Women Who Run With Warrior Princesses

Reneé O'Connor ROCs

Renee O'Connor, Eddie and Sandra Wilson, and Lucy Lawless

photograph by Geoffrey H. Short

Everything you know is wrong. Every legend, story, myth, belief.... The real history of the world was recorded long ago by a young writer who traveled the globe with a fierce warrior, creating and recording history as it really was. Blasphemy? This is the premise that drives the plot of Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP), the Rob Tapert/Sam (Evil Dead, Darkman) Raimi-produced television series which boasts the conceit that women had a hell of a lot more to do with history than we were led to believe. The two lead characters serve as proof: Xena, the warrior, and her trusty sidekick, the buoyant, idealistic Gabrielle. Gabrielle, the Bard of Potidaea and Xena's bestest friend, is portrayed with warmth, wit, and Old World charm by native Texan Reneé O'Connor. O'Connor was the natural choice for Gabrielle, after her portrayal of a similar character, Deianeira, in one of the original Hercules telefeatures.

Born February 15, 1971 near Houston, O'Connor was raised by her mom, Sandra, who now runs the International Reneé O'Connor Fan Club (see sidebar) and is married to Threadgill's purveyor Eddie Wilson. Even before the age of 12, when O'Connor enrolled in Houston's Alley Theatre, her mom was convinced that she was headed for a life of professional make-believe. O'Connor was encouraged to pursue acting at the High School of the Performing & Visual Arts in Houston; her first professional gig was as a dancing Porky Pig at Astro World, soon after which she moved to L.A. By 1989, Disney picked her up for serials on the Mickey Mouse Club. From there, the parts came more frequently: She appeared in episodes of Tales From the Crypt and The Rockford Files and worked with Cheryl Ladd in the Danielle Steele miniseries Changes.

This interview was conducted in two sessions, shortly before and shortly after the Wilsons visited her in New Zealand, where XWP is shot. Reneé O'Connor's level of achievement thus far in her young career, some might say, is positively Herculean.

Austin Chronicle: So, you all are still shooting episodes for the season?

Reneé O'Connor: Right. We're shooting a big episode right now. We're shooting a musical. [Laughter all around] I know, I know! That was my reaction! Especially since I can't sing!

AC: Was this a result of Lucy Lawless' role as Rizzo in Grease? What's up with this??

RO: During fight scenes we used to joke around, "Wouldn't it be funny if we were singing: `I'm going to killllll yooooou!' as someone gets sliced?" Last August, our executive producer, Rob Tapert, starting talking about actually doing a musical, then making it an opera. He's a huge fan of opera and Lucy is an opera singer. Well, it's turned out to be sort of this rock & roll opera. It's set in a fantasy land called Illusia. Gabrielle and Xena go there because they're so full of hate for each other after everything they've been through. It's quite fascinating. I'm not singing.

AC: Does the character sing?

RO: Gabrielle does sing. They've hired a woman... [Laughs] I'm lip-synching! I feel like, y'know, I'm watching MTV video awards, singing along like... the Spice Girls! I was really intimidated by it to begin with. I thought, "Oh no, I've got to sing in front of the crew!" croaking away. But it's been so much fun.

AC: Is it loaded with a lot of opera in-jokes?

RO: There's no real opera singing. It's mostly songs that you might hear in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. [Tittering] It sounds crazy cheesy. We're making fun of ourselves but then all of a sudden there's this element where you might relate to what the characters are going through and it might affect you in some way. It's more of a "rock" opera.

AC: A Xena rock opera! Xena is such a great show. I began watching because of a recommendation from a film buff I trust and because of Sam Raimi... and I'm not any sort of academic fan of his films, but I thought, oh cool, this might have some weird Harryhausen or Pal type of animation stuff or shots, you know? There's an intelligent following, above and beyond the clamoring fans....

RO: That's because of Sam and Rob. They like to deal with obscure characters, people fighting their dark side. That seems to be a theme running throughout most of their work. I think that this character, Xena, falls right into this. Rob's just having a ball. Especially with the musical. The musical is his baby. For him to just try something so bizarre for television.

AC: Speaking of piped-in singers... With such a physical role, how many doubles do you have at a time? One standard double or a crew?

RO: I have a body double who has the exact same hair that I have and wears the same costume, and a stunt double and a riding double who each wear a Gabrielle wig and costume. You only see the body double if it's maybe a hand or a foot, or walking in the distance with the horse. Of course, during the walks along the beautiful landscapes with the Xena body double and Argo - in all the places that we don't see....

AC: Ahhhh... let's not beat around the bush. Were you and Lucy even in the same shot together at the same time for the big, controversial "Kiss" scene?

Eddie Wilson cracks the warrior princess up.

photograph by Geoffrey H. Short

RO: Oh, yes, we were. Lucy had only just come back from her accident and she couldn't do a whole lot.

AC: Well, this frame-by-frame analysis betrays a lack of shadow on you when she's leaning into you. I am among a contingent of people who believe that it's entirely a matted shot. Which if it's true, is completely hysterical considering the...

