Is she still a Texas girl or has she totally turned Kiwi? After five years in New Zealand as a co-star on "Xena: Warrior Princess," not even Reneé O'Connor can be sure. "I'll always claim Texas as my birthright," says O'Connor, who plays Gabrielle, Xena's best friend, in what is still one of the freshest shows on TV. "But I think I've adapted to the Kiwi lifestyle quite well.
"I'm always teased by my family and friends who come over because of the things I say now. They just laugh at me when I use centimeters instead of inches or when I call the trunk a 'boot.' They look at me and say, 'Where are you from again?'" But even after five years and 100 episodes of "Xena," the young woman who grew up in Katy, just west of Houston, still experiences a taste of culture shock from time to time.
"Just recently my mom sent me a care package from Texas and I made a true, Southern-style meal for my friends on New Year's Eve," she says. "I made this beef dish that was really tender with a barbecue sauce over it. And they were like, 'What is this? I've never had it before.' "I told them it was brisket. And they all sort of coughed and looked a little pale and said, 'Um, you probably should have told us that earlier.' Turns out they serve brisket as dog food here, because it's so fatty. 'Thanks, Reneé, you're feeding us dog food.'"
When she signed on to play Gabrielle on this action-fantasy series about warlords and kings and gods, O'Connor never imagined she would be spending the turn of the millennium in the country where "Xena" is made. To have foreseen that would have meant anticipating the success the show has enjoyed worldwide.
"Ten years ago, I never, ever could have dreamed that I would be living in New Zealand, living with a man who I am just absolutely crazy about, so in love with, and working on a show with people I care so deeply about. I could have never have asked for this, because this is so much better than anything I would have dreamed of."
O'Connor has worked at perfecting her skills since childhood. One of two children (brother Christopher is a grocery store manager) of Sandra, Reneé's fan club manager, and Walter O'Connor, a bank credit manager working at Houston's Greentree Financial Corp., who divorced when Reneé was 2, she was raised in Katy, Texas, a Houston suburb, by her mom and stepfather, Chuck Gibson, a businessman (they divorced in 1989). Her mother now owns Threadgill's in Austin with her current husband, Eddie Wilson.
O'Connor's route to TV started during a school program offered by the Alley Theater. From there she earned a spot at Houston's High School for Performing and Visual Arts, although she chose to graduate with her friends from Katy's Taylor High School.
Her first professional gig was as a dancing Porky Pig at Astro World, soon after which she moved to L.A. She landed starring roles in the serials Teen Angel and Match Point, which were featured on the Disney Channel's Mickey Mouse Club. But not before earning money waitressing and teaching aerobics. "I loved the fact that I could tell people to do 50 more pushups and they actually would!" she recalls. She soon landed a feature role in a Tales from the Crypt segment that marked Arnold Schwarzenegger's directorial debut.
After parts on NYPD Blue and TV movies, O'Connor costarred in a 1994 Hercules TV movie (before it became a series) that was being shot in New Zealand. Her performance impressed Tapert, who remembered her the following year when casting began for Xena's spunky foil.
The role has even made O'Connor spunkier. "It gives you a sense of confidence that you can beat up someone bigger than you," she says. "Of course, it's pure illusion. I'm a klutz."
It's hard to say who has grown more through the years, O'Connor or Gabrielle. In the early seasons, Gaby was the cute, comic sidekick, the eager protégé and often the damsel in distress. And in real life, O'Connor acknowledges she was in awe of Lucy Lawless, who plays Xena, the ultimate Wonder Woman. But O'Connor and Gabrielle aren't kids any more.
"Every year it's another metamorphosis of the character for me to play, especially this year," O'Connor says. "This year is probably the most dramatic for the character." In addition to a stunning new "I am woman" look, the once dove-like Gabrielle is now a fighter and a warrior like Xena.
"There are babies everywhere," says Xena: Warrior Princess co-star Reneé O'Connor, referring to the impact of Eve, newborn daughter of Xena (Lucy Lawless), who arrived as an immaculate conception in the episode "God Fearing Child." "We've had about four different babies playing this one character. "It's really amazing," she adds. "I don't think that I will ever need to have children of my own, because they are around me all the time."
"The great thing", she says of the babies, "is that you get to give them back at the end of the day." The advent of Eve came in the wake of Lawless' real-life pregnancy, which culminated on Oct. 16, 1999, with the birth of Julius Robert Bay Tapert. The baby's father is her husband, Xena creator/executive producer Rob Tapert.
Of course, the ramifications of Lawless' maternal joy were felt well before the actual onscreen and offscreen deliveries. To accommodate Lawless during her pregnancy, O'Connor handled more of the fighting and action sequences than usual.
Post-Julius, as Lawless took some time off to recover and be with her family, several well-received episodes focused almost exclusively on Gabrielle (O'Connor) Xena's faithful sidekick. "I just latched onto anything I could get and really bit my teeth into it all," O'Connor says. "It's obviously been the most I've worked in the entire run of the show, but it's been a great opportunity for me, both physically and as an actress.
Gabrielle has been fighting for three, in a sense, just out of sheer obsessiveness, to protect us all," the actress adds. "Now that we are going back to being more of a Xena-driven show again, I have been fulfilling my own desires by doing theater scenes and anything else I can outside of work, at the end of a 14-hour day on the show. "If the energy is there, I think, you are always willing to do whatever you can, just to grow as a performer and to have a good time," says. "That's what I'm looking for- I always want to have fun."
O'Connor promises plenty more fun in the latter part of Xena's fifth season. Much of it will involve Eve, whose recent arrival threatens to herald the twilight of the gods- in other words, she may cause Zeus, Hades, and Ares to lose their power over mankind. "We are going to have all sorts of twists and turns", O'Connor promises. "And I'm sure that we'll have this huge finale in which we try to kill off all of the gods.
"Next season will actually be the one that I am curious about," she adds, "in terms of what direction we'll go in and what new enemies the writers will create to continue the show. We've always had plenty of angry gods to deal with, but next year should be a very interesting challenge for everybody." O'Connor figures that Xena will be around for another year or two, and she's definitely up for it.
After all, there are still butts aplenty to kick, character traits to explore, episodes to direct and stranger-than- strange experiences to savor. "Every day on Xena is strange," says O'Connor, who spent a recent comic episode, "Married with Fishsticks," portraying Crustacea, a mermaid with three fishy kids.
"There is always something that makes me sit back and laugh because I just can't believe I'm doing it." "Yesterday, for instance, I was sitting at the back of a cart they had attached to a truck, " she recalls. "We were getting ready for the shot, and the director was yelling, 'And a gigantic plasma fireball is coming at you from the left!'. You've just got to laugh," she concludes. "I have to think, 'This is my job,' Every day there is something just like that and I love it."
|Born: February 15, 1971||Height: 5'4"|