The Many Faces of Reneé O'ConnorXena: Warrior Princess
The Official Magazine
#1 Premiere Issue
"I always wanted to become an actress," Renee O'Connor says with the exuberance of her TV character, Gabrielle, courageous sidekick to Xena: Warrior Princess. "I mean, it was sort of like an obsession. I took acting classes outside of school, and within school. Anything having to do with theater. God, I was such a ham!"
With her series now the highest-rated in first-tun syndication, Renee's obsession seems to be paying off in a big way. A transplanted Texan with a passion for good drama, challenging opportunities and Mexican food, O'Connor is frequently awed by the good fortune that has graced her career, and the solid friendships she's developed with the Xena cast and crew. "We're really a surrogate family, and Lucy is like my big sister," the 26 year-old relates warmly, adding, "I can tell Lucy anything. Probably more information than she needs or wants to know!" Away from home in the wilds of New Zealand (not that wild, actually -- "it's cosmopolitan, like San Francisco"), the young actress immediately bonded with her colleagues, and, if the blooper tapes are an indication, she's working on a very happy if somewhat loopy set. For instance, in Xena's classic vampire episode, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," a befanged Lawless flubbed her line, and couldn't resist belting out "Deep In the Heart of Texas" in response. She was immediately joined by O'Connor, also sporting vampire teeth, and the resulting duet was captured on film and is frequently shown to amused fans at conventions. "That was so funny," O'Connor recalls with a shake of the head. "It isn't very often that we 'lose it,' but when we do it's hilarious. Sometimes all Lucy and I have to do is look at each other and we crack up." A good way to get through a typically arduous shoot, everyone agrees.
O'Connor began her association with Renaissance's unique approach to mythology back in 1995, winning the lead female role in Hercules and the Lost Kingdom, second of the now-legendary Herc telefeatures. The character she played was named Deianeira. "There was a certain amount of confusion over that," O'Connor explains, noting that actress Tawny Kitean played the "same" character exactly one episode later as a more mature woman who actually winds up marrying Hercules. "Originally, I believe, she was going to be a grown-up version of the Deianeira I played. But after they finished the script and started filming, they decided not to go in that direction, because they thought it was too much of a stretch. So they decided to have my character be a young girl who just happens to have the same name. Obviously, the older Deianeira is Hercules' true love."
Whatever. Deianeira, as portrayed by O'Connor, evolved from a feisty ragamuffin to a polished princess before the two-hour movie was finished, and this believable transformation caught the eye of executive producer Rob Tapert. "We were all very impressed with Renee," he recalls, so much so that Renaissance offered her an important part in DARKMAN II, their 1995 direct-to-video sequel to Sam Raimi's big-screen hit.
And then came Gabrielle. "I didn't meet with Lucy for the audition," O'Connor remembers. "I was taking acting classes and I studied the role very carefully. In some ways Gabrielle was like (young) Deianeira, but in order ways she was different. Finally, I went to dinner with Lucy and we could tell there was some kind of chemistry going on there. I think Lucy knew I had the part by then, but I wasn't so sure."
Now a full-fledged series, Xena: Warrior Princess began its epic storyline, with the lead character seeking atonement for an avalanche of sins and her feisty sidekick, a teenage runaway, embarking on an exciting new life of discovery and adventure. "In the beginning of the show there wasn't as much written for Gabrielle," remembers O'Connor. "I really had to discover what her story would be, sort of develop a sub-text for myself, and take her on her own journey. Then, luckily, the writers started giving her more to do and she definitely evolved into this separate being... "
Of course, all this exciting career success requires rigorous work and dedication. Except for various hiatuses, O'Connor must live in New Zealand all year, get up at 4:30 every morning and work a 12-hour filming day. When she eventually returns home to her one-bedroom apartment in Freeman's Bay, the exhausted actress has to prepare for the next day's scenes. "I always read a script at least three times," she explains "so that the night before to shoot a scene I am word perfect."
It's been a interesting journey from the Texas suburb of Katy to the plains, mountains and communities of New Zealand, and right now Renee O'Connor is, well, on top of the world. "I owe a great deal to Gabrielle, in every way," she says earnestly. "Since I've come out here and since the role is so demanding, I've taken up more traditionally masculine sports, like boxing and kickboxing and more of the martial arts. I feel much stronger and much more confident than I did when I first began the series. I'm definitely becoming a woman'"
And what advice does this beautiful, creative, strong-willed woman have for young people who want to follow her lead and land a career in show business? "My advice is: stay in your community and try to work on student films and do neighborhood theater," O'Connor says firmly. "A lot of people go to California and just get lost in the whole system. They try so hard to become famous, to get a job, when they really haven't been trained. I've been influenced a great deal by the actors here, including Lucy, because most of them are classically trained. They use their voices in different ways, they use their bodies... and I think, coming from California, we have forgotten how to do that. Many people are cast for how they look.
"So I would suggest that people really try to expand and challenge themselves, look beyond what people expect of you and try to do something different..."
Sound advice from a successful actress with years of rewarding creative challenges ahead of her.