Xena stars Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor say their long-awaited TV reunion was 'like a warm bath, baby!'
One of the most shipped couples in TV history, Xena and Gabrielle, are finally getting back together.
Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor, who costarred on six seasons of the late-'90s syndicated fantasy favorite Xena: Warrior Princess are performing opposite each other for the first time since the Xena series finale in 2001 (not counting a brief joint cameo in the 2009 film Bitch Slap). The show's famously passionate fan base has long desired a proper reteaming of this iconic pair, whose (mostly) subtextual lesbian relationship on Xena presaged a revolution in same-sex couple depictions on mainstream television.
EW has an exclusive look at their on-screen reunion, which occurs on the new season of Lawless' light-hearted whodunnit series My Life Is Murder (premiering Aug. 30 on Acorn TV). O'Connor is guest-starring in a late-season episode of the mystery drama as Clarissa Klein, a wellness guru who tussles with Lawless' Alexa, a former homicide detective who consults on particularly perplexing murders while trying to maintain balance in her personal life. Previously filmed and set in Melbourne, Australia, the new season takes place in Lawless' (and Alexa's) home city of Auckland, New Zealand, which is also where Xena: Warrior Princess was shot.
Lawless and O'Connor chat exclusively with EW about why their long-awaited reunion was like getting into a warm bath, how O'Connor surprised Lawless on the set, the third Xena: Warrior Princess veteran who appears in the episode, and the enduring legacy of Xena and Gabrielle in their lives.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I'm getting slight goosebumps just seeing you two together on the same screen. This is awesome. How did your onscreen reunion in My Life Is Murder come about?
LUCY LAWLESS: Well, we'd been trying to get Renee to Australia in the first season and for some reason, it didn't work out, which made her think it was never gonna happen. She was like, "This is not gonna happen." I was like, "Oh, we're bringing you, girlfriend!" And the good old Kiwis man, [production company] Greenstone just hauled arse to get Renee into MIQ [Managed Isolation and Quarantine, i.e. two weeks in a hotel, a mandatory measure for all arrivals to New Zealand], which she was willing to do and it was available to do, thank God, and we got her here [to New Zealand]. Against impossible odds, we managed to bring Ren into the country to do this and the fans are just gonna love it. It's a huge gift to them.
Renee, what did you think when the overture was made for you to guest star?
RENEE O'CONNOR: As Lucy said, I didn't think it was real, especially when we knew how challenging it would be to get me through border control. I was threatening Lucy [during quarantine] with putting sheets out the window [of the hotel room] and climbing down so I could see her a little bit faster, especially when the crew were filming, like two blocks away. By the time I came out of quarantine, it was Lucy's birthday. So I snuck on set and I had my mask on and I was in the line while Lucy was getting her lunch. I wished her a happy birthday and she had no idea who I was...
LAWLESS: I didn't recognize her!
O'CONNOR: She did not have a clue! So I started singing to her in my Texas accent and she kind of looked at me and then she looked away again thinking, "Well, that's a strange person that's joined us today." I finally had to take my mask off, [and thought], Lucy c'mon! I know it's been a long time but...
Had you two been wanting to work together again for a while?
LAWLESS: Yeah, always. And life just didn't work out that way. But I was like, by hook or by crook, now that I'm the boss — one of the bosses [Lawless is an executive producer on the show] — this is happening! Because at this time of your life, there's only love. Only these things matter, caring for one another, doing things that aren't expedient, do the hard thing just because you love.
O'CONNOR: It felt that way on set too. Before I even started filming, Lucy said, "Come on and watch," because I had some nerves — it had been a few years since I'd been on a set. And it just felt like walking into Lucy's living room and having friends over. It was so charming and loving. And it was like that all the way to the very end. I actually had a little withdrawal when I finished filming.
LAWLESS: Did you?
O'CONNOR: I did! I missed it. Especially you.
LAWLESS: I'm shocked that you hadn't been on a set in years because you were, like, right back there instantly — it was quite marvelous.
O'CONNOR: Thank you, Lucy.
LAWLESS: It was incredible. The whole episode is just to die for.
