05 September 2010

Interview: Renée O’Connor

Again and again over the course of a long weekend in Paris, Renée O’Connor heard the love: “I’ve been waiting 14 years for this moment!” “You’re my favorite actress!” “You changed my life!” Although the fan convention here (which also drew fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one of that show’s stars, Nicholas Brandon) was billed as “The Musical,” she was surprised and delighted by two fully choreographed musical numbers, in which her audience became the performers. (These kids are going to tumble for Glee, whenever it arrives on European TV.)

For the native Texan, still best-known for her role as Gabrielle on the syndicated television series Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001), it was clearly an emotionally gratifying time — in which she was invited into the community that her show created, and in which the fans strove to give back to her something of what they’d received. This was also my introduction to the true nature of the phenomenon that is Xena fandom. (And yes, by weekend’s close, the kids did dress up as their favorite characters, though I missed the costume competition.)

A proud alumna of Houston’s Alley Theatre children’s program and High School for the Performing Arts, Renée now lives primarily in the Los Angeles area, while maintaining a home in New Zealand, where Xena was filmed; she’s the mother of two young children. In addition to her talents as an actress, she’s building a career as a director: her first feature, a romantic comedy entitled Diamonds and Guns, was released in 2008. She paints and writes screenplays — and poetry, too — and with the help of our mutual friend, Michelle Grant, she conducts seminars in Awareness, with a view to leading more creative, open, spiritual lives. (Renée’s next such seminar will be in Toronto, 11 and 12 September.)

Spending time with Renée, I discovered a compassionate, thoughtful woman with a great deal to express, and abundant means to express herself. Our conversations with Michelle, over a couple of dinners and a long walk through Paris, covered a wide range of topics — of which the interview that follows touches on only a few. Suffice to say that I’m a fan now, too, in hearty agreement with those who say, “ROC rocks!”

Renée O’Connor with the organizers of the French fan convention.
Her T-shirt says, “Paris, j’adore.”
Photo by Michelle Grant© Used with permission.

WVM: As I wrote on my blog today, to a true Xena fan, I’m probably the nightmare, because I’ve never seen the show. Now I’m intrigued, and I want to catch up on the series. So tell me: who is Gabrielle? What should I look out for as I watch?

ROC: In the beginning, she is very naïve, with an intense desire to search for who she is. Then she starts to be the counterbalance to Xena’s pragmatic warrior, so she becomes more of the peaceful, compassionate, loving partner to Xena’s person-seeking-redemption. Xena the Warrior Princess is looking for redemption, and Gabrielle is guiding her there in some profound way. I think that if you thought of the whole arc of the series, that’s what you could say. Xena discovers true love in Gabrielle. What else should you look for? In the beginning, she’s one of those people who can get herself out of any situation through fast talking. By the end of the series, she actually gets herself out of situations by using her own physical strength, fighting alongside Xena.

WVM: She’s also a bard. What does that mean, in Xena terms?

ROC: Gabrielle is a great storyteller. She loves to meet the poets along the way. Even at the end of the series — she admires Sappho’s poetry, and so Xena gives her this gift, a poem to her from Sappho. Gabrielle is the person who writes down and archives the adventures of Xena all along the way. Then she puts them in these scrolls, which are her prized possessions, and she carries them on all their journeys. So one great piece of humor is when Xena discovers that she can’t find any paper in the forest, so she uses one of the scrolls, rips off a piece of one.

WVM: That kind of paper? Toilet paper?

ROC: Yes! There was a wonderful lightness in the series. There were feminist themes, anti-war themes. But also humor. I still remember that scene: “Scrolls? You used my scrolls?”

It’s still the ultimate buddy movie, too. [Gabrielle and Xena] could always rely on each other. We always loved each other, too, so whenever a tragic flaw came over one of us, we always came through to the other side still loving each other.

WVM: But it’s my understanding that they were never depicted as lovers outright.

ROC: That was asked today. Someone said, “Do you think they ever basically made love,” is what the question was. That’s been the question of subtext for all these years. There was an incredible intimacy between Xena and Gabrielle. I don’t know if I said, “Yes” or “Probably.” If so, Lucy [Lawless, who played Xena] and I never defined that in playing the characters.

It’s a relationship I don’t think I’ve ever had: it’s best friends, it’s maternal, it’s combative — such as in warfare when you have to rely on your partner to think quickly.

