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STARLOG, October, 1999, #268

Heroic Sacrifice

At war alongside Xena, Reneé O'Connor finds inner peace.

 

Five years ago, actress Reneé O’Connor began a grand adventure. It took her halfway around the world and into another time as she journeyed to New Zealand and a never-never era of mix-and-match Greek mythology and Roman history. There she began playing Gabrielle, sidekick to Xena: Warrior Princess.

A cast of recurring friends and foes has enlivened the syndicated fantasy series -- and most of those actors have discussed their roles in past Starlog interviews. Despite crucifixions, resurrections and betrayals on screen, this "family" is tight-knit.

Ask one of them about the other, and it’s as if they’re talking about their best friend in the world. O’Connor is no exception. Ask her, for example, about the woman warrior Xena, Lucy Lawless.

"One of the things that surprises me about Lucy is that she is always emotionally present, whether on or off camera," O’Connor observes. "If she feels something that moves her or affects her in some way, there’s no holding back an emotional result. If something that I might say as Gabrielle affects her, and her character would cry, Lucy cries. It doesn’t matter how may times we do the shot. She’s just so in touch with her body and has such strong emotions. She doesn’t suppress anything. If she’s happy, she’s the loudest person laughing in the crowd; if something bothers or frustrates her, her whole body shows how she’s feeling.

"Because the character of Xena is so stoic and formidable, these moments where Lucy’s personality comes out more and the depth of her feeling penetrates her characters are always a shock. I know her so well, so I’m not really surprised, yet in the middle of a scene, sometimes it does startle me because I suddenly react to what she’s doing and I feel something on another level. A gut reaction like that is surprising when you’re trying to do something completely different."

Adventures with Joxer

Then there’s Ted Raimi, the mighty Joxer. According to O’Connor, "He’s an underrated comedian. Ted is nothing like Joxer; he’s highly intelligent and more modest than Joxer, who thinks he’s the greatest warrior in the world. Ted does impersonations on the set of different actors he has worked with. He’s an entertainer, he constantly makes Lucy and me laugh. Ted’s the kind of guy girls fall in love with, and they don’t realize they’re falling for him because he’s so affable and unassuming. He has this quirky charm that breaks down all those barriers: He’s the buddy, the friend you might have around you.

"OK," O’Connor continues, "here’s an example. In the episode I directed [Deja Vu All Over Again], Ted has to play Xena -- he’s Xena in a past life. And we have this very simple scene, Ted as Xena having a conversation with Ares. I wanted him to play it as Lucy plays Xena, when she’s quite staunch, her shoulders pulled back and standing upright. She could take Ares on in a minute, and almost torments and tantalizes him at the same time. I wanted Ted to play that," she laughs, seemingly incredulous about her own request. "And then Ted played Xena as the feminine side of Ted, a bit hysterically, in a comedic way. Then, I wanted him to play a nasty moment between Xena and Ares, just mean, downright hard and formidable, because Xena has that about her, when she can test Ares with her whole body. Ted is such a nice guy that it’s not in his body to insult and rip someone apart. I just couldn’t get it from him, he’s just a good soul. That, in its own way, enlightened me about Ted and his true personality. He doesn’t have that nastiness other people have within them."

When it comes to theatrical nastiness, there’s Ares, Kevin Smith. "He’s the true professional," O’Connor says. "Kevin walks on the set, knows his lines inside and out, doesn’t even pick up the script. He has such a charismatic quality that you want to see more of him on screen. He’s an attractive man with a personality, yet so humble and so modest, that it’s hard to believe he’s so formidable-looking and strong. And he has an incredible sense of humor. I’ve seen Kevin as part of an improvisational group called Theater Sport in Auckland, and he’s very quick-witted and imaginative in his improv on stage.

"I’m used to working with him as an actor, so it was completely different trying to direct him. I was a bit nervous actually directing Kevin," she confesses, "because how do you direct someone who you think makes all the right choices already? Lucy is like that as well. You just stay back and let them do their thing and try not to mess up something that isn’t broken. It was a real pleasure. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to film my episode’s fight scenes because I was so far behind schedule. I had to send that to our second unit director Paul Grinden, and he worked with Kevin and Ted on the fight sequences. That was a big disappointment for me, because I really wanted to work with Kevin more than I had the opportunity to do. But that’s the way it goes."

Songs of Gabrielle

After four seasons, the sheer number of episodes has proved a bit of a blur for O’Connor. While the story details sometimes elude her, it’s the other things that go into making a show that she recalls. "Many times I do remember what I wanted to do in the episode," she explains, "what results I wanted for the characters, like wanting to have Gabrielle learn something at one moment. I remember what direction I played her. I can recall those specifics and that’s about all.

"That’s what happens to me. When I watch an episode, I remember when we shot it, mostly who was there that day, what the environment was like, what problems I had, what elements I had to deal with on the set that caused those problems. That’s what I remember even more than the script. I know that many actors can remember their lines, but we just go through these episodes so quickly that I genuinely leave with a sense of feeling, rather than specifics."

