Batman had Robin, Butch Cassidy had the Sundance Kid and Xena: Warrior Princess had Gabrielle. Playing Xena’s sidekick on the cult classic television show was the talented actress and producer Reneé O’Connor, who recently talked to us about being directed by the governor of California, how it felt to be named LesbiaNation.com’s most loved woman of the year and what life is like in the “Xena-verse.”
We know you are originally from Texas. Where do you call home now?
I live in Los Angeles and I prefer to spend a lot of time in New Zealand.
How often do you get back to New Zealand?
At least once a year, I try to go back more than that if the fates allow me. I spent so much time there while I was working on Xena that it just feels like a second home to me.
Do you have a place out there?
I do still have a home out there. It’s something that I need to update and clean up a bit so that I can use it as a rental. (Laughs.)
How exactly did you get into acting, and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
I think I’ve always known that I wanted to be an actor. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved the theatre and loved being in front of people, my family.
Was there a particular moment that solidified it for you or was it just a general feeling that you had?
I just remember being maybe 11 years old and it was the first play that I was in front of my family and the community church or something and it just felt so freeing to be able to play someone else besides me that I think I got the bug.
Once you made the decision to go for it, how tough is it to break into the business? Did you have a lot of trouble getting roles starting out?
Not starting out. I was really young when I decided to go to the performing arts high school, so I had to make the break in my mind that I was going to try to do this professionally at a really young age. That was it. I’m so driven as a person that it was pretty easy from then on to just stay focused.
Early in your career, you starred with Elijah Wood on the Disney film The Adventures of Huck Finn. What was that experience like?
He was really young, I think he was nine years old. He was so professional and so well prepared. I was very impressed. (Laughs.) I wasn’t very – well, I was older, a lot older than him, I guess I was like 19, 18, something, but he knew what his job meant and he came prepared. I just thought that was wonderful. I didn’t get to know him too personally, just only the time I spent with him on set.
There’s another interesting celebrity you worked with early in your career. You had a role in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-directed episode of Tales from the Crypt which ended up on the cutting room floor.
Who knew he would be the governor some day?
What was it like being directed by Schwarzenegger? And is it weird for you to see that he ended up being the governor?
I think it’s very odd. (Laughs.) To be honest, I can’t say that I voted for him. He’s not someone who I thought would do really great things for our state, but he seems to be moving along well. People around me are jokingly saying he’s going to be our president one day – that they’re going to change the laws to make him president. Then I’m really going to be surprised.
I don’t know. He was a very nice man. I think he was impressed with me that I wasn’t intimidated by him. I remember him saying that to me. I don’t know. I found him very warm and almost, to tell you the truth, like a grandfatherly type. (Laughs.) Even though he didn’t look it, you know. He had that feeling that he was approachable.
You are best known for playing Gabrielle on Xena: Warrior Princess. What is it like now when you think back on that period in your life and what did you take away from your experiences working on the cult classic?
I realize I have a wonderful work ethic. (Laughs.) I laugh at that, but it was tough going. We worked so hard on this TV show and I now realize how much information I have just from the experience of being on the set for six years. I’m trying to use that with my producing.
Yeah, you know, I’ve always been really professional, sort of like Elijah Wood. He definitely made an impression on me, even though I was older. And I’ve always been like him. I’ve come up, I show up for my job, I don’t create a lot of personal fuss – I will stand up for my character or question, at least, things if it creatively seems to be needed. But I’m there to work and I was pushed to the extreme on Xena, so I think anything is easier now compared to the elements on that show.
Do any favorite moments stand out from that time in your life?
I love the actors I was working with. I love Lucy Lawless, she’s a wonderful woman and she’s just a great comedian – as a person and as an actress. And talk about work ethic. She is someone who stands alone. You just knew you were in the battle with her and she wasn’t going to wimp out on you.
Ted Raimi was another highlight for me. Any time I get an opportunity now to work with Ted, I jump at it.
Our writers were great. They were just given such bizarre scenarios and they pulled through the most wackiest, fantastical scenarios and yet kept the endearment and friendship of the characters along the way. So kudos to those guys.
And then most importantly for me, I thought Rob Tapert was – he’s brilliant. He was and he is brilliant. (Laughs.)
You mentioned the strange plotlines. Was there anything that you thought was just too bizarre or too ridiculous?
Occasionally, later on when I really knew my character more than some of the newer writers coming in, I would debate some of the topics with Rob Tapert. Mostly, we were pretty much on track. I’d say when you look at the whole series, there wasn’t a need to stand my ground too much, just a few episodes maybe I could think of.
Do you ever go back and watch any of the old episodes or do you just leave them in the past?