WVM: There’s also an element of big sister/ little sister, isn’t there?

ROC: Yeah, and yet I felt Xena was quite maternal, too. Xena defended Gabrielle. I don’t know if she sacrificed herself. It’s more than just a sexual intimacy. But that’s what people saw, so that’s what they could resonate with the most.

WVM: We don’t often get to see women’s friendship treated in this kind of depth. Usually the depictions are pretty superficial, or they don’t take up much screen time. And men — myself included — are always certain that there’s more going on and much more said between women when we’re not in the room.

ROC: Interesting. That’s the mind of a man!

Renée recalled a scene between Xena and Gabrielle that demonstrated the characters’ closeness.

ROC: We were around the campfire talking about a recap of what happened in the episode, some sort of change in the character had happened, and it was an intimate, vulnerable moment, and it happened around the campfire. I think there’s a moment of intimacy when people are vulnerable and open and loving, and I guess that’s where the “dot dot dot” comes in.

It’s funny you say that [about women’s friendships], because I think women are probably more threatened [than men] by seeing someone they love in an intimate relationship with someone else. Women feel that way. As opposed to something that looks — something that might just be a lustful projection. Isn’t that true?

WVM: I think guys tend to congratulate each other, rather than feel threatened. Maybe they’re hurt when feeling left out, like “I can’t hang out with my buddy because he’s out with his girflriend.”

While Renée reflected on this, I observed that, at the convention, it was clear that a number of the women present at the convention considered Xena and Gabrielle as models for their own loving relationships with other women. Renée cautioned that her perspective shouldn’t be taken as authoritative, merely because she played one of the characters, but she does understand the interpretation.

ROC: I have to embrace that, because truly the lesbian community is still our most loyal following, definitely, after all these years. So if that’s what they want to see, absolutely, go for it, sure.

WVM: Is it flattering to be viewed this way by a community, that you’re telling their stories?

ROC: You know, I come at it from the other angle. I’m almost worried — and I’m not a worrisome person — but I worry about misrepresenting the community, because I don’t expect to be iconic. I can’t represent them in a way that is truly truthful, and so I don’t know that I should be the spokesperson. [That is to say, because she’s a straight woman in real life.]

I think people resonate with me personally because of the person I am. I care about the fans, I really do. I want them to be happy. I want them to feel like they can stand up and say, “I’m gay,” and be fulfilled in so many ways and never be discriminated against. That’s what’s important in what they see in me. I don’t want them to feel isolated or feel like they have to hide or feel ashamed. And I think the young girls feel that way because they don’t have anyone to talk to and they don’t know what to do. I have felt that in my life, and so I feel like I want to say to them, “You don’t have to do that, you can stand up and be who you are.”

Michelle Grant, WVM, and Renée O’Connor

WVM: A lot of people identify very closely with Gabrielle’s spiritual journey.

ROC: I don’t know that she meant it to be a spiritual journey. I think she was trying to search for her individual way. There was an element to the spiritual quest there, but I don’t think it was isolated around spirituality. You know, there are just some people who feel incongruent, they have different aspects and they don’t line up. They feel conflicted. [Gabrielle] was in love with someone who was a warrior and was killing people, and yet Gabrielle wanted the life of a compassionate pacifist. So how does she do that? That was how I came at it.

WVM: I should probably use the word “meaning” rather than “spirituality.”

ROC: Yes, yes, looking for meaning, sure.

WVM: The audience really seems open to Gabrielle and her experience, but also open to you. In turn, you’ve been able to share with them some of the wisdom that you’ve picked up along the way, and several of the people at the convention had attended your Awareness seminar in London.

ROC: What was important for me was for people to really see who I am, the person beyond playing a character on television, and to benefit from the gifts that I’ve been given, and learned from my last five years of studying one road toward self-awareness. I think that the great gift of the Awareness seminars is that I’m able to pass something on to them and facilitate these teachings that they can use in their own lives, and they can then move on. Awareness is about asking inductive questions, and we get to find out about their own experiences. What love feels like, what joy feels like, or asking inductive questions to get their answers to what the ego feels like, what patterns — like behavioral patterns — might look like for them. When I’m facilitating the seminar, I’m not teaching as much as I’m asking for their own awareness to speak up and teach themselves.

Traveling in new directions

WVM: And it’s something you can do in a number of places.

