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With the series drawing to a close, Lucy Lawless talks to Joe Nazzaro about the importance of being Xena.

When the producers of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys decided to spice up their first season by introducing a female warrior named Xena, they had no idea that the character would become an instant success. Within a matter of months, the spin-off series Xena: Warrior Princess exploded into an international hit, revolutionising the action-adventure drama and making a household name of its star, Kiwi actress Lucy Lawless. Maybe it was the stunning New Zealand locations that made the series a success, or its Hong Kong action movie-inspired fight sequences. More likely, it was the continuing adventures of Xena and her long-time companion Gabrielle (played by Renee O'Connor) that caught the attention of viewers.

Over the next five seasons, the duo would literally travel to hell and back together, encountering gods and monsters, love, death and resurrection. They also formed a powerful bond that had fans debating just how deep that relationship actually was. Amazing how time flies when you're battling the forces of evil. It now appears that the sixth season of Xena currently in production may well be its last. That's how Lawless, who now has an infant son with husband (and the show's executive producer) Rob Tapert would prefer it. Mind you, these things aren't normally left for the show's star to decide, but if they were, the actress would rather finish on a high note.

"In my opinion, it's going to be the best season ever!" Lawless enthuses. "I'm excited about the changes and all new blood that's come in, and that Renee [???] is directing again. We're all moving on and growing up a bit, and that's a very nice feeling."

Among the highlights of the upcoming season are a just-finished three-episode arc in which Xena and Gabrielle travel to Scandinavia where they meet the legendary Beowulf; an encounter with Lucifer; and a story of vengeance that takes them to North Africa. "So far, every episode has been a stunner," notes Lawless," but they've also been very hard to shoot. We've spent a lot of time on location, so there are some expansive views, 360 degrees of wonderful scenery.

Directors always love big sets because it opens the show up, and that's an exciting new look for the show."The other major difference this season is a lack of impending childbirth, both real and fictional. When Lawless and Tapert informed the writers of her pregnancy early in season five, they incorporated it into the storyline. "I was still (stupidly) doing stunt fights, and because I felt pretty good, I probably went a little harder than I needed to. It wasn't a problem until afterwards, when I came back. Ironically, the actress's first episode back after delivering her son Julius was God Fearing Child, in which - you guessed it - Xena gives birth.

"That's when it was really difficult," she recalls. "I walked on set, and my first shot was a fight, and that was extremely hard. Four weeks after having a baby, I was in no shape to be jumping around, but again, stupidly, I did it. I think it was way too early to go back to work, to quite hard physical work." Part of the reason for returning to work so quickly, Lawless now concedes, was a genuine feeling of obligation to the cast and crew, as well as fans of the series. After all, the series was named Xena: Warrior Princess.

"In a way, I look forward to not having to feel that way every single day of my life. I do love my work, and I still love the character - I don't love the physicality of the job, but I love to act, I love the character and I love the people I work with, and I'm earning a living at it so I can't grumble." For season six, exec producer/series co-creator R J Stewart has assembled a new group of writers to chronicle Xena's latest adventures. They include Emily Skopov, genre veterans Joel Metzger and Edithe Swenson, and Melissa (Missy) Goode, a former fan fiction favourite, who's already contributed Coming Home and Legacy.

While Lawless acknowledges the loss of such Xena stalwarts as Steve Sears and Chris Manheim, both of whom left during the previous season, she welcomes the new arrivals with open arms. "I've learned in life that new blood is very often a good thing," she points out. "Writers use every experience they've ever had, every book they've ever read, and eventually, you must get played out. Eventually, you've used just about everything, unless you have one of those peculiarly hungry minds, like Rob for example, who can never get enough of everything.

He has a very expansive world view, but he's also working on his own piece, whereas for other people to come into that and to try and take Rob's vision and funnel all of their experiences into it, I think it's a little more limiting for them. They can get burned out, so I say give new people a chance. "Are there any fifth-season episodes the actress would prefer to forget?

"There are a couple that I think are pretty awful," she reluctantly admits, "but I couldn't mention them for fear of offending people that I care about. Rob has a good idea of why things didn't work, whereas I don't see the behind the scenes making of these shows. He knows about all levels of production, and the episodes I hate I only know about from life on the set. "In fact, between long shooting days, maintaining a family life, and all the publicity-related duties that come with a weekly television series, Lawless generally doesn't get to see too many finished Xena adventures. "That's exactly right, I see parts of the episodes during ADR, but it doesn't really give me a good overview of how an episode is. It's just that I was there at the time, and you know how a thing feels when you're making a good episode or not."

