How Xena went from sword-wielding heroine to feminist icon
To mark the upcoming 15th anniversary of the beloved fantasy series’ finale, EW spoke with Xena: Warrior Princess co-creator Rob Tapert and stars Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor to find out how Xena went from sword-wielding heroine to feminist icon.
Ahead of the 1995 debut of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Universal Television started mulling a companion piece. For the flagship, Hercules executive producer Rob Tapert pitched an evil warrior princess to appear in a three-episode arc before being killed. But things turned out differently…
ROB TAPERT: At that time, there were no female superhero shows on TV, and really Bionic Woman and Cagney & Lacey were the two most identifiable female-driven shows that had been on. While they had been somewhat successful, they had never repeated in syndication very well. The guys at Universal quickly said, “You know what? You should rip yourself off before somebody else does and try and make a spin-off out of that character.” At that time, the head of the studio gave me a lecture about why he was going to do this. He was concerned that female heroes don’t really work well on television and never to take my eye off the ball of Hercules.
Lucy Lawless, who had appeared on Hercules playing two other characters, was far from the first choice to play the leather-clad heroine. A former warlord spared by Hercules, Xena embarked on a journey of redemption as penance for her crimes.
TAPERT: Because it was never thought to be a spin-off originally, when we were doing the evil warrior princess arc, Universal asked us if we would consider using somebody from one of their other shows who they liked a great deal, and they thought would bring viewership to Hercules. Then that actress [Weird Science‘s Vanessa Angel] got sick and we were stuck scrambling to find a replacement. We had just worked with Kim Delaney up in Toronto on a made-for-video movie at the time and she was great, and I called her and she said yes, and her manager called like a half hour later and said, “No, she’s not going to do that, it will take her out of pilot season.”
LUCY LAWLESS: They scrambled to get a number of actresses to come from Los Angeles [to New Zealand], but it was pilot season. It was shooting through January and in those days you didn’t leave town, so they all turned it down thinking it was [only] a three-episode arc.
TAPERT: Ultimately the studio said, “Well, just get the woman who had been in that last Hercules and dye her hair black.”
LAWLESS: It fell to me when everybody else turned it down. I was the lucky local kid on the spot who got the gig.
TAPERT: When they saw the dailies of that episode, they thought, “Yeah, we should do a spin-off.”
LAWLESS: I thought it was an entirely natural process: “This is what naturally happens in the course of American shows.” I was that green. I’m a kid from the bottom on the world, and I just thought, “Of course it gets to be a big success and then you go to Hollywood and get a career.” It’s only now that I’m sweating bullets at the extreme, almost cataclysmic good luck that I had. All the stars all lined up.
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The key then was finding Xena’s partner in crime, Gabrielle.
TAPERT: Just prior to starting Xena, some writer who was hot at the time said, “Every single story’s a story of redemption,” and I thought about it and I’m like, “Yeah, at some level it is.” But in this particular case, what does it mean when you’re no longer evil and you want to find a better moral compass in life? Gabrielle was that moral compass for Xena and that united them together.
RENEE O’CONNOR: I remember auditioning for Rob Tapert and [co-executive producer] Eric Gruendemann. They recognized me from an Australian TV movie.
TAPERT: We had used Renee in a two-hour movie of Hercules and I loved her onscreen presence, so when we came up with the idea of Xena and Gabrielle, Renee was always front and center in my mind as to who Gabrielle was. We went through a lot of casting, because the studio wanted to look at other options. Was she too young? Was she too this? Was she too that? We brought her back numerous times.
O’CONNOR: I had to go through an extensive audition process for Gabrielle.
TAPERT: There was somebody else who was the sultry version of Gabrielle, a different way of going, and who was actually a very fine actress in her own right, but ultimately I prevailed.
O’CONNOR: I was hired out of L.A. I moved to New Zealand and met Lucy at our first table read. I remember having dinner with Lucy maybe about a week into the show just so we could have a get-to-know-you time.
LAWLESS: She had this character that was supposed to be sort of worshipful and she was looking at me like that and I was like, “Stop that. What are you doing?”
O’CONNOR: I was more fascinated with her story and who the actress was. It took us a little bit longer to get to know each other, but I’m probably her biggest fan.
LAWLESS: She was just a little bit younger and I think she was just imbued with the Gabrielle of it all. We went through a lot of changes. We went through our twenties together. We’re really, totally sisters. There is a lot of trust and protectiveness between the two of us. She’s a great, great woman and she’s become a great artist.
Airing in 100-plus countries, Xena was a worldwide sensation, ranking in the top five syndicated drama series during each of its six seasons — but it wasn’t an out-of-the-gate success.
