealander, most famous for playing the titular role in the campy mid-'90s lesbian favorite Xena: Warrior Princess, sauntered through the halls of Out magazine oohing and aahing over cover shots of Lady Gaga and Donatella Versace and making jokes about "knowing a thing or two about what gays like" before sitting down to chat about playing the crafty, conniving Lucretia, who owns a gladiator camp with her husband, on the new series Spartacus. In the video above and the following interview, Lawless talks about behaving badly on screen, overdosing on simulated gore and sex, gayness in the ancient world, and whether or not she'll ever pick up Xena's sword again.
Out: Why were you drawn to Lucretia? Was it the chance to play a bad girl?
Lucy Lawless: Yeah, I never had the chance to play a bad girl before [smirks]. Why is that? Why is it that, you know, if youve got a bad girl in your script whore you going to call? Call Lucy. No, I was very drawn to this character because shes a whole lot of contradictions. Shes very wicked and religious at the same time. She loves her husband more than life itself, almost as much as her own self. And shed do anything to make him happy. So shes boffing a gladiator in order to get impregnated. Shes having this really abusive relationship with Crixus the champion gladiator, and is also falling in love with him so shes very conflicted and playing a very dangerous game. Because, though Roman men could stop off to see a prostitute on the way home from the Senate, Roman women were not afforded the same freedom of exploration.
Do you relate to her?
Well, I guess she comes out of me somewhere. Somehow when I put on a wig and a costume I become this other thing, but it has to be rooted in truth. You have to think How would I behave? How would I say this line in this womans shoes? Thankfully, I will never find myself in such a dog-eat-dog world where only clawing your way up the social ladder can get you any form of stability. But I guess she must come out of me somewhere.
Spartacus is a lot less campy than Xena was and the acting is definitely more natural. How did you prepare for the role?
Theres nothing nudge-nudge-wink-wink about this. Because were asking people to buy into this great conceit that there is a hyperrealistic, graphic-novel world where there are swirls of blood kind of being thrown across the inside of your TV screens every week. They have to already come to terms with nakedness. Now, that may not shock you or the Out audience, but a lot of the world is like going to turn it off in horror. And I think theyll sneak it back in -- you know, TiVo it -- and watch it when the kids arent there. Its not a kids show -- not a kids show at all.
2009 was very much the year of the vampire and it seems like 2010 is shaping up to be the year of the ancients. Weve got Spartacus coming out, The Clash of the Titans, Percy Jackson and the Olympians -- what do you think it is about the genre that draws people in?
I think people want to be transported to another time. It lets you explore a really high-stakes world where every single person from the lowest slave to the richest man in town is on the brink of complete annihilation at any time. And youve got this heroism and the kindness amongst all that degradation is really, really compelling. You really feel for the slaves when they fall in genuine love. And then you see this kind of twisted love of my character and my husband, who is Spartacuss owner. And he loves Spartacus and my lover hates Spartacus and I just want him dead. So, you know, everybody needs one another and fears one another. And thats a very deadly combination.
What about for you personally? Youve done Hercules, Xena, Battlestar, you lent your voice to Wonder Woman. What about the fantasy genre appeals to you on a personal level?
They want me? They pay me? [Laughs] I dont know why that is. Its not that Ive ever been attracted to that genre myself quite honestly. I mean I loved I, Claudius. I was a huge fan of Rome, but those are not fantasy sci-fi shows. Somehow these kinds of shows can fit me in the screen. Whereas other shows I think people will fear that I will be overpowering. Nobody makes the best friend in a romantic comedy. Nobodys going to, you know? Its a little bit limiting when you are I wouldnt say limiting, thats not right. Everybodys got their cross to bear in terms of their appeal on screen. But I dont know. Lucys not alwayspeople are always nervous to make me the wallflower. But I was one! Did you see me in Flight of the Concords? You might have seen me but you wouldnt know it. I was so successful at being a wallflower. But Im not kidding -- I really I wanted to be that. Shes just a zero of a woman, a gray little woman. When the wardrobe person called me and said were designing a costume what are your colors and stuff, I said, Ill tell you what I look really bad in: I look terrible in those kind of muddy colors and light ones like very light pastel greens and yellows and beige colors. I look awful in those. And thats all we dressed me in. And it was awesome. Its some of my most prized work where I get to be a big fat zero [laughs].
Weve talked a bit about how the show is controversial -- it certainly doesnt shy away from the gore or the sex -- but the approach to being gay almost seems ho-hum.
Im not sure that it was ho-hum, but it was certainly part of your exploration as a young man. The appropriate marriage partners were being very closeted away in their fancy palaces. There was a certainly a load of prostitution and boy-love. I dont mean boys like children. I dont know about that. Im not qualified to say. But certainly part of the young male experience was to test things out. They had just a different relationship to sexual identity and I dont think you had to nail it down. It was certainly frowned upon in some texts to be too promiscuous. They knew that might not be good for you -- of course STDs have always been around. It is really interesting. You know whats nice about Spartacus is that they have a gladiator who was gay and manly and he has one of the few true love relationships [on the show] with a young man who also is in the same ludus -- thats a gladiator training camp. And it causes no problems for them whatsoever -- the fact that theyre identified that way. Its really nice to see gay men being portrayed as something other than cardigan-wearing hand-flappers -- not that theres anything wrong with that
But it does buck a particular stereotype, which is refreshing.
Yeah it is. And thats what happens in real life.
You yourself are no stranger to the gay world. I was a gender studies major in college and I knew so many dykes who wrote term papers about Xena --
[Laughs.] Oh, thats bizarre.
Yeah, but they did. When did you first recognized that you were a lesbian icon?
Episode 8 of Xena in the first season. Because the lesbian community was the first one to take the show, draw massive attention to it, and kind of in a way made it hip and edgy. It was simply that demographic that picked up the ball and ran with it.
You must still get a lot of attention from them.
Well, I get lots of support from that community. And I try to return in kind. Im very grateful to everything they did for the show, for me, for charities, for one another. I feel pro-human being. So gay rights are equal rights. I dont know what the fuss is about frankly.
You mentioned nudity on the show. How do you feel about nudity for yourself, when youre acting? Is it an issue?
In the abstract it doesnt bother me. It was important in the scene. Certainly where Im involved theres nothing gratuitous about any of it. But I will confess that doing it for real was pretty confronting. I felt very inhibited, but I didnt have any choice in the matter and you want it to get over and done with quickly. But I was stressed. And I went straight home to bed afterward. Mostly I was stressed because theres all these women playing slaves hanging around like a bad smell following you everywhere. Youre trying to do this intimate scene with a trusted colleague and these women are just standing there. Theyre from Nigeria and Cameroon and places like this, and I had been talking with them. And I was just so freaked out thinking, What are these women thinking? They must be thinking, Bitch! In my country you would be stoned for that. Just for acting that with somebody whos not even your husband. Or just for -- whatever. Anyway, we all became great friends and they seem to have forgiven me.
Lastly, would you ever consider picking up Xenas sword again?
Yes. I love that character. I would do it if it was a movie. I doubt I would do it as a TV series. I cant see how you would make it fresh. And by the time somebody does come up with that Im just going to be too old. And Im really sad about that. I feel like its a completely wasted franchise. Rob really wanted to get that going. In fact they did early on and I was just too tired and thought I was bullet proof and would be in demand forever. And that killed it.
Spartacus debuts Friday January 22 at 10pm ET/PT on Starz.