Lucy Lawless thinks before speaking. Only not, apparently, to consider what her publicist or manager might want her to say. For while she’s forever associated with fantasy action roles, the refreshingly opinionated Ash vs Evil Dead actress conveys a defiantly down-to-earth demeanor in her unaffected Down Under brogue.
Raised with five brothers (whom she describes, retrospectively, as “dickheads”) in suburban Auckland, New Zealand, Lawless embraced toughness and humor as survival mechanisms in a boy’s world. Her mother recalls a daughter who was not even aware of being a girl until age eight, yet became a teen wife and mom before being crowned “Mrs. New Zealand” at age 21.
“I just think it’s twisted that we withhold available medications from somebody in pain—it’s disgusting. Why wouldn’t you give it to them? How completely sick. We’re the ones who are sick—we’re sicker than they are.”
Following a stint on a domestic television comedy show, Lawless’ portal to pop-icon status was an ostensibly mundane 1995 twist of fate. When another actress fell ill and was unable to travel to New Zealand for filming, Lawless landed the role of a leather-clad warrior called Xena in an episode of fantasy TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The episode was titled “Warrior Princess.” Created by Lawless’ now-husband, writer-director-producer Rob Tapert, Xena: Warrior Princess grew into a six-season spin-off smash shown in more than 100 countries, making the statuesque Lawless a global sex symbol (declared one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” by People magazine in 1997).
While Lawless remains synonymous with Xena, she’s stayed busy ever since, often portraying similarly stoic characters in TV productions including the Starz network’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand; Sci-Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica; WGN America’s Salem; and lately as the mysterious Ruby Knowby in Starz’ wildly popular horror comedy series Ash vs Evil Dead. Not to mention having two more children, an occasional singing career and getting arrested for environmental activism.
“They should legalize it so they know where it’s bloody coming from.”
CULTURE chatted with the affably self-assured Lawless about her disinterest in the fantasy genre, celebrity responsibility, pro-pot tweeting—and nice problems to have.
Season 2 of Ash vs Evil Dead premieres in October. Without spoiling anything, what can you tell us about the new season?
Super-high-octane! It’s like four times the size of last season. I don’t really know how that happened . . . it just evolved that way. The footage that we’re shooting, honestly, it’s like . . . two Spartacus episodes crunched down into [a] half-hour of Evil Dead.
It’s super-technical, it’s super-rewarding . . . it’s just ferocious this season. And very funny!
What are the unique joys of portraying Ruby in the series, compared with your career’s many other roles?
I guess I’ve always played sort of outsiders, in a way, but it strikes me that she’s the farthest of the outliers I’ve ever played, because she is not liked or trusted even within her own gang . . . It’s funny to play somebody who’s really hated.
Your first ever TV job was in a sketch comedy series and Ash vs Evil dead is comedy horror. Are your comedic talents something you’d like to indulge more often, or do you instill subtle humor into most of your roles?
Some things are just situationally funny. I mean, I’ve always thought that the parlor games in Spartacus were really funny—really ironic, really painful . . . So, yeah, I do find most of what I do funny, ‘cos life is a divine comedy.
I would like to get back to [comedy]. I’d like to be better at it, to be honest with you. Like, American comedy eludes me. I’ve dabbled in sitcom and things, but it’s not something that I understand on a cellular level . . . I really admire it, and I really like it—I just can’t really do it.
A recurring figure in your career is producer Sam Raimi, creator of the Evil Dead universe, producer of Xena: Warrior Princess, and executive producer of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. How would you define Sam’s genius?
Sam is the ultimate kook. He’s a very unique individual. He’s kind of like Hollywood’s Mork from Ork—y’know, he’s been pulled out of another time and place.
Your husband is Sam’s longtime collaborator Rob Tapert. How is it working with your spouse, and how does that blur the line between your personal and professional lives?
We work together great, because really our roles do not overlap. My role as an actress—that’s the easy bit. The much more demanding aspect of my, I say “job” in inverted commas, is being spouse of the producer—hearing the download of all the production issues and personnel issues and being supportive . . . not to get involved myself, but keeping everybody calm is what I do.
What were your acting ambitions in your teens, and how do these compare with the actuality of your career to date?
Oh, I wanted to go to RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London]! I don’t know what happened—I wanted to play Lady Macbeth, and then I get tricked into this crazy action television, which was a complete assault to my being, because I was never good at sports. My nickname at school was “Unco,” for “uncoordinated,” and here I was getting bloody bashed 24/7 by stuntmen and training and trying to develop some sort of reflexes—which I did, [but] the first couple of years I was black and blue.
“I don’t think I knew that marijuana could be medical when I was growing up. [But] I know it does a lot less harm to society than alcohol.”
It was a big shock to me. To be honest with you, I don’t watch fantasy shows, myself. I’m really not into that stuff. At this stage of my life, I wanna see people . . . having real problems like me and my friends—y’know, real-world problems. I’m not into the hunt for the magic bloody unicorn, or whatever.
There was an element of fate in your being cast as Xena back in 1995. How different might your life have been today had that not happened?
