LUCY LAWLESS HAD A VISION OF JUST how Hercules's gal pal should be: dark, dangerous, riding wild unicorns, running with gods. Doing battle with gladiators fit the bill; stepping on rat poop in a sewer pipe did not. And yet, there she was last year, in a makeshift subterranean tunnel, sludging through the stinking mess in her assault on some evil king's castle.

"There were so many droppings on the ground, I was slipping," says the 28-year-old New Zealand native, "and then they dumped all these rats on me that were biting and scratching, getting caught in my hair. It was so vile. I had to get a tetanus shot."

Happily, her superhero health insurance was paid in full. As the star of the popular, syndicated TV show Xena: Warrior Princess—a spinoff of the cult hit Hercules: The Legendary Journeys—Lawless has attracted a devoted following of sword-and-sorcery fans. Still, Xena is a strange job for a single mom like Lawless. When it's not raining rats on her, there is always a motley mix of villains waiting to pounce. "This is the most physically demanding show for any woman on television," says Eric Gruendemann, producer of Xena and Hercules, both of which are shot in New Zealand to keep costs down. "With that much stunt fighting, you're going to get hit."

The 5'10" actress from Down Under can hold her own—and says she enjoys mixing it up. "A little while ago, while fighting a rebel leader, I collected a beauty, a true black eye," she proudly reports. "The makeup department took a Polaroid in case they ever need to replicate a shiner."

There was a time Lawless had a more genteel vision of show-business success. The fifth of seven children in a close-knit Catholic family, she was raised on equal parts of rugby and religion by her parents—Frank Ryan, 64, a former mayor of Mount Albert, the suburb of Auckland where Lucy grew up, and Julie, 59, a homemaker. But what she loved best was theatrics. "She used to get up on the coffee table with a seashell for a microphone and sing away," says Julie. Growing up, the family ham performed in class plays and trained in opera. In 1986 she enrolled in Auckland University to study languages and opera, but a year later she gave up on school—and singing. "I didn't have the passion," she says.

What she did have a passion for was adventure. At 18, Lawless took off for Europe, traveling through Germany and Switzerland, sleeping where she could. "I lived on coffee and cigarettes until I was skeletal," she says. After her high school sweetheart Garth Lawless joined her, they went to Greece, then to the outback of Australia, taking odd jobs along the way. While in Kalgoorlie in 1987, Lawless discovered she was pregnant. The couple obtained a quickie marriage, then moved back home to a tiny apartment surrounded, she says, "by mad old ladies with cats that drove me insane."

Garth managed a bar, and after Daisy, now 7, was born, Lucy took acting classes. Within a few years, her flair for drama had turned into a career. In 1994 she was cast in a one-episode role as a renegade Amazon lieutenant in Hercules. Her second appearance, as a villainess who seduces Hercules, might have been her last, but an American actress cast for a three-part role as Xena fell sick at the last minute. Says Gruendemann: "We needed someone fast." Within a week, Lawless's ash-blonde hair had been dyed black and cameras were rolling. Three episodes later she'd charmed her colleagues and high-kicked her way into her own series. Says Hercules star Kevin Sorbo: "Lucy is Xena."

Since the breakup of her marriage last June, she is also single. "Garth and I just got married too young," says Lawless. For the past six months she has been dating "a wonderful man," she says, but her top priority is her daughter. During the week, while Lawless works and trains, Daisy lives with her father; on weekends she stays with Lawless in her simple, four-bedroom home in Mount Albert. "It's relentless challenges," says Lawless of life as a superhero-mom. "I would not mind if Daisy wanted nothing to do with acting," she adds, laughing. "But I'm afraid there's a lot of me in her."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
KIRSTEN WARNER in Auckland

  • Contributors:
  • Kirsten Warner.