Lucy A Go-Go
Ms Lawless And The Lure of Hollywood
Our only internationally famous female TV star spent the summer kicking around pubs with Dave Dobbyn and his band. Warrior self-promoter? Or a wild search for direction?
Greg Dixon talks to Lucy Lawless about kick starting her brilliant career.
He turns leering, reddened eyes back to the stage and chugs from his fast-emptying bottle of pre-mix.
"Good on her though, mate," comes the slurred after-thought. "Go hard, I reckon."
On the stage, actress Lucy Lawless, in tiny blue shorts and white singlet, is indeed going hard on her Chrissie Hynde impersonation:
Got brass in picket, bottle, I’m gonna use, intention, I feel invention; gonna make you, make you, make you notice
A throaty roar meets Lawless’ husky vocals. Over 800 punters, mostly locals like Brian, have crammed into “Buck’s Backyard Bar”, the garden slop shop at Silverdale’s Wade Hotel, to hear Dave Dobbyn and band and - it appears - to see “special guest vocalist” Lucy Lawless
Inside the Wade, Margaret, a neatly-pressed, restrained mid-50’s mother who came with her daughter from nearby Whangaparaoa, is hiding from the noise. But she can’t keep her eyes off the stage. “She’s fabulous, she really seems to have adapted to this,” Margaret says. “It must be nice to have so much talent and be good looking and have a nice figure.”
Cause I gonna make you see, there’s nobody else here, no one like me, I’m special, so special, I’m gonna have some of your attention - give it to me…
Lucy Lawless is fascinating, if you give her some attention. The famous face with it’s perfectly white teeth, cobalt-blue eyes and ever-arching eyebrows is an actor’s face, constantly on the move, shaping and reshaping to fit the scene: doting mother, cautious interviewee, newly-minted rock chick.
It’s a face that even manages, as it did one morning when I arrived at her front door, to look fresh and winning more or less straight out of bed, framed by wild hair and atop a blokish dressing gown.
But you’d be mistaken, if you’ve seen Xena, Warrior Princess, to expect the ass-kickin’ presence suggested by Lawless’ most famous - her only famous - role.
She’s tall enough. Nearly 5 foot 11. But whether tapping a tambourine - as she did a lot during Dobby’s Summer Holiday Tour - or curled on her white, designer sofa at her Mission Bay home, she exudes more a contented, cat-like mien. There is nothing rock ‘n’ roll about this 34 year old mother of three, no had-one-too-many-late-night eyes.
Though it wasn’t as if she’d fallen in with a bad crowd with our Dave. Backstage before the Silverdale gig - the fifth on the Summer’s Tour three-week blat around the North Island - I suspected rock ‘n’ roll to be having the night off. When Lawless, her husband Rob Tapert and I arrived at the Wade in his chunky Japanese 4WD, we found the band out back watching Father Ted tea, vicar?
Rock ‘n’ roll or some more attention was not why Lawless was here. The thousands who turned up at over a dozen venues from Kaitaia to Wellington were, in large part, incidental to her. “The more I thought about it, the more I realised I’d just be a complete fool to turn the tour down, just for my own satisfaction, not for anybody’s else’s.”
She believes Dobbyn was looking for a point of difference for the tour, though he told her an angel came to him — “I don’t know whether he was taking the piss or not,” Dobbyn says it was his manager’s inspiration. “I thought it was a wacky idea too. I thought it would be a good for Lucy to get in touch with good New Zealand people on their summer holidays.” Even her husband thought it a capital notion.
And could she sing? Well yes. A Manawatu Eventing Standard reviewer though she showed an “impressive range”.
In fact, recasting herself as a rock chick hardly seemed a gamble. She’d performed in stage musicals at school and fancied, during her teens, being an opera singer. In 1997, she appeared as Rizzo in a Broadway production of Grease and sang The Star Spangled Banner at an ice hockey game, inadvertently exposing a breast when she waved to the crowed. Sadly Brian wasn’t there.
She said yes to the unlikely pairing with Dobbyn because it sounded scary and fun. “The fact that people are applauding was neither here nor there in a way. I wasn’t doing it for that. I was doing it for selfish reasons because it’s about the process. I wasn’t making any money out of it - it was just an awesome challenge. They pushed me off the cliff, taught me to sing, really.”