ROC: I will be traveling around the world, teaching an introduction to Awareness. It’s based on one book, the book is called The Ring around the Mind, by Mary Rocamora. For instance, “the ring around the mind” is literally the idea of the ego that we keep in our mind, such as a running commentary that takes us through the day, our personal critic, the judge, the ring that keeps us feeling separate from the rest of humanity on a large scale, keeps us separate from our own higher self.

WVM: What do you do when you identify it?

ROC: The next step is to try to lose the ego altogether and move to a place that is much more free, which I believe personally is the self that was intended all along, the reason we were born. Whatever that may look like, the people who are in your life for that reason, [who] match that. So the seminars, yes I have taught one in London and one in New Jersey, I’m about to teach one in Toronto. Michelle [Grant] and I will be taking the seminar to different places, I don’t know where yet. My idea is to take it somewhere and introduce the concept of it — which is ironic, because the whole seminar is about getting away from concepts and experiencing what’s real. But I want to introduce them to Awareness, and then, if people want to continue to study, they can go to Mary Rocamora.

She never solicited me on any of this. It’s just that my life changed so much that when people ask why I seem different, I want to be able to tell them why, and maybe they’ll find it useful, as well. I think there are many, many roads to people’s finding their own peace and enlightenment, and this just happens to work for me.

WVM: You’re taking your career down a different road, too. Why directing?

ROC: I don’t think it’s so much a “why” as — because I’ve been directing since I was a kid. I’ve been playing with a camera and directing my friends in plays and scenes since I was in grade school. During Xena, I was always curious about the bigger picture, where the characters were going, if the story arc made sense, if the beats in the scene were true and then had a shift at the end and carried on to the next scene. I was always fascinated by these elements, so it was a natural segue to directing. I feel I have more creative control, the opportunity to play in all the different departments. After six years of working on Xena, I understand camera angles and shots, and how to make things look dynamic. I appreciate compositions to the shots.

The poster for Words Unspoken, a recent film by Renée.
For more information on all of Renée’s directing projects,
consult her production company’s website:

I happen to love working with actors, I appreciate their techniques, and I value their effort. And then I’m able to raise their bar and push them a little bit further, if necessary, to try to stretch them, to see if they can learn something as well. When I say, “learn something,” I mean maybe an inner wisdom that pops because of the experience or maybe a technical issue. You know, that doesn’t always happen, and you have to know when people aren’t willing to do anything and [they] just show up and work for a paycheck and go home. That’s okay, but I prefer to work with people that have a higher interest in being there, if possible.

WVM: Where are your next opportunities to direct going to be?

ROC: I actually don’t know yet. I’m looking for financed independent films to direct. A lot of people come to me with ideas and stories, but then they want financing. I am looking for financed projects to direct.

Photo by Michelle Grant© Used with permission.

During the convention, Renée had talked about the impact that playing Gabrielle had on her personally: first in giving her confidence, and then, after the series ended, launching her on her own spiritual journey. (Which, as opposed to Gabrielle’s journey, Renée does describe as spiritual.) I suggested that, through her directing experiences, and in one case by getting involved (successfully) with financing a picture, she was mirroring the Gabrielle experience, and gaining confidence.

ROC: Yes, I learned the confidence during the two episodes that I directed on Xena. I felt very confident as a director — maybe naïvely — but now every time that I’m not directing but I’m acting for myself, I see that I have more knowledge than I expect of myself. I think it’s just there, and it comes from absorbing the knowledge from the talented directors that were around me for all those years. I have always been inquisitive, I’m sure you could ask any of those directors, and the ones that I respected, I was always right by their side, asking questions. Fortunately, they were always very forthcoming with sharing — sharing with me and not getting too frustrated!

The problem with this business is, if you have not directed a feature film, it’s difficult to get a large budget behind you and get sent off for your first feature film. That’s been a struggle, and yet I don’t think it’s a dead end. It’s just a detour.

WVM: I’ve already heard from readers who are Xena fans, but there are probably going to be people reading this who know as little as I do. What do you want people to know? How do you want to say goodbye to us tonight?

ROC: I am always fascinated at how we are all connected, and how similar we all are. What about the people who follow Gabrielle are similar to the people who follow your opera? Do they both feel extremely passionate about the feelings they get from watching Xena or being in the opera? Why are we so similar? If music or a television show can makes us open in our lives, how can we take that feeling and translate it into our daily lives? That would be my parting words, is to put it back to them. How interesting, to cross the gap.

