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Lucy Lawless Gets Animated For The Spine Of Night - Exclusive Interview

Lucy Lawless' breakout role came courtesy of her ass-kicking titular turn in the hit fantasy adventure series "Xena: Warrior Princess," which ran for six seasons from 1996 to 2001. As Lawless proved, however, "Xena" was only the tip of the sword. Since then, she's slayed in recurring roles in such hit series as "Spartacus," "Battlestar Galactica," and "Parks and Recreation," and was a cast regular in the wildly imaginative "Evil Dead" trilogy spinoff series "Ash vs. Evil Dead."

Thanks to all of her success, Lawless has been able to lend her voice and influence to several causes, including advocacy for gay rights and Greenpeace, and now, she's featured in the new documentary "Mothers of Invention," about a fearless group of women who spearheaded a 1981 protest over nuclear weapons stored at Royal Air Force station Greenham Common in the U.K. Lawless also her voice for entertainment purposes, having appeared in guest roles in such animated series as "Star Wars Resistance" and "Adventure Time," and the upcoming feature "Minions: The Rise of Gru." Up next for Lawless is the animated fantasy adventure "The Spine of Night," which debuts in theaters as well as digital and video on demand October 29. 

In the film, Lawless voices the lead role of Tzod, a warrior who possesses magical blooms that promise immortality, yet prove deadly when they fall into the wrong hands. Directed by Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt, "The Spine of Night" is unique in its unflinching depiction of ultraviolent action and other elements normally associated with explicit R-rated films. What really gives "The Spine of Night" its revolutionary feel is that it was created via the rarely used, decades-old animation technique of rotoscoping, where animators trace over live-action footage frame-by-frame to produce a realistic look. Lawless, as well as actors Richard E. Grant, Patton Oswalt, and Joe Manganiello, was brought in after the painstaking process — which began in 2014 — was complete. She discussed the film and more with Looper in an exclusive interview.

Something old, something new

Congratulations on "The Spine of Night." Given the bold new direction with this film, it really to me just raises the level of what we can do with animation. Would you consider this more of an experience than a movie?

I'm so thrilled and amazed to hear you talk that way. I mean, when I saw it, I was just like, "Oh my God, this is so kooky. It reminds me of my childhood. It's such a labor of love, I have to help these people make it." It just appealed to me on some level I couldn't even describe. And so I love hearing people like you describe it as being something a little bit highfalutin, because I was just into it for the love of the game sort of thing, and the love of the style of it. It was just so old-fashioned, it was new again.

I like to see originality. I'm sure that's exciting for you as an actor to see originality.

Yeah. I suppose doing new things in an old school way is what makes it different. I hope that it will find resonance with this generation, because the younger people, they want to find their own thing, their own pop culture heroes and icons, and they don't want to inherit it. I think this is unlike anything that's been around since maybe 1972.

A rare animated film with explicit nudity

While it's retro and it's cool, there are elements in this movie that people aren't used to seeing in animation. Tzod's nudity, for example. If you're going to be an actor, you want to embody character. As exposed as she is through the entire film, does that play with your psyche a little bit? I mean, you know it's not you onscreen, but yet you still are the character.

No, but it did play on the psyches of my representatives! One of my reps was like, "Do you really want to be seen like that?" I was like, "What are you talking about? It's a cartoon." I looked at it and I went, "Yes. Yes, I do." [Laughs] Because again, it was so old it was new again, and I just wanted to be part of something that somebody had been such a labor of love, and I wanted to help them.

Turning potential negatives into positives

Unlike live action where you might run an entire scene, it seems to me that it's a lot different than if you're reading a line and somebody like Philip or Morgan will say, "I want to hear that again." You might run a line five times until they're getting what they think they want. How difficult is it to maintain that sense of emotion or whatever you want to bring to the character?

Well, this character, apart from the fact that she doesn't run through a great many emotions, it actually felt very natural and very easy, to be honest with you, because once we sorted out what the accent should be — we didn't want to be recognizably German or whatever — it had to be something from some indeterminate swamp near you. So, she had an element of foreignness, but the great challenge was that we had to lip sync to somebody else's performance that had been rotoscoped in years before. So to take that performance — and this could be an incredible negative — except the way this project has been blessed where everything that is a negative has turned out to be an advantage, because it kooks the expectations. So, the Hollywood actors had to come in and breathe life into these lines and into these characters, using somebody else's intonation and some probably amateur actor's interpretation of the line from years ago. Right? That is a really weird process, but I think it is what makes it kind of cool.

It's the same with the action. In every stunt fight I've ever done, you'd have, you'll have different rhythms ... There's a regularity to the staccato nature of these [action scenes], which is like, it takes you right back to "Jason and the Argonauts," the way they did it. And what could have been an incredible negative makes an incredible positive. Because not only is it weird and uncanny, has this uncanny appeal, but it makes the violence seem more important. If Phil and the guys had rotoscoped a modern, expensive [version of the movie], if you'd got a proper stunt director in and they had done it as per every show I've ever been, on every movie that's been in the last 20 years, 30 years, it would not be as cool.