It’s funny, you say leave them in the past. I don’t watch the episodes, but yet the fans of Xena are very much a part of my life where I see them at conventions and I honor their attachment to the show, and to Lucy and I. I do things around and for them as much as they do for ourselves and our charities.
How often do you get recognized in your everyday life and what sort of interactions do you have with fans outside of the conventions?
The fans are very involved in the charities Lucy and I support. And, for instance, they’re just a force of their own. You have to be a part of the “Xena-verse” to really get it. I say Xena-verse because it’s just a group of people who are completely loyal and supportive of their friendships that they’ve created because of the show and the themes that the show represents.
There’s a writers’ strike going on right now, which you probably know about, and they have organized these boxes of refreshments and beverages for the former Xena writers while they’re picketing the lines. It’s just incredible. And that’s just one of the many things that they do. It’s amazing.
You mentioned that your fans support your various charity work. Would you like to mention any of the charities you are involved with?
One of the newer ones that I’m really intrigued with is the Richstone Family Center. That’s one that I am going to try to focus on more this year. And it just helps council families and children who have been victimized by child abuse, so that’s something I’m looking into.
Do you still keep in touch with Lucy Lawless on a regular basis?
I’d say yes. I mean, I don’t see her as much as I do my neighbor, but she’s just like a sister to me. I could call her up anytime and have a chat and it’s like we just got off the phone, even though it might have been months separating our conversations.
What are the chances of a Xena movie getting made sometime in the future?
I don’t think it’ll ever be made, at least not one with Lucy and I involved in it. There was a moment there where it probably could have happened, but it had controversy over who owned the property, so it just lagged behind too long and now I think the moment has passed.
At the end of 2006, you were chosen by LesbiaNation.com as their most loved woman of the year. How did it feel to receive such an award?
I was so excited. (Laughs.)
You beat out Lucy Lawless for that award too, didn’t you?
Yeah, but I think we switched roles this year. She was number one and I got number two. So now Lucy and I must have this sort of rivalry we are going to have to start just for fun.
So, are you going to beat her in 2008?
(Laughs.) Am I going to beat her? I’d have to pin her down and then maybe they’d let me be number one. Lucy and I just have fun with all of it.
You have started your own production companies – ROC Pictures and ROC Productions. What inspired you to start these companies and how tough was the transition from acting to producing?
No, actually it turns out that I started working on this film where I ended up producing a lot of the movie – Diamonds and Guns. And then, after all of the hard work that I had been enduring all these years, I wanted to then put a logo or a name to it, so that I could then use it as a launching pad for other projects. So the project came before the production company really.
And what is the plot of Diamonds and Guns?
It’s a romantic comedy set in Las Vegas and its guerilla filmmaking at it’s finest. It’s actually really well done. We had a very limited budget and a wonderful cast, great crew, so we just used all of our resources and many favors and shot at the Riviera.
People can expect it to be an adult comedy. There’s many layers of humor. There’s the farcical humor, there’s the witty dialogue – when I say adult humor, there’s talk of sex and it’s just fun-loving. We sort of used Swingers as an idea when we were shooting in Las Vegas. It has that feel.
Has that been released yet?
It is straight to DVD. Right now, I’m selling it on its website, DiamondsandGuns.info and I will keep doing that until the distributor takes it out nationally. I say nationally even though the Internet is globally.
What types of films are you hoping to produce in the future?
I want to produce things that represent more of who I am or the types of movies I enjoy. Although I love comedies, when it comes to producing something and living with it for such a long time, I tend to be attached more to the epic films. So this one movie that I would really love to do, it’s very similar to The Bridges of Madison County. And that’s just more me. I’m a Southern girl and I like the visual pieces of being outdoors where you can really play with the composition of the movie. So that’s something I’d like to produce and direct. It’s not Bridges of Madison County the sequel. (Laughs.) It’s a book that I have to just keep working with.
Have you or your production company been affected by the writers’ strike?
I have not been affected at all because I’ve never actually written any of my own material that I’ve produced. That’s another one of my missions for this year, be it a short film or something for the Internet. I’m just working really hard right now and trying to write and I can do that because I’m not part of the union. It will affect me if SAG goes on strike this summer.
It has affected me personally as an actress because I’m supposed to start work on Army Wives and I can’t do that until they go back into their second season. So I have a character arch there that I’m excited about doing that I have to wait it out.
Are there any directors or actors out there that you would like to work with?
I would love to work with Clint Eastwood in any ability whatsoever. And Martin Scorsese. And Tim Burton.
You are set to star in the SciFi Original movie, Genisis Code. What is the film about and what can fans expect to see?
It’s fun for me to revisit the SciFi Channel because the last time I worked for them was Alien Apocalypse with Bruce Campbell. It rated very well and I haven’t been with that company, the SciFi Channel, because I was trying to branch out and do things other than monster flicks. This one really appealed to me because it has more to do with a sense of spirituality and the monsters together, so it reached me deeper than the actual action that you would come to expect from the SciFi Channel.