Yet certain episodes invoke real memories. About For Those of You Just Joining Us (a Hercules clip show lampooning the show’s staff), O’Connor says, "We had a ball! Any time you have the permission to play a different character in a farcical way, you have the utmost delight in being present on set. I found the script quite a gift because it had a wry sense of humor on top of the blatantly satirical -- more like farcical -- set-up, farcical in being just slapstick, physical comedy. So, I had a great time. It was quite hilarious to see Michael Hurst play that sleazy character, Paul Robert Coyle, who’s nothing like that [in real life], going one step further into creating this seedy stereotype of a lazy writer. He just did so many awful, hilarious things that I don’t think you even see on the show. I was constantly laughing at Michael."

Of the very popular Xena musical episode, The Bitter Suite, O’Connor reveals, "No, I wasn’t singing. Everyone knew, from my popping a tune now and then, that I couldn’t carry a note. It doesn’t stop me from singing, though. Right now, Lucy and I are working on a medley of '80s love songs for a friend’s wedding. We’re really not going to perform it at all, but we’re trying to tease and torture her because I’m the one who’s harmonizing -- more like shrieking -- with Lucy.

"The Bitter Suite was a huge challenge. For one thing, a person who doesn’t sing at all, me, was going to be cast in a couple of duets with Lucy. They cast another woman as Gabrielle’s voice. I had seen her in a couple of shows and it was a thrill that she was going to be the angelic voice of Gabrielle. So, I listened to her recordings of the songs Gabrielle sings with Xena about their hearts hurting. She just nailed the subtext of what’s going on between the two characters, as well as the singing. So, what’s not to like?"

Tales of Xena

Though O’Connor insists she doesn’t remember much about most of the episodes, one in particular stands out, "The Quill Is Mightier is one of my favorite all-time episodes. That’s one that I can still watch and laugh out loud remembering the days we were filming. I remember laughing every day. I was completely amazed by the three naked Gabrielles running around the set that were supposed to look like me. Ted and I just had the most fun in the tavern scene when the beer is coming from the ceiling, because the stunt team went berserk for some reason," she laughs. "The stunt people went into this brawl, this mad event, and Ted and I couldn’t keep straight faces. We had to start watching these brawling men and women and then turn to the camera to say our lines, and it was all we could do to get the words out without shaking. Also, I remember being mortified by having to get up on the stage in my little knickers and bra and having to dance as a sexy Gabrielle for Joxer’s morbid dream. So, I remember real specifics about how I felt."

Other shows prompt recollections. "In The Return of Callisto, the one moment that stands out the most in my mind is Lucy and I in front of the funeral pyre for Perdicus," O’Connor says. "We were out on top of the hill at the beautiful black sand beach. I was remembering, as we were filming the funeral scene, being there in that exact spot almost three years before when I was filming the Hercules TV movie and had just found out a dear friend of mine had died. It was just a bizarre twist of fate that I would be back in New Zealand at that location filming a funeral pyre for another dead friend. It was quite ironic.

"I didn’t get to see the actual filming of Lucy and Hudson [Leick] in the chariot races or when Hudson was drowning in the quicksand. So, watching that episode, I was mesmerized by those shots. They were so dynamic and epic-looking. T.J. Scott directed that show, and he has become one of my mentors as a director; I just love his style."

O’Connor goes on to discuss other episodes. "I was completely frustrated trying to believably sell the fact that Gabrielle lived through a lava pit in A Family Affair. I had to suspend my disbelief and take a leap of faith that Gabrielle did survive," she explains. "It’s always quite amusing to play Hope, a Gabrielle wannabe. She wishes she had the heart and soul of Gabrielle, but she doesn’t. She so wants to be like her mother, but she can’t because she’s a different creature underneath all that golden hair. I always thought Hope was a bit of a robot, because she has no soul.

"There’s only one scene in that episode when I have to go back and forth between the two characters. I’ve only had two scenes when I had to do that. The first scene was easier because Hope was dressed in a different costume and I just locked onto the character. I also understood the dialogue more than I did the second time around on A Family Affair, where Hope wasn’t threatening Gabrielle but wasn’t yearning for her love, either. It was Hope being vindictive. That scene was very difficult for me -- for some reason I just did not quite click."

The prison episode Locked Up and Tied Down elicits a more physical response from O’Connor. "We were filming during winter in New Zealand. It was raining, and I remember the women playing the prison extras were wearing these sandals and flimsy outfits," she says. "And these poor women were just shaking, they were so cold. We had one woman leave because she was getting hypothermia.

"It was freezing, and Lucy was out there rolling around in the mud in as little as everyone else. I felt very sorry for them at that moment because I actually had to wear a different costume, so I was probably warmer than I usually am during the winter months. That was a brutal episode, because the elements of nature were against us. I enjoyed playing against Katrina Browne [as Thelassa]. I found her refreshing to work off of -- not as if Lucy’s chopped liver or anything," she laughs. "It’s always nice to have a guest actress come on board. They add a new element to the show."

With the series’ fifth season now underway, O’Connor is ready for new adventures -- provided that Gabrielle and Xena somehow escape their fourth-season finale fate. That cliffhanger found them both hanging on crosses in the snow, crucified by the Romans. How are they going to get out of that?

Renee O’Connor isn’t telling.

-- MAUREEN McTIGUE

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