The Spine of Night connects Lawless to some of her other fantasy projects

I love the fact that you brought up "Jason and the Argonauts," because that was one of Sam Raimi's influences with "Army of Darkness." I would almost say that "The Spine of Night" mirrors "Army of Darkness" with those warrior skeletons in a medieval time period, and the unbridled violence of "Ash vs. Evil Dead" in a way. Would you agree that it has an "Army of Darkness" sort of feel?

Oh, that's funny. No, I didn't. There's something in the stilted nature of having to do things on a budget, which makes it fresh all over again. So, what could be a real downer turns out to be a boon.

In your diverse list of credits, you have a fair amount of sci-fi and fantasy projects including "The Spine of Night," obviously, along with "Xena," "Spartacus," and "Battlestar Galactica." Do you seek out these projects? Do these projects find you? Or is it a little bit of both?

No, they hunt me down and they hog-tie me and make me sign the contract. [Laughs] No, it's never been my taste. I don't know how this has happened to me. It was never part of the plan, but I feel like I'm on some great river of some destiny that was beyond my imagining. So, here I am doing fantasy and genre stuff. But no, it's just been my ... I don't know. I was just fated to do all this stuff, and it ties up in my real life with my activism for the environment.

I was in the Amazon three days ago, speaking on behalf of these people who can't get paid for the cleanup of their homeland, from the oil company. And I just realized, "Oh, my God ... Everything I've ever done has come to this moment." So, yeah, none of it was my planning, but I don't know. I feel this is all tied together and there's environmental themes in "The Spine of Night," too. So, I mean, that's what it's all about, actually.

Resurrecting Ruby and the Evil Dead

I've talked with many members of the "Evil Dead" family — Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, a young fellow named Rob Tapert (Lawless' husband and frequent collaborator) — over the years, as well as Dana DeLorenzo, who I've gotten to know, and Ted Raimi.


The conclusion of Season 3, with Ash going off into the future, teased endless possibilities. As for Ruby, I don't think she's ever gone. If we could bring the series back for another season, where do you think you would like to see Ruby go?

The whole joke the first season was, "Who is Ruby?" Bruce was saying it, because they wrote me in and then they brought a writer on, who's just like, "What the hell do I do with this character?" And I don't blame him. It just wasn't his idea. ... I love working with these people, and it's so fun. And Dana and I had just so many laughs ... God, she's funny. What would Ruby be doing? I don't know. Maybe she'd come back as a nice girl. Who's forgotten her evil ways and be madly in love with Ash. And that would give him the collywobbles.

In my mind that was the perfect extension of film trilogy into this TV series. What do you account for the series' effectiveness? To me, it captured the spirit of those films in such a great way and just extended the story for 15 hours.

It was pretty fun. And they kept trying to outdo themselves, like "Oh, now, okay. Now we put the guy through meat grinder, then a ceiling fan." I don't know. I think the writers nailed the humor. And Bruce is just so good, a master of his universe ... he's the heart of it.

If there's a fantasy cage match between Tzod, Xena, and Ruby, who wins?

I think Tzod and Xena would kind of be on the same side. I think ultimately, actually Tzod would just be sitting in the corner, picking off leaves like popcorn and letting the other two go at it. Let's face it. Tzod's not interested in that. No, she doesn't fight chicks. [Laughs]

A Marvelous thing to think about

You have a bit of Marvel street cred with your wonderful cameo in Sam's "Spider-Man," and as Agent Izzy Hartley in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." With the continuing expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, if you had your pick, is there any particular Marvel character that you would like to explore in the future?

Wait. The Thing is Marvel, right?


Can I be Mrs. Thing? Can I be Thing's girlfriend? [Laughs]

Hey, anything is possible. So, but you would have to have that rocky costume, you know? You'd have to be made of stone.

I always liked him as a kid, the rock guy. No, I'm sorry. Like I said, I'm wrong person to ask. I'm more like, "I'd really like to work with Judi Dench." [Laughs] It's never going to happen.

Well, hopefully you find a way to get it done.

That's fantasy for you, Buster!

Lawless is putting the nun in Nunchuck for Minions: The Rise of Gru

I love The "Minions" movies. You voiced Nunchuck in the upcoming "Minions: The Rise of Gru." Can you share anything with me about the film or your role?

Have you seen a picture? Have they put out a picture of her yet? They have, right? Well, goes back to my Irish Catholic roots. She's a nun, but a bad one ... she's got a rough sense of humor and has technical skills. I don't know what I'm allowed to say because that's been put off for a couple of years. She's in charge of some of the technology and you'll see what I mean by that ... I am really thrilled.

The other thing about "Minions" — apart from what a great franchise it is and what a charming, charming set of characters — but to be working with in the same cartoon as Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme. They're like for me, a kid from the '80s, it's like, "That is super cool." I was like, "I got to do this."

"The Spine of Night" debuts in theaters, digital, and on video on demand October 29.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.