Clone of Xena: Warrior Princess 20 years later: The cast and creators look back
Two decades have passed since television viewers were introduced to the fun, campy, and emotional Xena: Warrior Princess. Yet if the response from passionate Xenites to news of a possible reboot showed us anything this year, it’s that Xena’s legacy and fanbase have remained strong since the show premiered on Sept. 4, 1995.
Xena’s story began before she received her own series, however, when her character appeared as a villain on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. She received such a positive response that discussions of a spinoff led to her being chosen to helm the new show. Her story of seeking redemption by helping others as she turned from her ruthless, evil ways would help set her apart from Hercules. According to Steven Sears, a writer and producer for Xena’s first five seasons, Hercules was like their big brother. It was their launching pad and the success of Hercules was one of the reasons Xena had a chance and was able to become successful. The team knew however that they didn’t want to be another Hercules.
"This series was going to be the series about when the mortals finally stood up to the gods and said ‘we’re not going to be your toys any more. We’re not going to be your play thing.’" - Steven Sears, Writer and Producer
“We wanted to be our own series within that universe, so we did have a lot of discussions about what the series was going to be about. Hercules, himself, was half god, half mortal. We had a discussion about ‘well, where’s the source of Xena’s power come from?’ And we pretty much decided — I say pretty much because we always had minor disagreements — that her being mortal made her unique and that this series was going to be the series about when the mortals finally stood up to the gods and said ‘we’re not going to be your toys any more. We’re not going to be your play thing.’ So that was what Xena was going to be. Of course, we had to create a backstory with her and that evolved as the season went on,” Sears told Blastr.
As Xena evolved, it became a show filled with not just action and adventure, but also with memorable characters full of heart. The combination of these elements is why not just fans, but those involved with the show still fondly remember Xena. Sears, along with cast members Renee O’Connor (Gabrielle), Ted Raimi (Joxer), and Hudson Leick (Callisto) were all open to speaking with me about Xena all these years later. They not only offered a look back at their roles on the show and what it was like to be a part of the series, but also discussed the dedicated fanbase and what the future might hold for the Warrior Princess and her friends!
Renee O’Connor on the Unforgettable Gabrielle
It’s almost impossible to think of Xena without thinking of her bard companion, Gabrielle. Lucy Lawless’ character was helped on her road to redemption by an unlikely ally in the innocent village girl who was much more than a sidekick. Gabrielle provided a voice of goodness and morality that helped Xena stay on her path. Over the seasons, viewers watched as Gabrielle had her own struggles, grew into a warrior in her own right, and developed a deep friendship and love with Xena.
“I think, at the very beginning, Gabrielle was supposed to be the comic relief and a little bit of a damsel in distress for Xena to have an opportunity to be even more of the hero,” O’Connor told Blastr. “After the first season, the friendship developed between the two characters and that really just sort of started the foundation for Gabrielle to mature because she could be the best friend of the hero and also be the audience's point of view. She was the one who was reacting to all the different situations through the years, so it makes sense that she would change and grow. I was actually thrilled, the more opportunities I had to do new things the better for me.”
Xena’s episodes ranged from dramatic story arcs to hilarious comedy, giving its actors a wide world to act in. O’Connor loved the comedy and had fun working with actors Bruce Campbell (Autolycus) and Ted Raimi, saying she misses those opportunities. The growth of Gabrielle through these arcs eventually led to her carrying on Xena’s cause as a warrior at the end of the sixth season. While the last episode remains a controversial one among fans, it did not dampen the loyal following the series managed to gain early on. O’Connor knew it was a popular show between the second and third years.
"I really knew that it was developing enough of a fanbase that we would probably keep going for awhile,” she said. “I never had an idea the longevity of the impact it would have at the time. I never would have dreamed that 20 years later that people would have any inclination to still follow the show. I also love now where we have opportunities to meet people who are just watching it for the first time and they're enjoying it as if they watched it on the first run. I love that timeless quality that the show offers.”
As for what contributed to that timeless quality and what about the show struck a cord with fans, O’Connor thinks there are many elements of the show that were groundbreaking for the time.