I would think that someone who would prefer to sit in an opera probably wouldn’t be picking up a Xena DVD. I don’t know. So if not, then can he or she listen to how passionate someone feels about a TV character and respect that that’s that person’s model of their world, and yet their feelings are exactly the same as [those of] the person who sat and listened to the resonating finale of an opera star. But gosh, operas are just so powerful! And yet some people today were telling me how much Gabrielle changed their lives. I’m not suggesting they [opera and Xena] are the same, but they’re more similar than we realize.

NOTE: After the more-or-less formal conclusion of our interview, I observed that the final scenes of Xena are borderline Wagnerian, with a heroic death and transfiguration, as the lone surviving lover sails off into the unknown. Renée replied that Robert Tapert, the show’s creator (and Lucy Lawless’ husband) is an opera fan who often incorporated operatic themes into the show’s scripts — and who encouraged Renée to attend the opera, too. If she can cross over, can the rest of us do any less?


Gabsfan said...

Excellent interview! You may not have been very familiar with her work or fans before this but you obviously did your homework. You went beyond the superficial questions and did not ask inaccurate questions like some interviewers who didn't do their research. In this interciew we got to hear from the deep, thoughtful, intelligent person that is Renee O'Connor who happens to be a talented actor, director, writer, artist and more. And a part of me envies that you were able to spend so much time in conversation with her for your interview. :)

I attended her one day Awareness Seminar in New Jersey this past May. It was an amazing and inspiring experience. She is an excellent facilitator. It was the first time I'd met her outside of a fan convention. In my head I've long ago separated Renee the person from a character she portrayed but at the seminar, it was similar to the Woody Allen film Purple Rose of Cairo except it was the actor, not the character, who stepped out of the screen, off of the convention stage into my real life. She was grounded, gracious, genuine, caring, and more. That day, she was just one of us. An illustration of this are the group photos from New Jersey and London. She purposely did not sit in the middle of the group. She was either in front but kneeling on the floor off to the side or in a back row off to the side. Instead of us surrounding her, she made the photo and the day about all of us.

I'll say again, ROC Rocks! I wish her only the best and I will support all of her future endeavors.

William V. Madison said...

Wow -- thanks very much! And how wonderful that you've gotten to spend such a remarkable time with Renée. (Not exactly like a scene from Purple Rose of Cairo, after all, since she's one of the most real, least fictional women I've met. Which is one of the things I like best about her.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the amazing interview, you asked great questions and I truly enjoyed reading it.

Xenan said...

Bonjour William,

Je suis Xenan, j'ai eu la chance de vous rencontrer durant la convention "The Musical" où vous m'avez aidé pendant mon interview avec Reneé O'Connor quand je baffouillais des mots en Anglais. (rire)

Je tenais à vous remercier d'avoir été là pour m'aider à me faire comprendre auprès de Reneé. J'étais assez nerveux et vous avez été très gentil et patient. Merci.

Bravo pour votre interview, j'aime beaucoup vos questions. Vous n'avez peut-être jamais regardé la série mais vous avez pris le temps de poser des questions fortement intéressantes.

Comment avez-vous connu Reneé O'Connor ?

Vous pouvez prendre contact avec moi directement sur mon adresse e-mail : xenan@xena-immortal.com

A très bientôt j'espère.


William V. Madison said...

Merci, Xenan, et tout le plaisir de notre rencontre était à moi! Bravo pour le site et pour le livre, aussi (j'ai eu l'occasion de le feuilleter lors de la convention) -- très impressionants, les deux.

J'ai rencontré Renée grâce à notre amie Michelle Grant. Elle m'avait beaucoup parlé de Renée depuis bien des années, mais évidemment, rien ne pouvait me préparer pour sa présence magique!

Xenan said...

Merci pour le compliment.

Oh, je vois, vous êtes un ami de Michelle. C'est une femme merveilleuse, très professionelle et disponible pour les Fans. Je ne regrette pas de l'avoir rencontré et échangé quelques mots avec elle.

En tout cas, sachez que si vous avez besoin de quelqu'un pour vous conseiller en ce qui concerne la série, n'hésitez pas à me demander !

Qu'est ce qui vous a motivé à vous installer en France ?