WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Lucy Lawless didn't have to pray to the goddess of spinoffs, but knowing Hercules didn't hurt either


Redemption can save your soul.

And turning good can also get you your own spinoff. At least that's the story behind Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules' nemesis turned mythical super-hero.

Xena's three-part guest turn on "Hercules" last season evolved into her new and highly publicized syndicated series. No one was more surprised than its 6-foot star Lucy Lawless.

"I felt really sick," Lawless, 26, says from "Xena's" production office in New Zealand, on a working Saturday. "It sounded like heaven, but I said 'If you're just talking , I don't want to hear about it yet.' Then it happened very quickly. I tried to be cool when they actually told me."

Lawless abandons her native New Zealand accent and affects a drop-dead American dialect, describing a conversation with executive producer Rob Tapert: " 'Mr. Tapert,' I said, 'I'd believe it when I see it.' That's really cool."

Xena (pronounced ZEE-na), Lawless explains, "began as someone with a very twisted sense of honor. Then, after a brush with genuine love," the actress stops to giggle, "she's on a mission to find some sense of peace. Because it's a well-known fact that human beings who are the toughest on the outside are the softest inside. She's got a well-honed mechanism."

So does Lawless, who caught producers' attention in two other guest roles on "Hercules" in which she played Lyla, bride of Deric the Centaur, and the menacing Amazon enforcer Lysia.

"Since she already played two different parts in 'Hercules,' the studio wanted another actress," explains Tapert, from his car phone on his way to LAX to leave for New Zealand, where he'll direct a "Hercules" episode. So Tapert and crew changed her look: They dyed the naturally blond Lawless brunette. "Then," Tapert adds, "the studio said, 'Oh!"

Now, Tapert can't see anyone else in the role. "Lucy has a certain mystique. Yes, she's statuesque, strong and athletic in a very demanding part, but she's got this mystique, a secret you want to know, but she's not telling. She really fits the bill, with those mesmerizing blue eyes."

Lawless was less sure. "Action-adventure scared me. I'd never been physically inclined. My nickname was Unco," for uncoordinated. She adds that, as one of seven children, she'd suffered several broken arms in tussles. "It shocked me when they hired me."

But how can Lawless look so skillful while artfully downing bad guys? "They judiciously took me to L.A. to study with [martial arts master] Douglas Wong," explains Lawless of her teacher, who also served as trainer on "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story."

But the actress might not have been as unco as she dubs herself. At 17, after a year at Auckland University, she set out to see the world, taking to Europe her penchant for languages--she speaks German, French, Italian--and her talent for singing opera. There, she "just bummed around" with a boyfriend. Traveling to Australia, they took jobs in a gold mine. "I don't know what we were thinking," she says of the grueling work digging, mapping the ground, driving trucks and pushing huge samples of earth through a diamond saw.

Then Lawless became pregnant with daughter Daisy, now 7. The couple married and moved back to New Zealand. Three years later--and now separated--Lawless took Daisy to Canada where she pursued acting while in drama school. In 1991, she headed back to New Zealand and landed work in television. She became the host of "Air New Zealand Holiday," a travel magazine show in 1992, then began landing guest parts, including roles on "Hercules."

She now lives "a non-social life, not even one kilometer" from her parents. "I've lived other places in the world, but this area suits me. When all the upheaval was happening around me, I was very happy to set up close to home," referring to her separation, which she finds difficult to talk about. Her daughter lives with her father weekdays and with Lawless on weekends.

After "Xena"--where Lawless works 13-hour-plus days (getting up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym) --she may come to the United States. "I'm not quite their flavor here. Maybe they don't think I look sympathetic, but I suspect it's something that would go down well in America."

"Xena: Warrior Princess" airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on KTLA.

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