RO: Debate! Right. [laughs] Did they kiss and why did they kiss, right? Well, we didn't actually smooch, but we had the shot and we came in very close together. We were definitely there. We were in front of a blue screen. They wanted to make it heaven-like. That's why there probably wasn't any shadow. But we were definitely there together.

AC: On to the "L" word: Do you guys hire real live lesbian consultants for the show? Seriously, how much of the show's lesbian "subtext" was a response to fans reading into the show? Chicken or egg?

RO: Mostly, the characters started developing and having an intimate friendship which was non-sexual. People looked into it and said, "Oh, this has to be something more than what it seems. That's where the lesbian subtext started, mostly from the strong female following. Then the writers started playing it up and we did as well. We just said, "Let's just make it as ambiguous as we can." Now, we've sort of moved on from that, especially since their friendship has developed a conflict. It's such a profound relationship, you know. It's not even about sex at all, it's just about a deep friendship.

AC: There are all sorts of rumors that you're not completely happy with some of the choices that Gabrielle makes this season.

RO: I'm so glad you asked that. That drives me crazy! At one of the Xena conventions, I said that I didn't always agree with the decisions that Gabrielle made in her life in dealing with her friendship with Xena. People took that to mean that Lucy and I are upset with what the writers have done with our characters and that we have no control of it whatsoever.

Gabrielle is the naïve ingenue of the show. She's affected by the world, but is still trying to find who she is as a person. In the episode that we were referring to, Gabrielle killed someone for the first time. That's completely traumatic, a huge turning point in her life. She went to the other extreme and said, "Nobody should die and no one should be executed, especially by my best friend, if I can stop this." So she betrays her best friend to prevent someone's murder. Anyway, I disagreed. I would never do that to someone I truly loved and cared for. I think that a relationship comes first. But Gabrielle has such high moral beliefs above anyone I know in real life. She acts for the greater good.

AC: The show is distributed and is meeting with success all over the world now - it's not just a "states" phenomenon anymore. You are becoming well-known. Does that affect the input you have?

RO: Not so much because of the popularity of the show. I think it's more because I've developed a relationship with the writers, especially with Rob Tapert. They trust me. They know my strengths and they play up to them. [Laughs] They know my weaknesses, too!

AC: As a relatively new actress on the scene, do you feel that this character is going to define your career? Will Gabrielle become an albatross for you? In a lot of ways, you know, you may be the sultry Leonard Nimoy [laughter] famous for this one character. How does that feel, so early on in your career?

RO: I try not to think of Gabrielle in such profound dimensions! Spock is a cult character. Everyone knows who Spock is. I don't think of Gabrielle like that. She's just my character. One day she'll be out of my hands and hopefully, people will remember her.

AC: What's the technical definition of a "Hardcase Nutballer"? Is it sort of a Nineties "Trekkie"?

RO: Nutballers! Lucy was at a convention and walked out and said, "You guys are nutballs!" It just sort of stuck. She meant it very endearingly. I saw some stickers [at the Valley Forge Xena Convention] saying, "Hardcase Nutball." It's that group of people who love the show who are loyal fans.

AC: When I started watching the show, I went immediately on the Internet and logged on to the Universal site and found maybe two or three other pages, not even really sites. Now, you can't pull up an Internet search without a four-digit figure... In terms of copyright encroachment, there are so many sites with pictures that are downloadable... Is there a concerted effort by the producers to encourage or monitor the fan base or...?

RO: No. That's completely out of our hands. It's amazing, people just take pictures [screen shots] off the TV show and clip it and put it onto their website. It's not to [the production company's] favor to squash the creativity because the more they discuss the show and the more supportive they are the better off we are in the long run. It'll draw new audience members. It's a great outlet for creative energy.

AC: How do your fans behave around you? There have been interviews in which you've said that you're happy about certain aspects of anonymity in the first few seasons... that you could go out in the public, since the show wasn't airing in New Zealand initially. That's all changing. The show is being aired Down Under; you are becoming as well-known as Lucy. How do you interact with fans and how does that affect you? Are they respectful of your privacy and personal space?

RO: Although my life has changed a bit, I still have a sense of privacy I don't think Lucy has anymore. I can pretty much go anywhere I want and do anything. Maybe one or two people will say "Aren't you Gabrielle?" or "Aren't you on that show, Xena?" Usually, people are very nice and give you your space.

AC: I'd like to ask about the dynamic between you and Lucy and people's perception of you two, versus their concept of the characters. A friend of mine who visited the set and met both of you was impressed by the difference between your handshakes. She said that Lucy Lawless is very polite and demure, and that you would not imagine that she has such a girly handshake. To shake Reneé O'Connor's hand, she said, however, you know she's the one that you want in a bar brawl with you!

