By JOE NAZZARO
"Safe" is a word that scarcely applies to O'Connor's role as Gabrielle, Xena's (Lucy Lawless) plucky traveling companion and closest friend. While Gabrielle would prefer talking her way out of a difficult situation rather than fighting, her proximity to the warrior princess means trouble usually lurks just behind the next tree.
Despite the physical demands of her role, O'Connor says most of her bruises aren't actually work-related. "I seem to get mine more outside of work these days because of the extracurricular activities I've been taking up. I want to learn as much as I can while I'm here about martial arts, but my character doesn't do too much. She's just working with a staff, so my bruises are only from play. I have a competition with Lucy to see how many bruises she can get in real work while mine are for fun."
Of course, it's still easy for an actor to get hurt on set even if not directly involved in a fight scenesometimes it's just a matter of standing in the wrong place. "That's true, but our stunt guys are pretty good; they're spot on. So, it's usually the other way around, where I'm hitting them accidentally, or the crew members are getting black eyes! When the sticks are flying, it's usually my stick that's out of control."
Reflecting on the first season of Xena, O'Connor considers it a learning experience on several levels. "When I look back at the first episodes, I really appreciate all the special FX, and the amazing stunt work; how many people who look like Gabrielle in terms of body doubles are involved in this one character and the effort that goes into creating this fantastic piece of workit's so surreal and exciting to see. I really appreciate all the stunt work that went into those first few episodes.
"I also liked seeing the Gabrielle and Xena relationship as it developed. In 'Callisto,' there was a scene with us sitting next to a campfire just talking. Seeing two strong women being close and intimate, as friends, is a nice change in television."
The key to Xena's success is the off-screen relationship between O'Connor and Lawless. "Renee is the best friend I could possibly have professionally," says Lawless of her co-star. "We work in completely opposite ways. Renee and I are diametrically opposed in our approach to acting, so by tacit consent we never discuss acting anymore. But somehow on screen, it really clicks. She's also a very fine human being. But we don't go out to ball games on the weekends; she's a single young woman and I'm a mum."
According to O'Connor, she and Lawless got along from the series' beginning. "I actually met Lucy in Los Angeles, when I was still auditioning for the role. She has such an amazing sense of humor that I hoped I would be coming out to work on the series. But I knew that whether or not I was involved, that Xena would be still be a successful show. When I came out here, we just clicked right away and became good friends. She took me under her wing and showed me the city, made sure I was comfortable and really brought me into the atmosphere and the family environment of the crew here.
"Of course. as the work became more intense, we would find our niche in terms of our working techniquesgiving each other space, or rehearsing if we needed to. We've just come so far now that we're like sisters. We each know what the other is going to do, and she's definitely the person I prefer to work off of in the show, because she's so comfortable to be around."
The Texas-born O'Connor actually began studying acting at age 12, at Houston's Alley Theater and High School of the Performing and Visual Arts. She made her professional acting debut in 1989 in the "Teen Angel" serial featured on the Disney Channel's Mickey Mouse Club, followed by the "Match Point" serial. That same year, O'Connor moved to Los Angeles and quickly landed a role in the Tales From the Crypt episode "The Switch," which also marked Arnold Schwarzenegger's directorial debut. "It's so long ago, but I remember his thick accent and the line readings he would give me, and I would try to control myself and not mimic him as I said my lines. I was playing this young girl on the street, selling flowers to William Hickey, so it was a small part, but I found it all so amusing. Arnold had such a good sense of vision, of people's movement and physical action, and the flow of the camera, I guess from working on so many different action films."
O'Connor's involvement with Xena began with a guest-starring role in one of the two-hour Hercules movies, Hercules and the Lost Kingdom, playing Deianeira, a proud young woman who fulfills her destiny by joining Hercules in his search for the lost city of Troy. "It was an audition where I went in at the last minute one afternoon. I love Greek mythology myself, so anything that correlates to those areas piques my interest. I remember standing up on a chair for the casting director and reciting lines with all the romantic energy that I could muster, and just enjoying myself completely. I think my enthusiasm might be one of the reasons why I got the part."
Producers Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi were so impressed by O'Connor's performance that they signed her for a major role in their direct-to-video Darkman sequel The Return of Durant. According to the actress, "Rob attracts such good people, and I think he tends to use them over and over again, develops a personal relationship with them and gives them opportunities that maybe they would never have in any other situation. For me, playing a spirited, sidekick slave girl in Hercules and then going on to play a stripper in Darkman was quite a change from playing the all-American, 16-year-old high school girl next door, so that was a great opportunity. Rob is very good about dealing with people on a personal level, and changing them into different characters. You can also see that with Lucy, who has played quite a few characters in Hercules."
