In “My Life Is Murder,” a delightful new detective show premiering Monday on the streaming platform Acorn TV, Lucy Lawless plays Alexa Crowe, a former police investigator half-reluctantly drawn back to work as an unofficial consultant on deaths the department has deemed accidental but an old colleague believes are not. Breezily written, with an appealing main cast and a healthy component of armchair tourism — it’s set in Melbourne, Australia — it is a perfect summer series.
Lawless, who played the lead in “Xena: Warrior Princess” and became a feminist and queer icon in the bargain, has been a model of cool capability almost since the beginning of her career. (Incredibly, “My Life Is Murder” is only her second lead role, though she had major parts in “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” and “Ash vs Evil Dead.” ) The new part, which stirs maturity into the mix, suits her well. “She’s not beholden to police protocols anymore,” the actress says of Alexa. “She’s going to do it her way, and she’s not cut up about the way she goes about things. She never seems to compromise.”
The tone is light and more than a little comic, with just enough action and suspense to keep things lively. Where many modern series would saddle Alexa with doubts and demons for the sake of creating drama, “Murder Is My Life” leaves her free — like Lt. Columbo, Quincy M.E. (an early inspiration to the New Zealand-born Lawless ) or Jessica Fletcher before her — to take care of business. Getting her industrial mixer to work — she bakes bread semi-professionally — is Alexa’s main personal challenge.
Lawless spoke to the Los Angeles Times on the phone from Italy. “I’m going to see ‘Carmen’ tonight,” she said. “I’m in Verona. They have a beautiful old amphitheater, and they do some pretty terrific operas every summer. The last time I was here, there was a tenor who wasn’t quite up to the job, and the audience just went septic on him, the cackles and the booing. It was Roman theater, they were all thumbs down. And I kind of love that chaos,” she said, giggling. You should imagine frequent laughter as you read the following.
When you were growing up in New Zealand, what did an acting career look like to you?
What I thought it looked like was trying to get to London to go to RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]. And that was long before the internet of course, so you would have to go to the consulate and get a phone book and look up the number of the address of Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and write to them and that would take weeks, and then they may send back a form, and you would have to somehow film something — you’d have to organize that and pay somebody to edit it, a huge to-do. These days you could do it all on your phone.
This whole “warrior princess” thing was just a complete departure and kind of a cosmic joke on somebody who was famously uncoordinated at school. So it took on a crazy tangent.
Was there a local version of a show business career?
A local soap started up about the time that I was starting to work. I never got hired there, but I was up for the job as they were developing it. I’d already done some sketch comedy and some TV commercials. I already had a baby. She was probably 1, so I would have been 21 — so that also put a bit of a crimp in my “I Want to Go to London and Study at RADA.” I [had] a teen pregnancy.
But it never diverted you from your path.
Not for one moment. The moment I had the baby I was filled with enormous creative energy, and started writing little audition pieces and skits and went and produced it. That actually did lead to some work.
You’ve often credited the Jack Klugman mystery series ‘Quincy, M.E.’ as an inspiration.
I thought I wanted to go into crime-fighting. I thought, “I love all the gnarly side of life, I totally want to be a coroner.” And then I realized what I wanted to be was an actor — I just want to act like a coroner. I can act like many different things. Instead of having to actually being one.
Was having your own detective show a career goal, then?
It really wasn’t. It was only “right time, right idea, right people” that brought me to it. Right time of life. I’ve done splashing the inside of people’s TV screens with blood for twentysomething years, and I’m ready for — the world needs something a little bit different at the moment. I wanted to do something much closer to myself, something modern. I actually pitched to somebody at CBS, I said, “Let’s do the new ‘Murder, She Wrote,’ ” and they were like “No, no.” And I thought, well ... I’m a Little Red Hen and I’ll figure out a way to do it. [In a determined voice:] “I’ll do it myself.”