RO: [Laughter] There's definitely a sense of Xena in Lucy, in the sense that she's a strong woman who won't take less than proper respect from anyone. She is a strong woman. She's so intelligent. I think she'd be a great person to have in a barroom brawl because she'd be more like Gabrielle. She could probably talk her way out of the situation; she's witty in that respect, but if it didn't work out, she could punch 'em. Actually I'm one to stay away from any sort of conflict whatsoever. If it happens, I can deal and hold my own, but I would probably let her handle it! When it comes to the physical, the difference between us physically, Lucy's much more feminine.

AC: Is there something in the contract that says you can't be more formidable-looking than Xena?

RO: Oh, not at all! [laughs] Remember the first season I had this long skirt? The naïve, young Gabrielle! As soon as they put me in a short skirt, the comment from the L.A. office was, "Where did Reneé the Robo-Cop come from?" They had no idea that I actually worked out. It was all hidden under the skirt! They questioned the fact that Gabrielle would be muscular. They're used to young women and actresses who are quite feminine, fragile. I'm not like that and I didn't want Gabrielle to be like that.

AC: Do people ever come up to you and challenge you to use the stick or defend yourself?

RO: No. I think it's because they know I'm an actor! I used to use a soft stick. Anyone I fight with is a stuntman who is properly trained. They don't want me to get hurt. I was talking to the stunt coordinator once about fighting on the streets. He warned me never to use the stick or pick up any sort of object as a weapon because the other person can take it off of you and use it against you. I always keep that in mind.

AC: There's a Gabrielle doll coming out. How do you feel about being a doll?

RO: Uh, it's kind of strange. At first, I thought, "Oh! That's very embarrassing! You're going to be on someone's bed!"

AC: Do you get any sort of first refusal for the doll's dimensions?

RO: I do, actually, but I don't care about the body, I'm worried about big feet! [laughs] I do get to look at it. I get to see the head sculpture. Now, that's bizarre. When I went in to get a head scan for the doll, I thought, "Oh God, I'm not gonna live through this!" The machine goes all the way around your face and the image pops up on a computer. They show your face, from one edge where the ear meets the face, all the way around to the other edge, then lay it out flat on a computer screen. It's the most grotesque-looking roadkill that you've ever seen. And it's your face, you know? And you think, "Awwww, great, can't wait to see the doll!"

AC: Hey! I just saw the animated feature. You're a bird! Gabrielle gets turned into a bird. Is that a pun on your initials?

RO: A pun on my initials...?

AC: Yeah. A "roc" is a big bird of prey...

RO: I didn't know that! I think Gabrielle is sort of bird-like and inquisitive. They were looking for some sort of mystical image that we can't do in real life.

AC: On a personal note, I don't want to sound tawdry or anything... Are you wearing your little Gabrielle outfit?

RO: [Suspiciously] I am. [Laughter]

AC: Do you export Texas and Austin music to New Zealand?

RO: They have this great music store here called "Real Groovy Records." The people who run the store are huge fans of Austin music. They go down to SXSW every year. Their best friend is our director of photography on the show. So he is a die-hard fan. They have the two Threadgill's CDs [giggles]. They have a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie... all that real soulful music.

AC: What type of music do you like? What do you listen to?

RO: I love women vocalists... Toni Braxton and Natalie Cole. I don't listen to much country, really. I like older things. I love Billy Joel and Elton John. They're coming here to New Zealand in March. I'm ecstatic because I can actually see them live in concert.

AC: You probably could meet them.

RO: I don't know if they'd even know about the show! I don't know!

AC: Can you dance like a Texan?

RO: Can I dance like a Texan?! The people on the crew always joke that I'm a closet line dancer. But I haven't come out yet, you know [giggles].

AC: Is everything still going well with Steve [Muir, her steady beau]? Are you two still...

RO: Yeah. everything's going well, still. He's lovely. He's a good one.

AC: Do you find it odd that both you and your mom are with restaurateurs?

RO: Actually, that's what first attracted me to him! He was involved in a restaurant. I definitely understood the language. It's more like a micro-brewery. They're going to bottle the beers and take them around New Zealand and then to grocery stores and local bars, which is a lot like what my mom and Eddie did with Threadgill's frozen food. It's exciting to see Steve go through the steps that they went through over five years ago.

AC: So, Mom and Eddie just got back from a visit to New Zealand? I saw a lot of the pictures from the Milford Trek. Do you miss Mom?

RO: Yeah, I do already. I just spoke with her. She's been such a help to me because I had to move homes. She and Eddie stayed over longer just to get me moved. It was like a home away from home having her approve it all.

AC: Do you consider yourself a Texan?

RO: Well, I'll always consider myself a Texan. When you're born and bred in Texas, you're branded for life. Whenever people ask where I'm from, I always say Texas. People here in New Zealand say, "Is that in the States?'" You just assume that Texas is like any country, you know. Everyone knows where Texas is.

AC: It's its own country!

RO: Southern hospitality!

AC: Is this gonna be a Threadgill's ad?

RO: Oh no, I hope not! [laughter]

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