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TVGUIDE, June 27-July 3, 1998 - Volume 46, Number 26, Issue #2361

Action Figure

Xena and her saucy sidekick, Gabrielle, share a provocative bond. ReneÚ O'Connor explains the chemistry.

 

As Gabrielle, the spirited, idealistic sidekick on Xena: Warrior Princess, ReneÚ O'Connor possesses a look that is wholesome and girlish, in a Malibu-meets-Mesopotamia sort of way. But the gods of style have been busy today. While posing during a photo shot on a darkened Hollywood stage, the cropped peasant blouse, cloth skirt and cascading tresses of the actresses alter ego are no where to be found. Instead, O'Connor's hair is pinned up and she's wearing a clingy, sapphire blue satin evening gown marked by a neckline that plunges, plunges and plunges some more. She pauses to take a quick inventory. "No one will recognize me as Gabrielle," she says.

Don't be too sure. There are a lot of Xena fans out there these days. Now filming episodes for it's fourth season, the campy syndicated action-adventure series, originally a spin-off of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, has blossomed from a cult hit into an international smash that is seen in more than 60 countries. And while Xena (Lucy lawless) is kicking more barbarian butt than ever as she and Gabrielle wander through their mythical world, O'Connor's character has done some growing up herself, evolving from a naive, starstruck tagalong into a more independent soul who finally won Xena's trust, only to betray it (Gabrielle harbored the monster who would slay the Warrior Princess' son). "I love the character," says O'Connor, 27, a Texas native who spends nine months a year filming Xena in Auckland, New Zealand. "Last year they brought out her faults. She did a lot of things I wouldn't have done to friends or family."

Xena watchers don't seem to mind. These days, O'Connor finds herself inundated with mail from fans ranging from small children to hardened convicts. O'Connor's mother, Sandra, who along with husband Eddie Wilson owns the landmark Austin, Texas, restaurant Threadgill's, oversees the actress' fan club. "It's nice that my mom is [involved]," says O'Connor. "It makes it more personable." And mom knows exactly where to draw the line. "If people want nude photos or something, it's, 'I'm sorry, you're going to get my daughter's high school photo."

O'Connor believes the series' appeal is largely due to Xena's being "a formidable woman who's not dependent on a man. She's a reluctant hero, and she's sexy, but she's strong." And the changing dynamics between Xena and Gabrielle have also kept fans coming back for more. "There's a friendship between two women," O'Connor says. "That's a fascination for a lot of people."

Indeed. The first couple of seasons were marked by a number of allusions - like sharing a bath, for example- to the notion that Xena and Gabrielle might be more than just good pals. "There was a time when we played with the idea, just being silly," she says, confirming that the lesbian subtext was a deliberate device. But nowadays, she adds, the friendship "has become so profound that it's not about a sexual relationship." So no more bathtub scenes? "Never say never on this show," O'Connor says, smiling.

Off-screen, the two Xena stars maintain a polite distance. They rarely socialize away from work, although O'Connor did attend Lawless' wedding to Xena producer Rob Tapert in March. On the set the two women are the best of friends. "She's just a fabulous woman," Lawless says simply. "I'd be lost without her. She takes on what is ostensibly the second-banana role with such grace and charm. The only reason she's not playing Xena is that I'm bigger than she is."

Her petite stature has never been a hindrance for O'Connor, the second child born in Houston to Sandra and Walter O'Connor, a finance manager. (The couple divorced when ReneÚ was still an infant.) One of O'Connor's first roles after moving to Los Angeles at 18 was in an episode of HBO's Tales From the Crypt, which was directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I was extremely nervous," recalls the 5-foot-4 O'Connor. "He could crush me with his finger. But he was lovely." (He did, however, edit her performance out of the final version of the show.)

O'Connor's life truly changed in 1994, when a last minute audition landed her a part in the TV movie Hercules and the Lost Kingdom. When Tapert began casting Xena, he invited O'Connor to try out as Gabrielle and ultimately gave her the job. "She brought a naivetÚ and innocence to the role with a slightly brash attitude," the producer says. "And she's only gotten better."

O'Connor declines to reveal what's in store of Gabrielle next season, other than that India will serve as a backdrop for some shows and that her character will "question and seek different types of religions." In the meantime, the actress has embarked on a personal journey of her own. After three years of renting an Auckland apartment, O'Connor recently bought a house in the country, where she plans to busy herself with gardening and remodeling. Her boyfriend of almost two years, Steve Muir, 30, a kiwi who manages a microbrewery, will be around to lend a hand. He and O'Connor moved in together last January, a development that took months to sink in. "We've been so busy," she says. "I finally looked at him and said 'Oh my God, we're living together.' " O'Connor pauses to take a quick inventory. "Life's really good now. Knock on wood."

-- MARK NOLLINGER

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