TAPERT: When we got the first week’s ratings, I was a little surprised because Xena should have done a little better at 9 o’clock with Hercules at 8 o’clock. It took a full year for Xena to rise in the ratings.
O’CONNOR: I remember a couple of different times when Lucy would come back to America for publicity for the show — she did publicity with Kevin Sorbo, who was playing Hercules — and I remember a time when people knew her name as much as they knew Kevin’s. But that surprised me because, as far as I knew, we were working in New Zealand and no one knew what we were doing, and we were like the stepchild.
TAPERT: In terms of knowing when it was successful, I guess when we got the second season order, and at that time our goal had been to have Hercules and Xena beat Deep Space Nine and to beat Baywatch, which were the other shows in syndication at that time. Could we ever catch them? That was the yardstick we used to gauge how the show was doing.
While Xena slowly gained a following, the cast and crew shot the first season in a bubble in New Zealand in a pre-social media era.
TAPERT: It took Xena its own first season, truthfully, almost the entire first season, to find its own legs in defining what did it really want to be.
LAWLESS: The costume at first took a while to get the kinks out, because there would be a lot of boning in the front and you couldn’t breathe. When those floating ribs can’t move, you can have panic attacks. I was really embarrassed at first. I was wearing these big, long bike shorts underneath and then they decided that they had to get rid of the bike shorts, but it was embarrassing to wear something that shows so much skin.
O’CONNOR: [I wore] the peasant costume that reminded everyone of Little House on the Prairie.
TAPERT: Doug Lefler came to me and said, “Hey, this is the object she should have when we find her in Hercules. This round throwing object that shocked them — this should be the Warrior Princess’ weapon.”
LAWLESS: Working with the chakram is so easy because it’s magic. You throw it out one side of the camera, it comes back the other. It’s so reliable. There’d be loads of b-roll of me dropping it, missing it. Many chakram bloopers.
And that was also when the birth of Xena’s warrior’s call really came to life – something Lawless has had to repeat to this day for fans.
LAWLESS: All the time. It’s so weird that they want that. For a long time, I wouldn’t and then I just lost. I had to take the path of least resistance. I remember exactly the moment [it was born] because there was a TV screen showing Arabic women bemoaning the death of a young man at a funeral and they were ululating. Rob Tapert said, “I want Xena to have her own cry just like Tarzan. Can you do that?” I tried, I toyed around with it. I couldn’t do it, so I modified it. So the Xena war cry is based on Arabic women ululating, and it was Rob’s idea. Rob used to watch all the cuts of every single episode. He’d be playing it at dinnertime and it would just be so irritating to me to hear my own voice making that bloody god-awful sound and you’re trying to get dinner ready.
As the show gained stream, the LGBT community quickly recognized the unique bond between Xena and Gabrielle.
LAWLESS: When we got the faxes of the Village Voice articles sent over to us — remember there was no Twitter or anything in those days — Renee and I looked at each other and went, “Lesbians? Really? Okay.” It was fine with us.
O’CONNOR: I didn’t place much importance around how much of a profound effect it would have on the community. I really just looked at: What’s the truth for me as an actress playing this character?
LAWLESS: The name Xena means “stranger.” She felt she was irredeemable. That friendship between Xena and Gabrielle transmitted some message of self-worth, deservedness, and honor to people who felt very marginalized, so it had a lot of resonance in the gay community. I get a lot of people coming out to me, thanking me for what I did. I’m completely undeserving of that; we were just jobbing actors having a great time here at the bottom of the world.
TAPERT: The truth was, and I know it’s such a different era, we thought we were pushing the boundaries by giving Xena a history of having men of color in her past. But over time, as these two characters took on a life of their own, people breathed their own lives and hopes into them.
LAWLESS: It’s more surprising now, 20 years later. We felt honored to be part of something that had strength-giving properties to people, even though it was not specifically our intention.
O’CONNOR: We were surprised at first, but I think that the writing staff, who were extremely sophisticated and savvy and witty, caught on much faster than I did.
TAPERT: RJ Stewart, the showrunner, was careful to make sure we never pandered, because he never wanted to reduce the relationship or make it seem like the audience was being taken advantage of.
LAWLESS: [Co-EP] Liz Friedman and Rob knew from the start that this was a natural outcome of having two female action heroes.
TAPERT: Before we started shooting Xena, we shot the material that we were going to use to create the opening title sequences with. The studio was so concerned that it would be perceived as a lesbian show that they would not allow us to have Xena and Gabrielle in the same frame of the opening titles.