"The show's fight scenes were all based around Hong Kong style fighting which to the western audience was completely new and fresh. So Xena looked amazingly strong.” - Renee O'Connor
“First of all we have a very strong female heroine who could be as formidable as any man. At the time, that just really didn't happen at all, and in a way that was extremely stylistic. The show's fight scenes were all based around Hong Kong style fighting which to the western audience was completely new and fresh. So Xena looked amazingly strong,” she said.
The fact that families could watch the show together was another element, according to O’Connor. Families could discuss the values and topics covered in the show, from Greek mythology to friendship to forgiveness. O’Connor also highlights how the show brought different moments and figures from history together well and how their was a “tongue in cheek quality of the writing where we never really took ourselves seriously at all and so we were laughing along with you with a little bit of a wink and that, again is always something fun to watch.”
The relationship between Xena and Gabrielle also plays a huge part in the show’s lasting legacy. As the series showed us, they were soulmates, and seeing that kind of love and connection between two women at the time was incredible for fans.
“You have the friendship between Xena and Gabrielle which is really deep love, which was incredibly groundbreaking at the time, and that just developed a real trust in an audience that had never had that sort of acknowledgement in the western media, and I think it was unconditional love and I think all of this combined together makes [the show] timeless,” she said.
Ted Raimi discusses loyal and the clumsy Joxer the Mighty
As O’Connor mentioned, Ted Raimi in his role as Joxer helped bring some hilarious comedy to the series. Loyal, clumsy, and always trying to be the best warrior even when he was clearly the worst, Joxer was a character that sometimes divided fans that could love him as strongly as they hated him. No matter which way you felt though there was no denying his pivotal role in the lives of our heroes.
Looking back at Xena and what may have contributed to its success, Raimi speculates that people respond to the basic theme of seeing people in a hostile environment trying “to muddle their way through as best they can in a bad situation.”
“But it’s also sort of strangely turned on its head in that these shows typically have a male protagonist with female sidekicks, females that help them through their quests. But in this case, it’s a female doing this, so I think that struck a chord with a lot of people, and I think, likely, America and the world were ready for a female hero at that time,” he told Blastr. “I think the timing had a lot to do with it, also. There’s been plenty of shows with female strong characters since then, a million of them. They haven’t resonated as much. I don’t understand why, some of them have been quite good, but that’s all I can think of. The whole thing was kind of a strange phenomenon. I think it was well executed, well acted by Lucy and Renee, and also it was just lucky timing. “
Timing worked for Raimi getting his role on the show as well. SeaQuest DSV, on which he played Tim O'Neill, ended with its third season, leading to Raimi looking for work. Having trouble finding a new job, he was only a few days away from leaving town when he was offered the role of Joxer. The type of character was quite different from his role on SeaQuest since Joxer was a more physical part. Raimi did as much of the fighting, falling, and other physical aspects as he could, and anything he couldn’t do was handled by his talented stunt double, Mark Rounthwaite. Raimi would also end up playing Joxer’s brothers, Jett and Jace, in the series. This meant that, sometimes, he’d have scenes where he’d be acting opposite himself. He said these scenes weren’t challenging, they were “just plain fun” and right up his alley as a character actor.
Raimi was aware of what fans thought of Joxer, especially those who didn’t want the character on the show, thanks to the growing use of email by fans to communicate with people involved with their favorite shows.
“They felt it was a female centric show. It was, like, the only one on TV at the time just about. It happened to be fantasy, but I think that was besides the point, and there I was, this goofy male who was not even complimenting the other two females particularly, other than the fact that I was obviously dumber and weaker than them." - Ted Raimi
“They felt it was a female centric show. It was, like, the only one on TV at the time just about. It happened to be fantasy, but I think that was besides the point, and there I was, this goofy male who was not even complimenting the other two females particularly, other than the fact that I was obviously dumber and weaker than them, which was OK, but they didn’t want any males on the show,” Raimi said.
He approached executive producer Rob Tapert about what they were both reading from fans.
“He was a friend, and he still is, but at that time I went to him and said, ‘Look man, I understand the negative press you’re getting from this, from my character being on it. If you have to fire me, I will not take that as an insult as a friend. You’ve got a business to run and I get that.’ I’d been in a million TV shows [and] I’d been in a million movies at that point, so I understood how the business worked. But he said no, he’s going to stick with me, because he thought I was funny and he wasn’t really interested in what the fans thought of it. Rob always sort of follows his own gut - that’s part of his strength - so I was very glad he did obviously, and so I got to keep my job and eventually the fans warmed up to me, but it wasn’t for a couple of years,” he said.