O'CONNOR: Lucy just kind of tingles off stage. She's constantly just throwing things [in] here and there just so it feels electric. And it did.
LAWLESS: Yeah a bit of ad-libbing goes on.
Renee, who are you playing in My Life Is Murder?
O'CONNOR: I play this woman who is in charge of a self-help group, and she's like a guru, so she has a very strong ego...
LAWLESS: [Interrupting] She's a cult leader!
O'CONNOR: Okay, she's a cult leader. It's funny because I didn't really know who I was playing until I was in quarantine. I had an idea, but I didn't know what was in store for me until there was a meeting on Zoom with the producers, and that's when I started really doing some more research [into cults].
LAWLESS: But also, Dom, we've reunited with Michael Hurst [who starred as Iolaus, the sidekick on Xena spin-off Hercules: The Legendary Journeys] as the director of our episode. He played Renee's love interest on the Herc and Xena series and he's a very dear friend of ours from way back in the day so it was just a great reunion. And with Mark Beesley, who was one of our [Xena] directors as well, he is producing My Life Is Murder. It was a lovely homecoming, aye Ren?
O'CONNOR: Yeah, and Michael Hurst has the most enthusiasm of anyone that I know. He can easily pull together three or four different projects at the same time and make it look so easy. So again, I couldn't have been more excited to have a director who just kind of infuses inspiration and passion to play. Between Lucy and Michael [who also appears in the episode], it was just the most wonderful way to kind of reset into feeling around friends and being on a television set.
What's the dynamic between your characters in the episode?
O'CONNOR: We meet for the first time in the show, and I am leading a seminar, taking people to the most extreme elements of their highest existence possible with Michael Hurst playing the guru husband coleader [of the cult].
LAWLESS: And you can imagine that Alexa is taking this with many pinches of salt. She's there on a mission, she's not there to improve herself. [There's] lots of snark. Also, the person who plays Renee's son in the episode is Renee's [actual] son. It was so thrilling, the stars aligned just right. He's a fine young actor and we managed to get him into the show.
O'CONNOR: He auditioned for The Actors' Program, which is a one-year... acting program in New Zealand, and he has been down there studying since January. As it turned out, when I arrived and heard little whispers that there was a role that he might be right for, again, I just thought, yeah, sure. I didn't really think...
LAWLESS: Renee would never ask for anything. Her family, they don't expect any favors. [Laughs]. And he was just great in the role and we needed the American accent, and he's just a fine young actor so it was perfect. It was really lovely for me. I was pretty burnt out by the end of the season, and to have that homecoming, that sense of reward every day that you get up to go and work with those guys. Just lovely.
O'CONNOR: His name is Miles Muir.
LAWLESS: And I ran into him in the supermarket the other day. How's that?
O'CONNOR: That's when he called me. I was just saying that he can't seem to find the time to call his mother anymore but he called me to say, "I ran into Lucy."
So once you both got on set and started performing together, how easy was it to slip into a rapport again?
LAWLESS: Like a warm bath, baby! It was so easy and so good and I suppose because Ren and I also, we've played a lot of different roles with one another. It wasn't like we were stuck in a certain mindset with our relationship to one another as actors. We got to play dual roles and all kinds of things [on Xena]. So, it was just more play. It was cool, aye Ren?
O'CONNOR: Yeah, it was even better than I expected. Because these characters were so different from Xena and Gabrielle so there was more to play with in current affairs and relationships. And it was all there for the taking. I mean, as I said before, Lucy was throwing stuff out and we were just having more fun than we probably should have been having playing these characters.
Did you have to consciously get Xena and Gabrielle out of your minds?
O'CONNOR: Not at all. It's been such a long time and Lucy and I have been working on our craft for such a long time, as well, that it's not about the characters, but more for me, it's just about the trust of knowing that anything can happen with Lucy, and that's what I enjoy and find joyful about being in the moment with her while acting, anything can happen.
Will the Xena/Gabrielle shippers find anything in the relationship between your two characters in My Life Is Murder to latch on to?
LAWLESS: Probably, probably. [Laughs]. It doesn't have to be put there for them to find it, buddy! I don't know. I don't think that was part of the writing. So if it's there, it's because we just slipped it in because we're like that.