For a series that began largely as an escapist action-adventure series, Xena: Warrior Princess has evolved into something much more. Taboo subjects such as religion and homosexuality play an important part in the ongoing subtext, and both Xena and Gabrielle have been hailed as strong female role models. It also helped rejuvenate the action heroine genre, which was largely (and no doubt, deservedly) dormant since the demise of Charlie's Angels. While Lawless has seen her character quickly grow from guest star to pop culture icon, she remains largely unflappable about the entire Xena phenomenon.

"When I go to LA and walk around, I go into Starbuck's and nobody bothers me, so I don't know that I do have a high profile. They're so used to seeing famous people in LA, they're too cool to show it, and one on one, they're awfully kind to me, but I don't even think like that. I think if you just project a normal attitude to life, I guess people will regard you the same way. "As a strong and successful role model, Lawless does attract a certain amount of public attention, but thus far, most of the feedback has been of a positive nature. Aside from the occasional public appearance where her arrival is greeted with the kind of treatment usually accorded visiting royalty, people usually respect her privacy.

"They do talk to me in letters, but not so much one on one, because you forget that however many fans you have, say, on the Internet, there are so many more people out there that watch the show and like it, but it doesn't have religious significance for them. They're so outnumbered by people who either know who you are and like the show or people who don't know and don't care, so no, I don't carry that mantle with me all the time. Also, I think it's more Xena than Lucy that they're interested in. "That same civility doesn't always apply to some of the more outspoken fans on-line, where rumour and innuendo can often take the place of intelligent discourse.

The aforementioned gay subtext, which the show's writing staff has always been careful to keep in the background, has prompted a good deal of heated on-line debate, but sometimes that tone can get downright nasty. For example, when Ted Raimi's character was first introduced, his arrival was greeted by an explosion of 'Kill Joxer' web sites created by fans that believed the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle was being threatened.

"I do not plug in any more, I just don't," Lawless insists. "There are a lot of really smart people out there, and in fact, one of our writers Melissa Good came from that background, and she's doing terrifically well, so it's not the bulk of them, but maybe one in a thousand fans has pernicious intent, and they find one another. It's the one sorry thing about the Internet, that it allows very deeply unhappy and disturbed people to find one another, and a deeply disturbed and unhappy society is not going to produce good results. They're not going to have happy offspring. "Actually, the only thing that bothers me - if you don't see it, who cares - but what is a little bothersome is that so many young and genuine fans go on there and come up against these people, who have only vile things to say. I would not want my children exposed to minds like those. There are people who are regularly vicious, and I'm talking about people who have a very sick connection to the show, where they cannot help but write on average five or six times a day. Perhaps those people have a problem - wouldn't that ring warning bells for you? They have nothing better to do, and they're living in a reality of their own making. As long as I don't go on there, it doesn't bother me."

If this does indeed turn out to be the final season of Xena: Warrior Princess, there will doubtless be a few loose ends to tie up, and even Lawless has a few thoughts about resolution. "I've actually got a little story on the boil at the moment that I would like to suggest to them, that has some themes I'm interested in. You'll have to wait and see whether or not it comes to fruition. It might prove to be just a crock and absolutely useless to them, but you never know. "With the series currently being lensed in New Zealand, it's been relatively easy for Lawless and her producer husband to be in the same country at the same time.

That may take a bit more work in the post-Xena era, but it's something the couple has already considered. Tapert is also overseeing production on two other Auckland-based genre shows, Cleopatra 2525 and Jack of All Trades, and there's always the possibility of another series replacing Xena in the not-too-distant future. "We're pretty committed to this being our main residence in New Zealand," says Lawless, "because my daughter is at school here. If and when we do move over, I guess we'll stay primarily in LA until we decide that we would want to live in the States full time, and then we'd probably live somewhere else.

"And when Xena wraps its final episode, it doesn't necessarily mean the end of the warrior princess. There's always the possibility of a TV movie or two, or maybe even a feature film, but how does Lucy Lawless feel about reprising the role after the series is finished? "You know, a feature after a time would be interesting," she reflects, "but more than likely what would happen is, six years down the track, they'll re-cast and ask me to come back as somebody's mother, and I'll tell them to go to hell!"

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