Fans that warmed up to Joxer may or may not have warmed up to his iconic theme song that recurred through the seasons and could be stuck in your head for days after one listen. The song first appeared in the second season episode “For Him The Bell Tolls” directed by Josh Becker. According to Raimi, Becker thought it would be a funny idea to have Joxer do something annoying that would bug Gabrielle while the two of them were captured.
“He thought a song would be a good idea, and I thought it was great, so he had already come in with ‘righting wrongs’ and ‘singing songs’ as a little line or two, and I sort of took it from there and I wrote the rest of it,” Raimi said. “I just took it on myself to write the rest, and then I would keep going back to the director, Josh Becker, with, ‘What about this line? What about that? Is this funny? Is that funny?’ And together we sort of came up with that melody. Actually, if you listen to it, I took little two line phrases from cartoons I’d seen as a kid and kind of stuck them together into this sort of endearing hero song. Now, 20 years later and a hundred million requests for that song, it’s become as much of a joy as a pain in the ass. “
In the episode that aired, Joxer sings the full tune for the first time after Gabrielle has left the scene, but there are plenty of other instances in the show when the characters get to hear the song and variations of it!
Hudson Leick talks villain-turned-angel Callisto
In the same episode fans met Joxer, they also met the merciless Callisto, who became one of the show’s greatest villains. Calisto reminded Xena, Gabrielle, and the audience of the Warrior Princess’ past, and the consequences of her actions. Losing her family thanks to Xena started Callisto on a path of revenge that led to her taking countless lives until she was given a second chance.
Hudson Leick, the actress who brought the dangerous Callisto to life, told Blastr that she loved how her character evolved over the years and what the writers generally did with the show.
“I loved my character. I thought my character was amazing. So, even though she was broad strokes bananas, she was very human. She’s like the dark side of humanity that, when we get our feelings hurt that we want to retaliate, that we want to hurt back, and how it never works when we do that and we become sick when we start doing that ourselves without knowing it and trying to get to hurt the other person hurts us. It’s so tricky and it’s a thing we humans don’t seem to learn very well,” she said.
Through the seasons, Callisto haunted our heroes and killed people close to them. Despite this, Xena eventually chose to save Callisto’s soul, turning her into an angel. To make things even more interesting, she would be reborn as Xena’s child, giving them both a second chance at happiness with a family. Leick’s input was sought out when the producers decided on the bold development.
“Rob [Tapert] actually called me and asked me what I thought about being turned into an angel and then impregnating Xena to see if I thought it was too far fetched, which I thought was pretty amazing." - Hudson Leick
“Rob [Tapert] actually called me and asked me what I thought about being turned into an angel and then impregnating Xena to see if I thought it was too far fetched, which I thought was pretty amazing. That executive producers [were] willing to call the other actress to see what she thinks, like that’s how incredible the show was,” Leick said.
The love put into the show is one of the reasons Leick thinks the series may have inspired its faithful fanbase as well as it being based in humanity and showing the dark and light in everyone.
“I think that people can relate to that on such a profound level. It was different than Hercules in the sense that Hercules was always good no matter what ,which you can’t really relate to. I can’t relate to that, speaking for myself. That’s just not the color of being a human being - it’s like a myriad of colors and flavors,” Leick said. “And [Xena] had the mix of the sexuality and the love and the confusion and the hatred. It covered really everything. It was really well done and it was fun and it was funny and it was campy and it was over the top and it was ridiculous.”
Steven Sears’ View from Behind the Scenes
Those working off camera recognized this distinction between the goodness of Hercules and the darkness of Xena early on.
“We were working with a character who came from a place of darkness. When we first met her, she’s raiding villages, so we thought, you know we can either lighten that, or we can double down,” Sears said. “If we lightened it we wouldn’t have had the conflict and friction that we ended up with, so we decided to double down on it. We said, let’s make this truly somebody trying to come to terms with her particular past, so we made her past very dark. She was the bad person. She was the evil person at one time, but our story became about her meeting another person that inspired her to try to return from that darkness to walk back into the light.”
