In 1995 an American television series shot in New Zealand not only established Aotearoa as the fantasy location of the film and television world, it launched the career of its star.
The show was Xena: Warrior Princess. The star was Lucy Lawless.
These days Lawless is better known for upholding the law rather than breaking it. Her popular TV show My Life is Murder is in production for series three in Auckland.
But she’s taken on many roles between Xena and Alexa, including Lucretia in the Spartacus series and a recurring role in the American sitcom Parks and Recreation.
Lynn Freeman caught up with Lucy Lawless to find out what attracted her to the role of ex-cop turned private detective Alexa Crowe.
“I wanted a change, I was sick of sex and violence and blood and guts, and I didn’t know how I found myself in that line of work.
“With the way the world was in 2018, I wanted to be part of something good and something kind.”
Lawless helped shaped the series from the start.
“It was pretty unformed when I first came to the project. In fact I was only the second on – [executive producer] Claire Tonkin approached me… I was in Sydney for the Pride festival.
“I said the scripts aren’t where I would want them to be, but I liked them, and I really liked her. I said I’m going to take a punt on this woman and let’s see what happens.
“And I think it just hit the world at the right time when people were hungry for something beautiful, something where there’s at least the verisimilitude of justice at the end of it.”
Then, Covid-19 happened, and people locked in at home could devour the show for its armchair tourism – the chance to take a look at New Zealand.
Shooting started in Melbourne, but as the pandemic began they shifted it to Auckland.
“I don’t think anybody in Auckland has ever seen themself this way, as being glamourous and colourful and urban,” Lawless said. “It’s a point of difference, it looks different to other series.”
She enjoys the collaboration involved, with the actors sometimes adding some ad libs that reflect the characters.
“The writing’s so … this year they’ve just knocked my socks off with the sophistication of the writing – all these young New Zealand people – jeepers creepers!
“We try to grow talent on our shows, that’s part of Greenstone’s kaupapa, to be bringing up new talent.”
Fictional detectives often have dark character quirks or an obsessive nature, but Alexa Crowe’s outlet is a drive to let off steam by baking bread.
“That was a deliberate choice, we didn’t want to have the dark We didn’t want her covering up some deep dark secret – it’s been done,” Lawless said.
Instead, they’ve injected her character with a fresh healthy and strong verve for life.
“We thought it was really modern – there’s no jealously, say if Alexa has a romantic relationship with anybody, there’s no payback for that. And I think that’s really modern and fresh and part of the show.
“And that’s what makes the character a little bit aspirational for all the women my age out there who are like: ‘I want to live a life that is free and I want to be expressive and I want to be mobile, and have good funno’ – Alexa certainly has funno – and that’s part of the appeal.”
Why does she think murder mysteries have such enduring popularity, especially as a comforting go-to.
“Because when there’s no real danger, being scared is fun – when you’re not on the receiving end, murder and crime and dreadful intrigue within families is fun and gossipy, and that binds us within communities.
“Evolutionarily we’ve grown up to gossip around the camp-fire, or today it’s the water cooler. We just love that airing of dirty laundry.”
Head writer Kate McDermott brings a sense of heart, that Lawless calls the “female gaze”, where she cares about every single character.
“That’s all in the writing. It’s an honour to play in a show with that in mind.”
And, Lawless said Australian actress Ebony Vagulans, who play her co-sleuth Madison Feliciano has added a fun foil to play opposite: “The inter-generational thing is important, [she’s] a luminous talent.”