Lucy Lawless: Warrior Princess, green activist, screen witch and nightclub diva
Lucy Lawless may know she is an international superstar, but she's spent the last half hour talking about how she lives a low-key, humdrum life.
During the week never going out, watching MasterChef, in bed at 9.30pm. Weekends mooching around her Auckland home, helping tend the large family garden with husband Rob Tapert and teenage sons Julius and Judah.
It's not the life the actress would have chosen for herself. Lawless was happy with her family in Los Angeles but when they returned to New Zealand for Spartacus, Tapert fell in love with the city that reminded him of his home in Michigan and her boys couldn't believe they could go to a school where the teacher suggested they take their shoes off. In Los Angeles, there would have been snakes and liability issues around such a rash act.
Even though she pleaded with them – "C'mon guys, let's go. What about an adventure?" – they stood their ground. Nope, we're never going back. Her star power obviously doesn't count for much at home.
"You bet. My kids don't care about what I do. Not at all. They're the stars of their own lives."
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But that desire for adventure has needled her from the get-go.
"When I was a kid, I used to look up at a plane going overhead and think, 'I want to be on that plane.' My father told me I could. He told me I could do anything and I believed him."
And she did, conquering the world as Xena Warrior Princess, Lucretia in Spartacus, Betty Rizzo in Grease, as a singer in Celebrity Duets and a bazillion other international film and television roles. But for now, home base is Mission Bay where Tapert does all the cooking ("I can't. I'm a terrible cook.") and the garden produces much of the food they eat.
"I've always believed that what you put inside your body is more important than what you put on it."
Also not drinking. We talk a lot about not drinking. For years she didn't, then when she returned to New Zealand, she did again with a group of friends who drank a lot but she didn't like the way it looked on her, what it did to her skin, to her mental acuity, so she's cut back again.
Lucy Lawless turns 50 next year.
"Does ageing matter? Oh it matters. On the other hand, I thought I was 50 this year, so I've already adjusted," she leans towards me, laughing at her own daffiness.
"I'm the sort of person who doesn't know what month it is. I just don't value those kinds of things. But ageing, yeah. One of the pitfalls of living in Hollywood or Florida is that you're surrounded by women who've had too much done and your sense of normal starts shifting. I haven't had anything done but I would, sure. Plenty of actresses do. You look at photos of them in 1984 and photos now and you realise they've aged backwards."
The public will have the chance to see Lawless aged forwards just a little in the film The Changeover, out this week. She plays a witch with long grey hair, though in truth I can't detect a single delinquent strand in her brunette bob. I doubt she has any and, even if she did, they wouldn't stand a chance.
"For women my age it's easy to go, 'What the hell, I don't care,' but I don't want to hear that things are inevitable. I'm not going to give it away. My mobility, that's important so I do yoga, and my liver, I don't want to trash that. My vanity extends as far as not smoking and drinking very little."
Then she looks away and her face splits into a wicked grin, as if remembering. "But I love it though. Drinking. Oooh yes. Love it."
Lawless does that a lot. Talks earnestly and then, with her characteristic curled-lip smile, lets slip a secretive, devilish admission. That look, signalling a barely contained sense of mischief, is why her attempt to pass herself off as a homebody isn't entirely convincing. There's obviously still a party in there which is why her current role in Pleasuredome, the show co-written and produced by her husband, is made for her. Even she says it's so exciting she doesn't need the stimulation of drinking.
"A lot of drinking is just masking boredom right? But I don't need it now."
As Sappho in the Pleasuredome nightclub, she will play a hot, hedonistic diva in a queer love story featuring sex, drugs, Aids, dance and bigotry. Lawless whisks me around the expansive set in the heart of industrial Avondale, West Auckland, with pride – and no wonder.
The entrance is an immersive New York-in-the-80s streetscape where punters can snack, drink and chat before entering the show proper, a fully realised nightclub with standing areas, table service, arena seating and screens. She describes it as a Studio 54 theme park where the audience is encouraged to be part of the show.
Pleasuredome opened two days ago and plays till November 5. With ticket prices starting at $29, she expects people will come more than once and enjoy the "wild, joyful, funkadelic ride".
Expect to hear Grace Jones, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Springsteen's I'm on Fire and Who's That Girl? from the Eurythmics. Expect a state-of-the-art light and projection extravaganza.
"Expect to be impressed," whispers a staffer to me later.
"That Rob Tapert is a mad creative genius."
Tapert conceived the idea after visiting an underground nightclub in New York in the 80s. Since then, he and co-writer Mark Beesley have been working on the right vehicle to recreate that seminal ride for others.
Lawless was too young to be an 80s clubber, though she did work in one.
