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Lucy Lawless remembers hating the first 'Evil Dead'

"Xena: Warrior Princess" legend Lucy Lawless talks about being the Dean Martin to Bruce Campbell's Jerry Lewis on "Ash vs. Evil Dead," and talks about the upside about getting 120 hours of community service.

Lucy Lawless wasn't so happy with the 1981 horror "The Evil Dead." But never say never: a decade-and-change later she was married to its producer, Robert Tapper, and working with star Bruce Campbell and filmmaker Sam Raimi on the shows "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" followed by her starring role on "Xena: Warrior Princess." Now the gang is back together with “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” the new show that picks up with Campbell’s Ash, the salty, one-handed, demon-battling hero of Raimi’s “Evil Dead” series. Lawless plays Ruby, and though she’s only around a bit in the first few episodes, she soon joins forces to fight the latest apocalypse, even if she’s mostly giving the older but still feisty Ash a hard time.

You only have what’s basically a cameo in the first episode.

There was more to that scene, but Sam found it too mean-spirited, so he cut it out. It involved my character smoking like a train, and some little kid comes up to her and tells her her mommy thinks smoking is dirty. And the kid gets a cup of coffee in the face. It was just too mean. [Laughs] It was funny, but a bit mean.

Your character’s not supposed to be a jerk.

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Sam was saying it tells the wrong story. It would send the wrong message.

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When you’re acting with Bruce, you probably don’t want to try and be too funny.

It’s better you get to be Dean Martin to Jerry Lewis. I would describe my character as an irritant. Ash is on a mission to save the world and she’s going to make it hard for him. She’s introduced slowly in the beginning, partly because I was working on something else in the middle of the show. Ash builds this ad-hoc family of misfits, and then you bring someone in who’s going to f— it all up.

She’s kind of the practical one, whereas he’s still very immature.

He’s a manchild, isn’t he? I think it was the right time to make the show. Ash at 45 is nowhere near as funny as him at 50-something. It’s hilarious that he has dentures. Ash has dentures! It’s funny that this lothario is gumming girls at night. It’s funnier at this age than 10 or 15 years ago. He has a girdle.

He seems to have gotten dumber.

He only got stupider! [Laughs] He’s dumb, he’s a little racist, he’s completely misogynistic and he has zero insight into other people. That’s why he needs his little believers. They’re his acolytes. Who could look up to Ash? Only a couple of morons.

I heard the first time you saw the original “The Evil Dead” you were nonplussed.

I got up and walked out. I couldn’t watch the rest of it. I thought these people should be in the ground. Then I was married to one of them 12 years later.

What caused the about-face?

I saw the second one, which was completely genius. Even though I was never into the Three Stooges, I could see this Bruce Campbell character was remarkable, throwing himself around the kitchen. A lot of that is the magic of Sam’s sensibility. And the unseen member in that relationship is Bob Tappert, who I’m married to, who makes it all happen practically — who has the attention span to do that over an entire series. He’s a phenomenally productive human being.

What are your memories of first acting with Bruce when he would do episodes of “Xena” and “Hercules”?

In those days he was at the height of his handsomeness. He was such a man — so ridiculously good-looking and so funny. But he had this particular habit of coming to work in these really dorky clothes. He’d wear sandals and long socks. I don’t mean tube socks. They were like the 1970s socks that dads used to wear when I was a child. It was so incongruous. Here’s this really handsome dude, everybody reveres him. But he thought all he deserved was tall socks and sandals. He was handsome and here he was dorking himself up.

“Xena” was an ahead-of-its-time show in that it portrayed a strong female character at a time when there weren’t yet many. Was it hard to sell back then?

I know in France when were tying to sell it they were saying, “No, no, no. France will never like a female action hero.” “But you’re the country of Joan of Arc! What are you talking about?” And it was immensely successful in France. But there was a lot of resistance. But in the next year there was “Buffy” and there was a bit of a renaissance. Because there hadn’t been a female action hero since Wonder Woman and Jaime Sommers [the Bionic Woman]. You probably agree that Xena was not like them. She was a more flawed, gritty, gnarly scrapper than either of those characters.

There’s been a lot more focus in the last year than in the past on gender equality and finding more space for female heroes.

I’m a little bit divorced from this argument about female empowerment, because it’s all I’ve ever known. I’m from New Zealand, where women had the vote before anyone else. I was raised in an incredibly egalitarian society and had a strong family, with a strong mother and four brothers.

It’s good you get to avoid a lot of what happens to women who try to make themselves known, especially in geek culture. Women are constantly harassed for speaking out.

It only hurts the first time. When you get majorly reviled the first time, as long as you do it for something you truly believe in, once you come back from that it never hurts you the same way.

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You’ve largely worked in fantasy and genre, but you’ve also occasionally done straight-up dramatic fare. You had a role in Jane Campion’s miniseries “Top of the Lake,” for one. What was that experience like?

You just want to work with someone like Jane Campion. She’s such an auteur. But something in my makeup means that whatever I’m doing I think it’s my new favorite thing. “This is the best job ever!”, I’ll say. My friends are like, “She always says that.” But that’s how I feel. I’m like a goldfish going round a bowl going, “Oh my god! There’s a castle! We have rocks!” Then I see the castle again and go, “A castle!” I’m excited every time. Whatever I’m doing is my latest, greatest, favorite thing. I got 120 hours of community service — more than that — for a protest in New Zealand against Arctic drilling.

Really, 120 hours? That’s excessive.

They were making an example of us. So I went and worked at an old folks’ home. I was like, “Awesome!” That was my new favorite thing. [Laughs] If I ever had a talent it was for balloon tennis. I was working people with dementia, which I loved. There’s an intensity to it. There were people in hospice and they could be quite young, in their 50s. We have an appalling legal status for morphine back home. We’re so stingy for terminal people. It’s appalling they can’t die comfortably in their own homes. These poor people have to go to an old folks’ home to see out their days without pain. It’s a real privilege to be able to make these peoples’ last days a little interesting. If they want a cocktail I’m running around trying to get them a mojito. You’re like a rock star to them. You will do anything for them. Because they’re not long for this world, and anything they want is theirs. That is a quite interesting, intimate experience and it becomes your new favorite thing.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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