Whether it was a case of life imitating art or vice versa, O'Connor was able to settle into the role almost immediately. "You have to give the writers credit for that. They've been wonderful in the sense of giving Gabrielle such an eloquent use of speech. It's great for me, because I can let the words fly out, and they keep supplying them over and over again. It's definitely their concept and characterization of Gabrielle, which I think is great. She's very romantic and sentimental about poetry and storytelling, which is also a definite interest of mine."
That's not to say the character hasn't continued to evolve in episodes like "Hooves and Harlots," in which Gabrielle learns how to defend herself, or "The Greater Good," in which she must face the prospect of going on without Xena. "You're seeing more of that this season," hints O'Connor. "She's much more independent and confident of herself physically, but the moral aspect of Gabrielle is that she would choose to talk things through first and always use her wits and the spoken word before resorting to violence. That's something that definitely defines the second season."
Another area that may be downplayed is having Gabrielle romantically involved with some of the men she encounters in her adventures. "There was a common thread we all saw in the last season, having different male actors playing romantic roles for Gabrielle. Now, you'll see that she's much more focused introspectively, and so is Lucy's character, so you won't be seeing as many romantic relationships."
Nevertheless, there are a few relationships where O'Connor wouldn't mind a follow-up, such as Gabrielle meeting up with Hercules' sidekick Iolaus, whom she last encountered in "Prometheus." "I love Michael Hurst. I think he's one of the most knowledgeable actors I've ever seen. He's incredibly talented, and we had this chemistry that clicked right from the beginning. I guess because of the demands of the two shows and our age difference too, it's probably something that won't be developed. Too bad!"
Stewart, who wrote "Prometheus," agrees. "I just saw that episode again recently and thought, 'Gee, I would like to get those guys back together for an episode. 'I was wonderfully pleased when I saw how well Renee played it, and how well it was received. That was another exploration point for the series."
Another, less romantic relationship that O'Connor enjoyed playing was between Gabrielle and fellow storyteller Orion in "Athens City Academy of the Performing Arts." "I already had a couple of romantic interests, and then that particular role came up with that actor so there was a choice on how to play it, whether it should be another quest for an experience in life romantically that Gabrielle would have, or someone who would just be a friend. I thought it would be a great way to show that men and women could have relationships, be friendly and compete with each other on an equal basis, so that created another aspect to Gabrielle."
With the first half of Xena's second season now finished, and Lawless slowed by her recovery from a broken pelvis, O'Connor has a little breathing room to think about the series, and what she would like to see in future episodes. "On a general note, in terms of the show's style, I would like to see us travel to different countries; maybe some Eastern countries like Japan or China. I would like to see more of the martial arts and the John Woo type of fighting the visual aspects that he carries in his movies put into Xena. I would just like to conquer new regions, and have different types of people and different cultures come into the show. I would like to see us go to different cities and have our version of a slice of life, in terms of what these people are like, especially in that era."
Having spent so much time in New Zealand, O'Connor admits the occasional feeling of homesickness, but "My mother has come over a few times, and people are coming over to see this exotic land. That's quite a blessing, because who would have thought that my friends and family could come to another part of the world and take a vacation? I've really learned from the people who live here. Because it's such a small country, you can travel a lot. It's encouraging to see that they can just pack up and leave and live in another country, another culture."
The success of Xena: Warrior Princess has meant an increased visibility for its cast members, but O'Connor hasn't let her newfound celebrity faze her. Bring up the subject of fan mail and her response is strictly tongue-in-cheek. "Lucy and I were talking about that, because we receive these letters from prisons. Somehow I keep getting all the guys who are murderers and convicts and Lucy laughs about what it is about my character that might attract them. Actually, I get many letters from young girls who really like the show, and I'm glad that they might see Gabrielle as some sort of role model they can look up to.
"I don't think of that as pressure at all, because the writers are so good about making Gabrielle quite heroic, almost unbelievably so. She has so many morals and she's so sentimental that I don't think there's any pressure at all trying to keep her as an ideal hero. I would actually like to see her have another, more human side, where she isn't as perfect as she's written to be, so young girls, as they experience life, can see some of the choices that Gabrielle had to make and whether they were right or wrong."
As Renee O'Connor gets ready to brave the real-life slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, she's also delighted with the heights her character has reached in Xena: Warrior Princess. "I'm very happy over here," she says. "It took a while to make this a home, but I'm extremely happy now. I have a wonderful circle of friends, and I love this country, so I couldn't ask for more!"