That was something that Xena: Warrior Princess kinda had fun with. Although it wasn't ever all that explicit, you could perceive hints suggesting a deeper relationship between Xena and Gabrielle.
LAWLESS: You know what, that was written into the DNA of Xena: Warrior Princess from the get-go. It was only Renee and I who weren't aware. At first. In this one, times have changed. I've gotta say, if it was put in for Alexa, I would be very wary of letting it be schtick, do you know what I mean? If things are organic and honorable, then that's one thing, but you don't just plug it in there to tick a box. So we've been really careful with that because we did an episode which is set in the trans community, and it was really important to give proper roles to proper trans people, and not have people pretending to be trans. And also addressing the issue — we're all learning about pronouns right now, so how to honor that idea? Utilize that idea in a way that is intelligible to people who have never had any exposure? And aren't looking for a lesson, by the way. It's entertainment, but we wanted to do it right and that's modern, and it's fun. It's really challenging, but I think we pulled it off. I'm very proud of that episode.
How do you feel about how Xena and Gabrielle's status as queer icons?
LAWLESS: Great! That's cool. I feel like, well, surely everybody's forgotten about us by now?
O'CONNOR: As you were saying, Lucy, I think that this is a new generation that is redefining what's accepted, and we are being schooled in this newer generation and what they want. And I honestly think that, maybe Xena and Gabrielle might have laid some groundwork but, boy, this generation has surpassed what they need in a television show, don't you think?
LAWLESS: Yeah it's much more subtle and deep and everything. I'm really in awe of this generation, actually — they're fantastic.
Do people often ask you about a potential Xena reboot?
LAWLESS: Well, certainly pre-pandemic, they used to, all the time. I hope that a new generation of filmmakers will come in and figure out a way to do it that is really fun and modern and all that stuff. But nobody's quite been able to write the script that does it in the modern idiom. So, let's see.
Do you think if there was a reboot, it could be more explicit about the nature of their relationship?
LAWLESS: Yeah, but it's not going to be about the relationship. Or maybe it is? Maybe it could be that. Here they are going into a world that is explicitly against them, that might be a way of doing it. But it's not like you're gonna see them doing blimmin' porn, that's not the show. So [if] you say that we're together, it's kind of the end of it, isn't it? Would they hold hands? Get into big PDAs? I dunno, I guess that's in the hands of the creatives.
O'CONNOR: They wouldn't be hiding for sure, they wouldn't be in the closet.
LAWLESS: Yeah. They never were in the closet. Ren and I'll be playing like, we'll be in a fruit stall or something. We'll be in the background in some bit part. We'll be the old lesbians in the corner. The aunties.
O'CONNOR: We'll be the oracles.
How often do you both hear about Xena and Gabrielle? Are they a part of your daily life?
O'CONNOR: You know, it's funny, I've been working in and around the stage world, theatre world over the last six years, I have people coming out of the woodwork still. They're like, "I didn't want to fangirl or I didn't want to fanboy you, but I loved your show." They could be the producer, they could be a musical director, they could be an actor. It's amazing to me how they're all around. But they're peers, so it's not the first thing they show when we meet.
Do you get that much of that Lucy?
LAWLESS: Well, in the days when I would travel, I would get that a lot. Some countries. Filipinos can pick me out if I'm lying under a sofa in a bloody train station. Hellooo! Italians. New Yorkers. Like, certain regions, depending on if they grew up with you. Like in Italy or something those young thirty-somethings are gobsmacked that you're walking past them on the street.
O'CONNOR: And a lot of young girls too. And I say young, meaning for me, in their twenties. They're young.
O'CONNOR: Oh yes, [young girls] that just feel so appreciative of the feminist aspect that the characters represented and that to me is always a joy, having these girls come out and [say], "You influenced who I am today, and thank you for that." I get a lot of that.
How closely have you two stayed in touch over the years?
LAWLESS: We have a relationship, which was... forged in the heat of battle.
LAWLESS: So Ren and I might not see each other for a few years but we are sisters, you know?
O'CONNOR: Yes, Yes. I can't say how much I really enjoyed not only just working with Lucy, but spending some time with her. Not enough time. But it's always profound and funny and it's like a benchmark in my life, when I get to spend some time with her.