"Club Mirage. I've always been very frugal. When my friends were travelling or going on holiday, I'd always rather work. I got it from my Dad."
Her father was Frank Ryan, an insurance broker as well as the former mayor of Mt Albert for 22 years.
"Every night he would sit at a desk in the lounge and go through his agendas. On the weekends, Mum and Dad would visit people – maybe they were sick or celebrating their diamond jubilee, that sort of thing. We were taught to be contributors."
Like her parents, she and Tapert also work together well.
"We've got 20 years of complementary experience."
What they don't do is holiday together much.
"Rob likes to fish, I can't stand the sun. I've got one son who likes to plant trees and investigate mushrooms and another who's into intellectual pursuits. We're all into very different things. But," she says, "we do eat together. Rob is a great cook. Besides, if you're a serious green activist you can't go pinging all over the planet."
Lest I think she's holier-than-thou, she switches her attention to me briefly.
"Hey, I'm not saying I'm perfect. Just that when I go away, I stay away."
All the same, Lucy Lawless is a serious green activist.
Though she's on the board of Starship Foundation and has been engaged in numerous charitable activities, her most high-profile extracurricular good work has been her role as climate ambassador for Greenpeace.
In 2013, she and six other activists were fined and sentenced to 120 hours of community service after spending 77 hours on an oil drilling ship at Port Taranaki to prevent it leaving for the Arctic. In July this year, she and other Greenpeace activists dropped into freezing Arctic waters north of Norway, again in opposition to oil drilling. She's even played a character based on former Greenpeace head Bunny McDiarmid in The Rainbow Warrior tele-movie.
"I love being with activists. They're so nice. There's never a cross word. I'm a bit of a rough diamond but they're peaceful people because they're not at war with themselves. You can't take them down. They know what they are doing is right, objectively right. It's the survival of the planet."
That's why this party Green voter doesn't see her activism as political.
"It's just a reality. Let's be honest about what our emissions are contributing to people dying all over the world. Anyone not in favour of [combating] that is a dinosaur. It's just good economics."
On board a Greenpeace vessel she's like anyone else – engaged in chores, training, safety drills, messaging, Tweeting and waiting, a lot of waiting. This is her contribution, a concept her parents championed even if this wasn't exactly what they had in mind. Her father died this year while she was protesting in the Arctic.
"He didn't understand my need to do this work. My father was a conservative old guy, but he respected the fact that I was doing something I believe in. I credit my parents for this and also the Catholic nuns at school who were activists themselves, fighting poverty and child sex slavery. Actually, they helped turn my parents' attitude around and when the Pope talked about climate change they realised that maybe their greenie daughter was not so off."
It's not as if she goes looking for such expeditions. Greenpeace invites her.
"There are many more people out there who are more famous and valuable than me, but they're not willing to do it, I guess."
It never occurred to her to get her husband's approval to join the protests. As it happened, the first time she went rogue, Tapert knew little about the whole thing. Until he turned on the television and saw his wife on CNN, he thought Lawless was working on a Jane Campion film.
It's fair to say he wasn't impressed and Lawless is sympathetic.
"Of course. We're not law-breaking people."
Then she breaks into that wicked laugh of hers.
"He was so angry he turned on the pool heater."
Now the conversation lurches in unpredictable directions – her leaky gut syndrome, the perceptual processing disorder known as Irlen syndrome she passed on to two of her three children, and her love of attending court trials both here and in the US. There, she once heard a case where the victim testified even though she'd had her head sewed back on after being chopped off with box cutters.
Here, she loves hanging out at the Auckland High Court: "To hear the banality of evil in your own accent is such a mind bender. It's also fun to discuss things with the cops and journos afterwards."
It makes her think about the need for transparency in the legal system, the people in stressed communities and the "fatal streak of stupidity in most murders".
As the interview meanders, she's so disarmingly frank I begin to worry for her and start saying things like: "Are you happy if I write about that?" and: "Perhaps I shouldn't mention this?"
Lawless fixes her sparkly blue eyes on me and says: "You know what? In all the years I've been doing this and all the stories written about me, whatever they've written – and, of course, some people try to take you down – none of it has mattered. None of it has made a blind bit of difference. Not one bit."
Of course not. I should have known. She's so chatty and unguarded, I momentarily forgot who I was talking to. I thought she was Lucy Lawless, well-known New Zealand actress, when she's more, so much more. To her legions of devoted fans around the world, she's a goddess, a champion of the dispossessed and marginalised, hero of the LGBT community – which is why, for the next six weeks, she will be the perfect Sappho, welcoming us to the Pleasuredome.
Pleasuredome is in Avondale, Auckland, until November 5. Tickets at ticketek.co.nz. The Changeover is in cinemas on Thursday.
- Sunday Magazine