The Way of the Warrior
Interview with Renee O'Connor
Transcript by MaryD
As Xena's faithful companion Gabrielle RENEE O'CONNOR helped XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS redefine the small-screen fantasy-action genre. "I don't think anyone really had an idea that a female action hero would we on TV," she tells Tara DiLullo.
Time certainly hasn't stood still for Renee O'Connor since she last kicked ass as Gabrielle in the final episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. Following the completion of the New Zealand-based show's six-season run in 2001. O'Connor has not only relocated to the US with her husband but has become the proud mother of a young son.
"My life has completely changed," O'Connor tells dreamwatch. "As an actress now looking back, I can really see the beauty of the whole epic nature of the show and the change in the characters. I can also see how insulated I was being in New Zealand and working every day. There was an innocence in both the character and myself, which is beautiful. I actually don't think I could play Gabrielle the same way now.
"It's funny, but I didn't realise until about a year after the end of the show how much I was missing my friends and the work environment on Xena," she admits with a chuckle. "I was just so preoccupied with my new baby!"
A native of Texas. O'Connor first became involved with the Hercules and Xena franchise in 1994. when she won the role of Deianeira in the original Hercules TV movie Hercules and the Lost Kingdom. Her work on the TV movie brought her to the attention of Xena co-creator/executive producer Rob Tapert and his production partner Sam Raimi, who subsequently invited her to play Gabrielle in Hercules' first live-action spin-off show, Xena: Warrior Princess. At the time of her casting, O'Connor had no idea that Xena was destined to become a long-running TV phenomenon.
"I was very surprised that the show became a hit," she recalls. "When we started we were the underdog - the kid show that nobody took too seriously. We shot on 16mm film while Hercules used 35mm, and we used all their sets when they weren't using them. I don't think anyone really had an idea that a female action hero would work on TV. "Personally, I also didn't know how long my character would last," she continues. "I knew I was a little older than they expected to cast Gabrielle, so I thought I would go back home after the first year. I didn't even pack up my stuff in Texas! I just kept my apartment and everything intact ready for me to come back. It's funny because typically you sign a contract for six years, but you never expect it to go that long." O'Connor's fears about Gabrielle's future weren't helped by the audience's initial reactions to the character. "Everyone thought Gabrielle was irritating at the start," she admits. "Nobody wanted a little 'tag-along character' to get in Xena's way."
Fortunately, the show's producers were committed to making Gabrielle and her relationship with Lucy Lawless' Xena an integral part of the series. And by the end of the show's first season, they had succeeded in establishing O'Connor's character as a popular companion to the Warrior Princess.
"The episodes The Greater Good and Is There a Doctor in the House? really changed things," notes O'Connor. "They allowed the audience to see how much these characters meant to each other for the first time — and, suddenly, the heart came into the show. After that, the writers started to focus more on the two characters together as opposed to all the high-concept plots."
As the bond between Xena and Gabrielle grew, many viewers famously began to speculate that they were more than just good friends - and were, in fact, lovers. "I definitely think that was an aspect of the show that had a life of its own," says O'Connor when asked about the nature of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship. "Most of it came out of how it was received by our audience. I don't think there was any point in the show consciously making the characters appear a certain way. We just served the script, which was about love and friendship. It was so truthful, which is why people care for them and find them endearing. "They are lifelong partners," she notes firmly. "There's no hiding that."
Sisters in Arms
During the course of Xena's six-year run, O'Connor seized the opportunity to constantly develop her portrayal of Gabrielle. "My character changed over the years from being the naive person who gets into trouble to being more of a comrade-in-arms," she explains. "That was nice to do, because I would get frustrated at times when I had to do the same things over again.
"I really liked the process of working on Who's Gurkhan?, because initially my character was going through something she had already been through — she wanted to kill someone and she couldn't. It was one those moments where I went to Rob and said. 'I think we've already done this - maybe she actually does try to kill him. I asked if we could explore how Gabrielle could become a little more like Xena, since she had been travelling with her for so long.*
Another aspect of Xena that O'Connor relished was the show's wide range of storytelling. "We did it all," she says proudly. "I think we tried everything from farces to stylised epics. As an actress, it was fantastic because every week it was something different. We would be doing something Shakespearean and then do a read through for the next script and it would be slapstick! Sometimes it was hard to get your head around but it was fun, like walking with a theatre troupe.
"I just love some of the comedies with Ted Raimi like If The Shoe Fits and Been There, Done That," she adds. "Whenever, I think back on Xena, I think most fondly of those moments."
Inevitably, working on the show had its low points too. "I don't think I realised what a toll some of the elements of the show - like the fighting and some of the character situations where Gabrielle felt violated - would take on me morally," she admits. "I've had this real hesitation to get back into television and now I know why!
"When we were making an episode called The Abyss, the feeling of being persecuted became really powerful. There was a scene where I was just tied up and people had their hands all over my body and they put something in my mouth, and I felt awful! I couldn't believe it could happen on a TV show and it made me so angry, so that was a low point for me,"
After 134 episodes, Xena: Warrior Princess concluded with the epic two-parter. Friend in Need. The series finale saw Xena giving her life to defeat an evil spirit known as Yodoshi and release the souls of his victims. Although Friend in Need concluded Xena's quest for redemption on a controversial note, O'Connor felt it was a fitting end.
"I'm a romantic at heart, but I love to cut through sentimentality whenever I can," she explains. "When I heard Xena was going to be killed, I was like 'Oh, great!' I thought it completely validated her journey."
In the three years since Xena's conclusion, O'Connor has let her acting career take a backseat to her private life. But she's about to begin work on the US Sci Fi Channel's new TV movie, Alien Apocalypse, and hopes to pursue a variety of other projects during the next few years.
"It comes down to the question of what stories I want to tell as an actress and a person. I want to do things that affect me so strongly that I have to be a part of them."
In the three years since Xena completed its small-screen run, many viewers have expressed their hope that Xena and Gabrielle's adventures will continue one day in a TV movie or even a big-screen adventure. But O'Connor has mixed feelings about the prospect of reprising her role as Gabrielle in any Xena revival.
*I think I could take it or leave it," she reveals candidly. "On the one hand, I feel like I have come full circle in letting go of the show and moving on. But if Rob were to put such a great effort into making a film, then I would definitely join him. I'm not holding my breath for it, but we'll see."
Regardless of whether a Xena revival is ever produced, Renee O'Connor knows that the show will continue to hold a place in TV history as a groundbreaking, female-led action-adventure series.
"Since the show finished, I've had a real sense that people either loved it or had nothing to do with it." she states. "There is a real division between whether people appreciated the style of the show or not, and it's fun because I can see both sides.
"At first I was really surprised by the continued support of fans, but now it just warms my heart. There's a sense of family in that, because it's a group that I know are always there. It's comforting."
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