According to Sears, why Xena has succeeded in keeping fans through the decades is complicated. However, he thinks the show dealing with things within the human soul played a role, which was helped by the show having the right team who understood the material and the message, and accepted everyone’s input while being willing to explore and take chances. The show is also literally timeless in the sense that it does not take place during a fixed point in time.
“We cannot be looked at as, ‘Oh, that’s an old series,’ because it was set in B.C., A.D., sometime around Caesar before and after. You’re not going to see somebody using the wrong technology; you’re not going to see old cars. We literally can be played at any time because you have to detach yourself from our present world in order to enter that particular world, but in that particular world all we really did was deal with the human condition…those core things don’t change. Those still affect people,” he said.
Sears couldn’t say that he was ever surprised while working on the show that it was gaining a cult following, in part because he noticed that fans were bringing their discussions to the Internet. He looked for online references to Xena and discovered an AOL chatroom. Sears decided to enter it, letting the participants know who he was and they shouldn’t watch what they say because of his presence. If they started to discuss anything he couldn’t hear, he’d leave the room and they shouldn’t take offense at him leaving.
"The information age was dawning and we were a part of it." - Steven Sears
“With that I started to see this grow and it’s hard to say I was surprised at the fact that [Xena] became a cult status show and I can only say that because I was watching this happen with the Internet. In other words it was a brand new experience over all so a whole bunch of different things were happening in society at that time. So, had it not been for the Internet, if this had been like mail in or fanzines or something like that, yes I would have been very surprised. But I can’t say whether I was or not because so much was happening with the Internet. The information age was dawning and we were a part of it,” Sears said.
To Sears, one of the things adding to the cult status was the subtext question in the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle.
“When we started the series, having worked on several series that had same sex leads, I remember saying in our meeting before we even shot the pilot, I said this is going to have a very large gay and lesbian following. A few people in the room just said, ‘No, I doubt that. I doubt that’ and I said ‘No, that’s a disenfranchised society. They’re looking for things that they can cling to and things that will validate,’ and I’ve seen it on previous shows. Every show I’ve worked on that had same sex leads, the fanzines always reflected that,” Sears said. “Now, what I did not expect was the size of it. It became a part of our pop culture. It became this discussion about Xena that went back and forth mostly in a friendly manner that enhanced our characters. So, I will say that particular cult status, the size of it, actually surprised me and to be honest, looking back on it I’m delighted that it did.”
Potential New Life in a Reboot
As for Xena’s future, there are still not enough details for us to know exactly how Xena might return in some kind of reboot. The possibility of somehow seeing Xena come back now has O’Connor feeling a little mixed about it.
"I'm a mom and I would love to see more strong characters on television that were female that were not overly gratuitous as role models." - Renee O'Connor
“I was talking to Lucy about it and there's one part of me that would be thrilled, because the character is iconic. I mean if you look at her and see the soul of her character...why not bring that character back and create a fresh new perspective of who that would be and who that character would be now? I think that would be fantastic. Personally, I'm a mom and I would love to see more strong characters on television that were female that were not overly gratuitous as role models. I would love that to be out there,” she said. “The other part of me sort of questions how they would do it because, nowadays, it’s so easy for people to go to shock value of structures and stories to get an audience and I think if that’s what they did with this show, that it would be a little disappointing to me, because the show was never about that. It was about friendship. It was about good fighting evil. About heroes, and I would love to see them bring more of that back in a fresh perspective. I don't know who could do that well. I would think that our producers if they were to pick it up and do it again would obviously do that well, but who knows?”
Sears doesn’t know what’s being done with the reboot or what form it might take, but he does think the fans deserve it.
“They want it. They want to see it come back. They want to travel the ancient world with their heroes and they really worked hard for this. Now the danger of course is would anything be able to satisfy everybody? And of course the answer to that is, honestly, no. Not everybody’s going to be satisfied. Even if we got together the old gang and we got Lucy and Renee and the other actors and the directors. We all got together and continued the series, I’m sure we could do a really good job but there will always be comparisons to the previous series that just some people will not happy,” he said.
The possibilities are endless right now. We may see fresh adventures in some form for Xena, Gabrielle, and the others as new faces take over the scrolls and chakram or a passing of the torch to a new generation of characters. Either way it’s clear that the original Xena will remain a beloved show well beyond this year’s anniversary.