O’CONNOR: We were very aware that there was only so much we could do, because it was a show on network television. So [while] Rob would push the envelope as much as he could, he still had to work within certain guidelines.
LAWLESS: They were together, weren’t they? There was subtext, but also when Renee went back to Texas, you’d see people go, “What lesbian subtext? What are you talking about?” and she was like, “OK…” In the end, it was pretty implicative, not explicative. Honestly, we didn’t care if they were known to be gay characters. That’s so not a negative for us.
TAPERT: We didn’t really ever want to get them 100 percent together for a very strange reason. There was Ares (Kevin Smith), God of War. We did not want to give up the hold that character had over Xena. So as much as we liked that Xena and Gabrielle were two people who were the best of friends, and perhaps intimate friends, we never wanted to give up Ares.
Part of Xena‘s success also came from the producers’ ability to mix historical and mythical events with abandon, while incorporating plenty of campiness.
TAPERT: It was campy because we didn’t have enough money to do things, and we were never afraid to go, “We’re going to tell a story we can’t afford to,” so the seams were always showing.
LAWLESS: We were cheese, but we were good cheese. Who doesn’t like good cheese?
O’CONNOR: It was absolutely brilliant of the producers to bring in an element of levity to almost distract people into watching the show. You had all these crazy costumes, you had all these crazy characters and centaurs running around, and it was so absolutely absurd that you couldn’t help but watch it for a few minutes. And then if you stayed with the show long enough, you started to see that there were themes in there that most people could relate to and were inspired enough to keep watching the series.
TAPERT: We did two different musicals, one kind of liked, one kind of hated, but I loved both of those.
O’CONNOR: I thought it was entertaining. I cannot sing a note, so for me it was entertaining.
LAWLESS: It is me singing.
TAPERT: This is going to sound bad, but what allowed Hercules and Xena to flourish was we were working for Universal in the syndicated-TV universe. At that time, the TV division went through rapid changes. We had no parent guarding the liquor cabinet. We could do any storytelling we wanted. Once in a while they would weigh in and say, “You can’t do that,” like we had this terribly gross cesarean birth of a baby centaur from a woman. They said, “The advertisers will pull out,” and we did it anyways and then they said, “Oh, M&Ms is pulling out,” and we had to recut. We had an episode that would have outed Xena and Gabrielle, and they said, “You just can’t do that, guys,” and we spun it a little differently. The writers took all week to do a rewrite and changed it, and at that moment in time, they were probably right for that, so not that we weren’t willing to go there and had they not checked in, things would have been different. But there you have it.
LAWLESS: The worst episode was when… we’re being crucified; completely brutal dead of winter in New Zealand and they’re writing these crucifixion scenes. It is hands-down my least favorite way to die. I’ve been crucified several times and it’s never good. It’s always really windy and really miserable and you’re up hanging from a cross for hours.
O’CONNOR: We had animals shrinking. We had metaphors around Jesus, around Caesar. We had Roman battles. We traveled the world into all these different countries from India to China. There wasn’t a lot that Rob and his staff didn’t approach.
TAPERT: Season 5 was plagued by learning lessons about life. It was plagued by a lot of issues, besides the fact that Lucy Lawless was pregnant and the writer’s office was in a little turmoil and we took our eyes off the ball. There were some episodes in there that did not land.
LAWLESS: At times it was uneven. Sometimes things didn’t work, but it had a lot of heart. The show was greater than the sum of its parts because of all the love that was poured into it. It was pure love going into that show. No matter what we did, the acting mantra was look for the love. Even in a fight; Xena and Gabrielle were having a fight, look for the love.
With that success came an extreme amount of pressure and notoriety.
LAWLESS: I was really weirded out in the first season when they were [calling me] “a feminist icon.” Xena was held up as a fat girl’s Barbie at first and I was like “You’re just objectifying me.” I had never been described before in print and it horrified me to be reduced down to a few words, less than a tweet. But now, with the wisdom of age, I’m like, “Right on!” Now I see the value of it. At 25 and 26, I couldn’t bear to be iconized, because it’s so reductive.
O’CONNOR: That probably rested on Lucy’s shoulders more than mine. For me, I really just felt if I could just keep the audience’s eyes and ears turned to the heart of Gabrielle and let them see what I see, then I could do the best job possible.
After six seasons and 134 episodes, Xena was canceled, concluding on June 18, 2001.
LAWLESS: I thought it was the right time. I was struggling through that last year, because it was relentless. It was nine months a year. I was out of gas by the end. It kicked my ass.
O’CONNOR: I was ready to take a break. I was ready to move to a different chapter of my life.
