As Lucy Lawless is well aware, there are worst ways to spend a day at work than doing interview promoting your new TV show. "We could be carrying bricks on a hill in Bangladesh," she offers, rather specifically. But still, as we meet up in downtown Austin, Texas, to discuss her role on "Salem," there is definitely something else she'd rather be doing — at the courthouse just down the street. "I like to watch jury selections," she says. "It's so interesting, you get to learn information about people's lives that's so dramatic. And yes it's a bit voyeuristic, but you get to see true life that way and the harsh truth behind it."
How often do you do this?
Oh, once a week. They don't always have jury selection, but I do enjoy that. You don't always know what the case is about, but sometimes you can get the information. I kind of have a scoop of who's a good person to go to for information at each courthouse. See, I'm never bored in any town because I always have my go-to activity.
Where did this come from?
I've always been interested. There are a lot of defense attorneys in my extended family and in my immediate, and I'm interested in the law and how it plays out. I'm interested in truth-telling, and I realized that I think I've got a good bulls— meter, but you realize I know nothing. Because if you grow up in a home where it's a level playing field and the world is trustworthy, you don't need to lie to survive. But people who live in a very unstable environment growing up, where lying may be a matter of survival, they're so good at it, and criminals are so good at it. Or sometimes you can see witnesses struggling to maintain a lie. Sometimes you can pick them, but often you cannot. And then the evidence will show that you were wrong. So I love all of that. It's human sleuthing.
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So how long have you been sitting in on jury selections?
I started about four years ago, going to actual courthouses. But I read about the law all the time, about defense cases or prosecution cases. Because human beings, you know? Louisiana has a death penalty case coming up. It was aggravated rape of a minor this week, but you don't always know what the case is. I've got to listen very carefully and read between the lines, figure out what the charge is going to be from the questions they ask the jury.
Most people in the U.S. are trying to get out of jury duty.
You would think so! But yeah, in communities that are quite impoverished — and Louisiana's a poor state — that small amount of stipend you get for being a juror? Not so bad, you know? Maybe? I'm guessing here. But I don't see a lot of people trying to get out of it. A few, yes, a few are just honestly like, "I'm going to find this person guilty." Like, "You hurt a dog, you're finished with me" if it's an animal cruelty case.
But you've never been on one yourself.
I would like to, if I was not working. There was only one time I got called, and that was while I was doing "Xena." It would've put so many people out of work, so I begged off. But I'll do it for sure one day when I'm available. If they want me.
Lucy Lawless says that her most iconic role was particularly popular with one specific demographic, she's learned. "African-American women loved 'Xena' because they recognized strength," she says. "That's very important to their culture, to see themselves represented on TV, even by a white woman. I never understood that, but I get recognized by African-American women all the time. Not so much by white people, not in the same way. I could be dressed down in the most obscure place, and they'll pick me out. They won't always know why, but they'll be sidling up to me.
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter:@nedrick