I would have had a different family; I’d probably be living in Italy . . . I would not be living in New Zealand, and I would never have stopped moving.
I’m in love with perpetual motion, so had I not married [Xena creator Rob Tapert] I would not have the stability in my life; my children wouldn’t have had that stability—I’d just be a gypsy.
Inadvertently or otherwise, you’ve become an icon of “comic-con” culture. That seems to be something you embrace.
What am I going to do—crap on it? You should be so lucky to have these “problems!” I’m very good at rationalizing anything I can’t change . . . You better stick with the fans, and they’ll stick with you. I’ve been given this amazing opportunity to have a great life—mustn’t grumble!
Would you say you’ve been somewhat typecast over the years? If so, do you necessarily see that as a negative?
I suppose if you look at my major characters, I get cast as strong, slightly edgy, twisted people—or at least that’s what I try to bring to every role. No matter how she’s written, I’ll try to find the twist on it and try to make them compelling and make a bad person likeable and a good person a little bit gritty.
So in a way I’ve taken fate and run with it and tried to make as much of it as I could.
How close are those character traits on-screen to your off-screen self?
My brothers used to give me assholes about being a show-off and dancing around to ballet and “who do you think you are?” kind of thing. And really punishing me for, I now see, being a girl . . . So I really had to drive all my femininity underground a little bit. It’s taken me to my 40s to start to try to reclaim that and discover some sort of softness. Because being tough and funny was the only way to survive in my house.
Even though I am a feminist, I don’t have a hatred of men or a chip on my shoulder about things. I just . . . grew up thinking, in a way, I was one.
You’ve also embraced your status as a gay icon, including participating in pride parades, but are a married heterosexual mom. Why are you so supportive of the LGBT community?
Cos I like underdogs, and I feel that I relate to the underdog . . . I believe in justice and I feel like many gay people—obviously not all—understand global justice for everyone.
You were a teen mom. How did rising to that considerable challenge help form the character that has made your so successful since?
I didn’t understand it was a challenge.
I think my family thought “oh, there go all her dreams of being an actress,” but within days of coming home from the hospital . . . I was full of energy; I was writing skits and things to produce into a show reel [and] went and filmed it. Jobs started to come from there.
“Listen, its being available hasn’t made me start smoking [marijuana] any more than legalized homosexual marriage has made me want to turn gay . . . I don’t know what they’re afraid of!”
I just didn’t know any different, y’know? My parents never told me you can’t do something. Even if they secretly thought it, they didn’t tell me it—and I try to do the same for my kids.
You still live in New Zealand. How has impacted your relationship with celebrity and the media compared with living in, say, L.A., New York or London?
If you live in L.A., you’ve just got all these comparisons of how “not-cool” you are . . . Living in New Zealand, nobody cares about that stuff anyway, so it’s a non-issue. Also, I like to go it alone . . . I don’t have entourages; I don’t tell people what I’m up to.
You have been active with environmental NGO Greenpeace, including being arrested in 2012 for boarding an oil-drilling ship. Why Greenpeace?
I knew the director [of Greenpeace New Zealand] and I knew a bunch of those people from 20 years before when I acted [in] . . . The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior [TV movie about the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland, by the French intelligence service].
So I had a long-standing respect for them as individuals . . . And, also, because [New Zealanders] lead the world in skin cancer, I realized that the actions of people globally can affect people locally.
You’re a board member of New Zealand’s Starship Foundation, benefitting children’s healthcare, and have been involved with animal rights organizations such as Paw Justice. Do you see it as your responsibility to use your celebrity for good in those ways?
Well, I don’t want it to bloody sell lipstick! That just bores the shit out of me, all that stuff . . . [Celebrity is] currency, y’know—use it for something that does some good for the world.
In May, you tweeted a fairly strongly-worded pro-medical cannabis statement. Could you expand upon the sentiments behind this?
I just think it’s twisted that we withhold available medications from somebody in pain—it’s disgusting. Why wouldn’t you give it to them? How completely sick. We’re the ones who are sick—we’re sicker than they are.
How have your views on recreational and medical use of cannabis changed over your lifetime?
I don’t think I knew that marijuana could be medical when I was growing up. My views of marijuana haven’t really changed . . . I know it does a lot less harm to society than alcohol.
I certainly tried it as a kid, I do think we have to be really informed about the facts, but it doesn’t bother me if people smoke pot.
What are you views of cannabis legislation, both in New Zealand and elsewhere?
They should legalize it so they know where it’s bloody coming from.
Listen, it being available hasn’t made me start smoking [marijuana] any more than legalized homosexual marriage has made me want to turn gay . . . I don’t know what they’re afraid of!
Your work with Greenpeace suggests that you’re very pro-active regarding issues about which you are passionate. Might you become more involved in medical cannabis activism?
I doubt it, except to say that I absolutely support—I mean, I really, wholeheartedly support [medical marijuana]. It’s medicine, man—nothing works like it, is what I’m hearing, so it’s very cruel and unusual to deny a palliative medicine from these [seriously ill] people.