LAWLESS: Awww, that's nice. But I think people think that actresses don't get on or you're snarky or something but good people hold on to one another. So yeah, we've got a lot of good people from that show.
And now that you've acted together again are you keen to do it again?
LAWLESS: Yes. Because Renee has gotten better and better.
O'CONNOR: Oh man, thank you, Lucy.
LAWLESS: Yeah, I love what you did.
O'CONNOR: And as you asked earlier, Dominic, I'm always thinking of ways I can work with Lucy, whether it's someone writing a project and there would be a role right for her or if I can direct her in anything. Stage work, I've always in the back of my mind wondering if Lucy would be available. So this one really the first time it worked out and I'm hoping it's not the last.
LAWLESS: No, no. There'll be many more. Super fun.
Getting back to My Life Is Murder, Lucy, can you tell us where Alexa is in season 2 compared to season 1?
LAWLESS: Well, she's moved back to New Zealand and we get to find out about her nefarious family. And we get a really fun guest star in Martin Henderson [Virgin River, Grey's Anatomy]. What a joy to have him available and willing to come and play my brother. It was written to be my father. When we couldn't find the exact right person to play my father, it was [executive producer] Claire Tonkin who said, "What if it's your brother?" And we all went, "Oh, that interesting." Because there's a long way to go with a brother. With a father, your relationship's kind of done and dusted by the time you're eight. It's all unpacking that. But with a brother, it goes on and on and on.
How does being back in her hometown of Auckland affect Alexa's investigative prowess?
LAWLESS: Oh she's sharper than ever! The main problem is getting around the road cones, of course, those are the main obstacles to justice in [roadwork-heavy] Auckland. It's the same show in a fresh environment. So if you've got Ebony [Vagulans] playing [Alexa's partner-in-crime-solving] Madison and you've got great guest stars and we've got a couple of new male coleads in Joe Naufahu [Game of Thrones] and Rawiri Jobe [The Dead Lands], then you've got a family. It's just so much fun. The team really managed to kick it into high gear and make Auckland look like a bloody star. Which she is.
Renee, did you watch season 1 prior to becoming involved?
O'CONNOR: Yes I did. I saw a few faces that I recognize from the Xena days. But I was really curious to see how it would change in Auckland. And I agree with what Lucy said: even the times when we were filming, the city looked so lush and shiny. It looks like any international city that you could visit and have multiple shopping experiences, tourism experiences. It's changed quite a bit...
LAWLESS: Since you were here?
O'CONNOR: Yeah, but you're also capturing that in the show.
Lucy, I understand that you are personally a little bit obsessed with murder?
LAWLESS: Yeah. Don't judge. No judgy judge!
Can you expand on that?
LAWLESS: Yes, I do like true crime. Well, actually, it's not the crime, it's the justice that I like.
Is that what drew you to this series?
LAWLESS: No, that's coincidental I think really. Because, actually, the experience of real crime, if I go watch it in a courthouse or whatever, and what we depict on TV, could not be further apart. One's entertaining and one is just tragic and banal and ugly, brutish, and stupid. Usually, it's stupid — murder is so stupid. Whereas on our TV show, you're rewarded for watching the justice unfold because [the murderer] is so smart and they were given everything in life and they still did something awful and they deserve to get slapped for it. And we're doing it in a beautiful setting with good-looking people and a little pseudo-family that you like. And you get to have some armchair tourism. So it's this lovely little jewel box of an experience. Whereas, real crime is just one big [makes honking noises]... it's a big ugly, stupid disappointment.
To wrap up, what do you think Xena and Gabrielle fans will get from seeing you two together in this episode?
LAWLESS: I think they will enjoy [the characters'] proximity [to Xena and Gabrielle], and yet being so far apart. It's great, it's like turning our old relationship on its head. Right, Ren?
O'CONNOR: Yes. And I think that they'll appreciate knowing that Lucy and I are having as much fun as possible working with each other.
The first two episodes of My Life Is Murder season 2 will be available to stream on Acorn TV on Aug. 30, with new episodes weekly after that.