And what is your role in the film?
I play a character named Ava and she is not too dissimilar to Gabrielle in some ways, where she is interested in archeological facts and scrolls. She’s an expert on all things to do with the area around the Dead Sea. They discover that there’s another ark out there and they go to try to retrieve it to be the first archeologists who get this great find. But then, there has to be a monster involved. (Laughs.)
You mentioned working with Bruce Campbell on Alien Apocalypse. Is there any chance you might appear on his new show Burn Notice, which Lucy Lawless had a cameo on last season?
I don’t know. Unless Bruce called and asked me to do something, I don’t think I would approach him about it. I try not to do the same things that Lucy’s done, you know? I mean we’ve already worked together for such a long time and if we do come close to the same paths, I’d like it to be that we work together. So no, I probably wouldn’t go on it unless Bruce just wanted me to do it.
You are in Boogieman 2, which was released on DVD this past week. What can you tell us about that film?
It’s another slasher piece, but there are elements of it that aren’t as gory as you would think, whether that’s to its benefit or not. It’s not a Saw type of movie. It does have Tobin Bell in it, but it’s not of the same franchise as Saw. It’s the same executive producers as Xena, Ghost House Pictures.
And what can you tell us about your role in the film?
I play a psychiatrist who is trying to help these kids with their phobias, hence the fear of the Boogeyman.
What do you do to unwind when you are not working?
Hmm, I love to take baths. (Laughs.) That’s my favorite thing to do in my house. I meditate. And I love painting.
And you’ve sold some of your paintings, correct?
I have. I actually started selling oil paintings to fund Diamonds and Guns, the post-production process of the film.
Do you do portraits or landscapes?
I prefer landscapes right now, but it really changes depending on what I want to try. I’ve done portraits. It’s very sort of abstract and surreal. There’s a lot of colors in there. But I hope that it feels alive and maybe even a little bit emotional, so that people feel that there’s an attraction to the colors, more so than it looking completely realistic. It’s something that I picked up as a hobby and I realized that it’s something that I really love to do, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something that I continued throughout my golden years – the twilight years.
You climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. What made you decide to do it and what was that experience like for you?
It’s funny, it wasn’t actually my idea. It was my mother’s idea from what I remember. She says it was my idea. I’ve always wanted to travel to Africa and it just seemed like a good thing to do. “Let’s climb the highest mountain in Africa.” I was curious to see if I could actually do it, if I could reach the top, because it was physically pretty challenging for me.
I do suffer from altitude sickness but I can’t take the pills to help alleviate that feeling, so it was a mental challenge for me to try to make it all the way to the top without all of the drugs that go along with it to help you. But it was beautiful. I had the opportunity to meet some amazing people from the local towns. I saw glaciers which eventually won’t be there anymore, unfortunately. And I had that one moment of spirituality where I was sitting near the top and watched the sun come up. That was something I’ll never forget. The colors were so incredibly vivid. That’s the sort of things I like to repaint myself when I’m oil painting.
Do you see yourself doing more climbs in the future?
No. I don’t acclimatize well to those things. I really don’t. And I know how challenging it is. Kilimanjaro is not an overly technical climb, so it was just perfect for me. It was more an act of sheer will and I know I don’t have it in me to do something with worse elements, like K2.
What would you do for a living if you never got into acting?
I don’t know anymore. For a while, I wanted to be a marine biologist, but really that was probably just an interest I had for a fleeting moment as a kid. I don’t think I could have done anything besides working in some sort of creative or entertainment field.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I don’t know if that’s possible anymore. (Laughs.) It’s funny, over the years, I tend to reveal more of myself and my personal history and I think that’s just from my getting older and not worrying so much about what people think of me or my background. So, I don’t know. I tend to be very open in my own time. I think people know more than they ever have before, that’s for sure.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
My fans know I adore them. I’m going to see them very soon at a Xena convention, so I’m going to have an opportunity to try to find ways to entertain them. I’m trying to write stuff now to see what I come up with.
Do you think you and Lucy Lawless will still be attending Xena conventions 50 years from now?
(Laughs.) That would be funny. If they have them – when I’m 80. One of these last moments of my life. That would be really funny.
It would also be great if you and her will still competing for the LesbiaNation woman of the year award.
(Laughs.) That would be awesome. Let’s plan on that – reconvene in 50 years. That would be hilarious.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, January 2008. The Official Xena Convention 2008 will be held January 25-27 in Burbank, California. For more information, visit Creation Entertainment’s website. For more information on Reneé O’Connor, visit ReneeOConnorFanclub.com. To donate to the Richstone Family Center, visit their official site.