And it’s not “Murder, She Wrote” — I don’t mean to ride the coattails of that. But I was attracted to something a little more … friendly? Friendly and satisfying. Where the characters are not hiding some hideous secret. They’re flawed, because we all are. But I want to be part of something good, and something kind. And I’m very attracted to the idea of justice at the moment, because the world seems pretty — there’s a lot of injustice. You don’t have to look far.
How did ‘My Life Is Murder’ come together?
I’d been sent some scripts by a young woman called Claire Tonkin, from Australia. I really have not spent very much time in Australia the last 20 years. I’ve only done one acting job there. So it wasn’t topmost in mind. All my thoughts were about America or New Zealand. But I read them. I just thought, “The scripts aren’t really there,” and I forgot about it. But kept the door open. And then I was over in Sydney, at Gay Pride, where Xena’s still a bit of a fixture, and [Tonkin] contacted me and said, through my agency, “Do you want to meet?” And I said, “I’ve got an hour and a half if she can meet me Sunday before I go home. ... We’ll see what happens.”
And I met her, and first of all she said to me, “I was very unwell as a kid” — and in my mind, there’s a little red flag because I thought, “Uh oh, she’s a fan.” Not that being a fan is bad, but it might be that she’s attracted to me for the wrong reasons. ... A fan’s not a business associate, you know what I mean? It simply doesn’t work, in my experience.
But the more she talked, and the more I learned about her trajectory — her writing career and her career with the network — I thought, “This girl’s really got chops.” I sensed I was catching her at this wave, and quite selfishly I thought, “I’m going to take you for my own.” Claire is everything I dreamed she’d be and more. She’s just a great partner. Maybe I’m her sidekick now.
Your young associate on the show, Madison Feliciano, played by Ebony Vagulans, is described as a ‘fan’ of Alexa. Was that relationship informed by your own experience?
No, not really. They wanted her to have sort of an acolyte. What is informed by my real life is that I cannot stand to have an unequal. You’re either my friend or you’re a fan, [which] by definition — it’s an unequal relationship. I could not have somebody who was deferential in the audition, and Ebony just met me like for like. I felt like I was casting myself in some way, ‘cause I thought, “You will be effortless to have around.” I knew I could be three feet from Ebony seven days a week and not have a problem with that. And plus she’s so talented and so attractive and so full of life. Everything about her was good in my opinion, and I said to the network, “She’s a star.” And it was unanimous, actually.
On ‘Xena,’ you had a female compatriot, Gabrielle, played by Renee O’Connor. Was there a thought of re-creating that dynamic?
There was for me. I mean, I saw it as a gal pal show from the beginning. You know, there’s also a guy in the mix [Bernard Curry as Detective-Inspector Kieran Hussey, Alexa’s police contact], which is not part of my fandom, really. Not at all, actually. But it kind of does give it that little element of family, which is part of the good, the wholesomeness that I want to see and spend time with at the moment. I want to feel good, for God’s sake, just for a moment when I watch TV instead of feeling [sighs] debilitated by the grimness on my Twitter feed, or whatever.
I like the fact that, where in most such shows there would be the open question of whether Alexa and Kieran would get together, that isn’t in the cards here.
They were always looking to write in some URST — do you use that term in America? Unresolved Sexual Tension. And I was like, “Absolutely not.” My character could not play it that way, because Bernie [Curry] looks like he could be my little brother. Anybody who has that sort of Irish Catholic look — it’s not possible.
It seems astonishing that this is only the second show you’ve played the lead in.
That surprises me too. Because, I guess — maybe it’s solipsism — I always felt my role was very central to whatever experience I was having. But also I was in New Zealand raising my kids. You can’t just drop them like a bloody sloth — I don’t know how sloths raise their babies, I might be completely throwing shade at sloth mothers. Anyway, I had to be there, and now that they are older and gone off to college, I’m free to step up and do my own thing.
‘My Life Is Murder’
Where: Acorn TV
Rating: Not rated