TAPERT: I learned in season 5 that it was going to be ending, and at that time I thought, “Well, we’re struggling right now in season 5 and maybe it is the right thing to do, and let’s do everything we can to make season 6 everything we love about the show and everything it can be.”
O’CONNOR: We went out just at the perfect time, and it doesn’t mean that I didn’t grieve losing my friends and my sense of family in New Zealand and living with these two characters, Xena and Gabrielle, in my life, I surely did. But I don’t regret the timing of when the show ended at all.
TAPERT: We came up with a great season 6, whether you like how the series ended or not. I know some fans were disappointed.
O’CONNOR: People actually hate that I loved the ending. I understand no one wanted to see Xena die. They felt extremely betrayed by the show to see her die.
LAWLESS: [Xena’s death] is a huge regret on my part, because we didn’t realize really what it meant to people. We thought, “Oh, that’s a really strong ending.” Now I just say to fans, “Let’s pretend that never happened.”
O’CONNOR: Being a storyteller, I felt that it gave the entire show a sense of purpose because we came right back around and we gave the exact thing that she needed the most, which is redemption for all the crimes that she had committed.
TAPERT: Look, we had long conversations about this, RJ and I, and we thought Xena was guilty and it wasn’t about separating Xena and Gabrielle, but the funny thing is was we probably underestimated the backlash.
O’CONNOR: I just felt it was so pure and extremely brave that I still applaud Rob more than anyone for being so bold.
TAPERT: We thought it was the right thing for a character who had come from such a violent and lawless past, so that’s why we did it. There was a bit of selfishness perhaps in closing that door thoroughly.
Even with the door closed, Xena‘s legacy has lived on.
TAPERT: Xena helped open the door and it wasn’t just Xena, because there was the zeitgeist of female leads on TV shows, and I know it seems odd, but soon after that the captain on Star Trek was a woman, and then Buffy followed, and Alias came at the end of Xena, and then it just was an explosion.
O’CONNOR: It’s amazing to me to see how many actors have the opportunity to play strong action heroines on television and film. I can’t say it all came about because of Xena, but I know that Xena hit the public at a time when it was unique and it really broke the ground, and she was absolutely cool. Lucy played Xena as if she were the strongest guy in the room. There were no apologies and that just created this paradigm for a character that now may take a normal experience.
LAWLESS: I don’t think that we can take credit for all that much. It certainly brought that Hong Kong action style, and for the LGBT community to see themselves on TV or to feel seen and feel visible on television was certainly new in the ’90s. My goodness, how things have changed from Xena subtext to I am Cait. That’s an incredible evolution in 20 years, and I think it’s a really healthy one.
But the door may yet open again: NBC is developing a reboot with Tapert, executive producer Sam Raimi, and writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach. But don’t expect to see Lawless and O’Connor on screen.
TAPERT: I think that would do the original performers a disservice. It’s an advertisers’ and network’s dream: “Oh, yeah, let’s get her to come back and play the mother. Let’s get them to come back and be the Oracle.” It’s a different [version]. So no, I’m not a fan of that.
O’CONNOR: Xena is just an incredible character that it would’ve been right to bring the show back five years after it ended.
TAPERT: Oddly enough, the world still needs that character, and you can update the storytelling now so that it is appealing to a new generation. There’s still the need for that character who speaks to the disenfranchised, or to people whose lives need a direction, or they need a little piece of guidance.
LAWLESS: I hope they do right by the fans, do right by the character and the legacy of the show, but the writer has to be free to do it in his own voice, so he can’t be held back by too many things. But there are central characteristics, the cadre of that show is as an institution that you can’t mess with. There’s what makes Xena, Xena. She can’t be a woman who’s relying on some dude to get her out of a fix, obviously, and that’s so passé anyway.
O’CONNOR: What I have heard is that it’ll be more truthful in the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle in that it will show who they are and their love for each other in a new way. All I can hope for is that it keeps the layers to the characters as rich as they were with the original show in that it’s not just that they’re partners, it’s that they are everything to each other.
TAPERT: I don’t believe there’s any reason that we couldn’t [include an LGBT character], meaning it’s a different era. Advertisers won’t pull out. Storytelling-wise, is that what’s best for the characters? Did you watch Rizzoli and Isles? I think they did a good job on that show. The era is now that you can go further and you won’t hurt or lose audiences, but in Mississippi, probably. It’s early, but the core of Xena is the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle.
LAWLESS: The world’s still crying out for a hero. There are still people who feel marginalized, there are still people who want honor and equality. And that’s what this show is about.