The next time you find yourself in a courtroom, look around. There’s a chance you might spot Lucy Lawless there, too.
The actress is fascinated by trials and, on days when she’s not working, will often go to court as a member of the public. There you’ll find the one-time Xena: Warrior Princess‘ trying to look inconspicuous, soaking it all in.
“It just teaches you so much about life and your own society and justice and about yourself,” says Lawless. “It’s really important that we participate in the democracy. That’s a really good way to hold the justice system to the standards of the people.”
Lawless, 52, has attended a murder trial in her native New Zealand, jury selection for a grisly case in Louisiana and was even at Jeffrey Epstein’s bail hearing in New York last year when the financier faced sex trafficking charges.
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On that rainy day, she showed up bedraggled in flip-flops and watched Epstein “shamble in”, acting shaky. The whole thing was over quickly. “Sedate is not the right word. It was sombre. And methodical. And meticulous. And all over in 20 minutes,” she says.
Lawless’ fascination with crime – she even will go so far as calling herself a “court ghoul” – has filtered into her latest project, the new crime TV series My Life is Murder. “This much more closely mirrors my own personal interests,” she says.
Lawless plays Alexa Crowe, an ex-homicide detective who bakes bread, loves Crowded House, speaks German and corrects people’s grammar when she’s not chasing baddies. She is a fully realised, modern woman – unfiltered, sexy, funny and prone to giving unsolicited advice.
In a typical scene, a villain holding a knife orders Alexa to stand up. “Get up slow,” he snarls. She responds calmly: “I think you’ll find ‘slowly’ is the adverb.”
There are differences between Alexa and Lawless, of course. One is the character’s love of bread, which on the show is a symbol of new life and nurturing. In real life, Lawless is gluten-intolerant.
“It’s kind of a joke that I’m always up to my elbows in flour. But I sure earned my intolerance. For 40 years, I ate bread like a mad thing and I know what it tastes like alright.”
The show, set in Melbourne, Australia, explores closed worlds – undertakers, models, escorts and even bicyclist enthusiasts nicknamed MAMILs (middle-aged man in Lycra). The show also tweaks conventions, casting a woman as a mob boss or making Alexa’s annoying neighbour a millennial, rather than a crusty older woman.
“I just want to give people a little psychic holiday from all the grim stuff, so they can recharge the batteries and go back out there and fight the good fight,” Lawless says.
Creator Claire Tonkin wrote Alexa with Lawless in mind. “There’s a lot of me in the character and that’s the advantage of having writers build something around you. I’m a very lucky woman,” says Lawless.
Her renowned strength and humour were present when she burst into the public’s consciousness as Xena in a show that mixed dark mythology, action, campy humour and sly sexuality. It aired from 1995 to 2001.
Xena was a she-hunky leather queen in a breastplate who battled bad guys with sword, shiv, crossbow, frying pan or the ultimate weapon, a murderous missile called the chakram. She and her sidekick, Gabrielle, were part of one of television’s more intriguing gal-pal duos, with many viewers celebrating what they saw as lesbian affection.
“It was fun. It was about universal themes, of the triumph of the human spirit: love, courage and, of course, hate and fear underneath that,” Lawless says. “The legacy is that it inspired, by some kind of alchemy, positive change in the lives of individuals.”
Lawless constantly hears from fans about how the show empowered them, especially from people who feel marginalised – minorities, invalids and gay men and women. She once asked an African-American woman why it resonated with black women. That woman’s response: “African-American women feel that they need to be warrior woman every day of their lives.”
Lawless is something of a warrior off-screen, too. Activism is something she takes seriously and calls the environment “my No. 1 commitment”. She was arrested in 2012 for protesting Arctic oil drilling with Greenpeace and says the movement needs to keep going despite political setbacks.
“You get compassion fatigue. You go, `I’ve only got so much bandwidth, and this is making my heart hurt’ and the world’s really heart-hurty right now,” she says.
“So in order to keep us buoyant, we’ve got to start hearing about the great innovations and people who are doing good work and there’s tonnes of it out there.”
The first season of My Life is Murder is available to stream on TVNZ OnDemand from May 1. Episodes also screen weekly at 8.25pm on Fridays on TVNZ1.
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