But she found something else out there in the hinterland, something she liked. She enjoyed, she says, “playing at being a human being without children” for the first time since 20. There were 2 am nights, 11 am risings, driving with new mates through beautiful back-blocks while talking 10-times-10 to the dozen in the rediscovered joy of adult company.
"For me it became the nostalgia tour," she says the morning after the end-of-tour party held at her Georgian-style home. "I revisited all those things I’d shunned for years. It was like: bring it on. The most telling was the run and cokes, because I’d never touched rum and coke before. But I used to love the smell of it on other people’s breath. At the beginning, I did make-up and a warm-up before the shows but by the end it was downing a few rum and cokes and cackling with the guys backstage. Yes, I felt very rock ‘n’ roll - and they were all laughing at me."
She had never developed that side of life; it wasn’t an option as a mother and a struggling actor nor during Xena because she had to be up at six in the morning. “There was just one occasion where we had drinks after work [on Xena] and I got blotto and was just too sick the next day. Apart from that, I haven’t been drunk in many years. Nor was I drunk on this tour, but I did imbibe a bit of rum and Coke. It’s an appalling drink but it was part of my nostalgia.”
And there is something else too. If six years as Xena hadn’t delivered it, Lawless believes she detected a greater respect for her from Dobbyn’s good New Zealand people.
"People were so warm. People have always been nice to me, but that kind of warmth you can’t fake."
NOR CAN YOU fake surprise. And if you’ve been paying attention to Lawless over the last year or so there’s been plenty.
Let me count the curiosities: just after New Year 2002 there was her questionable shirt-up showing her pregnancy bump among the scrawny pubescent models of Pavement magazine; the next month there was the stint in the Auckland Theatre Company’s production of The Vagina Monologues, also while pregnant; in August 2002 the otherwise private and protective mother appeared in fishnet stockings breast-feeding new baby Judah on a poster for World Breast-Feeding Week; there was her appearance dressed in a man’s suit, moustache and goatee during October’s L’Oreal Fashion Week, reportedly for a bet. And then, to further consternation, she suddenly announced in December she was touring with that beloved institution, Dobbyn.
The overall effect has been something like mysterious exposure-meets-enigmatic PR. You might suspect that she is simply being Lawless, Warrior Self-Promoter. She certainly knows what works for the media. Metro’s photo shoot for this issue, for example, did not involve asking Lawless to post in a Vegas chorus line-style fringed bikini. She brought it herself.
But ask her about her long and extensive commitment to helping the Starship Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the Starship Children’s Hospital, and she grows uncomfortable, vague on details. This, says foundation communications manager Andrew Young, is because she’s “very discreet” about her years of Starship involvement. “She is very keen to quietly contribute in her way rather than being seen getting a large amount of kudos helping sick children.”
Her support fast-tracked Puawaitahi - the hospital’s multi-agency child abuse unit - by “a matter of years”, Young says. Her celebrity also helped raised $2.7 million for the hospital’s heart unit.
Lawless’ work includes visiting sick children, fronting the foundation’s annual appeal, appearing at fund-raising events and sitting on the foundation board alongside 10 others, including businessmen and Air New Zealand chief executive Ralph Norris
"Not only can she lend her profile, she’s achieved a huge amount through good business sense," Young says.
Still, dressing up as a bloke for a bet….
Why would our only internationally famous female television star - who according to the National Business Review’s Rich List, is worth an estimated $15 million - want to do this? Her philosophy is simple: “My yardstick for any decision is, when I’m an old lady am I going to be bummed out that I didn’t do this? I believe it’s the things that you don’t do that you regret, not the things that you did.”
She was, she says, just trying to please herself, thanks very much. “And it gives people something to go “ooh-that’s-not-very-funny” about. It’s just a very gentle finger in their ear. You don’t need a reason to do anything. Just do it and leave it for other people to try and write things about it. It just amuses me.”
But whatever the motivation, no matter how much the fun, Lawless appears to be been filling in time, between the roles of wife and mother to three, dabbling in this, turning up as a drag king at that. She might even have been evading a rather pressing question: what next in her acting career?
She’s been taking her time answering that one.
Creator of the TV series
Miley Cyrus and Lucy Lawless
Xena Warrior Princess